Happy Feast Day, John Damascene

The previous post was written as a preamble to this post about the feast day (today) of John of Damascus (Syria), also called John Damascene. I discovered John much like one discovers a good Syrian Baklawa – a layer of phyllo dough, a layer of unspeakable golden goodness, a layer of phyllo dough, a layer of unspeakable golden goodness, etc.

The first layer of golden goodness was his theological treatises, Apologetic Treatises and Fountain of Knowledge (probably the first significant Christian critique of Islam (or the Ishmaelites, as he calls them). It was John who helped me understand the profound incarnational implications of icons.

The second layer of golden goodness was his hymns, of which we sing quite a number during worship. Talk about arrows to the heart. It’s no wonder that he is sometimes called Chrysorrhoas (literally, “streaming with gold,” meaning he was a golden speaker of the Church, not unlike another John, John Chrysostom, which literally means “John the Golden Mouth”).

And finally, later on I discovered a third layer of golden goodness – his spiritual life, especially what he was willing to let go of in order to take hold of Christ. He was an official in the court of the Caliph and the city prefect of Damascus. His writings would also indicate that he was a scientist, mathematician, and theologian of some renown. His book, Theological Treatises, in which he condemns the heresy of Byzantine emperor Leo III, got him fired from his job and persecuted for his faith. Through divine intervention and miracles he was healed and was offered his old job by the Caliph but chose instead to enter the monastery at Mar Saba.

At the monastery his spiritual father forbade him to continue writing treatises and hymns and take up menial work, such as basket weaving, instead. In this John was mostly obedient. (His disobedience is another story altogether beyond the scope of this essay.) And through obedience … through the letting go of that which on the surface seemed most holy – theology and hymns … became even more Christ-like, holding on to Christ himself rather than just theological constructs of and lovely words about Christ.

The Anonymous God-blogger quotes Richard Rohr, who says, “Much that I thought was my wheat, my true gifts, have turned out to be the source of my greatest and most denied faults. Only time and suffering sorted them out a bit.” (You can read her whole post and the rest of the quote here.) Did John’s spiritual father recognize such a fault in John? Thank God in Christ that he had the courage to tell a man as famous and gifted as John his hidden faults.

And thank God, who revealed himself as the living Word, for John, a man of golden words, who was willing to give up those golden words (which we so love) for the sake of grasping hold of the Word himself.

I will close with two of his hymns. In the first he does what he does so well – illustrates profound mysteries with Old Testament stories:

He who in the fiery furnace
Kept from harm the faithful three,
Suffering in our mortal nature,
Decks with life mortality,—
Him, our fathers’ God, we praise,
Blest and glorious always.

Holy women bearing ointments,
Sought the mortal, bathed in tears;
But their sorrow changed to gladness,
For the Living God appears;
And they tell the news abroad
Of the risen Son of God.

Now we celebrate the triumph,
Death and Hades overthrown,
Earnest of a life unending;
All the glory is Thine own;
God, our fathers’ God, we praise,
Blest and glorious always.

Hallowed feast of holy gladness!
Night that waits salvation’s birth,
Till the Resurrection morning
Breaks with splendour on the earth,
And eternal light is poured
By the Christ from death restored.

This second hymn is the one which John of Damascus is probably most famous in the West, translated by John Mason Neale as “The Day of Resurrection.”

The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad;
The Passover of gladness, the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal, from earth unto the sky,
Our Christ hath brought us over, with hymns of victory.

Our hearts be pure from evil, that we may see aright
The Lord in rays eternal of resurrection light;
And listening to His accents, may hear, so calm and plain,
His own “All hail!” and, hearing, may raise the victor strain.

Now let the heavens be joyful! Let earth the song begin!
Let the round world keep triumph, and all that is therein!
Let all things seen and unseen their notes in gladness blend,
For Christ the Lord hath risen, our joy that hath no end.

A few of his hymns, translated into metered verse (the form most comfortable to Western sensibilities), can be found here.