On December 4, we remember one of the great Fathers not only of the Antiochian Church, but of the Orthodox Church as a whole: St. John of Damascus.
St. John lived in Damascus in the late 7th-early 8th centuries, when the region was under Moslem rule. His family was held in high regard, and John succeeded his father as chief counselor to the ruling Caliph. A brilliant and well-educated Christian, he wrote in defense of the Holy Icons at a time when the Byzantine empire was in the hands of the iconoclasts – the “icon smashers” who, under Moslem influence, believed that images or depictions of God in any form fell under the Old Testament condemnation of “graven images.”
The emperor, the notorious iconoclast Leo the Isaurian, seeking to silence him, slandered John to the Caliph, forging a letter claiming to be from him in which he offered to betray the Caliph in order to enable the retaking of Damascus by the Byzantines. The Caliph believed the lie, and in retribution, removed John from his post and ordered that his right (writing) hand be cut off. In pain and in despair, John prayed to the Theotokos, and fell asleep in front of her icon – and awoke to find his hand miraculously re-attached, with only a thin red scar to show where it had been severed.
In thanksgiving, John had a small silver hand added to the base of the icon, which was henceforth known as Panaghia Tricherousa, or the Theotokos “of the Three Hands.” This wonderworking icon now resides on Mt. Athos, in the Serbian Monastery of Hilandar.
Seeing the miracle, the Caliph understood that John had been falsely accused and he forgave him, seeking to restore him to his former position. But John left the palace and his life in the world and entered the monastery of St. Sava the Sanctified in Jerusalem, where he was to spend the rest of his days. His elder was a harsh man, and would not permit him to write. One of the monks at the monastery, however, lost his brother, and begged John to write something, anything, to console him in his grief. John refused at first, but eventually took pity on him and wrote for him the funeral hymns (see p.4) we sing to this very day: “What earthly sweetness remaineth unmixed with grief?” all the way through “I weep and I wail…” His elder was furious, and as a penance, ordered John to wash out all of the toilets in the entire (huge) monastery with his bare hands. John was chastened and hurried to obey. But not long after, the Theotokos appeared to the elder in a dream and commanded him to bless John, once again, to write. And so he continued his brilliant career as a theologian and hymnographer and one of the greatest of all the church Fathers.
By his prayers, Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us!