Sunday, December 4, 2011

Commemoration of our Righteous Father, St. John Damascene

Today, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates our Righteous Father, John of Damascus. He shares this feast day with the Great Martyr Barbara. Both saints are children of the See of Antioch. Of course, I have greater affinity towards St. John simply because he is my patron saint and what a wonderful saint and intercessor he is to have on my behalf before the dread judgment seat of Christ, not that I don't believe Barbara or any other saint would do less.

Chanting the services last night and this morning for him, the Orthodox Church owes a huge debt to him. Though there were specific hymns directed towards him, a great many of the hymns for Vespers and Orthros from the Octoechos were his creation. Though we commemorate in the dismissal St. John Chrysostom or St. Basil the Great or St. Gregory, Pope of Rome because we celebrated their liturgies, perhaps we should commemorate St. John Damascene at the end of Vespers and Orthros. Probably not going to happen.

Of all his hymns, probably the ones I enjoy the most are his canons used at Orthros. The scope of both poetry and theological acuity in his hymns are almost unmatched in the Byzantine tradition. As we approach the celebration of the Winter Pascha, we will use his canon as the Second canon for Orthros. The first canon of Nativity was written by his brother, St. Cosmas. I'd like to take some time to examine a few of his hymns and comment on the theological depth contained therein.

Ode 1 (Irmos): Of old the Master that works wonders saved His people,
Making the watery wave of the sea into dry land;
And now of His own will has He been born from a Maiden,
And so He establishes a path for us whereby we may mount to heaven.
We glorify Him Who in essence is equal to the Father and to mortal men.

St. John, of course, composed his canons following the nine Biblical Odes. The irmos of ode 1 hearkens back to the Canticle of Moses from Exodus.

I love how the final verse stresses the consubstantiality of Christ with both the Father and man. If there is one thing that I find lacking in our Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (and Fr. Reardon has pointed this out from time to time) is that the Liturgy is pre-Chalcedonian. It is heavily Trinitarian and we speak much of the consubstantiliaty of the Three Hypostases of the Trinity. We don't spend much time on the consubstantiality of Christ with us, His creation. But St. John Damascene does articulate that very well (and especially in his Pascal Canon) here and that is why Orthodox Christians can never hope to really understand the depths of our faith by simply going to Liturgy, as important as that its.

Ode 5: The Master, by His coming in the flesh, has cut clean through
The harsh enmity of the flesh against Him,
And has destroyed the might of the murderer of our souls,
Uniting the world to the immaterial essences,
He has made the Father merciful to the creation.

The Orthodox doctrine of Theosis, man becoming God-like, is articulated here. God became man that man may become God. These words (erroneously attributed to St. Athanasius, though he probably would not have objected to them) repudiate that our salvation cannot be strictly defined in terms of forensic justification. If the point of the crucifixion was to pronounce a "not guilty" verdict, then why the need for the incarnation? The incarnation was so heaven and earth, God and man, may be united to accomplish what Christ prayed in the garden before His death, namely, that "they may all be one As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us" (John 17:21). Though we are still created beings and less than God, because of His incarnation, the flesh he assumed, which he took up to Heaven after His Resurrection and Ascension has also been deified. Our flesh is no longer a hindrance, but will become the instrument for our salvation.

Ode 8:Thou hast come, O Resurrection of the nations,
To bring back the nature of man from its wanderings,

Leading it from the hills of the wilderness to a pasture rich in flowers.
Do Thou destroy the violent strength of the murderer of man,
O Thou who in Thy providence hast appeared as man and God.

Even at Nativity, our minds are called to our Lord's Pascha, His triumph and our triumph over death. The theme throughout this canon is not juridical nuances, but rebirth, resurrection, renewal, change. Our Lord came to change us, not just give good teachings, but so that He may effect in us an actual, ontological change so that we may do what He taught.

At the end of the stanza, we again are reminded that Christ is consubstantial with both the Father and us. A great and mighty wonder! (BTW, that is a title of a hymn found in the Western Rite).

I could spend many hours on the theological legacy of St. John Damascene. It is unfortunate that his feast day falls on a Sunday once every six years, because most Orthodox would not realize the contributions he has made to the faith. O Guide of Orthodoxy, pray that our souls be saved!

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