On the First Sunday of Lent, the Greeks keep one of their greatest solemnities, that of Orthodoxy. The Church of Constantinople has passed through a cycle of heresies on the dogma of the Incarnation. It rejected successively the consubstantiality of the Word (Arianism), the unity of Person in Jesus Christ (Nestorianism), and the integrity of His two natures (Monophysitism). It seemed as though there were nothing left for heretical emperors and patriarchs to deny. Yet there was one more error to proclaim before the measure of false teaching was filled.
Christ enthroned in Heaven could not be belittled, but His images might be proscribed on earth. Heresy was powerless to touch the King even in these pictorial representations, but schism could at least shake off the yoke of His Vicar, and this last denial rolled the stone to the door of a tomb which the Crescent (Islamism) was one day to seal.
The heresy of the Iconoclasts or Image-breakers represents the last phase of Eastern error with regard to the Incarnation of the Son of God. It was right that the feast which commemorates the restoration of the holy Images should receive the glorious name of the Feast of Orthodoxy. It celebrates the last blow struck at Byzantine dogma, and recalls all those delivered by the councils of the Church between the First and Second of Nicea. A peculiar solemnity was given to this feast by the fact that all the anathemas formulated in previous times against the adversaries of revealed truth were renewed in the Church of Sancta Sophia while the Cross and the holy Images were exalted in triumph and the emperor stood at his throne.
Satan, the sworn foe of the Word Incarnate, showed clearly that he looked upon the doctrine of the Iconoclasts as his last resource. There is no heresy which has caused more martyrdoms or more destruction. Nero and Diocletian seemed to be reincarnate in the baptised emperors who defended it: Leo the Isaurian, Constantine Copronymus, Leo the Armenian, Michael the Stammerer and his son Theophilus. The edicts of persecution, published in defense of the idols of former times, were renewed for the destruction of the "idolatry" which was falsely said to be defiling the Church.
In the early days of the heresy, St. Germanus of Constantinople reminded Leo the Isaurian that Christians do not adore images, but give them a relative honor, which is due to the persons of the Saints whom they represent. The imperial pontiff replied by sending the Patriarch into exile. The soldiers, whom the emperor charged to carry out his will, gave themselves up to the pillage of churches and private houses. On all sides venerated statues fell under the hammer of the destroyer. Mural paintings were covered with chalk, vestments and sacred vessels mutilated and destroyed on account of images in embroidery or enamel. Masterpieces of art, which had nourished the devotion of the people, were publicly burned, and the artists who dared to represent Christ, Our Lady, or the Saints, were themselves subjected to fire and torture together with those of the faithful who had not been able to restrain their sorrow at the sight of such destruction. The "shepherds" bowed beneath the storm and yielded to regrettable compromises, and the reign of terror was soon supreme over the deserted flock.
But the noble family of St. Basil, both monks and consecrated virgins, rose en masse to withstand the tyrant. They passed through exile, imprisonment, starvation, scourging, death by drowning and the sword, but they saved the tradition of ancient art and the faith of their ancestors. The whole Order seems personified in the holy monk and painter Lazarus, who was first tempted by flattery and threats, then tortured and put in chains. It was impossible to repress him. His hands were burned with red-hot plates, but he still continued to exercise his art for the love of the Saints, for the sake of his brethren, and for God, and he outlived his persecutors.
The heresy of the Iconoclasts helped, moreover, the temporal independence of the Roman pontiffs, for when the Isaurian threatened to enter Rome and destroy the statue of St. Peter, all Italy rose to repel the invasion of these new barbarians, defend the treasures of her basilicas and withdraw the Vicar of Christ from the yoke of Byzantium.
It was a glorious period, 120 years, comprising the reigns of great Popes, from St. Gregory II, to St. Paschal I. In the history of the Eastern Church it begins with St. John Damascene, who saw the opening of the conflict, and ends with Theodore the Studite, whose indomitable firmness secured the final triumph. For many centuries this period, which gave so many Saints to the Greek Calendar, was unrepresented in the Latin Liturgy. The feast of today was added by Pope Leo XIII in 1892, and now St. John Damascene, the servant of Our Lady, the monk whose excellent doctrines won for him the name of Golden Stream, commemorates in the Western cycle the heroic struggle in which the East rendered such glorious services to the Church and to the world.
It will be well to give a short summary of the definitions by which in the 8th and the 16th centuries the Church has avenged the holy Images from the attacks made on them by Hell. The Second Council of Nicea declares that: "It is lawful to place in churches, in frescoes, in pictures, on vestments and the sacred vessels, images, whether painted or mosaic or of other suitable material, representing Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Our Most Pure Lady, the Holy Mother of God, the Angels and the Saints; and it is equally lawful to burn incense before them and surround them with lights." "Not that we must believe that these images have any divinity or virtue of their own," says the Council of Trent against the Protestants, "or that we must put our confidence in them as the pagans did in their idols. But the honor which is given to the images is referred to Christ the prototype, to Whom, through them, all our adoration is addressed, and to the Saints whom we venerate in their portraits." This formula was originally taken word for word from St. John Damascene. The account given by the Breviary of the life of this holy Doctor is so complete that we need add nothing further:
Saint John, who received the name of Damascene from his native place, was of noble birth, and studied sacred and profane subjects at Constantinople under the monk Cosmas. When the Emperor Leo the Isaurian made a wicked attack upon the veneration of the holy Images, John, at the desire of Pope Gregory III, earnestly defended this veneration both by words and writings. By this he enkindled so great a hatred in the heart of Leo that the Emperor accused him, by means of forged letters, of treachery to the Caliph of Damascus, whom he was serving as a councillor and minister. John denied the charge, but the Caliph was deceived by it and ordered his right hand to be cut off. John implored most earnestly the help of the Blessed Virgin, and She manifested the innocence of Her servant by reuniting the hand and arm as though they had never been severed. This miracle moved John to carry out a design which he had long had in mind. He obtained, though not without difficulty, the Caliph's permission to leave him, distributed all his goods to the poor and freed all his slaves. He then made a pilgrimage to the holy places in Palestine, and at length withdrew with his teacher Cosmas to the monastery of St. Sabbas near Jerusalem, where he was ordained priest. (The icon on the left shows the severed hand of St. John Damasence.)
In the religious life he was an example of virtue to all the monks, especially in his humility and obedience. He sought for the lowest offices in the community as though they were peculiarly his own, and fulfilled them with the greatest care. When he was sent to Damascus to sell baskets made by himself, he welcomed the mockery and jests of the lowest classes in that city where he had once held the most honorable offices. He was so devoted to obedience, that not only was he ready to obey the nod of his superiors, but he never thought it right to ask the reason of any command, however strange or difficult. While practicing these virtues, he never ceased earnestly to defend the Catholic doctrine as to the honoring of the holy Images. Thus he drew upon himself the hatred and persecution of the Emperor Constantine Copronymus, as he had once done that of Leo the Isaurian, and this all the more because he freely rebuked the arrogance of these emperors, who meddled with matters concerning the Faith, and pronounced sentence on them according to their own judgment.
It is a marvel how much Saint John wrote both in prose and verse for the protection of the Faith and the enouragement of devotion. He was worthy of the high praise which was given him by the Second Council of Nicea. He was surnamed Chrysorrhoas on account of the golden streams of his eloquence. It was not only against the enemies of the holy Images that he defended the orthodox Faith, for he also stoutly oppsed the Acephali, the Monothelites and the Theopaschites. He maintained the laws and the power of the Church. He asserted the primacy of the Prince of the Apostles in eloquent words, and often called him the Pillar of the Churches, the unbroken Rock and the Teacher and Ruler of the world. His writings are not only distinguished for doctrine and learning, but have a savor of simple piety, especially when he praises the Mother of God, Whom he honored with a singular love and devotion. But the greatest praise of Saint John is that he was the first to arrange in order a complete course of theology, thus preparing the way in which St. Thomas Aquinas has so clearly dealt with the whole body of sacred doctrine. This holy man, full of days and good works, fell asleep in the peace of Christ about the year 754. Pope Leo XIII declared him to be a Doctor of the Church, and ordered his Office and Mass to be said throughout the world.
Early in his life, Our Blessed Lady Herself had foretold the teaching and the works of Saint John. She appeared to the superior, whose voice he had obeyed as that of God, and said to him, "Suffer the waters to flow, the clear sweet waters whose abundance will spread throughout the whole world, whose virtue will refresh souls athirst for knowledge and purity, whose power will stay the floods of heresy and transform them into a marvellous sweetness."
Let us Pray:
The Queen of the heavenly minstrels declared that thou, Saint John Damascene, hadst received the prophetic harp and psaltery to sing the new canticle of the Lord our God in rivalry with the Cherubim. The daughters of Jerusalem, who are the Churches, sing the death and resurrection of Christ, and thou art one of the chief cantors. Lead us from the feasts of our exile – the Pasch of time – through the Red Sea and the desert to the eternal feast where all images of earth will vanish before the realities of Heaven, where all knowledge will pass into vision, where reigns in glory the Queen who inspired thy song, Mary, the Mother of us all. Amen.
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