Skip to comments.St. John Damascene: Homily I on the Assumption/Dormition
Posted on 08/15/2005 5:52:44 AM PDT by Siobhan
 THE memory of the just takes place with rejoicing, said Solomon, the wisest of men; for precious in God's sight is the death of His saints, according to the royal* David. If, then, the memory of all the just is a subject of rejoicing, who will not offer praise to justice in its source, and holiness in its treasure-house? It is not mere praise; it is praising with the intention of gaining eternal glory. God's dwelling-place does not need our praise, that city of God, concerning which great things were spoken, as holy. David addresses it in these words: "Glorious things are said of thee, thou city of God." What sort of city shall we choose for the invisible and uncircumscribed God, who holds all things in His hand, if not  that city which alone is above nature, giving shelter without circumscription* to the supersubstantial Word of God? Glorious things have been spoken of that city by God himself. For what is more exalted than being made the recipient of God's counsel, which is from all eternity?
Neither human tongue nor angelic mind is able worthily to praise her through whom it is given to us to look clearly upon the Lord's glory. What then? Shall we be silent through fear of our insufficiency? Certainly not. Shall we be trespassers beyond our own boundaries, and freely handle ineffable mysteries, putting off all restraint? By no means. Mingling, rather, fear with desire, and weaving them into one crown, with reverent hand and longing soul, let us show forth the poor first-fruits of our intelligence in gratitude to our Queen and Mother, the benefactress of all creation as a repayment of our debt. A story is told of some rustics who were ploughing up the soil when a king chanced to pass, in the splendour of his royal robes and crown, and surrounded by countless gift bearers, standing in a circle.  As there was no gift to offer at that moment, one of them was collecting water in his hands, as there happened to be a copious stream near by. Of this he prepared a gift for the king, who addressed him in these words: "What is this, my boy?" And he answered boldly: "I made the best of what I had, thinking it was better to show my willingness, than to offer nothing. You do not need our gifts, nor do you wish for anything from us save our good will. The need is on our side, and the reward is in the doing. I know that glory often comes to the grateful."
The king in wonder praised the boy's cleverness, graciously acknowledged his willingness, and made him many rich gifts in return. Now, if that proud monarch so generously rewarded good intentions, will not Our Lady (h ontwV agaqh despoina), the Mother of God, accept our good will, not judging us by what we accomplish? Our Lady is the Mother of God, who alone is good and infinite in His condescension, who preferred the two mites to many splendid gifts. She will indeed receive us, who are paying off our debt, and make us a return out of all proportion to what we offer. Since prayer is absolutely  necessary for our needs, let us direct our attention to it.
What shall we say, O Queen? What words shall we use? What praise shall we pour upon thy sacred and glorified head, thou giver of good gifts and of riches, the pride of the human race, the glory of all creation, through whom it is truly blessed. He whom nature did not contain in the beginning, was born of thee. The Invisible One is contemplated face to face. O Word of God, do Thou open my slow lips, and give their utterances Thy richest blessing; inflame us with the grace of Thy Spirit, through whom fishermen became orators, and ignorant men spoke supernatural wisdom, so that our feeble voices may contribute to thy loved Mother's praises, even though greatness should be extolled by misery. She, the chosen one of an ancient race, by a predetermined counsel and the good pleasure of God the Father, who had begotten Thee in eternity immaterially, brought Thee forth in the latter times, Thou who art propitiation and salvation, justice and redemption, life of life, light of light, and true God of true God.
The birth of her, whose Child was  marvellous, was above nature and understanding, and it was salvation to the world; her death was glorious, and truly a sacred feast. The Father predestined her, the prophets foretold her through the Holy Ghost. His sanctifying power overshadowed her, cleansed* and made her holy, and, as it were, predestined her. Then Thou, Word of the Father, not dwelling in place, didst invite the lowliness of our nature to be united to the immeasurable greatness of Thy inscrutable Godhead. Thou, who didst take flesh of the Blessed Virgin, vivified by a reasoning soul, having first abided in her undefiled and immaculate womb, creating Thyself, and causing her to exist in Thee, didst become perfect man,, not ceasing to be perfect God, equal to Thy Father, but taking upon Thyself our weakness through ineffable goodness. Through it Thou art one Christ, one Lord, one Son of God, and man at the same time, perfect God and perfect man, wholly God and wholly man, one Substance (upostasiV) from two perfect natures, the Godhead and the manhood. And in two perfect natures, the divine and the human, God is not pure God,  nor the man only man, but the Son of God and the Incarnate God are one and the same God and man without confusion or division, uniting in Himself substantially the attributes of both natures. Thus, He is at once uncreated and created, mortal and immortal, visible and invisible, in place and not in place. He has a divine will and a human will, a divine action and a human also, two powers of choosing (autexousia) divine and human. He shows forth divine wonders and human affections--natural, I mean, and pure. Thou hast taken upon Thyself, Lord, of Thy great mercy, the state of Adam as he was before the fall, body, soul, and mind, and all that they involve physically, so as to give me a perfect salvation. It is true indeed that what was not assumed was not healed.* Having thus become the mediator between God and man, Thou didst destroy enmity, and lead back to Thy Father those who had deserted Him, wanderers to their home, and those in darkness to the light. Thou didst bring pardon to the contrite, and didst change mortality into immortality. Thou didst deliver the world from the aberration of  many gods, and didst make men the children of God, partakers of Thy divine glory. Thou didst raise the human race, which was condemned to bell, above all power and majesty, and in Thy person it is seated on the King's eternal throne. Who was the instrument of these infinite benefits exceeding all mind and comprehension, if not the Mother ever Virgin who bore Thee?
Realise, Beloved in the Lord, the grace of to-day, and its wondrous solemnity. Its mysteries are not terrible, nor do they inspire awe. Blessed are they who have eyes to see. Blessed are they who see with spiritual eyes. This night shines as the day. What countless angels acclaim the death of the life-giving Mother! How the eloquence of apostles blesses the departure of this body which was the receptacle of God. How the Word of God, who deigned in His mercy to become her Son, ministering with His divine hands to this immaculate and divine being,* as His mother, receives her holy soul. O wondrous Law-giver, fulfilling the law which He bad Himself laid down, not being bound by it, for it was He who enjoined children to show reverence to  their parents. "Honour thy father and thy mother," He says. The truth of this is apparent to every one, calling to mind even dimly the words of holy Scripture. If according to it the souls of the just are in the hands of God, how much more is her soul in the hands of her Son and her God. This is indisputable. Let us consider who she is and whence she came, how she, the greatest and dearest of all God's gifts, was given to this world. Let us examine what her life was, and the mysteries in which she took part. Heathens in the use of funeral orations most carefully brought forward anything which could be turned to praise of the deceased, and at the same time encourage the living to virtue, drawing generally upon fable and fiction, not having fact to go upon. How then, shall we not deserve scorn if we bury in silence that which is most true and sacred, and in very deed the source of praise and salvation to all ? Shall we not receive the same punishment as the man who hid his master's talent ? Let us adapt our subject to the needs of those who listen, as food is suited to the body.
Joachim and Anne were the parents of Mary. Joachim kept as strict a watch over  his thoughts as a shepherd over his flock, having them entirely under his control. For the Lord God led him as a sheep, and he wanted for none of the best things. When I say best, let no one think I mean what is commonly acceptable to the multitude, that upon which greedy minds are fixed, the pleasures of life that can neither endure nor make their possessors better, nor confer real strength. They follow the downward course of human life and cease all in a moment, even if they abounded before. Far be it from us to cherish these things, nor is this the portion of those who fear God. But the good things which are a matter of desire to those who possess true knowledge, delighting God, and fruitful to their possessors, namely, virtues, bearing fruit in due season, that is, in eternity, will reward with eternal life those who have laboured worthily and have persevered in their acquisition as far as possible. The labour goes before, eternal happiness follows. Joachim ever shepherded his thoughts. In the place of pastures, dwelling by contemplation on the words of sacred Scripture, made glad on the restful waters of divine grace,  withdrawn from foolishness, he walked in the path of justice. And Anne, whose name means grace, was no less a companion in her life than a wife, blessed with all good gifts, though afflicted for a mystical reason with sterility. Grace in very truth remained sterile, not being able to produce fruit in the souls of men. Therefore, men declined from good and degenerated; there was not one of understanding nor one who sought after God. Then His divine goodness, taking pity on the work of His hands, and wishing to save it, put an end to that mystical barrenness, that of holy (qeofronoV) Anne, I mean, and she gave birth to a child, whose equal had never been created and never can be. The end of barrenness proved clearly that the world's sterility would cease and that the withered trunk would be crowned with vigorous and mystical life.
Hence the Mother of our Lord is announced. An angel foretells her birth. It was fitting that in this, too, she, who was to be the human Mother of the one true and living God, should be marked out above every one else. Then she was offered in God's holy  temple, and remained there, showing to all a great example of zeal and holiness, withdrawn from frivolous society. When, however, she reached full age and the law required that she should leave the temple, she was entrusted by the priests to Joseph, her bridegroom, as the guardian of her virginity, a steadfast observer of the law from his youth. Mary, the holy and undefiled (panamwmoV), went to Joseph, contenting herself with her household matters, and knowing nothing beyond her four walls.
In the fulness of time, as the divine apostle says, the angel Gabriel was sent to this true child of God, and saluted her in the words, "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee." Beautiful is the angel's salutation to her who is greater than an angel. He is the bearer of joy to the whole world. She was troubled at his words, not being used to speak with men, for she had resolved to keep her virginity unsullied. She pondered in herself what this greeting might be. Then the angel said to her: "Fear not, Mary. Thou hast found grace before God." In very deed, she who was worthy of grace had found it. She found  grace who had done the deeds of race, and had reaped its fulness. She found grace who brought forth the source of grace, and was a rich harvest of grace. She found an abyss of grace who kept undefiled her double virginity, her virginal soul no less spotless than her body; hence her perfect virginity. "Thou shalt bring forth a Son," he said, "and shalt call His name Jesus" (Jesus is interpreted Saviour). "He shall save His people from their sins." What did she, who is true wisdom, reply? She does not imitate our first mother Eve, but rather improves upon her incautiousness, and calling in nature to support her, thus answers the angel: "How is this to be, since I know not man? What you say is impossible, for it goes beyond the natural laws laid down by the Creator. I will not be called a second Eve and disobey the will of my God. If you are not speaking godless things, explain the mystery by saying how it is to be accomplished." Then the messenger of truth answered her: "The Holy Spirit shall come to thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee. Therefore He who is born to thee shall be called the Son of God." That which is foretold is  not subservient to the laws of nature. For God, the Creator of nature, can alter its laws. And she, listening in holy reverence to that sacred name, which she had ever desired, signified her obedience in words full of humility and joy: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to thy word."
"O the depth of the riches, of the wisdom, and of the knowledge of God," I will exclaim in the apostle's words. "How incomprehensible are His judgments, and how unsearchable His ways." O inexhaustible goodness of God! O boundless goodness! He who called what was not into being, and filled heaven and earth, whose throne is heaven, and whose footstool is the earth, a spacious dwelling-place, made the womb of His own servant, and in it the mystery of mysteries is accomplished (to pantwn kainwn kainoteron apotelei musterion). Being God He becomes man, and is marvellously brought forth without detriment to the virginity of His Mother. And He is lifted up as a baby in earthly arms, who is the brightness of eternal glory, the form of the Father's substance, by the word of whose mouth all created things exist. O truly divine wonder! O mystery  transcending all nature and understanding! O marvellous virginity! What, O holy Mother and Virgin, is this great mystery accomplished in thee? Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. Thou art blessed from generation to generation, thou who alone art worthy of being blessed. Behold all generations shall call thee blessed as thou hast said. The daughters of Jerusalem, I mean, of the Church, saw thee. Queens have blessed thee, that is, the spirits of the just, and they shall praise thee for ever. Thou art the royal throne which angels surround, seeing upon it their very King and Lord. Thou art a spiritual Eden, holier and diviner than Eden of old. That Eden was the abode of the mortal Adam, whilst the Lord came from heaven to dwell in thee. The ark foreshadowed thee who hast kept the seed of the new world. Thou didst bring forth Christ, the salvation of the world, who destroyed sin and its angry waves. The burning bush was a figure of thee, and the tablets of the law, and the ark of the testament. The golden urn and candelabra, the table and the flowering rod of Aaron were significant types of thee. From thee arose  the splendour of the Godhead, the eternal Word of the Father, the most sweet and heavenly Manna, the sacred Name above every name, the Light which was from the beginning. The heavenly Bread of Life, the Fruit without seed, took flesh of thee. Did not that flame foreshadow thee with its burning fire an image of the divine fire within thee? And Abraham's tent most clearly pointed to thee. By the Word of God dwelling in thee human nature produced the bread made of ashes, its first fruits, from thy most pure womb, the first fruits kneaded into bread and cooked by divine fire, becoming His divine person, and His true substance of a living body quickened by a reasoning and intelligent soul.* I had nearly forgotten Jacob's ladder. Is it not evident to every one that it prefigured thee, and is not the type easily recognised ? just as Jacob saw the ladder bringing together heaven and earth, and on it angels coming down and going up, and the truly strong and invulnerable God  wrestling mystically with himself, so art thou placed between us, and art become the ladder of God's intercourse with us, of Him who took upon Himself our weakness, uniting us to Himself, and enabling man to see God. Thou hast brought together what was parted. Hence angels descended to Him, ministering to Him as their God and Lord, and men, adopting the life of angels, are carried up to heaven.
How shall I understand the prediction of prophets ? Shall I not refer them to thee, as we can prove them to be true? What is the fleece of David which receives the Son of the Almighty God, co-eternal and co-equal with His Father, as rain falls upon the soil? Does it not signify thee in thy bright shining? Who is the virgin foretold by Isaias who should conceive and bear a Son, God ever present with us, that is, who being born a man should remain God? What is Daniel's mountain from which arose Christ, the Corner-Stone, not made by the hand of man ? Is it not thee, conceiving without man and still remaining a virgin? Let the inspired Ezechiel come forth and show us the closed gate, sealed by the Lord, and not yielding, according to his  prophecy--let him point to its fulfilment in thee. The Lord of all came to thee, and taking flesh did not open the door of thy virginity. The seal remains intact. The prophets, then, foretell thee. Angels and apostles minister to thee, O Mother of God, ever Virgin, and John the virgin apostle. Angels and the spirits of the just, patriarchs and prophets surround thee to-day in thy departure to thy Son. Apostles watched over the countless host of the just who were gathered together from every corner of the earth by the divine commands, as a cloud around the divine and living Jerusalem, singing hymns of praise to thee, the author of our Lord's life-giving body.
O how does the source of life pass through death to life? O how can she obey the law of nature, who, in conceiving, surpasses the boundaries of nature? How is her spotless body made subject to death? In order to be clothed with immortality she must first put off mortality, since the Lord of nature did not reject the penalty of death. She dies according to the flesh, destroys death by death, and through corruption gains incorruption (fqora  thn afqarsin carizetai), and makes her death the source of resurrection. O how does Almighty God receive with His own hands the holy disembodied soul of our Lord's Mother! He honours her truly, whom being His servant by nature, He made His Mother, in His inscrutable abyss of mercy, when He became incarnate in very truth. We may well believe that the angelic choirs waited to receive thy departing soul. O what a blessed departure this going to God of thine. If God vouchsafes it to all His servants--and we know that He does--what an immense difference there is between His servants and His Mother. What, then, shall we call this mystery of thine? Death? Thy blessed soul is naturally parted from thy blissful and undefiled body, and the body is delivered to the grave, yet it does not endure in death, nor is it the prey of corruption. The body of her, whose virginity remained unspotted in child-birth, was preserved in its incorruption, and was taken to a better, diviner place, where death is not, but eternal life. Just as the glorious sun may be hidden momentarily by the opaque moon, it shows still though covered, and its rays illumine the darkness  since light belongs to its essence. It has in itself a perpetual source of light, or rather it is the source of light as God created it. So art thou the perennial source of true light, the treasury of life itself, the richness of grace, the cause and medium of all our goods. And if for a time thou art hidden by the death of the body, without speaking, thou art our light, life-giving ambrosia, true happiness, a sea of grace, a fountain of healing and of perpetual blessing. Thou art as a fruitful tree in the forest, and thy fruit is sweet in the mouth of the faithful. Therefore I will not call thy sacred transformation death, but rest or going home, and it is more truly a going home. Putting off corporeal things, thou dwellest in a happier state.
Angels with archangels bear thee up. Impure spirits trembled at thy departure. The air raises a hymn of praise at thy passage, and the atmosphere is purified. Heaven receives thy soul with joy. The heavenly powers greet thee with sacred canticles and with joyous praise, saying : "Who is this most pure creature ascending, shining as the dawn, beautiful as the moon, conspicuous as the  sun? How sweet and lovely thou art, the lily of the field, the rose among thorns; therefore the young maidens loved thee. We are drawn after the odour of thy ointments. The King introduced thee into His chamber. There Powers protect thee, Principalities praise thee, Thrones proclaim thee, Cherubim are hushed in joy, and Seraphim magnify the true Mother by nature and by grace of their very Lord. Thou wert not taken into heaven as Elias was, nor didst thou penetrate to the third heaven with Paul, but thou didst reach the royal throne itself of thy Son, seeing it with thy own eyes, standing by it in joy and unspeakable familiarity. O gladness of angels and of all heavenly powers, sweetness of patriarchs and of the just, perpetual exultation of prophets, rejoicing the world and sanctifying all things, refreshment of the weary, comfort of the sorrowful, remission of sins, health of the sick, harbour of the storm-tossed, lasting strength of mourners, and perpetual succour of all who invoke thee."
O wonder surpassing nature and creating wonder! Death, which of old was feared and hated, is a matter of praise and blessing. Of old  it was the harbinger of grief, dejection, tears, and sadness, and now it is shown forth as the cause of joy and rejoicing. In the case of all God's servants, whose death is extolled, His good pleasure is surmised from their holy end, and therefore their death is blessed. It shows them to be perfect, blessed and immoveable in goodness, as the proverb says: "Praise no man before his death." This, however, we do not apply to thee. Thy blessedness was not death, nor was dying thy perfection, nor, again, did thy departure hence help thee to security. Thou art the beginning, middle, and end of all goods transcending mind, for thy Son in His conception and divine dwelling in thee is made our sure and true security. Thus thy words were true: from the moment of His conception, not from thy death, thou didst say all generations should call thee blessed. It was thou who didst break the force of death, paying its penalty, and making it gracious. Hence, when thy holy and sinless body was taken to the tomb, the choirs of angels bore it, and were all around, leaving nothing undone for the honour of our Lord's Mother, whilst apostles and all the assembly of the Church burst into  prophetic song, saying: "We shall be filled with the good things of Thy house, holy is Thy temple, wonderful in justice." And again: "The Most High has sanctified His tabernacle. The mountain of God is a fertile mountain, the mountain in which it pleased God to dwell." The apostolic band lifting the true ark of the Lord God on their shoulders, as the priests of old the typical ark, and placing thy body in the tomb, made it, as if another Jordan, the way to the true land of the gospel, the heavenly Jerusalem, the mother of all the faithful, God being its Lord and architect. Thy soul did not descend to Limbo, neither did thy flesh see corruption. Thy pure and spotless body was not left in the earth, but the abode of the Queen, of God's true Mother, was fixed in the heavenly kingdom alone.
O how did heaven receive her who is greater than heaven? How did she, who had received God, descend into the grave? This truly happened, and she was held by the tomb. It was not after bodily wise that she surpassed heaven. For how can a body measuring three cubits, and continually losing flesh, be compared with the dimensions of heaven ? It was rather  by grace that she surpassed all height and depth, for that which is divine is incomparable. O sacred and wonderful, holy and worshipful body, ministered to now by angels, standing by in lowly reverence. Demons tremble: men approach with faith, honouring and worshipping her, greeting her with eyes and lips, and drawing down upon themselves abundant blessings. Just as a rich scent sprinkled upon clothes or places, leaves its fragrance even after it has been withdrawn, so now that holy, undefiled, and divine body, filled with heavenly fragrance, the rich source of grace, is laid in the tomb that it may be translated to a higher and better place. Nor did she leave the grave empty; her body imparted to it a divine fragrance, a source of healing, and of all good for those who approach it with faith.
We, too, approach thee to-day, O Queen; and again, I say, O Queen, O Virgin Mother of God, staying our souls with our trust in thee, as with a strong anchor. Lifting up mind, soul and body, and all ourselves to thee, rejoicing in psalms and hymns and spiritual canticles, we reach through thee One who is beyond our reach on account of His Majesty. If, as the divine Word made flesh taught us,  honour shown to servants, is honour shown to our common Lord, how can honour shown to thee, His Mother, be slighted? How is it not most desirable? Art thou not honoured as the very breath of life? Thus shall we best show our service to our Lord Himself. What do I say to our Lord? It is sufficient that those who think of Thee should recall the memory of Thy most precious gift as the cause of our lasting joy. How it fills us with gladness! How the mind that dwells on this holy treasury of Thy grace enriches itself.
This is our thank-offering to thee, the first fruits of our discourses, the best homage of my poor mind, whilst I am moved by desire of thee, and full of my own misery. But do thou graciously receive my desire, knowing that it exceeds my power. Watch over us, O Queen, the dwelling-place of our Lord. Lead and govern all our ways as thou wilt. Save us from our sins. Lead us into the calm harbour of the divine will. Make us worthy of future happiness through the sweet and face-to-face vision of the Word made flesh through thee. With Him, glory, praise, power, and majesty be to the Father and to the holy and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.
ABOUT ST. JOHN OF DAMASCUS
Born at Damascus, about 676; died some time between 754 and 787. The only extant life of the saint is that by John, Patriarch of Jerusalem, which dates from the tenth century (P.G. XCIV, 429-90). This life is the single source from which have been drawn the materials of all his biographical notices. It is extremely unsatisfactory from the standpoint of historical criticism. An exasperating lack of detail, a pronounced legendary tendency, and a turgid style are its chief characteristics. Mansur was probably the name of John's father. What little is known of him indicates that he was a sterling Christian whose infidel environment made no impression on his religious fervour. Apparently his adhesion to Christian truth constituted no offence in the eyes of his Saracen countrymen, for he seems to have enjoyed their esteem in an eminent degree, and discharged the duties of chief financial officer for the caliph, Abdul Malek. The author of the life records the names of but two of his children, John and his half-brother Cosmas. When the future apologist had reached the age of twenty-three his father cast about for a Christian tutor capable of giving his sons the best education the age afforded. In this he was singularly fortunate. Standing one day in the market-place he discovered among the captives taken in a recent raid on the shores of Italy a Sicilian monk named Cosmas. Investigation proved him to be a man of deep and broad erudition. Through the influence of the caliph, Mansur secured the captive's liberty and appointed him tutor to his sons. Under the tutelage of Cosmas, John made such rapid progress that, in the enthusiastic language of his biographer, he soon equalled Diophantus in algebra and Euclid in geometry. Equal progress was made in music, astronomy, and theology.
On the death of his father, John Damascene was made protosymbulus, or chief councillor, of Damascus. It was during his incumbency of this office that the Church in the East began to be agitated by the first mutterings of the Iconoclast heresy. In 726, despite the protests of Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, Leo the Isaurian issued his first edict against the veneration of images. From his secure refuge in the caliph's court, John Damascene immediately entered the lists against him, in defence of this ancient usage of the Christians. Not only did he himself oppose the Byzantine monarch, but he also stirred the people to resistance. In 730 the Isaurian issued a second edict, in which he not only forbade the veneration of images, but even inhibited their exhibition in public places. To this royal decree the Damascene replied with even greater vigour than before, and by the adoption of a simpler style brought the Christian side of the controversy within the grasp of the common people. A third letter emphasized what he had already said and warned the emperor to beware of the consequences of this unlawful action. Naturally, these powerful apologies aroused the anger of the Byzantine emperor. Unable to reach the writer with physical force, he sought to encompass his destruction by strategy. Having secured an autograph letter written by John Damascene, he forged a letter, exactly similar in chirography, purporting to have been written by John to the Isaurian, and offering to betray into his hands the city of Damascus. The letter he sent to the caliph. Notwithstanding his councillor's earnest avowal of innocence, the latter accepted it as genuine and ordered that the hand that wrote it be severed at the wrist. The sentence was executed, but, according to his biographer, through the intervention of the Blessed Virgin, the amputated hand was miraculously restored.
The caliph, now convinced of John's innocence, would fain have reinstated him in his former office, but the Damascene had heard a call to a higher life, and with his foster-brother entered the monastery of St. Sabas, some eighteen miles south-east of Jerusalem. After the usual probation, John V, Patriarch of Jerusalem, conferred on him the office of the priesthood. In 754 the pseudo-Synod of Constantinople, convened at the command of Constantine Copronymus, the successor of Leo, confirmed the principles of the Iconoclasts and anathematized by name those who had conspicuously opposed them. But the largest measure of the council's spleen was reserved for John of Damascus. He was called a "cursed favourer of Saracens", a "traitorous worshipper of images", a "wronger of Jesus Christ", a "teacher of impiety", and a "bad interpreter of the Scriptures". At the emperor's command his name was written "Manzer" (Manzeros, a bastard). But the Seventh General Council of Nicea (787) made ample amends for the insults of his enemies, and Theophanes, writing in 813, tells us that he was surnamed Chrysorrhoas (golden stream) by his friends on account of his oratorical gifts. In the pontificate of Leo XIII he was enrolled among the doctors of the Church. His feast is celebrated on 27 March.
John of Damascus was the last of the Greek Fathers. His genius was not for original theological development, but for compilation of an encyclopedic character. In fact, the state of full development to which theological thought had been brought by the great Greek writers and councils left him little else than the work of an encyclopedist; and this work he performed in such manner as to merit the gratitude of all succeeding ages. Some consider him the precursor of the Scholastics, whilst others regard him as the first Scholastic, and his "De fide orthodoxa" as the first work of Scholasticism. The Arabians too, owe not a little of the fame of their philosophy to his inspiration. The most important and best known of all his works is that to which the author himself gave the name of "Fountain of Wisdom" (pege gnoseos). This work has always been held in the highest esteem in both the Catholic and Greek Churches. Its merit is not that of originality, for the author asserts, at the end of the second chapter of the "Dialectic", that it is not his purpose to set forth his own views, but rather to collate and epitomize in a single work the opinions of the great ecclesiastical writers who have gone before him. A special interest attaches to it for the reason that it is the first attempt at a summa theologica that has come down to us.
The "Fountain of Wisdom" is divided into three parts, namely, "Philosophical Chapters" (Kephalaia philosophika), "Concerning Heresy" (peri aipeseon), and "An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith" (Ikdosis akribes tes orthodoxou pisteos). The title of the first book is somewhat too comprehensive for its contents and consequently is more commonly called "Dialectic". With the exception of the fifteen chapters that deal exclusively with logic, it has mostly to do with the ontology of Aristotle. It is largely a summary of the Categories of Aristotle with Porphyry's "Isagoge" (XXXXX). It seems to have been John Damascene's purpose to give his readers only such philosophical knowledge as was necessary for understanding the subsequent parts of the "Fountain of Wisdom". For more than one reason the "Dialectic" is a work of unusual interest. In the first place, it is a record of the technical terminology used by the Greek Fathers, not only against the heretics, but also in the exposition of the Faith for the benefit of Christians. It is interesting, too, for the reason that it is a partial exposition of the "Organon", and the application of its methods to Catholic theology a century before the first Arabic translation of Aristotle made its appearance. The second part, "Concerning Heresy", is little more than a copy of a similar work by Epiphanius, brought up to date by John Damascene. The author indeed expressly disclaims originality except in the chapters devoted to Islamism, Iconoclasm, and Aposchitae. To the list of eighty heresies that constitute the "Panarion" of Epiphanius, he added twenty heresies that had sprung up since his time. In treating of Islamism he vigorously assails the immoral practices of Mohammed and the corrupt teachings inserted in the Koran to legalize the delinquencies of the prophet. Like Epiphanius, he brings the work to a close with a fervent profession of Faith. John's authorship of this book has been challenged, for the reason that the writer, in treating of Arianism, speaks of Arius, who died four centuries before the time of Damascene, as still living and working spiritual ruin among his people. The solution of the difficulty is to be found in the fact that John of Damascene did not epitomize the contents of the "Panarion", but copied it verbatim. Hence the passage referred to is in the exact words of Epiphanius himself, who was a contemporary of Arius.
"Concerning the Orthodox Faith", the third book of the "Fountain of Wisdom", is the most important of John Damascene's writings and one of the most notable works of Christian antiquity. Its authority has always been great among the theologians of the East and West. Here, again, the author modestly disavows any claim of originalityany purpose to essay a new exposition of doctrinal truth. He assigns himself the less pretentious task of collecting in a single work the opinions of the ancient writers scattered through many volumes, and of systematizing and connecting them in a logical whole. It is no small credit to John of Damascus that he was able to give to the Church in the eighth century its first summary of connected theological opinions. At the command of Eugenius III it was rendered into Latin by Burgundio of Pisa, in 1150, shortly before Peter Lombard's "Book of Sentences" appeared. This translation was used by Peter Lombard and St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as by other theologians, till the Humanists rejected it for a more elegant one. The author follows the same order as does Theodoret of Cyrus in his "Epitome of Christian Doctrine". But, while he imitates the general plan of Theodoret, he does not make use of his method. He quotes, not only form the pages of Holy Writ, but also from the writings of the Fathers. As a result, his work is an inexhaustible thesaurus of tradition which became the standard for the great Scholastics who followed. In particular, he draws generously from Gregory of Nazianzus, whose works he seems to have absorbed, from Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Athanasius, John Chrysostum, and Epiphanius. The work is divided into four books. This division, however, is an arbitrary one neither contemplated by the author nor justified by the Greek manuscript. It is probably the work of a Latin translator seeking to accommodate it to the style of the four books of Lombard's "Sentences".
The first book of "The Orthodox Faith" treats of the essence and existence of God, the Divine nature, and the Trinity. As evidence of the existence of God he cites the concurrence of opinion among those enlightened by Revelation and those who have only the light of reason to guide them. To the same end he employs the argument drawn from the mutability of created things and that from design. Treating, in the second book, of the physical world, he summarizes all the views of his times, without, however, committing himself to any of them. In the same treatise he discloses a comprehensive knowledge of the astronomy of his day. Here, also, place is given to the consideration of the nature of angels and demons, the terrestrial paradise, the properties of human nature, the foreknowledge of God, and predestination. Treating of man (c.xxvii), he gives what has been aptly called a "psychology in nuce". Contrary to the teachings of Plotinus, the master of Porphyry, he identifies mind and soul. In the third book the personality and two-fold nature of Christ are discussed with great ability. This leads up to the consideration of the Monophysite heresy. In this connexion he deals with Peter the Fuller's addition to the "Trisagion", and combats Anastasius's interpretation of this ancient hymn. The latter, who was Abbot of the monastery of St. Euthymius in Palestine, referred the "Trisagion" only to the Second Person of the Trinity. In his letter "Concerning the Trisagion" John Damascene contends that the hymn applies not to the Son alone, but to each Person of the Blessed Trinity. This book also contains a spirited defence of the Blessed Virgin's claim to the tile of "Theotokos." Nestorius is vigorously dealt with for trying to substitute the title of "Mother of Christ" for "Mother of God". The Scriptures are discussed in the fourth book. In assigning twenty-two books to the Old Testament Canon he is treating of the Hebrew, and not the Christian, Canon, as he finds it in a work of Epiphanius, "De ponderibus et mensuris". His treatment in this book of the Real Presence is especially satisfactory. The nineteenth chapter contains a powerful plea for the veneration of images.
The treatise, "Against the Jacobites", was written at the request of Peter, Metropolitan of Damascus, who imposed on him the task of reconciling to the Faith the Jacobite bishop. It is a strong polemic against the Jacobites, as the Monophysites in Syria were called. He also wrote against the Manicheans and Monothelites. The "Booklet Concerning Right Judgment" is little more than a profession of Faith, confirmed by arguments setting forth the mysteries of the Faith, especially the Trinity and the Incarnation. Though John of Damascus wrote voluminously on the Scriptures, as in the case of so much of his writing, his work bears little of the stamp of originality. His "Select Passages" (Loci Selecti), as he himself admits, are taken largely from the homilies of St. John Chrysostom and appended as commentaries to texts from the Epistles of St. Paul. The commentary on the Epistles to the Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians is taken from Cyril of Alexandria. The "Sacred Parallels" (Sacra parallela) is a kind of topical concordance, treating principally of God, man, virtues, and vices.
Under the general title of "Homilies" he wrote fourteen discourses. The sermon on the Transfiguration, which Lequien asserts was delivered in the church on Mt. Tabor, is of more than usual excellence. It is characterized by dramatic eloquence, vivid description, and a wealth of imagery. In it he discourses on his favorite topic, the twofold nature of Christ, quotes the classic text of Scripture in testimony of the primacy of Peter, and witnesses the Catholic doctrine of sacramental Penance. In his sermon on Holy Saturday he descants on the Easter duty and on the Real Presence. The Annunciation is the text of a sermon, now extant only in a Latin version of an Arabic text, in which he attributes various blessings to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin. The second of his three sermons on the Assumption is especially notable for its detailed account of the translation of the body of the Blessed Virgin into heaven, an account, he avers, that is based on the most reliable and ancient tradition. Both Liddledale and Neale regard John of Damascus as the prince of Greek hymnodists. His hymns are contained in the "Carmina" of the Lequien edition. The "canons" on the Nativity, Epiphany, and Pentecost are written in iambic trimeters. Three of his hymns have become widely known and admired in their English version"Those eternal bowers", "Come ye faithful raise the strain", and "Tis the Day of Resurrection". The most famous of the "canons" is that on Easter. It is a song of triumph and thanksgivingthe "Te Deum" of the Greek Church. It is a traditional opinion, lately controverted, that John Damascene composed the "Octoëchos", which contains the liturgical hymns used by the Greek Church in its Sunday services. Gerbet, in his "History of Sacred Music", credits him with doing for the East what Gregory the Great accomplished for the Westsubstitution of notes and other musical characters for the letters of the alphabet to indicate musical quantities. It is certain he adapted choral music to the purposes of the Liturgy.
Among the several works that are dubiously attributed to John Damascene the most important is the romance entitled "Barlaam and Josaphat". Throughout the Middle Ages it enjoyed the widest popularity in all languages. It is not regarded as authentic by Lequien, and the discovery of a Syriac version of the "Apology of Aristides" shows that what amounts to sixteen printed pages of it was taken directly from Aristides. The panegyric of St. Barbara, while accepted as genuine by Lequien, is rejected by many others. The treatise entitled "Concerning those who have died in the Faith" is rejected as spurious by Suarez, Bellarmine, and Lequien, not only on account of its doctrinal discrepancies, but for its fabulous character as well. The first Greek edition of any of the works of John Damascene was that of the "Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith" brought out at Verona (1531) under the auspices of John Matthew Gibertus, Bishop of Verona. Another Greek edition of the same work was published at Moldavia (1715) by John Epnesinus. It was also printed in a Latin edition at Paris (1507), by James Faber. Henry Gravius, O.P., published a Latin edition at Cologne (1546) which contained the following works: "Dialectic", "Elementary and Dogmatic Instruction", "Concerning the two Wills and Operations", and "Concerning Heresy". A Greek-Latin edition with an introduction by Mark Hopper made its appearance at Basle (1548). A similar edition, but much more complete was published at the same place in 1575. Another Latin edition, constituting a partial collection of the author's works is that by Michael Lequien, O.P., published at Paris (1717) and Venice (1748). To the reprint of this edition, P.G., XCIV-XCVI (Paris, 1864), Migne has added a supplement of works attributed by some to the authorship of John Damascene.
John B. O'Connor
Transcribed by Anthony A. Killeen
In Memory of Fr. Cyril Power, S.J.
From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc.
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