Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summer of Saints: John Damascene

Perhaps like me, you have watched with growing alarm the Jihadist trail of conquest of the new group called ISIS—the Islamic state of Iraq and Syria. It has left a path of destruction from the Syrian civil war to the outskirts of Baghdad in the effort to built a new Caliphate.

They are regarded as especially brutal and callous—murdering without hesitation. They are being very successful at killing the few Christians left in the area and demolishing churches, but those are not their only targets.

Earlier this month in the Iraqi province of Nineveh, the militants blew up mosques and then took sledgehammers in hand to personally demolish the tombs of the biblical prophets Seth and Jonah—which were commonly revered by Jews, Christians, and most Muslims.

But these ISIS Mohammedan warriors ascribe to the puritanical Wahhabist movement, which is iconoclastic and thus vehemently opposed to the veneration of tombs like these or anything that would be an artistic depiction of God, prophets, saints, or any other holy thing.

What you may not know is that this is not the first time that religious zealots have destroyed holy shrines with hammers in this part of the world, and that back then, Christians were doing this. In 725 the Byzantine Emperor Leo III touched off the iconoclastic period when he ordered the destruction of images throughout the Roman empire, beginning with an icon of Christ, to which miraculous powers had been attributed.

Into this controversy came a powerful mother and an old monk name John. He was born in the year 676 in Damascus, Syria, the capital of the Moslem Umayyad Empire which stretched from Spain to India.

John succeeded his father at the court of the Caliph, but was not satisfied and left after three years to become a monk and priest at St Saba's in Jerusalem. He labored long and hard there in the patient work of theology and liturgy, becoming one of the greatest hymnists of the East as well as the last of the early Church Fathers and first of the medieval scholastics.

John’s writings defended the faith against Moslems, and other Christian heretics. He was called John of golden streams because of his eloquence. He was a man of deep learning and simple piety, who wrote and spoke in a way that people could understand.

Iconoclasm fell in and out of favor with the emperors for a hundred years (and with it, periods of legal image-breaking and persecution) until a female regent named Theodora (her name means “lover of God”) would finally end it for good. The Second Council of Nicaea was confirmed and the images restored in 842—an event still celebrated to this day throughout the Eastern Church on the First Sunday in Lent as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” And with Nicaea II, the orthodox, catholic expression of Christianity became “the Church of the Seven Councils.”

John of Damascus was highly praised at this ecumenical council He had picked up on German of Constantinople’s original defense of images back when iconoclasm first broke out, and articulated it well.

German and John explained how the so-called “worship” given to the images was different in kind from the worship of God, but also derived from it. Following their theological defense, the council defined that the images were to be restored and rightly honored.

The Second Council of Nicaea stated: “For the more frequently one contemplates these images, the more gladly he will be led to remember their prototypes, and the more will he be drawn to it and inclined to give it . . . a respectful veneration (proskynesis), but not however, the veritable worship (latria) which, according to our faith, belongs to God alone. But as is done for the image of the revered and life-giving cross and the holy gospels and other sacred objects, let an oblation of incense and lights be made to give honor to these images according to the pious custom of the ancients, for the honor given to an image passes over to its prototype, and whoever venerates an image venerates in it the person represented.” 

If John were writing after the invention of photography, he would have said, "Look, if one can take a picture of Christ, one can paint a picture of Christ.” The fact that the divine Word did indeed become flesh is very important. For St John Damascene, matter truly matters.

In his First Apology for Images, he wrote: “In former times, God, who is without form or body, could never be depicted. But now, when God is seen in the flesh conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake; who willed to make his abode in matter; who worked out my salvation through matter. Never will I cease honoring the matter which wrought my salvation! I honor it, but not as God. . . . God’s body is God because it is joined to his person by a union which shall never pass away. . . . I salute all the rest of mater with reverence, because God has filled it with his grace and power. . . . Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable; nothing God has made is despicable.” 

Speaking of Jesus, St Paul wrote, “He is the ikon of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). What was seen on the outside it what was on the inside—God in the flesh. Jesus didn’t just come to save your soul, he came to save your body—because that’s the real you, the whole you: body and soul.

We must remember also that matter truly matters. The church is not only concerned with the spiritual and the hereafter, but also with the physical in the here-and-now.

People matter, families matter, peace and violence matters, justice matters, safety matters, hunger matters, life and death matters, creation matters. All that God has made, he has also acted to redeem. In this summer of saints, we give thanks for St. John of Damascus.

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