National Catholic Register


St. John Damascene

Defended Veneration Against the Iconoclasts

BY The Editors

May 24-30, 2009 Issue | Posted 5/15/09 at 7:01 PM


During his general audience on May 6, Pope Benedict XVI continued his teachings on the great writers of the medieval Church. He spoke about St. John Damascene, a leading figure in the Eastern Church.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today I would like to talk about John Damascene, a leading figure in the history of Byzantine theology and, within the history of the universal Church, a great doctor of the church.

He was an eyewitness to the transition from the Greek and Syriac Christian culture that the eastern part of the Byzantine Empire shared, to the culture of Islam, whose military conquests made inroads into the territory traditionally known as the Middle East or the Near East.

His liturgical feast day is celebrated on Dec. 4. Pope Leo XIII proclaimed him a doctor of the universal Church in 1890.

He is remembered in the East for his three Discourses Against the Iconoclasts, which were condemned after his death by the iconoclastic Council of Hieria in 754. However, these discourses were also the fundamental reason why the orthodox fathers who convened the seventh ecumenical council, the Second Council of Nicaea, in 787, reinstated and canonized him.

In these texts, it is possible to retrace the first notable theological attempts to legitimize the veneration of sacred images by associating them with the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Moreover, John Damascene was one of the first to make a distinction between adoration (latreia) and veneration (proskynesis) in the public and private worship of Christians: Adoration may be addressed only to God, who is supremely spiritual; veneration, on the other hand, may make use of an image in order to address the person represented in that image.

Obviously, a saint cannot be identified in any way with the material of which the icon is made.

It immediately became clear that this distinction was important in order to provide a Christian response to those who claimed that the strict Old Testament prohibition against the use of images in worship was universal and permanent. This was also a subject of great debate in the Muslim world, which accepted the Jewish tradition that all images be completely excluded from worship.

In this context, however, Christians were able to deliberate on the problem and find justification for the veneration of images.

"Since God was incorporeal and faceless," St. John Damascene wrote, "he was never depicted in images in ancient times. Now, however, since God has been seen clothed in flesh and lived among men, I make an image of what is visible in God. I do not worship matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake, who deigned to inhabit matter, and who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from venerating that matter through which salvation has reached me. I venerate it, though in no way as God! How could what received its existence from non-being be God? [...] Nevertheless, I also respect the rest of the matter that brought me salvation, insofar as it is full of holy energies and graces. Was not the thrice blessed wood of the cross matter? [...] Are not the ink and most holy book of the Gospels matter? Is not the saving altar that gives us the bread of life matter? [...] And, above all else, is not the body and blood of my Lord matter? Either you must do away with the sacred character of all these things or you must submit to the tradition of the Church in the veneration of those images that honor God and those of his friends who, by bearing his name, have been sanctified and, for this reason, have the grace of the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. Do not despise matter: It is not despicable. Because nothing that God has made is despicable!" (Contra imaginum calumniatores, I, 16, ed. Kotter, pp. 89-90).

A New Vision

We see that, because of the Incarnation, matter appears as divinized and is seen as God's dwelling place. This is a new vision of the world and of material realities.

God became flesh, and flesh truly became the dwelling place of God, whose glory shines forth in Christ's human face. Therefore, the concerns of this Eastern doctor of the church are still extremely relevant today, considering the great dignity that matter has received through the Incarnation, able to become, through faith, an effective sign and sacrament of man's encounter with God.

John Damascene remains, therefore, an important witness of the veneration of icons, which became one of the most distinctive aspects of Eastern theology and spirituality and remains so even today.

It remains a form of veneration that simply is part of the Christian faith, of the faith in that God who became flesh and became visible.

John Damascene's teaching is part of the tradition of the universal Church whose teaching on the sacraments takes into account that material elements taken from nature can become channels of grace by virtue of the invocation (epiclesis) of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by a profession of the true faith.

In connection with these fundamental ideas, John Damascene also admitted the veneration of the relics of saints, based on a conviction that Christian saints, having been made participants in the resurrection of Christ, may not be considered simply "dead."

Listing, for example, those whose relics or images are worthy of veneration, John makes the following clarification in his third discourse in defense of images: "Above all, [we venerate] those among whom God has rested, the holy one who dwells among those who are holy (see Isaiah 57:15), like the holy Mother of God and all the saints. These are the ones who, as much as possible, have rendered themselves like God through their own will and, with God's help and through his presence within them, are truly called gods (see Psalm 82:6), not by nature but by circumstance, just as red-hot iron is called fire, not by nature but by circumstance and through the participation of fire. In fact, he tells us, 'Be holy as I am holy' (Leviticus 19:2)" (III, 33, col. 1352 A).

After a series of references along these lines, St. John Damascene was able to serenely make the following deduction: "God, who is good and superior to all goodness, was not content merely to contemplate himself, but wanted there to be beings who would be his beneficiaries and who could become participants in his goodness: For this reason he created all things, visible and invisible, including man, a visible and invisible reality. He created him, envisioning him and making him as a being capable of thought (ennoema ergon), endowed with speech (logo[i] sympleroumenon) and oriented toward the spirit (pneumati teleioumenon)" (II, 2, PG 94, col. 865A).

Awe for God's Creation

Subsequently, in an effort to clarify his thoughts, he added: "We need to let ourselves be filled with awe (thaumazein) by all the works of Providence (tes pronoias erga), to praise all of them and accept all of them, overcoming the temptation to find in them aspects that to many seem unjust or unfair (adika), and admitting, on the other hand, that God's plan (pronoia) surpasses man's cognitive ability and comprehension (agnoston kai akatalepton), while, on the contrary, he alone knows our thoughts, our actions and even our future" (II, 29, PG 94, col. 964C).

Plato had already said that all philosophy begins with a sense of awe. Even our faith begins with a sense of awe for creation, for God's beauty that has been made visible.

This optimism in the contemplation of the natural world (physikè theoria), this optimism for seeing the good, the beautiful and the true in the visible creation, this Christian optimism is not some naive optimism. It takes into account the wound that the freedom of choice — which God has decreed and which man has improperly used — has inflicted on human nature, with all the consequences of the widespread disharmony to which this has led.

From here arose the need, which St. John Damascene clearly perceived, for nature, in which the goodness and the beauty of God is reflected but wounded by our sin, "to be reinforced and renewed" by the descent in the flesh of the Son of God, after which in many ways and on various occasions God himself tried to show that he created man not merely for "being" but for "being good" (see La fede ortodossa, II, 1, PG 94, col. 981).

Renewed in God's Love

With passion, John goes on to explain: "Nature needed to be reinforced and renewed, and the path to virtue (didachthenai aretes hodòn), which flees corruption and leads to eternal life, had to be shown and taught concretely. ... Thus, the great sea of God's love for man (philanthropias pelagos) appeared on the horizon."

These are beautiful words. On one hand, we see the beauty of creation and, on the other, the destruction that was caused by man's sin. Yet we see in the Son of God, who came down to renew nature, the sea of God's love for man.

John Damascene goes on to say: "He himself, the Creator and the Lord, fought on behalf of his creature, passing on to him his teaching through his example. ... In this way, the Son of God, while subsisting in the form of God, came down from heaven ... to be with his servants ... accomplishing the newest thing of all, the one truly new thing under the sun, through which God's infinite power was truly manifested" (III, 1. PG 94, coll. 981C-984B).

Even today we can listen to them and share the same feelings as Christians back then. God wants to dwell within us. He wants to renew nature, which is also a means for our conversion. He wants to make us participants in his divinity.

May the Lord help us to make these words the substance of our lives!

Register translation