Who is St John of Damascus?

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Saint John of Damascus, also known as John Damascene, is a prominent theologian and writer of holy hymns, and a greatly revered Father of the Orthodox Church. He was born in the latter half of the 7th century AD in Damascus, Syria, into a prominent Arab Christian family, known as Mansour, which had a leading role in the Byzantine and later Islamic administration of the area. He was extremely well educated in theology, philosophy, mathematics, music, and the Greek language. After the rise of Islam, he became a monk at St. Savva (Mar Saba) monastery in Palestine. He wrote numerous works expounding the Christian faith and defending it against heresies, particularly that of opposing the veneration of the holy icons (iconoclasm). He also wrote the first Christian account of Islam, which had recently appeared by that time. He also composed numerous religious hymns, known as troparia and canons, which are considered masterpieces and are still being used today in the services of the Orthodox Church.

“Come let us drink a new drink,
not one marvelously brought forth from a barren rock,
but a Source of incorruption,
which pours out from the tomb of Christ,
in whom we are established.”

(From the Canon of Holy Pascha, composed by St. John of Damascus).

In the biography of  St. John, the following incident is reported. Byzantine emperor Leo III, who initiated the ban on the veneration of the icons and who was opposed by St. John, made a pact with the Caliph and accused St. John, who was in the area controlled by the Caliph, of instigating treason against him. The Caliph punished St. John by cutting his right hand. St. John prayed fervently to the  Mother of God, for whom he had composed so many hymns,  to restore his hand. Miraculously his hand was indeed restored and in order to express his gratitude, St. John had a silver hand made and attached to the icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God) before whom he had prayed. That icon, shown below, came to be  known as the “Three-handed” (“Tricherousa” in Greek), and it is still preserved to this day in the Holy Monastery of Chilandar on Mount Athos.

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“All of Creation rejoices in thee,
O full of grace,
the assembly of angels and the race of men.
O sanctified Temple and spiritual Paradise,
the glory of virgins,
from whom God was incarnate and became a child,
Our God before the Ages!
He made thy body into a throne,
and thy womb He made more spacious than the Heavens.
All of Creation rejoices in thee,
O full of grace, glory to thee.”

(Hymn to the Mother of God, composed by St. John of Damascus).

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