Tag Archives: St John of Damascus

Picturing God?

Holy Trinity of God, by Viktor VasnetsovThis image, “The Holy Trinity of God,” by Viktor Vasnetsov is a rather interesting image for Christians.

Some will say, with historical precedent, that this image of the Trinity is heretical because God the Father cannot be depicted in a human form. The proponents of a biblical and liturgical theology state that God the Father is invisible and unable to be depicted in matter. Jesus Christ was born of the indescribable Father, therefore the Father cannot depicted be in an image. Having said this, it has not stopped artists from attempting to show us the Father. The Russians are noted for this.

I happen to like this image but I understand the caution and even the rejection of the image. For many, this issue may an Eastern Christian matter and not a Western one. It is, however, not that easy to say that this is a matter for one portion of the Church and not another. There is something called the unity of faith.

The teaching comes from 7th Ecumenical Council in AD 787, Second Nicea which focussed on the place of iconography in the Church and the very heated controversy between the iconoclasts and the iconodules. No doubt I can’t deal with the whole of the Council but the teaching of the Church was formulated by Saint John of Damascus who said,

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honor is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.
We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.

The Second Council of Nicea formally taught as a result of the Damascene:

Icons are necessary and essential because they protect the full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. While God cannot be represented in His eternal nature (“…no man has seen God”, John 1:18), He can be depicted simply because He “became human and took flesh.” Of Him who took a material body, material images can be made. In so taking a material body, God proved that matter can be redeemed. He deified matter, making it spirit-bearing, and so if flesh can be a medium for the Spirit, so can wood or paint, although in a different fashion.
I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who through matter effected my salvation.

Now, where do we go from here? In my mind I think of this issue as very similar to the biblical prohibition from pronouncing he name of God (YHWH). Recall that Benedict XVI asked Catholics to respect this biblical discipline. Sadly, Catholics can have a rather bold and sometimes arrogant approach to some things…

Saint John of Damascus

St John of DamascusGrant, we pray, O Lord, that we may be helped by the prayers of the Priest Saint John Damascene, so that the true faith, which he excelled in teaching, may always be our light and our strength.

Saint John of Damascus lived when the heresy of Iconoclasm prevailed, a scourge for the Church in the East (that also crept West later) during the eighth and ninth centuries. It was Saint John who fought vigorously against the decrees of Emperor Leo III which outlawed the use of icons by Christians  since they were interpreted as idols in the Old Testament.

Saint John argues in his Discourses against those who speak against the icons that man can progress from the knowledge of the senses to knowledge of the Divinity:

Since He is no longer physically present, we hear His words read from books and by hearing our souls are sanctified and filled with blessing, and so we worship, honoring the books from which we hear His words. So also, through the painting of images, we are able to contemplate the likeness of His bodily form, His miracles, and His passion, and thus are sanctified, blessed, and filled with joy. Reverently we honor and worship His bodily form, and by contemplating His bodily form, we form a notion, as far as is possible for us, of the glory of His divinity. Since we are fashioned of both soul and body…it is impossible for us to think without using physical images. Just as we physically listen to perceptible words in order to understand spiritual things, so also by using bodily sight we reach.

One of the gifts Pope Benedict XVI gave the Church was his weekly teachings on the Church Fathers. He explored the richness of the life and teachings of various Fathers of the Church. Saint John of Damascus is known to be “among the first to distinguish in the cult, both public and private, of the Christians, between worship (latreia) and veneration (proskynesis).” This distinction has been in use ever since.

The Damascene taught, more precisely, he distinguished, that our worship is due to God alone, while veneration, a lesser form of honor, but not worship, was to be given to Mary, the Mother of God, and to the saints. The Damascene, hence, taught that icons could be venerated because they were images of Christ (and the Theotokos and the saints) which called to mind and taught about the invisible God who loved humanity and entered in human history.

Saint John Damascene

John the Damascene.jpg

Grant, we pray, O Lord, that we may be helped by the prayers of the Priest Saint John Damascene, so that the true faith, which he excelled in teaching, may always be our light and our strength.

Saint John of Damascus (c. 676-749) is a pretty amazing man, priest, and Father of the Church; noted as the last of the Greek Fathers. He’s known as the “golden speaker” and while he was not an original or brilliant theologian, his gift is his ability to compile what the Church believed in his era. In many ways Avery Dulles was the same.

Much of his preaching and teaching was a defense of the faith in the face of severe opposition, particularly with the rise of Islam.

The Damascene is revered as a saint by the Churches of East and West.

From The Statement of Faith by Saint John Damascene:

O Lord, you led me from my father’s loins and formed me in my mother’s womb. You brought me, a naked babe, into the light of day, for nature’s laws always obey your commands.

By the blessing of the Holy Spirit, you prepared my creation and my existence, not because man willed it or flesh desired it, but by your ineffable grace. The birth you prepared for me was such that it surpassed the laws of our nature. You sent me forth into the light by adopting me as your son and you enrolled me among the children of your holy and spotless Church.

You nursed me with the spiritual milk of your divine utterances. You kept me alive with the solid food of the body of Jesus Christ, your only-begotten Son for our redemption. And he undertook the task willingly and did not shrink from it. Indeed, he applied himself to it as though destined for sacrifice, like an innocent lamb. Although he was God, he became man, and in his human will, became obedient to you, God his Father, unto death, even death on a cross.

In this way you have humbled yourself, Christ my God, so that you might carry me, your stray sheep, on your shoulders. You let me graze in green pastures, refreshing me with the waters of orthodox teaching at the hands of your shepherds. You pastured these shepherds, and now they in turn tend your chosen and special flock. Now you have called me, Lord, by the hand of your bishop to minister to your people. I do not know why you have done so, for you alone know that. Lord, lighten the heavy burden of the sins through which I have seriously transgressed. Purify my mind and heart. Like a shining lamp, lead me along the straight path. When I open my mouth, tell me what I should say. By the fiery tongue of your Spirit make my own tongue ready. Stay with me always and keep me in your sight.

Lead me to pastures, Lord, and graze there with me. Do not let my heart lean either to the right or to the left, but let your good Spirit guide me along the straight path. Whatever I do, let it be in accordance with your will, now until the end.

And you, O Church, are a most excellent assembly, the noble summit of perfect purity, whose assistance comes from God. You in whom God lives, receive from us an exposition of the faith that is free from error, to strengthen the Church, just as our Fathers handed it down to us.

Saint John of Damascus

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Saint John of Damascus spent most of his life in the monastery of Saint Sabas, near Jerusalem, under Muslim rule, indeed, protected by it. Born in Damascus c. 676, John received a classical and theological education, and followed his father in a government position under the Muslims. He resigned after a few years so that he could go to the monastery of Saint Sabas. Saint John is considered the last of the Greek Church Fathers (his writings)

Three points to remember about the Damascene:
1. he is known for his opposition to the iconoclasts, who opposed the veneration of images. Paradoxically, it was the Eastern Christian emperor Leo who forbade the practice, and it was because John lived in Muslim territory that his enemies could not silence him.
2. he is famous for his treatise, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, a summary of the Greek Fathers. It is said that this book is the Eastern equivalent of Aquinas’ Summa.
3. he is known as a poet, one of the two greatest in the Eastern Church (the other being Romanus the Melodist). His devotion to the Theotokos (the Blessed Virgin Mary) and his sermons on her feasts are well known.

Saint John of Damascus

Like a tree planted by streams of water,’ Ps. 1:3 the soul is irrigated by the Bible and
St John of Damascus.jpgacquires vigor, produces tasty fruit, namely, true faith, and is beautified with a thousand green leaves, namely, actions that please God. (The Damascene)


Almighty and eternal God, Who did imbue blessed John with heavenly doctrine and wonderful fortitude of heart for defending the veneration of sacred images; grant that through his intercession and example we may imitate the virtues, and experience the protection of those whose we venerate.


Saint John Damascene was an 8th century Syrian monk, a polymath, hymn writer, author and Doctor of the Assumption. He’s known to be the last of the Greek Fathers.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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