27 January 2018

His tongue a golden beacon

Archbishop Saint John Chrysostom

One of my favourite saints, the Archbishop Saint John of Constantinople whose Liturgy is celebrated regularly in every Orthodox Church I’ve yet attended, is one I’ve had yet to write about at any length on my blog, save in reference to some other point of theology or political philosophy, upon which his homiletics and other writings were relevant (as here, here, here, here and here). I hope Holy Father John will forgive me this oversight, and I don’t intend to let another one of his feast-days pass by unmarked!

Saint John the Golden-Mouthed was born in Antioch to Syrian-Greek parents. His father, Secundus, was a career soldier who died when his son was still an infant; his mother Anthusa did not remarry, but instead schooled her son at home. Anthusa herself was gifted in rhetoric and had an extensive knowledge of classical pagan literature, which she transmitted to her son along with a love of the Holy Scriptures. It was a joy to her, though not a surprise, to see her son John – apparently so similar in likeness to her late husband – take so readily to this knowledge, and seek even deeper knowledge of theology. She sent him to learn rhetoric and oratory from the great Sophist Libanios, and theology from Saint Meletios of Antioch, who loved the youth as he would an adopted son, and had him tonsured as a reader in the Church there. Later Saint John studied under the well-known Bishop Diodōros of Tarsos, who gave him instruction in the ascetic disciplines.

On the death of his mother Anthusa, John withdrew from the world and became a monk. He spent four years in the wilderness and there wrote several volumes in defence of the monastic life. His time in desert solitude took a toll on his health, however, and he was compelled to return to Antioch, where his mentor Saint Meletios made him a deacon. Some years after Saint Meletios reposed, Bishop Flavianos of Antioch had John ordained as a priest – an office which John graced with his remarkable gift for oratory and homiletics. In addition to this, he began writing exegetical commentaries on Genesis, the Gospels and the Epistles of Saint Paul, emphasising not only the spiritual dimensions of these works but also their practical applications to the lives of everyday people, with a special focus on the need for almsgiving and on the abuses of wealth and power. This populist mode of discourse made his homilies and writings wildly popular in Antioch.

During this time, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus had unexpectedly resigned his position as Archbishop of Constantinople, to the surprise and dismay of the church there. He was succeeded by Archbishop Saint Nektarios, who died in 397. Upon Saint Nektarios’ death, the consul Eutropios submitted a ballot for Saint John to be appointed as his successor, without Saint John’s knowledge or consent. When Saint John was summoned to the election, he had to leave Antioch in secret to prevent a civil disturbance; once there, he was duly appointed.

Saint John set about at once reforming the Church – holding priests to higher standards of personal conduct, refusing to host lavish parties and refusing to offer bribes to priests in outlying districts. As in Antioch, where he preached charity and railed against the affectations and sins of the wealthy, these reforms made him very popular among the lower classes but also earned him quite a few wealthy enemies and detractors. He also set a personal example, living an ascetic lifestyle and using the funds allocated to his own office and upkeep in Constantinople, to opening and funding several way-houses and shelters for pilgrims, and hospices for the sick. He did not neglect, however, the glories of the Church. The Divine Liturgy which we celebrate ordinarily on Sundays was written by Saint John the Golden-Mouthed, and the antiphonal singing was a style that was pioneered in Constantinople under Saint John’s omophor.

Saint John continued to make enemies in high places, including the Empress Eudoxia, who – according to John’s enemies at court, who were more than willing to use intrigue to turn the powerful Empress against him – figured into some of Saint John’s more polemical homilies against worldly vanity, and in particular the taste of rich women for ornamentation and outward luxury. Empress Eudoxia convened a council composed of Saint John’s enemies, both temporal and ecclesiastical, had him accused of Origenist heresy, declared him deposed and had him sentenced to death. The Emperor Arkadios had his punishment commuted, however, to exile, though Saint John refused to tone down his language in criticising the Empress. When the authorities came to place Saint John under arrest, an angry crowd gathered to prevent them from taking their beloved bishop; however, Saint John went with them willingly – again, in order to prevent a civil disturbance which he feared would turn bloody.

During this time, a series of both natural and man-made disasters – including an earthquake, a fire at the Hagia Sophia and a barbarian invasion – were interpreted by Saint John’s supporters as Heavenly proof of his innocence and vindication of his cause. Saint John himself wrote epistles pleading his case with the bishops of the West, who attempted unsuccessfully to intercede on his behalf with the Emperor. Saint John was then sent outside the Empire into the Caucasus, forced to walk through months of cold and wet weather. Having fallen ill from the journey, he died en route in the Pontus, and his last words were: ‘Glory to God for all things!

Saint John Chrysostom’s influence and legacy have been keenly felt. He was one of the most prolific saints speaking on topics of social justice, and his Homilies were read and translated as far afield as Kievan Rus’, where they no doubt had a deep impact on the unique form of caritative Christian social ethics that took root in that country. On the other hand, Saint John’s rhetorical style could also be polemical, and he wielded it to biting effect against Judaïsing Christians and homosexuals. This is a point on which his legacy comes under a great deal of scrutiny, some of it well-deserved (though certainly not all, and not in a blanket way).

In any event, the depth of his understanding; the moving power of his oratory; the keen concern he felt for the needy, the sick and the suffering; the love he had for the Church; the willingness he had to speak truth to the power of the Empress and her clique; the disposition he had to suffer rather than to do injustice – these are all things for which we rightly celebrate Saint John, who after his death was given the deserved epithet of ‘Golden-Mouthed’. Holy Father John, pray to Christ our God to have mercy upon us sinners!
Grace shining forth from your lips like a beacon has enlightened the universe.
It has shown to the world the riches of poverty;
It has revealed to us the heights of humility.
Teaching us by your words, O Father John Chrysostom,
Intercede before the Word, Christ our God, to save our souls!

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