Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Golden-Mouthed Preacher

St John Chrysostom was born in Antioch, Syria, c. 349 C.E., of a pagan mother and a father who was a high-ranking military officer. His father died soon after he was born, and he was raised by his mother, Anthusa. Educated in the liberal arts of his time, first under a pagan teacher, Libanius, his special gift for public speaking soon became evident. While he was still a young student, in his late teens or early 20‘s, he asked to be baptized. The bishop, Meletius, then invited him to serve as lector in the local Church, for which he received the customary tonsura [hair clipping], making him a cleric. This was during a turbulent period when ordinary Christians were struggling with different ways to better understand and articulate Christ's divinity in appropriate theological language. John had aligned himself with those who professed the full divinity of Christ as expressed by the Church’s bishops at the Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325, although this put him and others at odds with the imperial government.

After his baptism, John embraced the ascetic life. Influenced by his theology teacher, Diodore of Tarsus, he chose to remain celibate throughout his life and dedicated himself to prayer, rigorous fasting and the study of Sacred Scripture, which he committed to memory. He left Antioch around 375 and lived as an ascetic in the Syrian desert for six years. He began writing on various issues of the spiritual life. His asceticism took its toll, particularly on his stomach and kidneys, and he was forced to return to Antioch. In 381 Meletius ordained him a deacon, and five years later Bishop Flavian I, Patriarch of Antioch, ordained him a presbyter/priest. For the next twelve years, along with a life of prayer and literary activity, he became an extremely popular preacher. He was gifted at interpreting Scripture in a practical way which ordinary people could understand. In his preaching, he stressed the need of reaching out to the poor and needy in charity, while he condemned the abuse of wealth and riches. At a time in the Church’s history when it was threatened both from within and without, he emphasized the need to strengthen unity among the faithful. He stressed the central mysteries of the Church's faith, mindful of the difficulties of these mysteries, while still trying to express them clearly for his audiences, both in Antioch and later also in Constantinople. John was not reluctant to address dissenters, finding that "nothing is more effective than moderation and kindliness", rather than coercion, to correct theological error.

After serving the Church in Antioch for 12 years, in 398 John was asked by the imperial court, against his will, to take the position of Archbishop of Constantinople and was ordained bishop. He remained there for five and a half years. While he was still popular with the common people, his rather rigid attitude towards the wealthy citizens and clergy won him no friends. One could argue if he was tactless or just fearless. His reforms of the clergy were particularly unwelcome. The Patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, opposed him appointment as Archbishop. Yet both by his personal words and example he try to encourage priests to live in conformity with the Gospel. He supported the monks who lived in the city and took care of their material needs, but also sought to reform their life, emphasizing their original resolve to dedicate themselves exclusively to prayer and to a life of withdrawal. Although he was bishop of the capital of the Empire, he himself took pains to avoid any ostentation or luxury and to live modestly. He was generous in distributing alms to the poor.

Every Sunday and on important feasts, John devoted himself to preaching. He tried to keep the people’s focus on the Gospel, despite their frequent applause for his eloquent preaching. He sometimes even complained that all too often the same people who applauded his homilies ignored his advice about living authentic Christian lives. He continually denounced the contrast that existed in the city between the wasteful extravagance of the rich and the indigence of the poor. He went so far as to suggest that the well-off should gather the homeless into their own homes. In the poor he saw Christ; and he invited his listeners to do and to accordingly. Understandably, he inspired displeasure, even hostility, to himself among some of the rich and politically powerful in Constantinople.
John stood out among bishops of his time for his missionary zeal, sending missionaries to spread the Gospel among those who had not yet heard it; building hospitals for the sick; and affirming that the Church's material assistance should be extended to every person in need, regardless of religious belief. 

John Chrysostom's role in the capital of the Eastern Empire obliged him to mediate in the delicate relationship between the Church and the imperial court. Many imperial officials were outraged and offended because of his firm criticism of the excessive luxury with which they surrounded themselves. His position as Metropolitan Archbishop of Constantinople also placed him in the difficult and delicate predicament of having to negotiate ecclesial issues involving other Bishops and other dioceses. He managed to get on the wrong side of Aelia Eudoxia, wife of the Eastern Emperor Arcadius, because of his comments on the extravagance of female dress, which she took personally. Eudoxia gathered an alliance of John’s enemies around her, and he was summoned to a synod in 403 where he was deposed and banished. So tumultuous was the people’s protest over this, not mention an earthquake the night of John’s arrest, which Eudoxia saw as a negative sign from God, that Arcadius promptly recalled John. John refused to back down in his public comments, and was again banished for a second time: to the Caucasus in Armenia, then to Pitiunt in the Abkhazia region of Georgia. As it turned out he never reached the latter because he died September 14, 407 at Comana in Pontus, far from his beloved people in Constantinople. His last words were said to be: “Glory be to God for all things.

From the fifth century on, Chrysostom was venerated by the entire Christian Church of the East and the West. His courageous witness in defence of the faith, his generous dedication to pastoral ministry, his eloquent preaching, as well as his concern for the sacred Liturgy soon earned him recognition as a Father and Doctor of the Church. His fame as a preacher was acknowledged already by the sixth century with the attribution of the nickname: Golden Mouthed, in Greek, chrysostomos.

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