A Syrian or Arab Christian, John spent his entire life under Muslim rule. His father, a wealthy Damascene Christian, held the office of chief of the revenue in the caliph’s administration and was also possibly the principal representative of the Christian community in Damascus. John was educated by the Sicilian monk Cosmas, a man learned in both science and theology, for whose liberation John’s father paid a large sum of money. John succeeded his father, serving in the administration of Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik, but in 716 he became a monk and later a presbyter at the abbey of Saint Sabas, near Jerusalem. John soon busied himself with the writing of hymns and theological works, the most important of the latter known as “The Fount of Wisdom”, which deals in turn with philosophy, heresy, and the orthodox faith. The last part, called De Fide Orthodoxa, a summary of the teaching of the Greek Fathers on the principal mysteries of the Christian faith, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Real Presence in the Eucharist, had immense influence for centuries in the East and the West. (Through Burgundio of Pisa’s inadequate translation, the work was known to Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas.) John also wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Pauline Epistles and several doctrinal homilies.
In the same year that John was ordained presbyter, 726, the emperor Leo the Third (the Isaurian) published his first edict against the Holy Images, which signalled the formal outbreak of the iconoclastic controversy. The edict forbade the veneration of icons and ordered their destruction. In 729-730, John wrote three “Apologies against the Iconoclasts and in Defense of the Holy Images”, in which he argued that such sacred images were not idols, distinguishing between the veneration (proskynesis) that may properly be given to created beings, and the worship (latreia), that is properly given only to God. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, meeting in 787, decreed that crosses, icons, Gospel books and other sacred objects were to receive reverence or veneration, expressed by salutations, incense and lights, because the honor paid to them passed on to those whom they represented.
Among his hymns are several which found their way into Western hymnody, including “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain” and “The day of Resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad” (both in John Mason Neale’s renderings).
- Compiled from material from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Lesser Feasts and Fasts, and The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity.
Confirm our minds, O Lord, in the mysteries of the true faith, set forth with power by your servant John of Damascus; that we, with him, confessing Jesus to be true God and true Man, and singing the praises of the risen Lord, may, by the power of the resurrection, attain to eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of John of Damascus, Monk and Theologian, are published on the Lectionary Page website.