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Archive for December 4th, 2012

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John (ca. 675–749) is known as the great compiler and summarizer of the orthodox faith and the last great Greek theologian. Born in Damascus, John gave up an influential position in the Islamic court to devote himself to the Christian faith. Around 716 he entered a monastery outside of Jerusalem and was ordained a priest. When the Byzantine emperor Leo the Isaurian in 726 issued a decree forbidding images (icons), John forcefully resisted. In his Apostolic Discourses he argued for the legitimacy of the veneration of images, which earned him the condemnation of the Iconoclast Council in 754. John also wrote defenses of the orthodox faith against contemporary heresies. In addition, he was a gifted hymn writer (“Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain”) and contributed to the liturgy of the Byzantine churches. His greatest work was the Fount of Wisdom which was a massive compendium of truth from  previous Christian theologians, covering practically every conceivable doctrinal topic. John’s summary of the orthodox faith left a lasting stamp on both the Eastern and Western churches.

O Lord, through Your servant John of Damascus, You proclaimed with power the mysteries of the true faith.  Confirm our faith so that we may confess Jesus to be true God and true man, singing the praise of the risen Lord, and so that by the power the resurrection we also attain the joys of eternal life;  through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

(From The Treasury of Daily Prayer, CPH)

Reflection:  John of Damascus was instrumental in the iconoclast controversy. He wrote On the Divine Images, as an apology, that is  a defense of the practice of venerating icons.   Our word “iconoclast” as one who challenges cherished beliefs, seems to come from that time.  It is from two Greek words and literally means, “breaker of images”. This was the word’s meaning then.  John was of the opposite position: an iconodule, “one who serves images”.  If you have ever been in an eastern Orthodox Church, especially during the Divine Liturgy, you have seen people venerating icons by bowing to one and then kissing it. This can be disconcerting for Protestants.     It was controversial then and still can be.

The first thing to know about the Orthodox understanding of icons is this:  an icon is written!  Yes, it is painted but it written as a prayer or even as the Word seen which is meet and right and so to do and so:   Second, the word, “icon” is right from the New Testament especially:

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Romans 8:28-30

Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
1 Corinthians 15:48-50

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
2 Corinthians 3:17-18

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
Colossians 1:14-16

John argued in his treatise that we must remember why icons were written. The Word became flesh, the unseen God became flesh and we have beheld Him, therefore, icons/images are aids to worship the Lord.  Now I do not want to get into the particulars of this controversy but to remember: the confession that Jesus Christ,  the  true icon of the invisible God is itself controverted.  The impassable God becoming true man is contested by both Judaism and Islam.  It is a scandal as is the crucifixion (  1 Corinthians 1:23).  The Word, written and spoken was born of the Virgin Mary to be adored as He has saved us and thereby we might cling to Him in faith for His dear life.  This also teaches as C. S. Lewis wrote that to God matter matters, after all He created matter.  He became flesh to redeem those whom He created and loves.   Further, redemption is not dis-incarnate spirituality, He came to redeem His creation from it’s bondage to sin, decay and death.  He washes us in real water comprehended in His Word, His Name and in bread and wine, His body and blood.  His Word is preached and taught  into our hearts to sanctify us that we are more and more the icon of Christ in the world.  Our hope is in the life of the world to come.

John of Damascus, from the quote in the clip-art  above, knew the image of God was present thoroughly in the Scripture.  This has a better Authority than written icons of men!  I think churches can get far afield dwelling too much on such customs and forget the garden, as John wrote,  of His written Word, the Bible.

John  wrote hymns to picture in music and lyric the Word made flesh.  In the Lutheran Service Book are two hymns by John of Damascus, both Paschal (Easter) hymns:  “The Day of Resurrection” #478 and “Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain” #487. The day of His birth points to the day of His Resurrection:  the Icon of the Invisible God bearing the marks of the Cross for us and our salvation.

1. Come, ye faithful, raise the strain
Of triumphant gladness;
God hath brought His Israel
Into joy from sadness.
‘Tis the spring of souls today:
Christ hath burst His prison
And from three days’ sleep in death
As a sun hath risen.

2. All the winter of our sins,
Long and dark, is flying
From His light, to whom we give
Laud and praise undying.
Neither could the gates of death
Nor the tomb’s dark portal
Nor the watchers nor the seal
Hold Thee as a mortal.

3. But today amidst Thine own
Thou didst stand, bestowing
That Thy peace which evermore
Passeth human knowing.
Come, ye faithful, raise the strain
Of triumphant gladness;
God hath brought His Israel
Into joy from sadness.

(from The Lutheran Hymnal)

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