Saint John of Damascus

December 4 is the Feast Day in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church of the man generally considered to be the last of the Fathers of the Church: Saint John Damascene.  John of Damascus was born in the year 676 and died in 754; his life spanned one of the great hinge points in the history of the world.  The classical world of Mediterranean unity that had sprung up with the poems of Homer thirteen centuries before, continued and flourished with the expansion of Greek culture, colonization, and the might of the Roman Empire which built the highways on which the Church traveled in its first great expansion was now dead.  Islam had come out of the desert four decades before John of Damascus’ birth and during his lifetime it split the Mediterranean in two, a rupture that persists to this day many long centuries later.

Saint John Damascene was a great opponent of Leo the Isaurian’s iconoclast heresy and a strong defender of the veneration of holy images but what earned him the title of last Father of the Church was his compilation of the Orthodox Faith.  In it he catalogues and summarizes the works of the Fathers and the decisions of all of the Councils of the first theologically turbulent seven centuries of the Church’s existence.  It is a marvelous summary of Christian antiquity, an era that was then at its end, and it helped to set the foundation for the maintenance of the Church in the medieval age that was at that moment being born.  Interestingly Saint John Damascene seems to regard Islam as another of the Christian heresies, a claim echoed in the twentieth century by Hilaire Belloc in The Great Heresies (I don’t receive a dime from Amazon, but this book is seriously worth reading by anyone interested in confronting the enemies of the Catholic Church).  There is much evidence I think to support the supposition that, at its beginning at least, Islam was at least greatly influenced by the anti-Trinitarian heresies that had so troubled the Greek East for the three centuries before its birth.  I will do a post on that subject at some other time.

John Damascene was a figure of some note in the court of the Ummayad caliphs in Damascus, holding the position of minister of finance for a time.  He was the last great figure of the Greek East to have gained an influence over the whole Church, East and West, and his life marked the end of an era in the history of the Church and the world.  The land of his birth is the now tortured country of Syria.  Saint John Damascene pray for us and for your native land, that its people return to the True Faith of the fathers of the fathers of their fathers.

Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary on Tuesday for the See of Antioch, for its liberty and its salvation and the restoration of its ancient position as a pillar of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome, and for the conversion of the Muslim people.

The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary

My own thoughts gleaned from others and from my own experience of offering these Mysteries.  If they are a help then take them use them where you will, and if they are a hinderance then please ignore them.

The Agony in the Garden is a poignant scene.  For it was another garden that God established for man in the first place.  The garden of paradise, and it was there that our first ancestor fell from grace into the darkness and of sin.  So now Our Lord and Savior enters another garden; in the dark of night after offering Himself to the Father for our salvation in the Cenaculum he enters the garden once more.  Except this is a garden disordered by sin.  The only thing awaiting Him in this garden are temptation and betrayal.  The temptation comes from the Tempter himself, the same who had deceived Eve so that she plucked the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and ate it.  We do not know what words passed between the enemy and Our Lord in that garden but we know that He was sorely tried, and kept praying to his Father to let that chalice pass from Him.  But, in a reversal of what Adam and Eve did, when Our Lord was tried by temptation in this terrible garden He called out to the Father for aid and then resolved to do his Will.

The Scourging at the Pillar.  The relentless tearing of Our Lord’s flesh as that bone studded whip end ripped into his skin.  This is pain that most of us cannot understand, suffered in reparation for all the times that we have sought the pleasures of the flesh that destroy our relationship with God.  It is our sins, each and every one of us both individually and as a group, that flung this whip onto his back and drew his blood.

When He was crowned with Thorns the soldiers stripped Him and dressed Him in a torn purple cloak.  They placed a reed in his hand and put on his head a crown of sharp and mangled thorns that drew yet more blood from Him and caused Him more pain, mocking his Kingship.  We did all this and we do all of this every time that we put anyone or anything above our King, and we do it all the time.  When we worship this world or its fruits then we strike Him with our fist and spit in his face.  Yet He sits there and takes and makes no move to protest.  God is Love.

He carried his Cross then, the weight of our sins, on his back after have taken such a beating.  The Jews mock Him and declare that the “have no king but Caesar (Jn. 19: 15)”, trading the God who brought them forth from Abraham’s loins, and from exile in Egypt and in Babylonia back to their land, and who had cared for them above all other peoples for a mortal man, a foreign conqueror whom the day before they had wanted to expel from their land.  Think of the enormity of what they did there, and we must remind ourselves that we are vulnerable to this same temptation every day of our lives when we choose to worship the world and ignore the Lord who bore our sins upon his back.

Our Lord then reaches the hill of Golgotha, the skull place, and is stripped, tied to those planks of wood, and nailed to his Cross.  He is then raised up before the mocking gaze of all the people just as the serpent was raised up in the desert to heal the people in the book of Numbers.  The crowd ridicules Him, feeling that this is their moment of triumph.  He is crucified between two criminals (Lk. 23: 39-43).  These two thieves, murderers, revolutionary terrorists, whatever they were represent the two segments of mankind it seems.  We are all, all of us sinners, thieves and murderers, subject to the just judgement of God. The one mocks the Lord, wants to be freed on his own terms, and dies alone; the other acknowledges his own guilt, that he deserves death (as all of us sinners truly do), declares the innocence and majesty of Christ, recognizes his Sacrifice, and is saved.  Our Lord cries out to his Father in torment and the crowd mocks Him all the more and mocks the prophet Elijah as well, but his Father hears Him.  In the end the Father’s Will is done and the sin of Adam and Eve is reversed.  Grace is born in the world.  The veil of the Holy of Holies is torn.  God no longer resides in an empty room on a hill in Palestine but comes into the whole world through the Sacrifice of his Son that gives birth to the Church.

The important thing in meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries is to remember that it is our sins that are inflicting these torments on Our Lord and to meditate accordingly.   Pray the Sorrowful Mysteries on Tuesday for the See of Antioch and on Friday for the See of Carthage, for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome and for the conversion of the Muslim peoples.