4 December, 2006
Commemoration of St. John of Damascus, Great Martyr Barbara, and Hieromartyr Alexander Hotovitzky
I have been asked a couple of times about the story of my conversion to Holy Orthodoxy. It’s a long, convoluted journey which took about four years and which was, from one point of view, nearly complete by the time I actually entered an Orthodox Church. From another point of view, I struggle and fail and repent and struggle some more.
Even summarizing this journey would be way outside the scope of a blog entry, but let me describe a portion.
You see, my entrepont into Orthodoxy was the history of the Roman Empire. Now, historians, whether Western or Eastern in birth and education, have some difficulty adequately describing the Iconoclastic Controversy.
In summary, Leo, an able general whose career began under Justinian II the Slit-Nosed and continued until Anastasius II placed him in command of the Anatolikon theme and thus one of the largest field armies in the Roman state. Leo and Artabasdus, the strategus of the Armeniakon theme, joined in a revolt against the feeble and incompetent Theodosius who surrendered, was tonsured a monk, and retreated to a monastery in Ephesus. On 25 March 717, Leo was crowned Leo III. In 726, Leo III made his iconoclast sympathies known by ordering an officer to remove the icon of Christ over the Bronze Gate of the Imperial Palace. Over the next years he openly spoke against the icons, and on 17 January 730 he assembled a group of secular and ecclesiastical and presented to them an Imperial edict forbidding and condemning the use of icons. The Patriarch Germanus refused to subscribe to it, and was deposed on the spot in favor of his former syncellus Anastasius who ascended to the patriarchal throne 5 days later after he made it perfectly clear that he would be properly compliant.
Thus began a crisis within the Empire of the Romans which would have grave consequences. Several revolts, the first in 726/7 by the theme of Hellas, were caused or aggravated by the official Iconoclasm of the dynasty which Leo III founded. It also further damaged relations between the Empire and the Papacy, which repudiated in the strongest possible terms this latest politically motivated heresy. The Icons would not be restored until the sole rule of the Empress Irene, which began on 15 August 797 when she had her reckless, perfidious, and cruel son Constantine VI blinded in the Purple Room in which he had been born. When, in 813 Leo V deposed Michael I he reinstituted official iconoclasm, but the movement’s power had been spent and it died out by the end of the reign of Theophilus, though persecution of prominent spokesmen of the Orthodox party continued, including the strange punishment of the brothers Theodore and Theophanes from Palestine, monks who were known for writing verses in praise of the Holy Icons. They had iconoclast verses branded into their foreheads with hot irons, and hence were afterwards known as the “graptoi” or “written upon”. When Theophilius died, his son and heir Michael III was only three years old and his mother Theodora was called upon to serve as regent. The council of regency had John Grammaticus (who ordered the branding of the two monks) deposed from the Patriarchal throne and arranged his replacement by Methodius. A synod was convened in March 843 to restore the icons, which council is commemorated annually on the first Sunday of Lent as the Feast of Orthodoxy.
Anyway, when I as a Prod was reading these descriptions (and I have barely scratched the surface of the things that were done to defenders of the icons) of this controversy, I was baffled. Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites, these controversies I could comprehend. They were directly theological and concerned the very question of who Christ is and the meaning of the Trinity. This passionate fight over what appeared to be a quite trivial issue, I could not understand.
Then I discovered a small book entitled “Byzantine Theology”. I would describe it as a historical approach to theology. It covered the great Christological heresies, iconoclasm, Byzantine soteriology and theology of man, and eschatology. Very fascinating stuff and approached as much from a historical as from a theological standpoint. I had no idea at the time that John Meyendorf (sp?) was Fr. John, a highly respected Orthodox theologian. I was interested in it as a historian. Yet, as I read the discussion of the Iconoclastic controversy, I could not help but be fascinated. The implications of iconoclasm were deeply theological, Christological, and thus ultimately soteriological. Fr. John quoted a figure mentioned peripherally in the histories, a monk from Syria known only as John of Damascus. It’s rather nearly impossible to discuss the topic without quoting him, as his writings, produced out of the reach of the Iconoclastic Emperors, were the intellectual basis of the Orthodox opposition to iconoclasm.
At that point, I did not know what I was. I knew what I was not. But from the time I acceded to the Orthodox position on the veneration of Holy Icons, whether I realized it or not, I was firmly set on the path that would lead me home, to the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Thus, as St. John of Damascus was used by the Holy Spirit to deeply influence my journey, I venerate him as the saint whose name I bear.
I offer a few fragments from part I of the Apologia Against Those Who Decry Holy Images, with convenient citations for scriptural quotes and allusions. Note also that ‘lateria’ is sometimes left untranslated, but is also the word translated adoration. The more general term worship is ‘proskynesis’.
“In this way God spoke of old to the patriarchs through the prophets, and lastly, through His only-begotten Son, on whose account He made the ages. He says, "This is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou didst send." (Jn 17.3) I believe in one God, the source of all things, without beginning, uncreated, immortal, everlasting, incomprehensible, bodiless, invisible, uncircumscribed, without form. I believe in one supersubstantial being, one divine Godhead in three entities, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and I adore Him alone with the worship of latreia. I adore one God, one Godhead but three Persons, God the Father, God the Son made flesh, and God the Holy Ghost, one God. I do not adore creation more than the Creator, but I adore the creature created as I am, adopting creation freely and spontaneously that He might elevate our nature and make us partakers of His divine nature. Together with my Lord and King I worship Him clothed in the flesh, not as if it were a garment or He constituted a fourth person of the Trinity--God forbid. That flesh is divine, and endures after its assumption. Human nature was not lost in the Godhead, but just as the Word made flesh remained the Word, so flesh became the Word remaining flesh, becoming, rather, one with the Word through union. Therefore I venture to draw an image of the invisible God, not as invisible, but as having become visible for our sakes through flesh and blood. I do not draw an image of the immortal Godhead. I paint the visible flesh of God, for it is impossible to represent a spirit, how much more God who gives breath to the spirit.”
“Speaking theologically, it is given to us to avoid superstitious error, to be with God in the knowledge of the truth, to worship God alone, to enjoy the fullness of His knowledge. We have passed the stage of infancy, and reached the perfection of manhood. We receive our habit of mind from God, and know what may be imaged and what may not. The Scripture says, "You have not seen the likeness of Him." (Ex. 33.20) What wisdom in the law-giver. How depict the invisible? How picture the inconceivable? How give expression to the limitless, the immeasurable, the invisible? How give a form to immensity? How paint immortality? How localise mystery? It is clear that when you contemplate God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, you will be able to clothe Him with the human form. When the Invisible One becomes visible to flesh, you may then draw a likeness of His form. When He who is a pure spirit, without form or limit, immeasurable in the boundlessness of His own nature, existing as God, takes upon Himself the form of a servant in substance and in stature, and a body of flesh, then you may draw His likeness, and show it to anyone willing to contemplate it. Depict His ineffable condescension, His virginal birth, His baptism in the Jordan, His transfiguration on Thabor, His all-powerful sufferings, His death and miracles, the proofs of His Godhead, the deeds which He worked in the flesh through divine power, His saving Cross, His Sepulchre, and resurrection, and ascent into heaven. Give to it all the endurance of engraving and colour. Have no fear or anxiety; worship is not all of the same kind. Abraham worshipped the sons of Emmor, impious men in ignorance of God, when he bought the double cave for a tomb. (Gen. 23.7; Acts 7.16) Jacob worshipped his brother Esau and Pharao, the Egyptian, but on the point of his staff. (Gen 33.3) He worshipped, he did not adore. Josue and Daniel worshipped an angel of God; (Jos. 5.14) they did not adore him. The worship of latreia is one thing, and the worship which is given to merit another. Now, as we are talking of images and worship, let us analyse the exact meaning of each. An image is a likeness of the original with a certain difference, for it is not an exact reproduction of the original."
“Holy Scripture clothes in figure God and the angels, and the same holy man explains why. When sensible things sufficiently render what is beyond sense, and give a form to what is intangible, a medium would be reckoned imperfect according to our standard, if it did not fully represent material vision, or if it required effort of mind. If, therefore, Holy Scripture, providing for our need, ever putting before us what is intangible, clothes it in flesh, does it not make an image of what is thus invested with our nature, and brought to the level of our desires, yet invisible? A certain conception through the senses thus takes place in the brain, which was not there before, and is transmitted to the judicial faculty, and added to the mental store. Gregory, who is so eloquent about God, says that the mind, which is set upon getting beyond corporeal things, is incapable of doing it. For the invisible things of God since the creation of the world are made visible through images. (Rom. 1.20) We see images in creation which remind us faintly of God, as when, for instance, we speak of the holy and adorable Trinity, imaged by the sun, or light, or burning rays, or by a running fountain, or a full river, or by the mind, speech, or the spirit within us, or by a rose tree, or a sprouting flower, or a sweet fragrance.”
“Worship is the symbol of veneration and of honor. Let us understand that there are different degrees of worship. First of all the worship of latreia, which we show to God, who alone by nature is worthy of worship. When, for the sake of God who is worshipful by nature, we honor His saints and servants, as Joshua and Daniel worshipped an angel, and David His holy places, when be says, "Let us go to the place where His feet have stood." (Ps. 132.7) Again, in His tabernacles, as when all the people of Israel adored in the tent, and standing round the temple in Jerusalem, fixing their gaze upon it from all sides, and worshipping from that day to this, or in the rulers established by Him, as Jacob rendered homage to Esau, his elder brother, (Gen. 33.3) and to Pharaoh, the divinely established ruler. (Gen. 47.7) Joseph was worshipped by his brothers. (Gen. 50.18) I am aware that worship was based on honor, as in the case of Abraham and the sons of Emmor. (Gen. 23.7) Either, then, do away with worship, or receive it altogether according to its proper measure.”
“Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, 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 honoring 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 honor 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 Sepulcher, the source of our resurrection: was it not matter? Is not the most holy book of the Gospels matter? Is not the blessed table matter which gives us the Bread of Life? Are not the gold and silver matter, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made? 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, honoring God and His friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing is that which God has made. This is the Manichean heresy. That alone is despicable which does not come from God, but is our own invention, the spontaneous choice of will to disregard the natural law,--that is to say, sin. If, therefore, you dishonor and give up images, because they are produced by matter, consider what the Scripture says: And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Behold I have called by name Beseleel, the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Juda. And I have filled him with the spirit of God, with wisdom and understanding, and knowledge in all manner of work. To devise whatsoever may be artificially made of gold, and silver, and brass, of marble and precious stones, and variety of wood. And I have given him for his companion, Ooliab, the son of Achisamech, of the tribe of Dan. And I have put wisdom in the heart of every skilful man, that they may make all things which I have commanded thee." (Ex. 31.1-6) And again: "Moses said to all the assembly of the children of Israel: This is the word the Lord hath commanded, saying: Set aside with you first fruits to the Lord. Let every one that is willing and hath a ready heart, offer them to the Lord, gold, and silver, and brass, violet, and purple, and scarlet twice dyed, and fine linen, goat's hair, and ram's skins died red and violet, colored skins, selim-wood, and oil to maintain lights and to make ointment, and most sweet incense, onyx stones, and precious stones for the adorning of the ephod and the rational. Whosoever of you is wise, let him come, and make that which the Lord hath commanded." (Ex. 35.4-10) See you here the glorification of matter which you make inglorious. What is more insignificant than goat's hair or colors? Are not scarlet and purple and hyacinth colors? Now, consider the handiwork of man becoming the likeness of the cherubim. How, then, can you make the law a pretence for giving up what it orders? If you invoke it against images, you should keep the Sabbath, and practice circumcision. It is certain that "if you observe the law, Christ will not profit you. You who are justified in the law, you are fallen from grace." (Gal. 5.2-4) Israel of old did not see God, but "we see the Lord's glory face to face." (II Cor. 3.18)”
“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 honor 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 honor 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, "Honoring the image leads to the prototype." If you raise churches to the saints of God, raise also their trophies. The temple of old was not built in the name of any man. The death of the just was a cause of tears, not of feasting. A man who touched a corpse was considered unclean, (Num. 19.11) even if the corpse was Moses himself. But now the memories of the saints are kept with rejoicings. The dead body of Jacob was wept over, whilst there is joy over the death of Stephen. Therefore, either give up the solemn commemorations of the saints, which are not according to the old law, or accept images which are also against it, as you say. But it is impossible not to keep with rejoicing the memories of the saints. The Holy Apostles and Fathers are at one in enjoining them. From the time that God the Word became flesh He is as we are in everything except sin, and of our nature, without confusion. He has deified our flesh for ever, and we are in very deed sanctified through His Godhead and the union of His flesh with it. And from the time that God, the Son of God, impassible by reason of His Godhead, chose to suffer voluntarily He wiped out our debt, also paying for us a most full and noble ransom. We are truly free through the sacred blood of the Son pleading for us with the Father. And we are indeed delivered from corruption since He descended into hell to the souls detained there through centuries (I Pet. 3.19) and gave the captives their freedom, sight to the blind, (Mt. 12.29) and chaining the strong one. He rose in the plenitude of His power, keeping the flesh of immortality which He had taken for us. And since we have been born again of water and the Spirit, we are truly sons and heirs of God. Hence St Paul calls the faithful holy; (I Cor. 1.2) hence we do not grieve but rejoice over the death of the saints. We are then no longer under grace, (Rom. 6.14) being justified through faith, (Rom. 5.1) and knowing the one true God. The just man is not bound by the law. (I. Tim. 1.9) We are not held by the letter of the law, nor do we serve as children, (Gal. 4.1) but grown into the perfect estate of man we are fed on solid food, not on that which conduces to idolatry. The law is good as a light shining in a dark place until the day breaks. Your hearts have already been illuminated, the living water of God's knowledge has run over the tempestuous seas of heathendom, and we may all know God. The old creation has passed away, and all things are renovated. The holy Apostle Paul said to St Peter, the chief of the Apostles: "If you, being a Jew, live as a heathen and not a Jew, how will you persuade heathens to do as Jews do?" (Gal. 2.14) And to the Galatians: "I will bear witness to every circumcised man that it is salutary to fulfil the whole law." (Gal. 5.3)”
Thou wast a holy instrument
And a tuneful harp of Godliness.
Thy teachings shone forth to the ends of the world, O righteous John.
We pray thee to entreat Christ our God to grant us his great mercy.
Let us praise the illustrious hymnographer John
Teacher of the Church and champion against her enemies.
For armed with the weapons of the Lord’s Cross,
He has banished the errors of heresy.
He fervently intercedes with God who grants forgiveness to all.