Fr. Chris' Article - December 8, 2019
Dec 6, 2019
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This week on Wednesday, we celebrated a saint that we may not know too well, but who has affected so much about the way us as Catholics experience worship and devotional life, as well as art and beauty. This is St. John Damascene. St. John was, as his name would indicate, born in Damascus Syria in the year 675.
John’s father and grandfather each in their turn served as court officials under the Muslim rulers in Syria, as the region had fallen under the control of Islamic rulers around 630 AD. He was educated by an enslaved Sicilian monk who was ransomed from his Muslim captors by John’s father, and received much learning in mathematics, astronomy, music, and of course theology.
When he was around 30 years of age, he resolved to leave Syria. This was likely in part due to the increasingly heavy taxes levied upon the still majority Christian peoples there. Chiefly, however, he felt the call to live the ascetical life of a monk, and entered the monastery of Mar Saba in the desert outside of Jerusalem. He was later ordained priest there, and wrote many great works of theology, hymns and other music.
However, he is chiefly known for his defense of the use of images and artwork in churches (along with many bishops at the time). The Byzantine emperor at the time, Leo III, was persuaded to issue an edict that images be prohibited in public places (this would include churches). In response to this, John wrote a series of three treatises condemning the practice of stripping of icons and images from churches, saying that because the Word became flesh, that it was not only permissible, but also laudatory to venerate images of Jesus, His mother, and the saints. Years after his death, these works had great influence during the Second Council of Constantinople, where the heresy (Iconoclasm) was condemned and the practice of using images was upheld throughout the Church.
St. John passed into eternity at the monastery of Mar Saba around the year 749. His remains are actually incorrupt, and I have seen his relics at Mar Saba personally.
At various times throughout the history of the Church, misunderstandings about religious images (statues and icons) have continued to pop back up from time to time. These movements allege that use of such images equates to idolatry. However, because of St. John and his influence, these artistic practices continue to enrich the faith and devotion of Christians throughout the world. Properly understood, sacred art helps us not to worship things made with human hands (which would be idolatry), but to look beyond the image to the heavenly reality of the Blessed Trinity, the Mother of God, and the communion of saints that we fervently hope to join someday in heaven. St. John of Damascus, pray for us!
In the Word made flesh,