GENERAL AUDIENCE OF 5/6/09
At his Wednesday General Audience, the Holy Father spoke about St. John Damascene in his catechetical cycle on the great Christian writers of the Middle Ages.
Here is how he synthesized it in English:
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.
At the close of his multilingual greetings,the Holy Father delivered a special message in English to the Peoples of the Holy Land whom he will be visiting soon:
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.
ST. JOHN DAMASCENE
I am sorry to be very late with my posts for 5/6/09, which will also necesssarily be fewer. I underrwent a minor medical procedure today, but I had a severe reaction to light anesthesia which rendered me completly unable to even sit up for the rest of the day (I am still assailed by a terrible malaise that ;eaves me half-functional).
Dear brothers and sisters,
I wish to speak today of John Damascene, a personage of the first order in the history of Byzantine theology, and a great Doctor in the history of the Universal Church.
He is above all an eyewitness of the passage from Greek and Syriac Christian culture, which prevailed in the Oriental part of the Byzantine Empire, to the culture of Islam, which found its way through military conquests in the territory generally known as the Middle East or the Near East.
John, born to a rich Christian family pf Damascus, assumed as a young man the economic responsibility - perhaps aided by his father - for the caliphate. Soon, however, dissatisfied with life at court, the choice of monastic life matured in him, and he entered the Monastery of St. Saba near Jerusalem. That was around the year 700.
Mover once going far afield from the monastery, he dedicated himself to asceticism add literary activity, not disdaining some pastoral activity, of which his numerous homilies give abundant proof.
His liturgical commemoration is marked on December 4. Pope Leo XIII proclaimed him a Doctor of the Universal Church in 1890.
He is best remembered in the Orient for the three Discourses against those who calumniated sacred images, which would be condemned after his death by the iconoclastic Council of Hieria (754).
These discourses were also the fundamental reason for his rehabilitation and canonization by the orthodox Fathers who met in the Second Council of Nicaea (787), the seventh of the Church's ecumenical councils.
In these texts it is possible to trace the first important theological attempts to legitimize the veneration of sacred images, linking them to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
John Damascene was, moreover, among the first to distinguish, in the public and private worship of Christians, between adoration (latreia) and veneration (proskynesis): Adoration can only be addressed to God, who is supremely spiritual, while veneration can make use of an image to address him/her who is represented by the image.
Obviously, the saint cannot in any way be identified with the material of which the image is made. This distinction soon showed itself to be very important for the Christian response to those who maintained that the severe prohibition in the Old Testament against the worship of images was universal and for always.
This was also greatly discussed in the Islamic world, which accepted the Jewish tradition of the complete exclusion of images from ritual worship.
Christians, however, in this respect, had considered the problem and found a justification for venerating images. The Damascene wrote:
In other times, God was never represented in images, since he is incorporeal and without a face. But since God has now been seen in the flesh and has lived among men, I represent what is visible of God.
I do not venerate the material, but the creator of that material, who became material for me and who deigned to live in the world of material things and to work out my salvation through material things.
Therefore I will not cease to venerate the matter through which salvation came to me. But not absolutely as God! How can anything which receives its existence from nothing be God?... Nevertheless, I venerate ndn respect the rest of the matter that has obtained salvation for me, as something full of holy energies and graces.
Is not the wood of the thrice-blessed Cross matter?... Are not the ink and the most holy paper of the Gospels matter? Is not the salvific altar which offers us the Bread of Life matter?... And above all things, are not the Flesh and Blood of my Lord matter?
One would have to deny the sacred character of all this, or concede to the tradition of the Church which venerates the images of God and not the friends of God who are sanctified by the name they bear, and for this reason, are inhabited by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Therefore, do not offend matter: it is not to be deprecated because nothing that God has made is deprecable." (Contra imaginum calumniatores, I, 16, ed. Kotter, pp. 89-90).
We see then that because of the Incarnation, matter appears divinized - it is seen as God's dwelling. This is a new vision of the world and of material realities. God became man, and flesh truly became the dwelling of God, whose face shines on us in the human face of Christ.
That is why the arguments of this Oriental Doctor of the Church are still of extreme relevance today. Matter receive the greatest of honors in the Incarnation, being able to become, in the faith, the sign and effective Sacrament of man's encounter with God.
Thus, John Damascene remains a privileged witness for the worship of icons which would become one of the most distinctive aspects of Oriental theology and spirituality even today.
It is a form of worship that belongs only to the Christian faith, to the faith in that God who became flesh and made himself visible. Thus, St. John Damascene's teaching finds its place in the tradition of the Universal Church, whose sacramental doctrine allows material elements from nature to become objects of worship through grace, by virtue of invoking the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) while confessing one's true faith.
Linked to these fundamental ideas, John Damascene likewise situates the veneration of the relics of saints, based on the conviction that Christian saints, having taken part in the resurrection of Christ, cannot simply be considered 'dead'.
Enumerating, for instance, those whose relics or images are worthy of veneration, John specifies in his third Discourse in defense of images: "Above all (we venerate) those among whom God has dwelt in holiness (cfr Is 57,15), like the Holy Mother of God and all the saints. It is they who, as much as possible, made themselves similar to God through their will and God's indwelling and help, who can truly be called 'gods' (cfr Ps 82,6 - "I have said 'you are gods'"). not by nature, but by contingency, just as the red-hot iron is called fire, not by nature but by contingency and by participating in the fire. In fact, God says: ]Be holy, for I am holy' (L 19,2)." (III, 33, col. 1352 A).
After a series of citations like these, the Damascene could serenely deduce: "God, who is good and superior to every goodness, was not content with contemplating himself, but wished that there may be beings endowed by him who could participate in his goodness: and that is why he created all things visible and invisible, including man, out of nothing - visible and invisible realities.
And he did this, thinking and realizing a being capable of thought (ennoema ergon), enriched by language ((logoi sympleroumenon) and oriented towards the spirit (pneumati teleioumenon)" (II, 2, PG 94, col. 865A).
To further clarify this thought, he adds: "One must allow oneself to be filled with wonder (thaumazein) at all the works of Providence
(tes pronoias erga), to praise and accept everything, overcoming the temptation to identify only those aspects which to many seem unjust or iniquitous, admitting instead that God 's plan (pronoia) goes far beyond man's cognitive and comprehensive capacities (agnoston kai akatalepton), while on the contrary, only He knows our thoughts, our actions and even our future" (II, 29, PG 94, col. 964C).
Plato had said that all philosophy begins with wonder: even our faith begins with the wonder of creation, the beauty of God made visible.
The optimism of natural contemplation (physikè theoria), of seeing in creation the good, the beautiful, and the true - this Christian optimism is not ingenuous: it takes into account the injury to human nature made by the freedom of choice given by God and imporoperly used by man, with all its consequences in widespread disharmony.
From this derives the exiegency, clearly preceived by the theologian from Damascus, that Nature in which God's beauty and goodness are reflected had been wounded by our sin, "was reinforced and renewed' by the dsecent of the Son of God into flesh, after which - in many ways and in different occasions - God himself has sought to demonstrate that he created man not only into 'being' but also into 'well being' (cfr La fede ortodossa, II, 1, PG 94, col. 981°).
With passionate transport, John explains: "It was neceessary that nature should be reinforced and renewed, and that the path of virtue(didachthenai aretes hodòn) be indicated and concretely taught, the path that keeps us clear of corruption and leads to eternal life... Thus, the great ocean of God's love for man (philanthropias pelagos) appears on the horizon of history ."
He continues: "He imself, the Creator and the Lord, fought for his creature, transmitting his example to him through his teaching... And thus, the Son of God, although subsisting in the form of God, brought down the heavens and descended... to be among his servants... fulfilling the newest thing of all, the only thing truly new under the sun, through which the infinte power of God was demonstrated in fact. (III, 1. PG 94, coll. 981C-984B).
We can imagine the comfort and the joy that these words - rich with such fascinating images - left in the hearts of the faithful.
We too should listen today, sharing the same sentiments of Christians in that time: God wishes to dwell in us, he wishes to renww nature through our conversion; he wants us to participate in his divinity.
May the Lord help us to make these words the substance of our life.
[Edited by TERESA BENEDETTA 5/7/2009 8:37 AM]