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Who Was St. John Chrysostom?

January 11, 2018

Who Was St. John Chrysostom?

Like any living document, the calendar of the Christian church is occasionally revised. Depending on where you look, then, you’ll find different saints celebrated on different days. St. John Chrysostom is one such saint. In the new Roman Catholic calendar, his day is the 13th of September, but the old calendar celebrates him on January 27th. Orthodox churches celebrate him on two days, November 13th and January 27th. Protestant churches, at least the ones that celebrate these days, generally divide themselves among the options. Whatever calendar your church uses, should they use one, one of the days of remembrance for Chrysostom is almost here, January 27th. So, we ask, “Who is St. John Chrysostom”

Note: This article will draw from several sources, but especially from the Catholic Encyclopedia , Saints and Angels online , and the Orthodox Church in America. For more reading about Chrysostom, see these excellent articles.

Life of John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom was born in 347 AD in the city of Antioch to Secundus and Anthusa. Secundus was a high officer in the Syrian army, so the family was wealthy enough to afford excellent schools for John and his elder sister. Tragedy struck the family soon after John’s birth when Secundus died, and his mother devoted her life to raising the two children in the Christian faith.

Anthusa sent John to the best schools in Antioch, but they had some problems. The most important teachers were pagans, following greek pagan religious practices. While John was not swayed by their teaching, he did learn a great deal about classical Greek culture and scholarship. Perhaps his most important teacher was Libanius, the most famous orator of his day, under whom Chrysostom studied rhetoric and oration.

Entry into Church Life: Bishop Miletus

In approximately 367 AD, Chrysostom’s met Bishop Miletus, and he fell under the Christian leader’s sway. Turning from his classical studies, Chrysostome began studying Holy Scripture and he frequently attended Miletus’ sermons. After three years of this, Chrysostom was baptized, and he was ordained as a lector, or reader.

He did not stay long in that post, however. He and his friend, Theodore of Mopsuestia, quickly joined an ascetic society under the direction of other famous Christians, Flavian and Diodorus. As an ascetic, John occupied himself with living simply, studying scripture, and manual labor.

After his mother died, Chrysostom became an ascetic monk, and he lived in the caves outside of Antioch. His disciplined life was harsh, marked by frequent fasting, and his health deteriorated quickly. After two years in the caves, he returned to Antioch to continue his life as a lector.

In 381 AD, Miletus ordained Chrysostom as a deacon. During this time, he wrote many great works of Christian theology. One of the most important is a series of dialogues titled, On the Priesthood . The work records a conversation between two monks on the joys and challenges of the priesthood, one arguing why he should avoid it and the other why the first should join up.

Bishop of Constantinople

Flavian ordained Chrysostom as a priest in 386 AD, and he preached in Antioch for the twelve years. He quickly grew in fame for his excellent and powerful preaching. One series of sermons On The Statues came in response to civil unrest. The people were angry over a new levy of taxes, so they threw down the statues of Emperor Theodosius. During the punishment that followed, John delivered these sermons to confront and to comfort his people.

John frequently preached through books of the Bible in a continuous fashion. He proceeded, verse by verse, from the first sentence of the book to the last, expounding the meaning and application of each verse. His sermons have been recorded for us, and they provide important and enlightening commentary on the books from which they are based. His sermons gave him his name, "Chrysostom," which means "Golden-tongue." 

When the Bishop of Constantinople, Nectarius, died in September of 397, many important powers vied to see whose supporters could be installed in the vacant episcopal office. Emperor Areadius took charge of the situation and sent for John in Antioch. This was not a suggestion, either. The unsuspecting priest was kidnapped by the emperor’s men, and he was dragged to Constantinople to be consecrated as bishop.

John’s Work in Constantinople

The city of Constantinople was the capital of the Roman empire, and the people were used to power, luxury, and pageantry. John’s ascetic philosophy immediately clashed with that way of life. He quickly began reforming an episcopate that had been taken off-course by wealth and power.

He deposed bishops who had gained their episcopal seats by bribery. He cast out priests and leaders who were guilty of various public sins. He also forbade the priests and bishops in his see from keeping syneisactoe, female housekeepers who were sworn virgins, to prevent the appearance of sexual scandal. He also reigned in the expenses of the Bishop’s household, ordering his managers to reduce expenses.

Chrysostom did not just direct his work against extravagances in the church. He also targeted wealth and abuse of power among the rich in Constantinople, including the Emperor’s household. While it may have been spiritually accurate, his preaching became politically difficult, especially when he likened the empress to Jezebel.

While his preaching did not gain the support of the wealthy, the common people loved Chrysostom. They responded positively to his reforms of the local church, and his money-saving policies provided enough extra cash to build a hospital.

Conflict

Chrysostom had enemies, some in Constantinople and some elsewhere. Chief among them was the Bishop Theophilus, the patriarch of Alexandria. He saw Chrysostom’s precarious political situation, and waited for the chance to act. When Chrysostom welcomed some Egyptian monks on the run from Theophilus, it was his time to act.

He arrived in Constantinople with a trail of bishops following him. Through political intrigue and well-placed gifts, he gained the favor of local leadership. Together with John’s enemies, they drew up a series of charges, and they demanded that Chrysostom answer them. The Bishop of Constantinople refused to recognize the legality of the synod of his enemies, and he would not appear before them. After the third summons, the synod declared him deposed.

John, again, refused to recognize the legality of the sentence, so he continued practicing as bishop. The imperial troops were ordered to drag Chrysostom away, and they attached the cathedral, mingling the blood of the worshipers with the water of the baptismal font. To keep the peace, John willingly took exile.

Shortly afterward, several accidents and disasters appeared in Constantinople, and the superstitious empress feared that she was being punished by God for supporting John’s exile. She ordered him recalled and reinstated. John, however, would not sit quietly on the bishop’s seat. When a silver statue of the empress was erected in front of his cathedral, he preached against her extravagance, “Again Herodias dances, and again she desires to receive John’s head on a platter.”

Unsurprisingly, the empress again convened a synod and had John deposed. He was chased from prison to prison until he died in exile at Commana in Pontus, near the farthest ends of the empire, on September 14th, 407 AD.

His Writings and Influence

Chrysostom’s influence is still felt today through his insightful writings. We have more of his writings than most of the ancient church fathers. His sermons are just as relevant now as they were at the time. In fact, this author frequently reads his sermons to prepare for writing his own sermons on the same scripture. One of the most important ways John’s influence is felt today is through his explanation of scripture. He speaks plainly when expounds on biblical texts, and readers of this blog should consider looking at his work for a historical perspective on the faith.

His work, On The Priesthood , should be required reading for any person who wants to join the pastoral ministry. It dives deeply into the perils and joys of the ministry. It is an especially good warning for those who think that ministry will be easy.

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