Saint John Chrysostom was the subject of the Spiritual Reading Group session held on Tuesday 15th of September in the Carmelite Library. The following introduction was given by Bata Bardak, a regular member of the Group.
“Let us praise in song the golden trumpet, the instrument inspired by God, the inexhaustible ocean of doctrines, the support of the Church, the heavenly mind, the depth of wisdom, the mixing bowl of solid gold which pours out rivers of teachings that flow with honey and which waters creation.”
Prosomoia of the Stichera in Tone 4. As noble among Martyrs.
John Chrysostom is regarded as one of the most prominent Greek fathers. A contemporary of St Augustine (354-430) and St Jerome (c.347-420), he is recognized by both the Eastern and Western churches as a Doctor of the Church. Today his Divine Liturgy is celebrated as the regular Eucharistic service throughout the entire Eastern Christian world, but he was also an eloquent and popular preacher and public speaker who fearlessly denounced the corruption and abuse of authority by both ecclesiastical and political leaders. His extant works include over three hundreds exegetical homilies as well as other writings. The Greek epithet ‘chrysostomos’, meaning ‘the golden mouth’, is indicative of the popularity and influence of his preaching.
John was born in Antioch in c.347, the son of Greco-Syrian parents. His father was a high-ranking military officer who died shortly after his birth and he was brought up by his mother Anthusa. Some sources describe Anthusa as a pagan but it is generally agreed she was a Christian. In either case, John’s education began under the pagan teacher Libanius from whom he developed his skills in rhetoric and an interest in Greek literature. Later, as he grew older, he became a committed Christian and studied theology at the School of Antioch.
In c.375 he withdrew to a life of extreme asceticism, and according to tradition, committed the Bible to memory. However, after two years as a hermit, ill health forced him to return to Antioch where he was ordained as a deacon in 381, and as a priest in 386. During the next twelve years, from 386 to 397 he became an increasingly popular speaker at the cathedral of Antioch, known as the Golden Church. The most important works from this period are his Homilies on various Biblical texts which condemned the abuse of wealth and emphasised the importance of charitable work for the welfare of the needy.
Many of John’s sermons were delivered in series over an extended period. For example, his sermons on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man were delivered in a series of seven ‘instalments’ over many months. The congregations were given advance notice of the texts before each sermon so that they would come prepared for the topic of the day. In a sense, these sermons can be viewed as short courses comprising lectures and homework on a particular theme. Sometimes he interspersed one series of sermons with another on a different theme.
John, with his former fellow student Theodore, who later became bishop of Mopsuestia, was instrumental in developing the Antiochene tradition of understanding Scripture that emphasized the historical and literal meaning of the text and limited the use of allegorical interpretation. This was in contrast to the Alexandrian practice of allegorical interpretation developed by Origen (185-254) and his followers. John’s straightforward understanding of the Scriptures provided practical explanations of how the Scriptures could be applied to everyday life. (1)
In 397 John was appointed Archbishop of Constantinople, having been nominated without his knowledge. There are a number of accounts regarding his move to the empire’s capital. One tradition has him being kidnapped after having been lured out of Antioch on a false pretext. Another account describes him leaving Antioch in secret amidst fears that the departure of such a popular figure would cause civil unrest. What is clear is that John himself was not overjoyed by this new appointment and accepted reluctantly. His time in Constantinople was to prove tumultuous and ended in his being exiled twice, for despite his popularity with the common people he earned the ire of the wealthy and the clergy.
To appreciate John’s period in Constantinople we need to take a brief look at the complex and sometimes confusing events of the fourth century, a period in which Church-State relations underwent profound changes, and when the capital of the Empire moved from Rome to Constantinople (330 AD).
The Edict of Milan in 313, and the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity (2) transformed a persecuted sect into a privileged institution identical with state power. This transformation was received with mixed emotions that still echo today. Eusebius (c.264-340), bishop of Caesarea and early Church historian, for example, greeted Constantine with the words:
“Let the friend of the All-Ruling God be proclaimed our sole sovereign…who has modelled himself after the archetypal form of the Supreme Sovereign, whose thoughts mirror the virtuous rays by which he has been made perfectly wise, good, just, pious, courageous and God-loving”. (3)
Eusebius saw Constantine’s rule as the culmination of sacred history, identifying monarchy, the rule of one, with monotheism. Jerome (c.347-420), on the other hand, referring to the increasing worldliness of the Church of his day, comments that:
“The Church grew through persecution and was crowned through martyrdom. But since the emperors have become Christian she has become greater in riches and poorer in virtues.” (4)
Under imperial patronage, the Church grew in wealth and could now own property, build churches and participate in public life. Despite a brief set back in 361-363, when Julian the Apostate attempted to reintroduce paganism, the Church’s favourable position became firmly established within the Empire. As a result of its privileged position, the Church was seen by some as offering attractive career paths which were aggressively pursued. Eusebius tells us that some ambitious clergy even staged coups, taking over churches by night and barricading themselves inside during their illegal consecration to the episcopate. (5)
One of the first tasks Constantine set himself was to establish a uniform doctrine of Christian belief. Although general agreement on the canon of the New Testament had been reached by the fourth century, the Early Christian communities still consisted of independent Sees which differed somewhat in their teachings. The rise of Arianism in c.320, which rejected the divine nature of Jesus, threatened to divide Christians even further into warring camps. Constantine believed that a united Christianity was crucial to a united Roman Empire. In 325 he convened what was to become known as the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea. Significantly, it was the emperor, not the bishops, who took control of church affairs. The result was the Nicene Creed which was intended to define Christian belief.
However, while the bishops agreed on the wording of the Creed, they differed on the interpretation of the words, especially on the nature of Jesus. Far from uniting Christians, the outcome was to divide Christians into various factions. Today, the passions aroused by these disputes seem incomprehensible but at that time belonging to the “right” party was often more important than actually practising Christian values. A second Ecumenical Council was convened in Constantinople in 381 and the Nicene Creed was revised in an attempt to appease the various groups. Unfortunately the disputes continued and became increasingly bitter as secular political factions aligned themselves with the rivalling groups. (6)
By the late fourth century city life was fraught with dissent and rioting. On the one hand there was the growing antagonism between the different Christian groups, and, on the other, antagonism between Christians and pagans who were still in the majority. Simultaneously, the disparity between the wealth and profligacy and moral decline of the court and clergy, the overcrowding and disease amongst the refugees pouring in from the borders, and unemployment and growing taxes imposed on the citizenry, brought tensions to exploding point.
When John Chrysostom arrived in Constantinople in 397, he refused to be drawn into the lavish social life of the city and appears to have been completely underwhelmed by the emperor. He set about reforming the clergy which made him unpopular. Visiting clergy hoping to make an impression in the city, for example, were sent back to their parishes without remuneration.
He was also blunt in his attack against the abuses and hypocrisy of the wealthy.
“Do you pay such honour to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing from cold?” (7)
One can only imagine the ire with which such words were received.
Meanwhile John was enjoying immense popularity amongst the common people as a preacher as well as a founder of numerous philanthropic institutions. A recurring theme in his homilies was the emphasis on care for the poor and disadvantaged. His homilies on the Gospel of St Matthew, for example, emphasise the duty of the rich to lay aside their wealth for the poor.
John, who was born about twenty years after the first Ecumenical Council, and installed in Constantinople sixteen years after the second Ecumenical council, encountered increasingly violent rivalry between the orthodox and Monophysite factions. (8) He seems to have spent as much time dealing with the various interest groups vying for power as he did to his episcopal duties. (9) While adhering to the orthodox view on the nature of Christ, his emphasis on Christian humility and compassion rather than hair splitting doctrines earned him the respect of both factions. His Catechetical or Easter Homily is an extraordinary example of inclusiveness in the true Gospel tradition.
John often addressed the laxness of Christians who preferred popular amusements such as horseracing over their religious obligations. (10) His homilies were delivered in a direct style that could be understood by the populace. Their emphasis was on scripture rather than dogma and contained practical examples. They were recorded by stenographers and then widely circulated.
One particular enemy John made in Constantinople was in the Empress Eudoxia, wife of the Emperor Arcadius, who felt that she had been personally denounced because of her extravagant costume. He also had an enemy in Theophilus, the archbishop of Alexandria who had opposed his appointment to Constantinople. When John received four monks who had been disciplined by Theophilus for supporting Oregin’s teachings he came under further attack.
In 403, with support from Eudoxia, the so called Synod of the Oak was convened and John was summoned to answer charges. Ironically, Theophilus, who had been summoned to Constantinople to stand trial on other charges, became one of the members of the tribunal which was stacked with Egyptian bishops. John was found guilty, not on the charges laid before him, but for not having responded to the summons to attend, and he was banished from Constantinople. (11)
On the news of his exile, violent demonstrations erupted in the city and John was called back by the Emperor Arcadius almost immediately. Unfortunately his return to Constantinople was short lived. He again provoked Eudoxia’s wrath after a silver statue of her was erected near the cathedral, comparing her with Herodias raving for the head of John the Baptist. Despite protestation from Innocent I, bishop of Rome (402-417), John was exiled a second time in 404 and died at Comana in Ponus in 407. He came to be venerated as a saint shortly after his death and his remains were returned to Constantinople in 438.
John’s most widely known legacy is the Divine Liturgy which carries his name. Written c.398-404, it was initially celebrated in the Great Church in Constantinople. By the time of Justinian, in the sixth century, it was the normative liturgical form within the Byzantine Empire and by about 1,000 it was universally celebrated in all Eastern churches. There is some debate as to how much of the Liturgy was actually written by John. While it adheres closely to the West Syrian liturgical rites in use in Antioch, it was refined in Constantinople by John who revised the prayers and rubrics. The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom “reflects a highly refined aesthetic of beauty and majesty, tradition and mystery, and a highly developed theology”. (12) It reflects the work of the Cappadocian Fathers to combat heresy and define Trinitarian theology for the Christian Church. The Greek teaching of the Trinity differs from the western view of the Trinity as one God with three aspects. According to Greek teaching God is essentially incomprehensible but can become known by means of mystical experiences through the Creation, the Christ and the Holy Spirit.
A brief mention should be made of a somewhat controversial series of eight homilies delivered in Antioch in 386/7 that have been translated into English as ‘Against the Jews’ but should probably more correctly read as ‘Against Judaizing Christians’. The target group was Christians, mainly society women, who enjoyed listening to both Christian and Jewish liturgies, keeping the fasts of both traditions and observing both the Sabbath and Sundays. This group was seen as making a greater show of ritual observance over spiritual practice. These homilies were delivered in the conventional manner of utilizing an uncompromising rhetorical form, and most scholars agree that they should not be taken literally. An underlying premise is that the rabbinic tradition is subordinate to the Levitical tradition continued by the Christian priesthood. This Rabbinic-Levitical dispute actually dates back to pre-Christian times.
John Chrysostom lived through a crucial period in the history of Christianity which saw the transformation of the early church of Christ and the Apostles into an institutionalised Church aligned with imperial authority and power, vulnerable to both corruption from within and to manipulation by ambitious rulers for their own advantage. In the words of Karen Anderson, “Supremely a religion of adversity, it has never been at its best in prosperity.” (13)
Through his deep spirituality, shrewd wisdom and compassion, John remained true to the fundamental principles of Christianity in the face of incredible pressures from many sides. He played a significant role in keeping the institutional Church on a Christian path at a time when it was in danger of losing its direction. His golden mouth still speaks to this day through the celebration of the Eucharist and his surviving writings.
(1) Catherine P. Roth in John Chrysostom – On Wealth and Poverty, Creswood, N.Y., St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981. p.8
(2) It should not be overlooked that Christianity had spread well beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, and the Roman emperor was not the first to adopt Christianity. King Arsacid in Armenia converted to Christianity in 301, making Armenia the first country to officially adopt Christianity. Ethiopia and Georgia adopted Christianity shortly after.
Nira & Michael Stone – The Armenians, Dublin, Chester Beatty Library, 2007.
(3) Eusebius “Tricenial Orations” Life of Constantine (cited by Karen Anderson in Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, London, Bodley Head, 2014. p.139)
(4) St Jerome “Preface to the Vita Malchi (cited by Hermann Dörries in Constantine the Great, New York, Harper, 1972. p.201)
(5) Eusebius 6:43 (cited by Karen Anderson in Fields of Blood, (ib.id). p.149
(6) In 451 the fourth Ecumenical Council was convened in Chalcedon to try and reach a compromise but failed, resulting in a permanent rift between the orthodox and Monophysite, or Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian churches.
(7) Cited in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Chrysostom (accessed 4/22/2014)
(8) There were two important bodies of Christians in the East, the Nestorians and the Miaphysites/Monophysites, who were not in full agreement with the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon regarding the nature of Jesus.
*The Nestorians, officially “Church of the East”, (spread Christianity throughout Asia), claimed that Jesus had two distinct natures, one fully human and the other fully divine. (but did affirm the oneness of Christ).
*The Monophysites (Byzantine term), Miaphysites (their preferred term). Also called Non-Chalcedonian Churches: (also sometimes referred to as the “Jacobite” Church from 6th century), claimed that Christ is “one nature”, that one nature being both divine and human in character.
*The orthodox doctrine outlined at the Council of Chalcedon claimed that Christ had two natures in one being. Communicattio idiomatum or “exchange of properties” were terms referring to Christ’s humanity and his divinity (such as Logos) and could be applied to his human nature, and vice versa.
(9) Wendy Mayer & Pauline Allen – John Chrysostom, London, Routledge, 2000. p.8
(10) John Chrysostom: Seventh Sermon on the Parable of Lazarus and the rich man.
(11) Wendy Mayer & Pauline Allen (op.cit.)
(12) http://www.liturgica.com/html/litEOLitEarly.jsp (accessed 5/3/2015)
(13) Karen Anderson – A History of God from Abraham to the Present: The 4,000-Year Quest for God, London, Folio Society, 2014. p.120.
John Chrysostom – On Wealth and Poverty, (Translated by Catharine P. Roth), Creswood, N.Y., St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981.
John Chrysostom – Leaves from St. John Chrysostom, (Selected & translated by Mary H. Allies), 1888.
John Chrysostom – The Homilies of S. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, On the Gospel of St. Matthew, (Translated by members of the English Church), Oxford, Parker, 1851.
John Chrysostom – The Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom, Jordanville, N.Y. 2013.
John Chrysostom – The Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom, Eastern Press (Canadian Diocese), 2000.
Wendy Mayer & Pauline Allen – John Chrysostom, London, Routledge, 2000.
J. N. D. Kelly – Golden Mouth: the Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop, 1995.
Bruno H. Vandenberghe_ John of the Golden Mouth, 1958.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Chrysostom (accessed 4/22/2014)
Anne Marie B. Bahr, et al. (eds.) – Christianity: The Illustrated Guide to 2,000 Years of the Christian Faith, Elanora Heights, NSW, Millenium House, 2009.
N. H. Baynes & H. St. L. Moss (eds.) – Byzantium: An Introduction to East Roman Civilisation, Oxford University Press, 1949.
Steven Runciman – Byzantine Civilisation, London, Methuen, 1961.
Peter Brown – The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750, London, Folio Society, 2014.
Karen Anderson – Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, London, Bodley Head, 2014.
Karen Anderson – A History of God From Abraham to the Present: The 4,000-Year Quest for God, London, Heinemann, 1993.
Hermann Dörries – Constantine the Great, New York, Harper, 1972.
Ian Shevill (ed) – The Orthodox and Other Eastern Churches In Australia, Sydney, Anglican Information Office, 1975
Geoffrey Wainwright & Karen B. Westerfield Tucker (eds.) – The Oxford History of Christian Worship, Oxford University Press, 2006.
http://www.liturgica.com/html/litEOLitEarly.jsp (accessed 5/3/2015)