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Saint John Damascene, Defender of the True Faith

Saint John Damascene, Teacher of True Worship

Saint John Damascene

On 17 December, we celebrate the feast of Saint John Damascene, a prominent Byzantine theologian, hymn writer and defender of the purity of the Orthodox faith. His canons add beauty to our Christmas worship. His text is the gem of our Paschal service. His poetic works are chanted at the Saturday evening services. He is the author of multiple texts with clear and lucid explanations for the Christians of the foundations of the faith.

Saint John Damascene lived at an exciting time. The Christian Church, severely persecuted only years before, became the official church of the state. God, faith and the trinity became some of the most popular subjects of table talk, like politics, medicine or child-rearing today. Another church father, Saint Gregory of Nissa, complained, At the market stalls, the Holy Trinity is at the centre of discussion. Ask a trader if your steambath is ready, and he will try to convert you to Arianism. Educated people with proud minds began to say, There is nothing I do not know about God or the Holy Trinity.

To them, John Damascene responded, If you think that you have learned and understood everything about God, run to church and repent, because God is a mystery. We do not know about God anything other than what He chose to reveal to us. He created his brilliant writings to counter the misconceptions of his contemporaries. As the holy fathers wrote, if there had been no fierce lions, there would not have been the glory of martyrdom. Like the other fathers of the Church, John Damascene created his writings to counter the heresies that engaged the hearts and minds of the people of his time.

He owed his gift of persuasion by leading a long life of obedience and humility. Serving at the court of the Caliph of Damascus, he was falsely accused of treason. The basis of the accusation was a forged letter - supposedly from John - in which he undertook to help the enemy of the Caliph in his plans to capture Damascus. The Caliph ordered Johns arrest and torture and had his right hand cut off. When the severed hand was returned to Saint John, he pressed it against his wrist and prayed to Theotokos. After a time, he fell asleep before her icon. After awakening, he found that his hand had been attached to his arm through his prayers. With his hand, he wrote many of his works.

Icon of Saint John Damascene

Painted icon of St John Damascene

News about his healing reached the Calif of Damascus. It demonstrated innocence and the power of his faith. The Calif asked John for forgiveness and offered to reinstate him in his post, but the saint refused. Instead, he gave away his estate and joined a monastery as a novice. By that time, he had achieved fame through his writings, and finding a spiritual father was a tough call. Finally, an elder from the monastery agreed to take him as his disciple and guide his ascent to righteousness in obedience and humility.

He tasked him with selling baskets in a market at a high price that discouraged buyers. John Damascene lived in scarcity, exercising humility and obedience to the elder. His former servant who met him in the market in worn monastic clothing bought all of his baskets out of pity for his condition.

Eventually, John Damascene came to occupy a prominent position at church. He served as a priest at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Here, he delivered his best published sermons and disclosed his talent as a Christian theologian. But he earned his greatness not only by his writings but even more so by his righteous life as a Christian ascetic that he preferred to worldly comforts and fame. With his life, he teaches us that there is a direct link between theology and our lives. We pray to the Lord, Whom we know from the teachings and dogmatics of the Church. We come to Church to meet the God we know. Our knowledge of God translates into our prayers. As the Holy Fathers have said, IF you are a theologian, you pray truly; and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.

December 18, 2023
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