The Golden Mouth
If the divine Paul wished to expound in the Atic tongue his own writings he would not have spoken otherwise than this famous master.
Isadore of Pelusium
Procure books that will be medicines for the soul…At least get a copy of the New Testament, the Apostle’s epistles, the Acts, the Gospels, for your constant teachers.
John Chrysostom is perhaps the best known and most widely quoted preacher from the eastern fathers. His very name is testimony to the high regard for his work, Chrysostom is Greek for “Golden Mouth.” His sermons were wildly popular, people from all walks of life came to Church just to here him speak. Many would leave after the sermon, prompting John to begin preaching his sermon right before the distribution of communion to insure that people would still be there to receive, a practice that remains in many Greek Orthodox Churches to this day.
John was born to a wealthy and influential family. His father died while he was an infant and he was raised by his mother alone. He received the best education in the Greek world and began a career as a lawyer in his native Antioch. Even at this early age his rhetorical skills were recognized and admired. He seemed to be following his father’s footsteps to become an important official of the empire.
But John was bothered by the fact that his skill at public speaking could make the poorer case the winner in court. With the influence of his mother, a devout Christian, and his friend Basil the Great, he turned to the Christian life instead. He became a lector for Bishop Meletius. He wanted to follow his friend Basil into the monastic life, but his mother entreated him to remain to care for her. He essentially became a monk within the family home and recruited two lawyer friends to join him in the endeavor, Maximus and Theodore. All three would go on to become Bishops, Maximus in Seleucia, Theodore in Mopsuestia and John as Patriarch of Constantinople.
On the Priesthood
One of John’s most famous works is his treatise “On the Priesthood.” This is a highly personal tale of John’s own path to the priestly ministry and his reflections on the role of the priest in the community of Christ. In his own life, John had tried to avoid this honor, and certainly did not desire the office of bishop. He explains the awesome responsibilities and requirements for the priesthood. These responsibilities are why he is reluctant to accept the office, but he eventually does out of service to God.
John’s primary metaphor for the priestly life is two fold, the athletic trainer and the Physician. The priest assists the faithful in reading and meditating on the scripture as an athletic trainer helps the athlete reach his true physical potential. The priest can assist and provide the plans for progress, but the ultimate success of the program lies with the reader. The priest will be judged on his willingness to help and the quality of the assistance he provides.
The priest heals souls and spiritual ills similar to a physician working on the physical. The priest must be attentive to the symptoms of illness in his congregation and apply the right remedies to the problems at hand. In both, these cases the priest will have to answer for his role in the sins of the congregation. Did he help them exercise their spiritual muscles and help to heal the spiritual wounds.
Theology & Moral Life
John encouraged, even insisted, that all Christians had an obligation to study the scriptures. The quotation on the cover is from one of John’s homilies on Colossians where he goes on to say: “Don’t simply dive into them (scripture). Swim in them. Keep them constantly in your mind. The cause of all evil is the failure to know scripture well.” (Colossians 9:300-301) John insists that the study of scripture and the nature of God will automatically result in living the moral life. The moral dimensions to scripture are obvious to those who read. His homilies provide both a description of the spiritual world and the application of these truths in the daily life of the Christian.
Twice during his tenure in Constantinople John was exiled from Constantinople. The first was engineered by the Patriarch of Alexandria the second by the Empress Eudoxia in Constantinople. A hallmark of John’s preaching from the moment he ascended the pulpit was denouncing of vice by those in power and insisting on Christian charity and almsgiving to the poor. He publicly demanded that priests and bishops set the proper example and follow all the rules of decorum that were long lax in this cosmopolitan city and the empire at large. His concern for the poor was legendary.
As a result, in less than five years Theophilius of Alexandria engineered a Synod to examine John’s action which resulted in his censure and exile from Constantinople. The charges were baseless and the synod stacked with those who wished to see John leave. The Empress had John arrested from the Cathedral on the eve of Pascha, drove out the congregation and burned the building to the ground. A popular uprising on John’s behalf and support for other bishops and the Pope in Rome ended this exile after a few months.
But less than a year from his return Eudoxia had John arrested and exiled to Armenia. This time he was to spend the final three years of his life in this remote mountainous region. John’s public rebuke of Eudoxia and his comparison of her to Herodius persecuting John the Baptist was the catalyst for this action. From his exile, John continued to write letters on theological topics to his friends in Constantinople.
John Chrysostom was one of the most prolific writers among the fathers and one with the most preserved corpus of literature. There are ten volumes of his work available in English translation, and this only represents a portion of his work. Most of the homilies were written during his time in Antioch. Despite his short tenure as Patriarch of Constantinople, a mere six years, he left a lasting imprint on the city and Church history.
John is perhaps best known for his eloquent theological explanations of Paul’s letters. Isadore of Pelusium claimed that John and Paul were so much of one mind that Paul would have written exactly what John had done if he lived in their times (Epistle 5:32). John was an eloquent defender of the Church’s theological positions from scripture.
But he was an equally forceful advocate for the Church’s moral code as well. He demanded that those holding power, both civil and eccesial, live on the straight and narrow, even the appearance of impropriety would bring a rebuke. His concern for the poor mirrored that of Jesus in the Gospels, which he would constantly weave into his words. He also rejected the idea of fighting tyranny with violence. On two occasions, one in Antioch and the other in Constantinople, John stopped the mobs from destroying the imperial buildings in reaction to injustice from those in power. John rejected violence as a means to redress the wrongs of those in power. In all these attributes he remains a solid example for the Christian life today.
Originally Posted March 20, 2009
Last Revised on August 15, 2010