Which St John? – John of Damascus

This Sunday (9th June 2019), Pentecost, we will have a poll to see which St John feels like the inspiration for us, St John’s, for the coming years. Which saint’s story resonates with us, calls to us, inspires us, guides us as a community into the future God is calling us into? Each day this week we will revisit one of the five Saints John we have learned about this Easter season.

Option 5

John of Damascus

When Syria was conquered by the Muslim Arabs in the 630s, the court at Damascus retained its large complement of Christian civil servants, John’s grandfather among them. John was born in approximately 680, and he also served as an official to the court and as the city prefect.

When John reached the age of 23, his father sought to find a Christian tutor who could provide the best education for his children. Records show that while spending some time in the marketplace, John’s father encountered several captives, imprisoned as a result of a raid for prisoners of war that had taken place in the coasts of Italy. One of these, a Sicilian monk by the name of Cosmas, turned out to be an erudite of great knowledge and wisdom. John’s father arranged for the release of this man and appointed him tutor to his son. Under the instruction of Cosmas, John made great advances in music, astronomy and theology. According to his biographer, he soon equaled Diophantus in algebra and Euclid in geometry.

A polymath whose fields of interest and contribution included law, theology, philosophy, and music, he wrote works expounding the Christian faith, and composed hymns which are still used. He is sometimes called the first apostle to the Muslims. It is believed that John became a monk at Mar Saba, and that he was ordained as a priest in the year 735.

In the early 8th century AD, iconoclasm, a movement opposed to the veneration of icons, gained acceptance in the Byzantine court. John of Damascus undertook a spirited defence of holy images in three separate publications. In these publications he not only refuted the Byzantine emperor’s misunderstanding of icons and their use in devotional life, but John also wrote in a simplified style that allowed the controversy to be followed by the common people, not only by the scholars, politicians and priests. It was important to him that even the general public be educated in their faith and its practices, and to know what was true and good and what was a lie perpetuated by the political class for their own gain.

In the monastery, John was known for writing poems that consoled people in grief after someone had died, and for writing hymns. Some of his hymns are included in our hymnbook, including one we sang last Sunday: ”The Day of Resurrection.”

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