Readings for the feast of John of Damascus Friday, December 4, 2020:
How do you imagine God? Or Jesus? Or the saints who lived before realistic painting or photography? Our featured saint today, John of Damascus, was one of the faithful who fought for you to retain the right to have those images, and pray through them.
John grew up in an aristocratic Arab Christian family in Syria, but after the Muslims gained control of Syria in the 630’s, John’s family served the Umayyad caliphs as civil servants. John was born in the latter quarter of the 600’s, and although some historians claim he also served as an official in the caliphal court as a young man, this claim is disputed, as John never referred to that time in his life. What we do know for certain is that he entered the Mar Saba monastery in Jerusalem around 706, at about the same time the Caliphate began to aggressively promote a policy of Islamization. He was already well educated in both the Arab and Greek fashions, and quickly established himself as a monk, priest, theologian and scholar.
In the early 8th century, around the time John entered the monastery, there began to be much debate in Christianity about the use of icons or other images of the divine. Remember, Hebrew tradition was to shun human renderings of God as “graven images”–yet when Christ–God in human form–appeared on the scene, the concept of images changed. If God could take form in a human, what harm could there be in creating human renderings of God? The topic was hotly debated between two groups of theologians; the Iconoclasts and the Iconodules. To be fair, the Iconoclasts had some valid points. How many of our minds default to Warner Sollman’s Head of Christ when thinking of Jesus, or to the image on the Sistine Chapel when thinking about God? Or if we don’t, how much mental energy have we expended to undo stock images, these or others, to think about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the saints of the early church? The Iconoclasts made their points that there is difference between worshiping God and worshiping graven images of God, and that perhaps our imagination shouldn’t be distracted by defaults. On the other hand, why should the human desire to create–imitating God’s ability to create–be stifled?
John quickly took the side of the Iconodules and wrote extensively in defense of icons, his most famous work on the subject being Apologetic Treatises against those Decrying the Holy Images. He rooted his defense in his belief that God inserted a rational good into human beings, which included a yearning to understand God and create items to aid in our understanding. The Iconoclasts tended to view the matter which makes up Creation as a profane substance, but John’s argument was that Christ bridged the gap. In his own words:
“I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.”
Through John’s passionate but rational defense, the guidelines for icon writing were solidified, and modern icon writers still use these principles today.
John of Damascus was also a hymn writer, penning the well-known Easter hymn, “Come ye faithful, raise the strain.” John tried to glorify God with whatever “matter” he found at his disposal.
John also had his rough edges. He was never very charitable when writing about his Islamic neighbors and even spread some of the more fantastic rumors about Islam. At the same time, given what happened in Syria before he was born, and his family’s complicated relationship as Arab Christians living under Islamic rule, at the very least we can see where it came from. It’s a reminder that each of us, in our own time, probably has our own journey of reconciliation and forgiveness when it comes to our own systemic bigotries, and we humans have a long way to go yet.
John of Damascus’ legacy still lives in the church, through both hymnody and imagery. What might be the way we are re-imagining God’s image in this time of pandemic?
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as the Interim Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, MO.