Saint John Chrysostom

Doctor of the Church (A.D. 407)


Saint John Chrysostom's life gives us a sense of the awesome cost of Christian discipleship and of the truth that with God all things are possible. This incomparable teacher, on account of the fluency and sweetness of his eloquence, obtained the surname Chrysostom, or Golden Mouth.

His Earlier Life

He was born about the year 347 at Antioch in Syria, the only son of Secundus, commander of the imperial troops. His mother, Anthusa, who was left a widow at twenty, divided her time between the care of her family and her exercises of devotion. Her example made such an impression on her son's master that he could not forbear crying out, ``What wonderful women are found among Christians!'' Anthusa provided for John the ablest masters. Eloquence was esteemed the highest accomplishment, and John studied that art under Libanius, the most famous orator of the age; and such was his proficiency that even in his youth he excelled his masters. Libanius being asked on his deathbed who ought to succeed him in his school, ``John'', said he, ``would have been my choice, had not the Christians stolen him from us.''

According to the common custom of those days young John was not baptized till he was over twenty years old, being at the time a law student. Soon after, he suddenly turned against the teachings of Libanius and decided to become a monk. He attended a school for monks under Diodorus; and in 374 he joined a community of hermits among the mountains south of Antioch. He passed four years under the direction of an old Syrian monk called Hesychius (quietness); and it was quietness that he wanted to deaden the pain of his mother's death, to put away the temptations of Antioch, to bury forever his love of physical pleasure. Later, he decided to practice self-mortification in a cave as a solitary. He denied himself sleep, read the Bible continually and spent two years without lying down. The result was inevitable; his stomach shrivelled up and the dampness of this abode damaged his kidneys. His digestion permanently impaired, unable to doctor himself, he was obliged to come down the mountain and walk to Antioch in 381. Shortly afterward he was appointed as an acolyte and then received priesthood.

His Early Service at Antioch

The aged Bishop Flavian constituted him his preacher when he was about forty, and he remained in this office for twelve years. The instruction and care for the poor he regarded as the first obligation of all, and he never ceased in his sermons to recommend their cause and to impress on the people the duty of almsgiving. Antioch, at the time, had 100,000 Christians and as many pagans; these he fed with the word of God, preaching several days in the week, and frequently several times on the same day. He had no care in the world except that Antioch should be brought to Christ, but in the middle of his preaching came the crash of tragedy.

In the tenth year of the reign of Theodosius (the fifth of that of Arcadius his son, the same year that Saint Augustine received baptism from the hands of Saint Ambrose in Milan) Antioch rioted against a newly levied tax. The mob revolted, tore down the statues of the Emperor and waited breathless for the punishment -- the destruction of the city. In spite of his age, Bishop Flavian, a man of eighty years, set out in the worst weather and made his way through eight hundred miles of snow to Constantinople, to implore the imperial clemency for his flock and the Emperor was touched by his appeal; an amnesty was accorded to the delinquent citizens of Antioch.

During the absence of Bishop Flavian, during the Lent of 387, Saint John could not contain himself seeing the executions of the Antiochenes. He began to deliver a long series of sermons known as ``On the Statues'' in which he said very little about the statues. In those twenty one homilies, he spoke of God's mercy, how there are things far more dreadful than death or slavery, and his hope that the people should embrace death, if they had to, or life, with equal courage. He says of Flavian ``God will not suffer this errand to be fruitless. This is the holy season. This is the season when we remember how Christ died for the sins of the world. Flavian will remind the Emperor of the prayer `Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them who trespass against us.' He will bring to his memory that in this city the faithful were first called Christians by name. Let us assist him with our prayers; let us supplicate; let us make an embassy to the King who reigns above, an embassy of tears. And remember how it is written of repentant Nineveh, `God saw their works,' `They turned every one from their evil ways, and the Lord repented of the evil that he had said he would do unto them.''' Saint John kept excoriating the people for their past vices, their addiction to wealth, their love of the theatre, their sensual enjoyments. If they had lived more strictly, they would not have behaved like wild beasts, and if they were true Christians they would have not possessed this abject fear of the Emperor.

These staggering homilies delivered daily kept the flock together and hope filled the air despite the continuing tortures and imprisonment. After the storm he continued his labors with unbeaten energy, but before very long God was pleased to call him to glorify His name upon a new stage.

Archbishop of the See of Constantinople

Nectarius, Archbishop of Constantinople, died in 397, and the Emperor Arcadius, at the suggestion of Eutropius, his chamberlain, elected Saint John for the see of the city. He therefore dispatched an order to the count of the East, enjoining him to send John to Constantinople, but to do so without making the news public. The count repaired to Antioch and desiring the Saint to accompany him out of the city to the tombs of the martyrs, he there delivered him to an officer who conveyed him speedily to the imperial city. Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria, had come thither to recommend a nominee of his own for the vacancy; but he was forced to enthrone Saint John on February 26 in 398 as Patriarch of Constantinople. He who hated power was now in the seat of power. He who fought against luxury and despised the kings of this world lived in a luxurious palace close to that of the Emperor.

It was from that time that he was the unwilling victim of all those who feared his power. From this point onward he assumed the fiercer colors of Constantinople. He began to sweep Constantinople with his broom. He emptied the episcopal palace of the costly plate and furniture and sold the newly purchased marble columns and built a hospital with the money. He reformed the life of the clergy who, within three months, were up in arms against him.

After a tumultuous horse race held on Good Friday, attended by many Christians, he delivered a sermon ``Against the Games and the Theatres.'' He ridiculed the wealth of Constantinople: the marble floors dusted with gold, the rich carpets, the silver couches, the ivory doors and the golden horse bits. He objected strongly to dancing girls and singers who accompanied the bride and the bridegroom home after a Christian marriage, singing indecent songs. He objected as firmly to female mourners at funerals, wailing dirges. He spoke against slavery and on behalf of the equality of women. He must have known that the weapon would one day be turned against him for his exhortations seemed in their severity to have been lacking tact.

The Empress Eudoxia, who previously sent magnificent gifts to the churches and the poor and spent long hours listening to Saint John, turned against Saint John when he was wrongly accused of referring to her as ``Jezebel''. Knowing the sense of grievance entertained by Theophilus of Alexandria, Eudoxia, conspired with him to depose Saint John Chrysostom in 403. For three days Constantinople was in uproar, after which Saint John surrendered himself and was exiled but soon to return after an earthquake shook the city. Then again, a silver statue of the Empress was erected before the great church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), to which Saint John objected and spoke loudly against. He was deposed again two months after Easter and was banished. He spent the last three years of his life from exile to exile where his health suffered from many illnesses. He uttered his last words, ``Glory be to God for all things'', and gave up his soul to God on September 14, 407. His body was returned to Constantinople in 438 with great glory, while the Emperor Theodosius II and his sister were begging forgiveness of their parents who had so blindly persecuted the servant of God.

Samples of His Homilies

On the resurrection of the flesh he says: ``If God had not intended to raise up us again, if it was His desire that we should all be dissolved and blotted out in annihilation, He would not have wrought so many things for us. He would have not spread the heavens above, or stretched out the earth beneath. He would have not fashioned this whole universe, if it were only for the short span of our lives. The heavens and the earth and the sees and the rivers are more enduring than we are; ravens and elephants live longer, and they are more free from griefs and cares. What then? you ask. Has God made the slaves better than the masters? I beseech you, do not thus reason, O man; nor be so ignorant of the riches God spread out before you. From the beginning God desired to make thee immortal. Ah, but thou wert unwilling!''

And about the monastic life and monks he says: ``They do not demand a few hours in which to shake the sleep from their eyes. As soon as they have opened their eyes, they are like people who have been immersed in contemplation for many hours; for their brains are not chocked by an excess of food, and their hands too are pure, being composed in sleep and quietness. Among the monks, none snores or breathes hard or tosses in his bed or lies with his body exposed, but they sleep as decently as those who are awake, and all this is due to the orderly progress within their souls. These men are truly saints and angels. And do not wonder when you hear these things: their fear of God is so great that they do not suffer themselves to lose themselves in the depths of sleep and drown their minds. Sleep falls gently on them, giving them only a peaceful rest.''


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