Friday, December 9, 2011

John Damascene: The Golden Speaker (c. 645-749)

St. John of Damascus (Arabic: يوحنا الدمشقي Yuḥannā Al Demashqi was a Syrian monk and priest, born and raised in Damascus, then under Muslim rule.  Before he was ordained, he served as a Chief of Revenue [tax collector!], and as chief logothéte = representative of the local Christians, to the Muslim Caliph of Damascus, as his father had done. 

John was an extremely knowledgeable, versatile thinker and writer whose fields of interest and contributions included law, theology, philosophy, and music. He wrote expositions of the Christian faith, and composed hymns, including several Easter hymns, still in everyday use in Eastern Christian monasteries throughout the world, as well as in the Western Church. 

John Damascene is considered "the last of the Fathers" of the Eastern Orthodox church and is best known for his strong defense of icons, especially during the times of the 8th century Iconoclast controversy, perpetrated by Byzantine Emperor Leo III, the Isaurian's, edict forbidding and ordering the destruction of icons and holy images. John wrote three "apologies" [treatises] against the Iconoclasts [breakers of images] and in defense of holy images.

In the Preface of his work, The Fount of Knowledge/Wisdom, St. John addresses the Bishop of Maiuma, Cosmas, and humbly professes his inadequacy and unworthiness for taking on the bishop's task for him to write the book. Nevertheless, he proclaims: "On the other hand, however, the fruit of disobedience is death, while the humble and obedient man, because he has shown himself to be an imitator of Christ, is led from the lowest place to the highest. He receives from God the grace that illuminates, so that in the opening of his mouth he is filled with the Spirit. He becomes purified in heart and enlightened in understanding. When he opens his mouth, he receives the power of speech and has no concern as to what he shall say, because he is an instrument of the Spirit speaking within him. Therefore, in obedience through you to the Christ who in you exercises the pontifical office, I bow to your request and open my mouth, being confident that through your prayers it will be filled with the Spirit and that I, taking so much as He shall give and speaking this aloud, shall utter eloquently the fruit not of my own understanding but of the Spirit who gives wisdom to the blind." What an eloquent reminder to any of us to whom falls the task of preaching or teaching the Good News of God in Christ!

St. John of Damascus died at the age of 74 at his monastery, Mar Saba, near Jerusalem.

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