Tuesday, December 04, 2007

December 4--John of Damascus

Today is the feast of John of Damascus, a priest of the early 8th century. He was known as “the golden mouthed” for his preaching, which was probably helped by the fact that he was also a poet. Three of his hymns appear in the Hymnal 1982, all of them in Eastertide. John was also one of the major players in the controversy about the use of icons in the Church.

Many in John’s day opposed the use of icons (pictures of Christ, Mary, and the saints) on the basis of the Old Testament prohibitions against idolatry. Representations of God were and are forbidden in Judaism, as they are in Islam. Protestant Christians have long been suspicious of them as well, and sometimes outright hostile, witness the number of churches in England that contain defaced statues, broken stained glass and painted-over murals dating from the brief time the Puritans ruled the country.

John and others argued that icons were not representations in and of themselves but windows to the divine, and that they were allowed because of the belief Christians hold in the Incarnation. God taking human flesh in Jesus meant the sanctification of the things of this world, and so sacraments and icons are not only allowable, they are important. He wrote, “They lead us through matter to the God who is beyond matter.” He also argued for their use on a more emotional or psychological level. He wrote, “I have often seen those with a sense of longing, who, having caught sight of the garment of their beloved, embrace the garment as though it were the beloved person him or herself.”

Let us rejoice today that John’s side won the day, and remember that all of us are living icons of God. And, for good measure, here’s an icon of John himself. I love his doo-rag!

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