Today, 4 Dec 2011, the Church rejoices in the memory of St John Damascene, holy monk and Doctor of the Church. During the times St John Damascene lived (around 657 – 749) there were fierce clashes between those who cherished sacred images and those who wanted to destroy all of them. St John was one of those that God raised up to defend the use of sacred images, and his writings are still full of value for us today.
The story of his life has always had a special place in my heart, but when I read his writings my respect for him increased three-fold. So many of the answers I had haltingly come to in response to Protestant questions about sacred images were all present in his writings, and expressed far better. He also had good answers for questions that had not yet arisen. The full document, ‘Apologia of St John Damascene against those who decry sacred images’ can be found at www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/johndamascus-images.asp . Here are a few tastings from that document:
Part 1, mostly section 16. “Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, (Bar. 3.38) I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. I venerate it, though not as God. How could God be born out of lifeless things? And if God’s body is God by union, it is immutable. The nature of God remains the same as before, the flesh created in time is quickened by a logical and reasoning soul. I honour all matter besides, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was not the thrice happy and thrice blessed wood of the Cross matter? Was not the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Sepulchre, the source of our resurrection: was it not matter? ….. And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either do away with the veneration and worship due to all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the worship of images, honouring God and His friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit.”
Part 1, from sections 23 and 24: “We depict Christ as our King and Lord, and do not deprive Him of His army. The saints constitute the Lord’s army. Let the earthly king dismiss his army before he gives up his King and Lord. Let him put off the purple before he takes honour away from his most valiant men who have conquered their passions. For if the saints are heirs of God, and co-heirs of Christ, (Rom. 8.17) they will be also partakers of the divine glory of sovereignty. If the friends of God have had a part in the sufferings of Christ, how shall they not receive a share of His glory even on earth? “I call you not servants,” our Lord says, “you are my friends.” (Jn. 15.15) Should we then deprive them of the honour given to them by the Church? What audacity! What boldness of mind, to fight God and His commands! You, who refuse to worship images, would not worship the Son of God, the Living Image of the invisible God, (Col. 1.15) and His unchanging form. I worship the image of Christ as the Incarnate God; that of Our Lady, the Mother of us all, as the Mother of God’s Son; that of the saints as the friends of God. They have withstood sin unto blood, and followed Christ in shedding their blood for Him, who shed His blood for them. I put on record the excellencies and the sufferings of those who have walked in His footsteps, that I may sanctify myself, and be fired with the zeal of imitation. St Basil says, “Honouring the image leads to the prototype.” ”
Part 2, mostly section 65: “ Listen again that it is so. Thou shalt not make to thyself any brazen thing nor any likeness. These things, he says, they made by God’s commandment a hanging of violet, purple, scarlet, and fine twisted linen in the entrance of the tabernacle, and the cherubim in woven work. (Ex. 26.31) And they made also the propitiatory, that is, the oracle of the purest gold, and the two cherubim. (Ex 37.6-7) What will you say to this, O Moses? You say, thou shalt not make to thyself any graven thing nor any likeness, and you yourself fashion cherubim of woven work, and two cherubim of pure gold. Listen to the answer of God’s servant Moses: “You blind and foolish people, mark the force of what is said, and keep your souls carefully. I said that you had seen no likeness on the day when the Lord spoke to you on Mount Horeb, in the midst of the fire, lest you should sin against the law and make for yourselves a brazen likeness: thou shalt not make any image or gods of metal. I never said thou shalt not make the image of cherubim in adoration before the propitiatory. What I said was: Thou shalt not make to thyself gods of metal, and thou shalt not make any likeness as of God, nor shalt thou adore the creature instead of the Creator, nor any creature whatsoever as God, nor have I served the creature rather than the Creator.” ”
The whole document is well worth reading, – it runs to about 37 A4 pages - and at the end of each of the three parts St John Damascene gives us quotations from the writings of great saints like St Basil, St John Chrysostom and St Athanasius to show how widespread (in time and place) and honorable the tradition of sacred images really is.
St John Damascene, great champion of God and of sacred images, pray for us.