Friday, December 4, 2009

Commemoration of our Righteous Father among the Saints, John Damascene

Troparion to St. John Damascene (Tone 8): O Guide of Orthodoxy, teacher of piety and holiness, God inspired adornment of monastics, by thy teachings thou has illumined all, O harp of the Spirit. Intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved. You can hear it here in Arabic.

Today, December 4, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates St. Barbara, the Great Martyr and St. John Damascene. St. John is my patron saint so I will dedicate this to him, no offense St. Barbara.

From the Prologue of Ohrid: John was first the chief minister to Caliph Abdul-Malik and later a monk in the Monastery of St. Sava the Sanctified. Because of his ardent defense of the veneration of icons during the reign of the iconoclastic Emperor Leo the Isaurian, John was maligned by the emperor to the Caliph, who cut off his right hand. John fell down in prayer before the icon of the Most-holy Theotokos, and his hand was rejoined and miraculously healed. Seeing this miracle the Caliph repented, but John no longer desired to remain with him as a nobleman. Instead, he withdrew to a monastery, where, from the beginning, he was a model to the monks in humility, obedience and all the prescribed rules of monastic asceticism. John composed the Funeral Hymns and compiled the Octoechos (The Book of Eight Tones), the Irmologion, the Menologion and the Paschal Canon, and he wrote many theological works of inspiration and profundity. A great monk, hymnographer, theologian and soldier for the truth of Christ, Damascene is numbered among the great Fathers of the Church. He entered peacefully into rest in about the year 776 at the age of 104.

Reflection on St. John by St. Nicolai Velimirovich: Obedience, coupled with humility, is the foundation of the spiritual life, the foundation of salvation and the foundation of the overall structure of the Church of God. The great John Damascene-great in every good thing-as a monk left a deep impression on the history of the Church by his exceptional example of obedience and humility. Testing him one day, his elder and spiritual father handed him woven baskets and ordered him to take them to Damascus and sell them there. The elder established a very high price for the baskets, thinking that John would not be able to sell them at that price but would have to return with them. John, therefore, firstly had to go on a long journey; secondly, he had to go as a poor monk to the city where he, at one time, had been the most powerful man after the Caliph; thirdly, he had to seek a ridiculously high price for the baskets; and fourthly, should he not sell the baskets, he would have made this enormous journey, there and back, for nothing. In this way, the elder wished to test the obedience, humility and patience of his famous disciple. John silently prostrated before the elder and, without a word, took the baskets and started on his journey. Arriving in Damascus, he stood in the market place and awaited a buyer. When he told the interested passers-by the price of his goods, they laughed at and mocked him as a lunatic. He stood there the whole day, and the whole day he was exposed to derision and ridicule. But God, Who sees all things, did not abandon His patient servant. A certain citizen passed by and looked at John. Even though John was clad in a poor monk's habit and his face was withered and pale from fasting, this citizen recognized in him the one-time lord and first minister of the Caliph, in whose service he had also been. John also recognized him, but they both began to deal as strangers. Even though John named the all-too-high price of the baskets, the citizen purchased and paid for them without a word, recalling the good that John Damascene had once done for him. As a victor, holy John returned to the monastery rejoicing, and brought joy to his elder.

When choosing a saint to whose protection and intercessions before the great judgment seat of Christ I would entrust myself, I inititally had chosen Augustine. Now, though Augustine is considered by many Orthodox (wrongly) to be the bogeyman, I reconsidered after realizing that the majority of the hymns I was singing in church week-in, week-out were his creation. The music of Byzantine Chant is mainly his creation. The richness and depth of the hymns with food of large portions of theology were enough to make me reconsider. Also, some of those hymns I remember singing as a Lutheran like "Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain" (TLH 204) and "The Day of Resurrection" (TLH 205), both for Easter. Even Luther's own "Christ Lag in Todesbanden" seems to derive significantly from St. John's Paschal (Easter) Canon. St. John is even considered by the Western Christians to be a doctor of the Church along with Sts. Augustine, Jerome and Basil, pretty elite company. So, St. John, for me, was not some obscure Eastern saint who had no impact on the West but served as a bridge.

His hymns and theological writings are taken for granted, I think. But if St. John were a vain man, and I don't think he was, he might care, but as he now raises the strain along with the holy noetic powers of heaven, that is enough for him.

Here are some of my favorite hymns of St. John Damascene.

From the Funeral Service (Tone 1)--I chanted this at my grandfather's funeral:

What earthly joy cannot be untouched by grief?
What glory stands forever on the earth?
Frail shadows and elusive dreams are we,
which death will one day sweep away.
But in the light of Thy countenance, O Christ,
and in the enjoyment of Thy beauty,
give rest to those Thou hast chosen and taken,
since Thou art the Lover of Mankind.

Troparion of Holy Week at Orthros (Tone 8):

Behold, the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching; and again unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, lest thou be overcome with sleep, lest thou be given up to death, and be shut out from the Kingdom. But rather rouse thyself and cry: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, our God, through the Theotokos have mercy on us.

You can hear an audio of it here. (It is in Greek)

From Ode 1 of the Paschal Canon (Tone 1), the Queen of all canons:

It is the Day of Resurrection! Let us be radiant, O people! Pascha! The Lord's Pascha! For Christ our God has brought us from death to life, and from earth unto heaven, as we sing triumphant hymns!

Christ is risen from the dead.

Let us purify our senses and we shall behold Christ, radiant with inaccessible light of the Resurrection, and shall hear Him saying clearly, "Rejoice!" As we sing the triumphant hymns!

Let heavens rejoice in a worthy manner, the earth be glad, and the whole world, visible and the invisible, keep the Feast. For Christ our eternal joy has risen!

You can hear a recording here, sung in Greek but in Russian Valaam Chant. The priest and the congregation say "Christ is Risen. Truly He is Risen)

Hymn of Praise to St. John Damascne:

O wondrous trumpet of the Orthodox Faith,
O glorious monk of a glorious cenobium,
John the poet, champion of the Faith,
Holy sufferer for the holy icons,
Having glorified God you are now glorified;
Immortal trumpeter of eternal life,
You left the world for the sake of the Living Christ.
Having humbled yourself, you are glorified the more.
You took upon yourself the path of asceticism;
Through tears you beheld the heavenly mysteries;
By prayer and faith you performed miracles;
You conversed with the Mother of God.
The Faith-who could better expound it?
Who could glorify God with a sweeter hymn?
O harp of eternal truth, there is none like you,
No one like you, glorious Father Damascene.
Oh, raise even now your pure mouth,
And implore the Life-giving Christ for us,
That His mercy accompany us until death,
That we with you may glorify Him.

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