Lent of the year 387 was an anxious season for the Christians of Antioch.
They lived in one of the largest, wealthiest, and most magnificent cities in the Roman Empire, and their numbers had multiplied since Peter and Pauls missionary work there. Their main church was one of the citys most beautiful buildings.
Antiochs archbishop made two fateful decisions. First, he raced to the capital to plead for mercy. Second, he left behind his assistant, John, with the charge of calming the terrified citizens.
Homilies from the Heart. Over the next few weeks, John gave a series of sermons that captured the publics attention. He skillfully wove traditional Lenten themes of repentance and self-reflection together with exhortations to turn to God for spiritual and civic deliverance. But John was not just trying to raise morale; he used the crisis to raise peoples minds and hearts to God.
In these Homilies on the Statues, John called his hearers to the heroic holiness that characterized his own life. He urged them to see the impending disaster as a call to prayer, penance, and unwavering trust in God. His preaching was so moving that even non-Christians took his words to heart. The riots ceased, and after several anxious weeks, the emperor agreed to spare the city.
The episode made John famous and became part of the lore that later helped to earn him his nickname: Chrysostom, Greek for golden mouth or golden tongue. It was also his first brush with imperial politicsa foreshadowing of clashes that would eventually cost him his life.
A Foundation for Holiness. John was born in Antioch around the year 350 and raised by his widowed mother, Anthousa, a pious Christian. He received a classical education from a famous pagan scholar who praised his talents, saying that John should have become his replacementif only he had not chosen Christianity.
It had not been a simple decision for John. He loved the cultural attractions of Antiochs courts and theaters. But when his close boyhood friend joined a local monastery, John knew he had to take a more serious approach to his own faith.
As he was considering his choices, a courageous bishop named Meletios took charge in Antioch. Together, these three witnessesmother, friend, and bishopmoved the young man to make holiness his great ambition.
John, too, became part of a community of ascetic monks. He lived in seclusion in the hills outside the city and devoted himself to studying the word of God. According to one of his contemporaries, he fell in love with sacred studies, and learned the Old and New Testaments by heart. He might gladly have remained a monk forever, but after six years, the ascetic rigors proved too much for his system. Bad health forced him back to the city and caused him suffering for the rest of his life.
Aiming High. The monks loss was Antiochs gain. John soon became active in the local church, first as a deacon and then as a priest. He began to produce writingsa defense of monasticism, lives of the saints, and an important treatise, On the Priesthood. But John also exhorted the lay people he encountered as he worked among the public. His writings display a deep conviction that people from all walks of life can and should live in close union with Jesus. For example, he counseled newly baptized adults to establish a routine: They should start each day with morning prayer, and they should conclude each evening by asking Gods forgiveness for any sins.
Thanks, perhaps, to his mothers influence, John strongly defended the sanctity of marriage and family life. He went so far as to call the home a little church and underscored the importance of the marriage vocation: By becoming good husbands and wives, it is possible for us to surpass all others. Parents should train their children as athletes for Christ, he urged. When we teach our children to be good, to be gentle, to be forgiving, we instill virtue in their souls, and reveal the image of God within them.
Reveling in the Liturgy. John became Antiochs chief homilist, often preaching on Scripture, and especially on Pauls letters. Those who heard him marveled that he quoted from memory and never used notes. His homilies were so good that people even had them transcribed and published. Consequently, much of Johns preaching has survived to become a resource for preachers down through the centuries.
John also reveled in celebrating the liturgy and its cycle of feast days. He enthusiastically organized gatherings for saints festivals, all-night vigils, and processions to martyrs shrines. For him, such events were occasions to call people to Godthe devout, to celebrate their faith, and the sinful, to receive mercy.
In the following excerpt from an Easter sermon, we can almost picture him looking around the congregation, wholly aware that he is addressing some who have seriously prepared throughout Lent, but also many who have not. Evoking Jesus parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), he exhorts one and all to come enjoy this good and cheerful festival:
Whoever is weary of fasting, let him now receive his earnings.
Whoever has labored from the first hour, let him today accept his just reward.
Whoever has arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not fear the delay, for the Master is gracious: He receives the last even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that has labored from the first, and to him that delayed.
Therefore let everyone enter into the joy of the Lord! The first and the last, receive your wages. Rich and poor, dance with each other. The temperate and the slothful, honor this day. You who have fasted and you who have not, rejoice this day!
Let no one bewail his transgressions, for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviors death has set us free.
Bishop and Reformer. John became so popular that around 398, a new emperor, Arkadios, and his wife, Eudoxia, had him forcibly escorted to Constantinople and consecrated as bishop. They felt that their capital deserved the empires most renowned orator. Accepting this as Gods will, John strove to be the best pastor he could for the city.
John was never cowed by the prestige and wealth of his new congregation. He wanted to see their hearts set on heavenly treasure. As he had done in Antioch, he preached compassion and denounced the lack of charity he saw in Constantinoples so-called Christian society.
The poor are not like marble statues that one can simply walk past and ignore, he said. There is nothing so cold as a Christian who does not care about the salvation of others. Rather than just preaching about the Christian life, John also led by example. He lived simply and sold off extravagant decorations from the episcopal palace to feed the hungry and build hospitals.
John called on other church leaders to reform. He decried sexual scandals among the clergy, chided certain monks for unruly behavior, and deposed several bishops convicted of financial abuses. Understandably, these reforms earned him many enemies.
Whom Shall I Fear? None of Johns enemies was more powerful than the Empress Eudoxia. Friendly at first, she came to resent the outspoken bishop. Court intrigues and factions played a part. Sometimes, too, when she attended his services in the great cathedral, he denounced the extravagance of womens fashionsa not-too-subtle dig at her wardrobe. Once, after Eudoxia had underhandedly appropriated a widows estate, John publicly compared the empress to the infamous biblical queen Jezebel (see 1 Kings 21).
The rift with Eudoxia might have been repaired, had it not been for a dispute with Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria. When John ordered him to Constantinople to answer various charges of abuse, Theophilus allegedly sought help from some of Eudoxias advisors. The group orchestrated a council of clerics who were disgruntled by Johns earlier reforms. Together, they exacted revenge by voting to depose him from office.
Persuaded by this sham council, Arkadios sentenced John to exile. There was a brief cease-fire period, but Johns efforts to vindicate himself did not succeed. As the feud broke out anew, he likened Eudoxia to Herods wife, who had connived in John the Baptizers murder: She seeks to have Johns head on a platter!
When Arkadios again decreed that John must go, in 404, the people of Constantinople were outraged and threatened a revolt. John averted a tragedy by agreeing to leave peacefully. Just before he slipped away, he consoled his congregation with a statement of faith:
If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? Though the waves and the sea and the anger of princes are roused against me, they are less to me than a spiders web .
If God wants me to stay here, I am grateful. But wherever he wants me to be, I am no less grateful. Yet where I am, there you are too, and where you are, I am. For we are a single body . Distance separates us, but love unites us, and death itself cannot divide us. For though my body die, my soul will live and be mindful of my people.
Exile and Return. John began a long and painful journey. As he was shuttled from one frontier outpost to another, his frail health worsened. Still, he found the energy to write letters of encouragement to his supporters, who were being persecuted; he worried more about their sufferings than his own.
He never ceased appealing to the pope and other bishops for help, but it was already too late. In 407, as John was being transferred to yet another remote site on the Black Sea, death overtook him. Appropriately, he died in the chapel of a shrine to a local martyranother athlete for Christ whose pursuit of holiness had cost him his life.
More than thirty years afterwards, John was vindicated. The heir to Arkadios and Eudoxia bowed to the will of Constantinoples citizens by returning Chrysostoms relics to the capital and publicly asking God to forgive his parents sins.
Today, John Chrysostom is honored as a Doctor of the Church, and one of the greatest fathers of the early Eastern church. His life more than matched his preaching, and his works have inspired Christians down through the ages. Cardinal John Newman, an avid scholar of church history, summed up his influence in this way: A bright, cheerful, gentle soul; a sensitive heart, a temperament open to emotion and impulse; and all this elevated, refined, transformed by the touch of heavensuch was St. John Chrysostom.
Gregory Roa lives near Washington DC, with his wife and three children.