The words of a hymn we sing on Easter, “COME, YE FAITHFUL, RAISE THE STRAIN,” flowed from the pen of John of Damascus (@675-749). His lyrics are energetic and visceral, combining images from both Exodus and the Gospels. In this song of “triumphant gladness,” the Hebrew people, once in captivity, are led across the Red Sea to freedom, and Christ, like a sun held in a winter of darkness and death, bursts from his tomb.
The tune, “St. Kevin,” was composed by Arthur Sullivan, best known for his collaboration with W. S. Gilbert and such musical treats as “Three Little Maids from School Are We” and other comic opera crowd-pleasers.
JOHN OF DAMASCUS
‘Tis the spring of souls today; Christ hath burst his prison,
and from three days’ sleep in death as a sun hath risen;
all the winter of our sins, long and dark, is flying
from his light, to whom we give laud and praise undying.
John experienced his own resurrection as he approached old age. Born into luxury and well educated, he inherited his Christian father’s position as chief councillor to the Caliph, the local Moslem ruler in Damascus.
In his mid-60s, John had a major run-in with the Byzantine Emperor, who opposed all Christian art as idolatrous. Riots broke out in the streets between Christians who wanted images in church those those who didn’t. Weary of endless conflict, John wrote a defense of icons, gave away everything he had to the poor, then left Damascus with his brother Cosmas (sometimes spelled Kosmas and not to be confused with his beloved tutor, an ex-slave also named Cosmas).
THE “GOLDEN STREAM” AT MAR SABA
John followed his heart to Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Judean wilderness not far from Jerusalem, where, like the other monks, he lived in a cave built into canyon walls.
In the desert, John was nicknamed the “Golden Stream,” perhaps because he tapped into the stream of his imagination.
He become a Renaissance man before the Renaissance, exploring music, art, science, philosophy, theology, and poetry. He codified Byzantine music and worked to preserve ancient art. He also began composing hymns and is remembered as the greatest of the Greek Church poets.
THE LEGEND OF JOHN AND THE VIRGIN MARY
When John wrote a hymn for the funeral of a fellow monk’s beloved brother, he was reprimanded for failing to get permission first from an elder. As punishment, John was told never to write another hymn.
According to one legend, the Virgin Mary interceded. She appeared to the elder in a dream, admonishing him, “Why have you sealed the spring of fresh water for which the whole world is thirsty? Let it pour freely and comfort those in need. Let John praise God through his songs.” The elder rushed to kneel at John’s side and beg forgiveness.
John began writing hymns again, and the rest, as they say, is history.
TO GO DEEPER
~ Music and lyrics on Hymnary.org:
~ One version of the story.
~ Background and photos of Mar Saba today at Biblewalks.com
Sung by The Anglican Chorale, Christ Church Cathedral, Bahamas
Tour of Mar Saba Monastery