Saint John of Damascus
December 4 is the Commemmoration of Saint John of Damascus (John Damascene), monk of St. Sabbas Monastery (749).
“Our venerable and God-bearing Father John of Damascus (c. 676 – December 5, 749) was also known as John Damascene, Chrysorrhoas, “streaming with gold,” (i.e., the golden speaker). He was born and raised in Damascus, in all probability at the Monastery of Saint Sabbas (Mar Saba), South East of Jerusalem. His feast day in the Orthodox Church is December 4. Practically all the information concerning the life of John of Damascus available to us today has been through the records of John, Patriarch of Jerusalem. Though these notes have served as the single source of biographical information, dating back to the tenth century, these writings have been noted by scholars as having an exuberant lack of detail from a historical point of view and a bloated writing style.
Although he was brought up under the Muslim rule of Damascus, this was not to affect his or his family’s Christian faith or cause any grievances with the Muslim countrymen who held him in high esteem. To the extent that his father held a high hereditary public office with duties of chief financial officer for the caliph, Abdul Malekunder, apparently as head of the tax department for Syria.
When John reached the age of twenty-three, his father sought out to find a Christian tutor who could provide the best education for his children available at the time. Records show that while spending some time in the market place John’s father came across several captives, imprisoned as a result of a raid for prisoners of war that had taken place in the coasts of Italy. This man, a Sicilian monk by the name of Cosmas, turned out to be an erudite of great knowledge and wisdom. John’s father arranged for the release of this man and appointed him tutor to his son. Under the instruction of Cosmas, John made great advances in fields of study such as music, astronomy and theology. According to his biographer, he soon equaled Diophantus in algebra and Euclid in geometry.
In spite of his Christian background, his family held a high hereditary public office with the Moslem rulers of Damascus, led by caliph Abd al-Malik. He succeeded his father in his position upon his death; John de Damascene was made protosymbullus, or chief councilor of Damascus.
It was around his term in office that burst of insurgence by the iconoclasts began to appear in the form of heresy, actions which disturbed the Church of the East. In 726, in disregard of the protests of Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Emperor Leo the Isaurian issued his first edict against the veneration of images and their exhibition in public places. A talented writer and in the secure surroundings of the caliph’s court, John de Damascene initiated his literary defense against the monarch in three Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images. This was the earliest of his works and the one which earned him a reputation. Not only did he attack the monarch, but his use of a simpler writing style brought the controversy to the common people, inciting revolt among those of Christian faith.
Unable to punish the writer openly, Leo the Isaurian managed to get possession of a manuscript written and signed by John de Damascene, which he used to forge a letter from John to the Isaurian monarch offering to betray into his hands the city of Damascus. Despite John’s earnest advocation to his innocence, the caliph dismissed his plea and discharged him from his post, ordering his right hand, which he used for writing, to be severed at the wrist.
According to the tenth-century biography, his hand was miraculously restored after fervent prayer before an icon of the Virgin Mary. At this point the caliph is said to have been convinced of his innocence and inclined to reinstate him to his former office. However, John then retired to the Monastery of Saint Sabbas near Jerusalem, where he continued to produce a stream of commentaries, hymns and apologetic writings, including the “Oktoechos” (the Church’s service book of eight tones) and “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith”, a summary of the dogmatic writings of the Early Church Fathers.
He died in 749 as a revered Father of the Church and is now universally recognized as a saint.”
Troparion (Tone 8)
Champion of Orthodoxy, teacher of purity and of true worship,
the enlightener of the universe and the adornment of hierarchs:
all-wise father John, your teachings have gleamed with light upon all things.
Intercede before Christ God to save our souls.
Kontakion (Tone 4)
Let us sing praises to John, worthy of great honor,
the composer of hymns, the star and teacher of the Church, the defender of her doctrines:
through the might of the Lord¹s Cross he overcame heretical error
and as a fervent intercessor before God
he entreats that forgiveness of sins may be granted to all.
“St. John of Damascus” – Writings (Fathers of the Church vol. 37) [Ex Fontibus Co., 2012]
St. John Damascene, among the greatest of the Eastern fathers during the patristic age, produced his work “The Fount of Wisdom” as a summary of Christian philosophy and theology. This volume includes “The Philosophical Chapters,” “On Heresies,” and “An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.”
“On the Divine Images: Three Apologies Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images” Translated by David Anderson [St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980]
“St John of Damascus wrote these three treaties “Against Those Who Attack the Divine Images” in response to the iconoclastic heresy of the eighth century, which violently rejected the veneration of images. He accomplishes the important task of reminding the Church that the use of images is a necessary safeguard of the central doctrine of the Christian faith: the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, God became Man. He Who is immaterial became material and can therefore be depicted.
St John’s message remains pertinent today, for there are still those who regard images with suspicion or else take refuge in various pseudo-spiritualities that deny any value or significance to the material. This new translation into modern English makes these important treatises available for the first time to scholar and layman alike.”