St. John was born in Damascus around the year 680 into a Christian family. His father was well-respected in the city since he served the Muslim caliph as a high-ranking financial official. Thus, St. John received an exceptional education that included studying Christian, classical Greek, and Muslim texts. He was fluent in Arabic and Greek and easily absorbed anything he was exposed to from his various areas of study such as astronomy and music. In fact, in his later life, he would go on to produce a number of well-known pieces of hymnography including the Paschal Canon!
Despite growing up in a Muslim society, St. John remained steadfast in the faith. This was a direct result of his parents’ commitment to Christ and the guidance of the monk Cosmas, who was ransomed by St. John’s father from captivity to tutor his sons. Upon his father’s death, St. John assumed his position in the Damascene court as city prefect. However, only a few years into his service in 726, he stepped down to become a monk at the Mar Saba monastery in Palestine.
In his new role, St. John had the unique opportunity to prayerfully defend the Orthodox faith in a number of ways when it was most needed. Muslim society did not force Christians and Jews to convert to Islam, but conversion opened doors and allowed people to be exempt from the Jizya tax. Further, the Islamic faith presented an explanation of Jesus as a prophet for Jews and a compromise for Christians who were uncomfortable with the idea of God becoming man through Christ. In response to these worrying trends, St. John authored a 3-part defense of Christianity which included one of the first philosophical defenses of the faith. The unique thing about this defense was the insight St. John’s deep knowledge of the Christian faith, the Muslim faith, and many other relevant topics provided him. He was able to address the Quran directly and provide a Christian response to the increasingly popular religion of the day.
A few years before St. John became a monastic, Leo III was instated as Byzantine emperor. He took a deep interest in involving himself in church matters, and one of his adopted stances was the belief that icon veneration invited sinful idol worship into the Christian life and that the Byzantine empire’s recent misfortunes were due to this practice. He formalized this view in the form of a royal edict in 726. As part of the pushback against the heretical Iconoclast movement, St. John authored a series of 3 treatises in defense of the veneration of icons. Since he was not under Byzantine jurisdiction, Emperor Leo forged a letter supposedly written by the saint to the emperor, offering his help in overthrowing the Muslim Caliphate in Damascus. When the letter was intercepted, St. John was thrown into prison and had his right hand cut off. Our Tradition holds that the Theotokos miraculously restored the saint’s hand, which caused the caliph to repent and release St. John from prison.
Following these events, St. John entered the monastery of Saint Savva as a novice and led an ascetic lifestyle, completely humbling himself in spite of his renowned background. He spent much of his later life producing spiritual books and hymns, which still nourish us as Christians today. St. John remained humble and steadfast in his faith throughout his life despite his impressive education and harsh trials. He provides us with an example of how we can live in a world that goes against our beliefs and values, yet not conform to it. Christ can and will give us the strength if we truly desire to do so, just as he did for St. John.
Feast Day: December 4
How can St. John of Damascus intercede for us?
During our time as college students, we are surrounded with opportunity and flooded with ideas of what our future can be. St. John of Damascus was also faced with many opportunities possessing a background as a government official, scholar, musician, poet, and apologist among other things. He could have pursued many different paths, but the key is that he maintained his focus on Christ and proclaimed the Truth of our faith without fear of the consequences. He lived in a Muslim society but remained ardently Christian.
In every Christian’s life and especially college students, we have to process many different ideas thrown at us and make sense of them in the context of our faith. St. John can intercede on our behalf so that we might have the wisdom to discern what is right and wrong and the courage to stand up for the Truth. In this way, we can strive to follow St. John’s example and remain close to Christ, regardless of the choices we make in life.
Because of his great contributions to Christian hymnography, St. John is also regarded as the saint we can pray to for help in the study of church music. Pray to Christ for us, St. John, that we may always use our talents to glorify God and we may have the wisdom and courage to remain steadfast in the Truth.
- As one of the great Christian apologists of his time, St. John was unafraid to speak the Truth in a tolerant yet opposing society. What are some ways we can be keepers of the Truth like St. John on campus and everywhere? Are these things easy/comfortable to do and why or why not?
- In his piece An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, St. John says, “He who longs always after God, he seeth Him: for God is in all things.” The saint longed after God to the point of becoming a monastic, but he maintained this commitment even during the parts of his life when he was surrounded by opposing views or hardship. Why is it difficult to see God in every situation even when we know we want to serve Him? What action/commitment will you take today to remain as committed to the Faith as St. John?
Learn his troparion.
Champion of Orthodoxy, teacher of purity and of true worship,
The enlightener of the universe and the adornment of hierarchs:
All-wise father John, your teachings have gleamed with light upon all things.
Intercede before Christ God to save our souls.
Pray with him.
From a passage in the Divine Office by St. John of Damascus
Lord, you led me from my father’s loins and formed me in my mother’s womb. You brought me, a naked babe, into the light of day, for nature’s laws always obey your commands.
By the blessing of the Holy Spirit, you prepared my creation and my existence, not because man willed it or flesh desired it, but by your ineffable grace. The birth you prepared for me was such that it surpassed the laws of our nature. You sent me forth into the light by adopting me as your son and you enrolled me among the children of your holy and spotless Church.
You nursed me with the spiritual milk of your divine utterances. You kept me alive with the solid food of the body of Jesus Christ, your only-begotten Son and our God; you let me drink from the chalice of his life-giving blood, poured out to save the whole world.
You loved us, O Lord, and gave up your only-begotten Son for our redemption. And he undertook the task willingly and did not shrink from it. Indeed, he applied himself to it as though destined for sacrifice, like an innocent lamb. Although he was God, he became man, and in his human will, became obedient to you, God his Father, unto death, even death on a cross.
In this way you have humbled yourself, Christ my God, so that you might carry me, your stray sheep, on your shoulders. You let me graze in green pastures, refreshing me with the waters of orthodox teaching at the hands of your shepherds. You pastured these shepherds, and now they in turn tend your chosen and special flock. Now you have called me, Lord, by the hand of your bishop to minister to your people. I do not know why you have done so, for you alone know that. Lord, lighten the heavy burden of the sins through which I have seriously transgressed. Purify my mind and heart. Like a shining lamp, lead me along the straight path. When I open my mouth, tell me what I should say. By the fiery tongue of your Spirit make my own tongue ready. Stay with me always and keep me in your sight.
Lead me to pastures, Lord, and graze there with me. Do not let my heart lean either to the right or to the left, but let your good Spirit guide me along the straight path. Whatever I do, let it be in accordance with your will, now until the end.