On St. John Damascene

“God Wants to Rest in Us”

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 6, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience in St. Peter’s Square. He continued his series on great writers of the Church in the Middle Ages, focusing today on St. John Damascene.

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Dear brothers and sisters:

I would like to speak today about John Damascene, a prominent personality in the history of Byzantine theology, a great doctor in the history of the universal Church. He is above all an eye witness of the passage from the Greek and Syriac culture, shared in the eastern part of the Byzantine Empire, to the culture of Islam, which took over space with its military conquests in the territory ordinarily recognized as the Middle or Near East.

John, born to a rich Christian family, took on while still young the post — perhaps also held by his father — as the economic head of the kingdom. Quite soon, however, unsatisfied with life at court, he fully developed a choice for the monastic life, entering the monastery of San Sabas, close to Jerusalem. It was around the year 700. Never leaving the monastery, he dedicated himself with all his strength to ascesis and literary activity, without spurning a certain pastoral activity, of which his numerous homilies give witness. His liturgical memorial is celebrated Dec. 4. Pope Leo XIII proclaimed him a doctor of the universal Church in 1890.

In the East, he is remembered above all for his three discourses against those who calumniate holy images, [discourses] which were condemned after his death by the iconoclast Council of Hieria (754). These discourses, however, were the principal motive for his reinstatement and canonization by the orthodox fathers gathered in the Second Council of Nicaea (787), the Seventh Ecumenical Council. In these texts it is possible to find the first important theological attempts to legitimize the veneration of sacred images, uniting to them the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary.

John Damascene was also one of the first to distinguish between the public and private worship of Christians, and between adoration (latreia) and veneration (proskynesis): The first can only be directed to God, highly spiritual; the second on the other hand can use an image to direct oneself to he who is represented by it.

Obviously, a saint cannot in any way be identified with the material of which an icon is made. This distinction quickly resulted very important to respond in a Christian way to those who claimed as universal and perennial the observance of the severe prohibition in the Old Testament about the use of images in worship. This was a great discussion also in the Islamic world, which accepts this Jewish tradition of the total exclusion of images for worship. Christians on the other hand, in this context, considered the problem and found a justification for the veneration of images.

Damascene wrote: “In other times, God had never been represented in an image, being incorporeal and without a face. But given that now God has been seen in the flesh and has lived among man, I represent what is visible in God. I do not venerate matter, but the Creator of matter, who has made himself matter for me and has deigned to dwell in matter and carry out my salvation through matter. I will never cease because of this to venerate the matter through with salvation has come to me.

“But I do not venerate it absolutely like [I do] God! How could God be that which has received existence from non being? … Rather I venerate and respect also all the rest of the matter that has procured salvation, inasmuch as it is full of holy energies and graces. Is not perhaps matter the wood of the cross thrice blessed? … And the ink and the holy book of the Gospels are not matter? The salvific altar that dispenses us the bread of life is not matter? … And before all, is not matter the flesh and the blood of my Lord? Should the sacred character of all of this be suppressed? Or should it be conceded to the tradition of the Church the veneration of the images of God and that of the friends of God that are sanctified by the name they carry, and because of this reason are dwelt in by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not be offended therefore by matter: It is not despicable because nothing that God has made is despicable” (Contra imaginum calumniatores, I, 16, ed. Kotter, pp. 89-90).

We see that, because of the Incarnation, matter appears as divinized, is seen as the dwelling place of God. This is a new vision of the world and material realities. God has become flesh and flesh has become truly the dwelling place of God, whose glory shines forth in the human face of Christ. Therefore the invitations of the doctor of the East are even today extremely current, considering the great dignity that matter has received in the Incarnation, able to come to be, in faith, efficient sign and sacrament of man’s encounter with God.

John Damascene is, therefore, a privileged witness of the veneration of icons, which would come to be one of the most distinctive aspects of Eastern theology and spirituality up to today. And nevertheless it is a form of worship that simply belongs to the Christian faith, to the faith in this God that has become flesh and made himself visible. The teaching of St. John Damascene thus is inserted in the tradition of the universal Church, whose doctrine on the sacraments takes into account that material elements taken from nature can change through grace in virtue of the invocation (epiclesis) of the Holy Spirit, accompanied by the confession of the true faith.

United to these underlying ideas, John Damascene also places the veneration of the relics of the saints, on the base of the conviction that holy Christians, having been made participants in the resurrection of Christ, cannot be considered simply as “the dead.” Enumerating, for example, those whose relics or images are worthy of veneration, John specifies in his third discourse in defense of images: “Before all (we venerate) those among whom God has rested, the only holy one who dwells among the saints (cf. Isaiah 57:15), such as the holy Mother of God and all the saints. These are those who, inasmuch as possible, have made themselves similar to God with their will and by the indwelling and help of God, [and] are really called gods (cf. Psalm 82:6), not by nature, but rather by contingence, as red-hot iron is called fire, not by nature, but by contingence and through participation in the fire. It is said, in fact: “You will be holy because I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2)” (III, 33, col. 1352 A).

After a series of references of this type, Damascene could serenely deduce, therefore:”God, who is good and superior to all goodness, did not content himself with the contemplation of himself, but rather wanted there to be beings benefited by him who could come to be participants in his goodness: For this he created out of nothing all things, visible and invisible, including man, a visible and invisible reality. And he created him thinking of him and making him a being capable of thinking (ennoema ergon) enriched by the word (logo[i] sympleroumenon) and oriented toward the spirit (pneumati teleioumenon)” (II, 2, PG 94, col. 865A).

And to clarify later this thought, he adds: “It is necessary to leave oneself full of awe (thaumazein) at all the works of providence (tes pronoias erga), praise them all and accept them all, overcoming the temptation to point out in them aspects that to many seem unjust or iniquitous (adika), and admitting instead that God’s project (pronoia) goes beyond the cognitive and understanding capacity (agnoston kai akatalepton) of man, meanwhile on the other hand only he knows our thoughts, our actions and even our future” (II, 29, PG 94, col. 964C).

Already Plato, on the other hand, said that all philosophy begins with awe: Also our faith begins with awe at creation, at the beauty of God who becomes visible.

This optimism of natural contemplation (physikè the
oria), of this seeing in visible creation the good, the beautiful and the true, this Christian optimism is not a naïve optimism: It takes into account the wound inflicted on human nature by free choice desired by God and used inappropriately by man, with all the consequences of widespread disharmony that have come from it. From here stems the need, clearly perceived by the theology of Damascene, that the nature in which the goodness and beauty of God is reflected, wounded by our fault, “would be strengthened and renewed” by the descent of the Son of God in the flesh, after in many ways and on many occasions God himself had tried to show that he had created man so that he would be not only in “being,” but in “being good” (cf. La fede ortodossa, II, 1, PG 94, col. 981).

With a passionate exclamation, John explains: “It was necessary for nature to be strengthened and renewed and that the path of virtue would be indicated and concretely taught (didachthenai aretes hodòn), [the path] that banishes corruption and leads to eternal life … Thus appeared on the horizon of history the great sea of the love of God for man (philanthropias pelagos) …”

It is a beautiful expression. We see, on one hand, the beauty of creation and on the other, the destruction caused by human fault. But we see in the Son of God, who descends to renew nature, the sea of the love of God for man.

John Damascene continues: “He himself, the Creator and Lord, fought for his creature, transmitting his teaching to him with his example … And thus the Son of God, while subsisting in the form of God, descended from the heavens and lowered himself … toward his servants … carrying out the newest thing of all, the only thing truly new under the son, through which he manifested in fact the infinite power of God” (III, 1. PG 94, col. 981C-984B).

We can imagine the consolation and the joy that filled the hearts of the faithful with these words so full of fascinating images. We too hear them today, sharing the same sentiments of the Christians of that time: God wants to rest in us, he wants to renew nature also through our conversion, he wants to make us participants in his divinity. May the Lord help us to make these words the essence of our lives.

[Translation by ZENIT] [The Holy Father then greeted the faithful in various languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Saint John Damascene was a towering figure in the history of Eastern theology. He was born into a wealthy Christian family at a time when his native Syria was already under Arab rule. He left a promising career in government in order to enter monastic life. His best-known works are his Discourses against the Iconoclasts, which offer an important contribution to the proper theological understanding of the veneration of sacred images. Saint John Damascene was among the first to distinguish between adoration, which is due to God alone, and veneration, which can rightly be given to an image in order to assist the Christian to contemplate him whom the image represents. It is true that in the Old Testament, divine images were strictly forbidden. But now that God has become incarnate and has assumed visible, material form in Jesus, matter has received a new dignity. The wood of the Cross, the book of the Gospels, the altar of sacrifice: all have been used by God to bring about our salvation. Matter now serves as a sign and sacrament of our encounter with God. When we participate in the sacraments, when we venerate icons, if we do so in faith and in the power of the Holy Spirit, they truly become a means of grace. Despite human sinfulness, God has chosen to dwell within men and women, making them holy, making them sharers in his infinite goodness and holiness. Let us welcome him with joy into our hearts.

I am pleased to welcome all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors here today, including a group of Felician Sisters serving in health care administration. Upon all of you, and upon your families and loved ones, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

[And at the end of the audience, he addressed a special message in English to the peoples of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories:]

My dear friends, this Friday I leave Rome for my Apostolic Visit to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. I wish this morning to take the opportunity through this radio and television broadcast to greet all the peoples of those lands. I am eagerly looking forward to being with you and to sharing with you your aspirations and hopes as well as your pains and struggles. I will be coming among you as a pilgrim of peace. My primary intention is to visit the places made holy by the life of Jesus, and, to pray at them for the gift of peace and unity for your families, and all those for whom the Holy Land and the Middle East is home. Among the many religious and civic gatherings which will take place over the course of the week, will be meetings with representatives from the Muslim and Jewish communities with whom great strides have been made in dialogue and cultural exchange. In a special way I warmly greet the Catholics of the region and ask you to join me in praying that the visit will bear much fruit for the spiritual and civic life of all who dwell in the Holy Land. May we all praise God for his goodness. May we all be people of hope. May we all be steadfast in our desire and efforts for peace.

© Copyright 2009 — Libreria Editrice Vaticana

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