DECEMBER 4, 2018
St. John of Damascus
Since the earliest days of the Church, and certainly since the Reformation, Christians have debated the relative merits of venerating saints. Seen by some as nothing less than idolatry, and by others as nothing more than paying proper respect to martyrs and other paragons of Christian virtue, I will make no attempt to settle the debate here. I will, however, argue in favor of reclaiming the tradition of remembering the saints of old on their respective feast days, if for no other reason than to marvel at their faithfulness and to learn from their example.
Take for instance the life and ministry of St. John of Damascus, whose feast day falls today in the Anglican and other church calendars. Born into an ethnically Arab family of Christians, John stood faithfully for orthodoxy at a time when it was under attack both from within the Byzantine Empire and by the advance of Islam. His dedication to the ancient traditions of the Church included, somewhat ironically, support for the use of icons, which he saw not as objects of worship, but as tools useful in the propagation of the gospel. But he is most widely remembered for both his unwavering commitment to the basic tenets of the faith and for his devotion to learning and academic excellence.
John lived at a time (seventh/eighth century) and in a place (Jerusalem) when Christian orthodoxy was still widely misunderstood. A true polymath however, fluent in Greek and Arabic and familiar with philosophy, mathematics, science and the Scriptures alike, he sought not to innovate in his chosen discipline of theology, but to codify sound Christian doctrine for generations to come. That is why he is considered today to be the patron saint of theological students!
In the current context of higher education’s never-ending drive to expand the body of knowledge, and in a culture which is itself somewhat confused about Christian orthodoxy, it is helpful for us to remember the essential and non-negotiable truth claims of our faith, much as John of Damascus did in his day. As we contemplate the season of Advent, we would do well to remember the entire divine opera of which it is a central part; the meta-narrative of creation, fall, redemption and consummation.
Or as the Apostle Paul reminds us: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim 1:15-17, NIV).