Saint John Chrysostom for the 21st Century

This presentation was an address delivered at a Convocation of the Orthodox Inter-Seminary Movement at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA on November 10th, 2007, and at the Pan-Orthodox Clergy Synaxis at Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles, CA on November 13th, 2007.

I. The Basic Biography of Saint John Chrysostom.

Fr. Josiah Trenham. Fr. Josiah Trenham.
My intention in this lecture is to highlight a number of areas in which I believe Saint John Chrysostom has precious contributions to make to contemporary Christians. I have entitled this lecture, Saint John Chrysostom for the 21st Century. Toward that end, however, I would like to begin by making a brief verbal sketch of St John’s life, then mention some of the areas in which he has been duly influential throughout the history of the Church, and then, upon that foundation, address Chrysostom’s relevance for the practice of contemporary Christianity.

His Birth and Parents. Saint John was born in or around A.D. 349, as best as we can tell, in the city of Antioch. His father, Secundos, was a high-ranking civil servant in the Roman administration, and his mother, Anthusa, was a devout Christian, who has recently been numbered among the saints by the Church of Greece. Her feast day is shared with Saints Nona and Emmelia, the mothers respectively of Saints Gregory the Theologian and Saint Basil the Great. Hence, we commemorate on January 30th the Three Holy Hierarchs, and shortly thereafter, on the Sunday that falls in the Afterfeast of the Great Feast of the Presentation, the holy mothers of the Three Holy Hierarchs.

Student and Ascetic. For the pedagogical purposes of this lecture I would like you to think of the saint’s life as divided into three fundamental portions: his early life as a student and ascetic, his life as priest in Antioch, and his life as bishop in Constantinople. [2] Chrysostom’s father died when he was a young boy, and his mother was but twenty years old. She spent the rest of her life completely devoted to John’s formation as a Christian and a scholar. As a young man he was enrolled amongst the students of the greatest rhetor of the empire, the pagan Libanius. [3] His education under Libanius followed a traditional Greek mode that had not changed much since the 4th century B.C. It was under Libanius that Chrysostom learned Greek diction and elegance of expression that would serve him so well as a preacher throughout his life. The curriculum was all in Greek, Latin forming no official part of his education, and focused on the classics. Saint John passed through all three stages of the traditional paideia: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric with outstanding success. Libanius is said to have remarked in light of his approaching death that of all his students it was John who was most accomplished to succeed him, if it had not been that the Christians had stolen him. Indeed they had, and it would not be the last time in God’s providence that he was stolen.

Saint John completed his studies about A.D. 367 and was baptized at the Paschal vigil A.D. 368 by Saint Meletios, who served as the Orthodox bishop of Antioch from approximately A.D. 360 until his death at the 2nd Ecumenical Council in A.D. 381. For three years after his baptism Saint John served in Meletios’ presence in the church, and studied the Scriptures in a small monastic brotherhood gathered around Diodore and Carterios. In A.D. 372, with rumors swirling of an impending ordination, Chrysostom fled to the mountains outside Antioch to struggle against his passions under the tutelage of an elderly Syrian master. By spiritual insight Chrysostom mastered himself during these years, and then retreated to a cave where for an additional two years he memorized the Holy Scriptures and never laid down to sleep. Chrysostom described this period in his life as a time in which he devoted himself completely to prayer by night and Scripture study by day. [4] Through this extreme asceticism Chrysostom broke his health, and returned to Antioch sometime around A.D. 378. Saint John’s years as a student and an ascetic would leave a deep impress on his future, and provide the foundation for his powerful ministry as an exegete and preacher of the Holy Scriptures. The inspired content of his preaching ministry was formed in the mountains, and the masterful pedagogical style was formed in his schooling. This combination took the Christian world by storm.

Priest and Preacher in Antioch. After St Meletios’ death he was sent back from Constantinople to Antioch to be buried next to Saint Babylas, and Flavian was elected Bishop of Antioch. In his first year as Bishop of Antioch Flavian ordained Chrysostom a deacon. Saint John was 32 years old, and would serve for five years as a deacon. During this period Chrysostom never preached, but launched his writing career, producing pamphlets, letters and essays on various topics, especially on the ascetical life. Besides his liturgical and literary labors, Saint John served Flavian as his personal assistant and liaison in administering charity to the some 3,000 virgins and widows on the doles of the church. In A.D. 386, when Deacon John was 37 years old, Archbishop Flavian ordained him to the priesthood, and appointed him as the city’s cathedral preacher. [5] Saint John would serve in this capacity for twelve years. Immediately, Chrysostom launched his preaching career, and from this period on most of the works we have from his pen are, in fact, edited versions of his sermons. Typically, during his years as a priest, [6] several stenographers recorded his sermons as he gave them in church, and then delivered them to him for editorial work prior to publication. [7]

Bishop in Constantinople. In late October A.D. 397 Asterios, count of the civil diocese of the East and governor of Antioch, summoned Chrysostom to the great martyrs’ shrine just outside the Romanesian gate [8] for an important message. Chrysostom assumed that he was to be the courier of some important communiqué from the emperor to the bishop and church. Instead, he was seized by imperial officials, placed inside an imperial coach, and taken 1200 km. to Constantinople, never to see his beloved home city of Antioch again. Bishop Nektarios of Constantinople had died, and John was to be consecrated as his successor, the 12th Bishop of Constantinople. In either mid-December A.D. 397 or on Feb. 26th, A.D. 398 he was consecrated at the hands of Archbishop Theophilos of Alexandria and at the direction of the Emperor Arcadios. For the next ten years Saint John would receive into his heart the people of Constantinople and shepherd them as his flock.

Constantinople was exploding. There were between 200,000 and 300,000 persons in the city of Constantine, which had been consecrated in A.D. 330, a mere six years after Emperor Constantine launched his construction project upon the small town of Byzantium. John took up his pastoral responsibilities immediately and continued with an unbroken stream of preaching and Scriptural commentary until the end of his life. Adjacent to the episcopal chancery was a convent of 250 virgins ruled over by the saintly Deaconess Olympia, who would become Saint John’s spiritual daughter and best friend. Chrysostom entered into a visitation of the diocese and its reform. He began where he lived, in the episcopal palace, which had become, under his predecessor, a center of extravagant hospitality for the new upper class of Constantinople and the clergy. [9] Chrysostom slashed the budget, sold off many precious items stored at the chancery, and used the excess funds to erect at least one hospital. He took most of his meals alone. He reformed his clergy, immediately defrocking a number of deacons, who were guilty of heinous crimes, rebuked the celibate clergy who were living in so-called “spiritual marriages” with virgins, deposed numerous bishops guilty of obtaining their office by simony, brought regulations to the city’s monastic brotherhoods, demanded accountability from the women who were enrolled on the church’s widows’ list by requiring them to live as devout widows or to get remarried, served as imperial counselor, ruled as proëstamenos of the resident synod of Constantinople, [10] served the divine services and preached several times per week, [11] oversaw charitable institutions, kept abreast of civil activities, sought to influence imperial legislation with the Church’s teaching, and organized missionary activities. Besides all these duties in the city itself, Chrysostom was asked by surrounding dioceses to adjudicate several cases and oversee controversial elections. The influence of bishop of Constantinople was increasing as the city’s size and importance in the empire was increasing.

Chrysostom was not always well-received in his new position of authority. Some of Constantinople’s wealthier citizens were offended by his bold rebukes and his willingness to call them to account. Unfortunately, though Chrysostom came to Constantinople as the imperial favorite, by the year 401 he had become somewhat alienated from the Empress Eudoxia. It seems that Chrysostom censured her for allocating to herself a widow’s property. Nevertheless Chrysostom baptized the son of the imperial couple, Theodosios II, on Theophany, A.D. 402. In A.D. 403 Chrysostom’s consecrator turned arch-enemy, Archbishop Theophilos of Alexandria, arrived in Constantinople together with 29 of his Egyptian bishops, took up residence in the imperial palace in Chalcedon in the suburb called “The Oak” and held a iniquitous synod against Chrysostom. This synod, known throughout history as the “Synod of the Oak,” charged Chrysostom with some 29 crimes (many of them beyond the ridiculous), and ended up deposing Chrysostom for not appearing before their illicit assembly. The Synod sent a notice to the emperor of the condemnation and suggested that Chrysostom was treasonous and should be banished. Banished by imperial edict he was, and no sooner had he been exiled than an earthquake struck the city. In fear and trembling the guilty Empress asked her husband, the weak-willed Arcadios, to recall Chrysostom from exile. Chrysostom refused to re-enter the walls of the city until the illegitimacy of the Synod of the Oak had been declared. Peace was re-established, but it was not to hold for long.

Soon the empress decided to have a silver statue of herself placed in the plaza of the Cathedral, had it installed noisily and unveiled during the time while Saint John was celebrating the Divine Liturgy! Discerning the provocation and going along with it, Chrysostom exclaimed in righteous indignation, “Again Herodias dances and demands on a platter the head of John.” On Great Saturday, A.D. 404, Chrysostom was confined to the chancery and soldiers were sent to break up the baptismal ceremonies. Blood ran in the font, and more than 3000 catechumens were scattered. An assassination attempt was made on John’s life by the slave of one of his priests. On the Thursday after Pentecost, June 9th, enemy bishops forced the imperial hand and on June 20th Chrysostom was banished for the final time. He would spend the next three years in exile. Most of this period was spent in Cucusus in Armenia. He carried on from there a voluminous correspondence. We have over 240 letters extant from this period. From exile he wrote several treatises intended to encourage his Constantinopolitan flock, which was suffering severe persecution from the civil authorities for keeping their allegiance to Saint John. During his exile, Emperor Honorios, brother of Arcadios and Emperor of the West, together with Pope Innocent and leading Bishops of the West, demanded of Arcadios that Chrysostom be restored to his throne. In A.D. 407, after three years of exile in which Saint John’s Armenian place of exile had become a place of pilgrimage for the faithful, Chrysostom was further exiled to Pityus, the very outskirts of the Empire on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. In extreme illness and suffering abuse from the soldiery and barbarians who threatened the expedition, Chrysostom fell asleep in Christ on September 14, A.D. 407 at the age of 58. The company had stopped outside the church of the Holy Martyr Basiliskos. In the night the Saint appeared to Chrysostom and informed him that they would soon be together. Chrysostom asked to be vested, received the Holy Gifts, made his cross, and prayed his last words, “Glory to God for all things.”

II. Chrysostom’s Continuous Influence.

Since the Saint’s death in A.D. 407 his influence has only increased throughout the entire world much in the way that our Lady’s fame has. Our most pure and ever-virgin Lady Theotokos prophesied under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that “all generations will call me blessed.” A similar wave of adulation has arisen throughout history in the case of Saint John Chrysostom. During his lifetime many of his works were published, translated and studied in the far parts of the Empire. [12] He was duly famous in all parts of the Christian world. He bore fruit in a multitude of pious disciples such as Saints John Cassian, Proclus, Nilus and Mark the Ascetics, Isidore of Pelusium, and Bishop Palladius (his biographer). Since the title “Golden Mouth” was bestowed upon Chrysostom, each generation of great scholar-preachers of the Church have been awarded the title of “New Chrysostom,” even up until modern times with men such as Ss. Tikhon of Zadonsk and Nicolai of Žiča. By the 11th century Chrysostom’s fame was so great that he was numbered by the Church as one of the “Three Holy Hierarchs”, the three satellites, the three moons or universal luminaries of the Church. We celebrate Saint John’s life liturgically on November 13th (his primary feast), January 27th (the translation of his relics), and January 30th (the Three Holy Hierarchs). Scholarship has engaged Chrysostom’s work in every era of Church history. And not just Orthodox Christian scholars like Saint Photios the Great, but non-Orthodox as well like the Latin Thomas Aquinas, who considered Chrysostom’s Commentary on Matthew to be virtually inspired, or the Protestant Reformer John Calvin, who held Chrysostom in such high regard as an exegete.

III. Chrysostom’s Special Contributions to the Holy Church over the last 1600 years.

St. John Chrysostom. Mosaic. St. John Chrysostom. Mosaic.
Saint John Chrysostom is not just a great personality, but has left an indelible stamp upon Orthodox Christianity. He made significant contributions to the life of the Church in a number of important areas, such as:

Prayer and Liturgy. Most Orthodox Christians know the name of Saint John Chrysostom not through reading his books, but by praying his liturgy. The liturgy we celebrate on all but ten Sundays of the Church year is that attributed to Saint John. While some portions of the Saint John Chrysostom Liturgy pre-date him and some post-date him, and it remains very difficult to identify the provenance of each portion of the sacred service, yet the Church affirms that Chrysostom was a master liturgist, responsible for at least the basic contours of what we know today as our Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Besides the Liturgy itself, Saint John has consistently inspired the priesthood with a vision of the glory and necessity of preaching, and that after every Gospel lesson of every liturgy. There was probably never a person in history better qualified to preach prior to becoming a priest, but Chrysostom never did. He saw preaching as a priestly function, as a fruit of apostolic succession. He taught us that preaching changes people and is to be a living word, not dead. In my experience many Orthodox priests have a very unorthodox conception of preaching and could benefit themselves and their people greatly by learning to take the preaching of the Word, as seriously as did the greatest preacher in the history of the Church. Chrysostom handled the preached word, trusting that it conveyed Christ’s all-powerful word, as carefully as he did the Holy Eucharist. We could mention the prayers ascribed to Chrysostom in the Services of Preparation for and Thanksgiving after Holy Communion, which demonstrate that the Golden Mouth is the theologian of the Eucharist par excellence. His homilies and commentaries have provided spiritual fare for many a preacher to feed to his flock, and his Paschal Homily is read in every Orthodox church temple on Pascha. His devotion to the martyrs, often preaching at their shrines and on their feast days, and his encouragement of the discipline of sacred pilgrimages has helped establish the ethos of our worship.

Priesthood and Pastorate. Every Orthodox seminarian knows the influence of Saint John Chrysostom in the area of priestly formation and pastoral theology. His most famous work is On the Priesthood (in 6 books), and, together with the works of St Gregory the Theologian In Defense of My Flight and Saint Gregory the Dialogist Pastoral Rule, serves as the quintessential patristic teaching on priesthood and pastorate. Chrysostom’s teaching on this subject is of great value today for Orthodox Christians in America, who are tasked with spreading Holy Orthodoxy to many heterodox Christians who do not believe in the sacred priesthood. I have longed required Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood be read by my parish catechumens, knowing that coming to believe in the priesthood will be one of the revolutionary and necessary changes in their lives as they ready themselves for reception into the Holy Church.

Patron of Marriage and Monastic Life Both. No Father of the Church has more to contribute to the Christian understanding of marriage and monastic life, and of their interplay, than does Saint John Chrysostom. Chrysostom was a devoted monastic, and remained philo-monastic his entire life. At the same time he spent most of his adult years pastoring married Christians and guiding the families of his parish and diocese in Christian living. Beautifully, Chrysostom presents a unified and inspiring vision for both of these sanctified ways of life. Many of his early works, when he was focused on his ascetic brotherhood and not yet pastoring, were devoted to the exaltation of virginity. Many of his works written while pastoring and preaching to families provide concrete guidance to Christians on how to make their marriages spiritual, their families monastic, and their homes churchly. [13]

Did Chrysostom change? Some contemporary theologians and clergymen are uncomfortable at best, and embarrassed at worst, with Chrysostom’s ascetical works and his zealous promotion of monastic life in such works as On Virginity, Against the Opponents of the Monastic Life, Letters to Fallen Theodore, or A Comparison between a King and a Monk. Because Chrysostom’s later writings so exalted the married life and held forth such spiritual potential for Christian family life these same critics suggest that Chrysostom changed or matured in his views as he acquired greater pastoral experience. These same thinkers suggest that we should not make too much of Chrysostom’s earlier works, and assert that they are in contradiction with his later works on the subject of marriage and virginity. I posit that such an interpretation of Chrysostom is erroneous and should be completely rejected. I suggest that such a notion is illogical, contradicted by Chrysostom’s own words, and insulting to the Saint himself, and hence impious. Those who suggest such things actually reveal in so doing more of their own minds and discomforts than those of Chrysostom.

Chrysostom himself never grew uncomfortable with his zealous promotion of the monastic life, nor did he lose his zeal for the virginal life. Chrysostom did change over the course of his life. Every Saint changes from glory to glory. Saint John’s change was not a change from error to truth, or from despising marriage to valuing it. He changed his emphases and tactics due to the variety of circumstances God brought about in his life. For instance, when he was in the midst of ascetics he wrote for ascetics, and when he became a pastor of families he gave himself to exalting married life and parenting. Wherever he was he used his great powers to lift his fellow Christians up to the heavenly kingdom. To suggest even implicitly that one cannot argue that the highest form of Christian life is the monastic life, while at the same time adoring and praising the married life, is illogical. To exalt the better is not to denigrate the good. This is one of the central tenets of Chrysostom’s early work On Virginity. Our monastics are not allowed to become monastics because they despise marriage, for such is the teaching of heretics according to Saint John. Not only did he defend marriage from heretical criticism when he was a young ascetic, but he continued to exalt virginity when he was living amongst the married and teaching them the glories of family life. For Chrysostom married Christians were always to have their eyes upon the monastics, those living the angelic life.

No where in any of Chrysostom’s corpus does he ever disown, change, retract, or modify his views on the supremacy of virginity and the monastic life. On the contrary, we find just the opposite. We find Chrysostom reaffirming his teaching on this subject without revision at various significant points in his ministry. For instance, his series on 1 Corinthians, delivered as a priest in Antioch, contains a reference to his early ascetical work On Virginity. When he comes to expound the seventh chapter of this epistle, the single most detailed and clear teaching in the New Testament about the supremacy of the celibate life, rather than give detailed instruction to his flock he refers them to his work On Virginity as the abiding summation of his teaching on the subject. No alterations. No disclaimers. Just reaffirmation. Again, if we examine the last of his works to be published, his Commentary on Hebrews, published posthumously by the priest Constantios, we find there in his commentary on chapter thirteen the clear teaching again on the centrality and supremacy of the monastic life. Chrysostom maintained his consistent teaching throughout his ministry. He did not begin his writing career as a youthful extremist, but as a mature and formed thinker. He was not promoted to such ranks in the church of Antioch while being a detractor of marriage. Nor did he guide Saint Olympias and her nuns, and encourage monastics throughout the world while Bishop of Constantinople having become suspicious of monastic life.

If I were pressed to document any change in Chrysostom on this topic I would refer simply to one aspect of his vision in the relationship between married Christians and monastics, what we might call a policy matter. In his On the Comparison between a King and a Monk Chrysostom argued that parents should have their children educated by monastics, who are best equipped, as the true guardians of Christian society, to form young people. In a later work, and probably with more pastoral realism, Chrysostom posited that his earlier suggestion about monastic tutelage was not always practical, and that parents should simply choose the best tutors possible for their children. [14]

Bible Study in the Christian Life. St John did not just model intense devotion to the study of Holy Scripture, but he labored to inculcate faithful Bible reading in the lives of his parishioners. Chrysostom’s devotion is seen not only in his focused memorization and mediation upon the entirety of the Scriptures, but also in the labor of love he made of exegesis. His commentaries upon all of Saint Paul’s 14 Epistles, as well as upon the Gospels of Matthew and John,and the Acts of the Apostles, show how important he considered every word of Scripture to be in the life of the Christian and of the Church. And he was not devoted just to the New Testament, but to the Old Testament as well. His homilies on New Testament books include literally thousands of quotations from the Old Testament, from which he drew all the fundamental paradigms for his typological understanding of the New. He also gave himself to extended commentary upon select books of the Old Testament such as multiple homiletical series on the first book of Moses, called Genesis, extended commentary on the Psalter, and upon other wisdom books such as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. He preached on the life of Saul, David, and Hannah the Prophetess. He expounded the Prophecy of Isaiah. His work was immense. We have no larger corpus in Greek patristic literature than that of Saint John Chrysostom.

He considered ignorance of the Scriptures amongst the laity to be the supreme cause for the weakness of the Church and the eclipse of her witness. He called upon his faithful to read the appointed liturgical lections prior to coming to the Divine Liturgy so that they could understand the text and sermon more adequately. He challenged his people to discuss the readings and the sermon on the way home from services, using the image of twisting a newly-picked flower in one’s fingers so as to examine its beauty from all sides. Christians should discuss the readings and homily around the dinner table on the Lord’s Day, and the father of the home should fulfill his duty to read Holy Scripture to his family every day without fail.

Wealth and Poverty. Another area of Christian ethics in which Chrysostom has been duly famous throughout Church history is that of wealth and poverty. His most famous condensed treatment on the subject is found in a collection of seven sermons he gave on the pericope of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Many passages of Saint John’s Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles are cherished for their poignant teaching about possessions and wealth. Chrysostom did not tire of extolling the communal way of life of the early Jerusalem Church, and continued to encourage his faithful to eat together as a way of saving money and providing for those in need. Extended reference to the Christian approach to riches is found throughout his corpus – it was one of the central themes of his life.

Cut from the same divine cloth as St James the Brother-of-God, Chrysostom considered it his responsibility to speak truthfully to the wealthy about their responsibility to care for the needs of their less fortunate brethren. All the fundamental principles of the Christian ethic involving the use of money are found articulately put forth by Chrysostom. He explains the nature of true wealth as the acquisition of virtue. He explains the cause for financial gain as the blessing of God so one might be able to help the less fortunate. He forever singed into the consciences of his people a repulsion to what he considered to be the most foul four-letter word capable of articulation:the word “Mine.” And he did not speak in mere generalities, but called upon his wealthy parishioners to build churches upon their estates, to provide the salary for a priest and deacon so that the peasants living on and near the estate could go to church regularly and have their spiritual needs attended to. He criticized extravagant uses of money like gilding roofs with gold, and spending large sums of money on fancy shoes and book bindings. He counseled with regards to architecture and the building of homes, that a good home should be like a good shoe: with a snug fit. It should not be too large so that it flops around and causes one to stumble, and not to small so that it constricts and causes pain. Each house should be functional, and should have a bedroom set aside with a plaque above the entrance door reading: Jesus’ room. There one should lodge the visitor, the poor, or the sick, in the conviction that as long as said person is in residence Jesus resides in the home. Each family should place a small alms chest near their prayer corner and deposit something prior to beginning prayers in order to open heaven to one’s supplications.

IV. Saint John Chrysostom and 21st Century Christians.

All the above are areas in which Chrysostom has always been appreciated by our forebears, and continues to exercise his influence today. In this last portion of my lecture I would like to focus upon what I perceive to be several areas in which Saint John Chrysostom’s life and teachings may render the 21st century Christian particular assistance. The Church finds Herself in this new millennium faced by unique particularities, which demand an articulate word from the Holy Fathers to guide us through the unique challenges of post-modern life.

The Sanctification of City Life in an Age of Global Urbanization. We live in a historic moment in time. Sometime in the next few months demographers predict that, for the first time in recorded history, more than ½ of the human population will live in cities. The next 25 years are expected to witness a radical increase in what has already been decades of high speed urbanization. This increase will be most acute in developing countries, and much of it will not be a move to mega-cities but to cities of 500,000 persons or less. With such intensive populations relocation and the growing number and importance of the world’s cities comes tremendous sociological, political and economic consequences. This is particularly true if the growth is unplanned growth, such as is taking place in Dhaka, Bangladesh- where 3.4 million of the city’s 13 million people live in slums. In 1987 I visited Dhaka and witnessed the immense flood damage and human destruction that was the fruit of radical and unplanned urbanization. Health crises, access to water, poverty, all of these are concentrated in cities, and yet these same cities are the way out of such trials for most. Urbanization is one of the central issues of the 21st century. Much attention is now being given to the physical realities of urbanization, but still little to the spiritual realities. Churches, clergy, spiritual and charitable resources, these are all immediate and just as concrete needs of urbanization.

Here is where Saint John Chrysostom’s witness shines so brightly and holds forth such importance for us today. Chrysostom was a city boy. Born and raised in one of the leading cities of the Roman Empire, Antioch, and finished his life in Constantinople. He did not lead a life detached from the surging city crowds. He knew human traffic. He loved it and sought to save it. St. John considered Christians to be saviors of the city, guardians of the city, patrons of the city, and teachers of the city. [15] Besides his own practical experience of the city, from his Hellenic intellectual inheritance Saint John possessed a tremendous appreciation for the πόλις as the very center of civilization. [16] No Father of the Church has left us a more articulate vision for the sanctification of the city than Saint John Chrysostom. It is our Christian task to plumb his depths in crafting a responsible vision for Christian ministry in this urban context.

Antiochean Orthodox church in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Antiochean Orthodox church in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
As we do so we should note a number of things. Chrysostom believed that the Church sanctifies all. Cities should be full of churches. Chrysostom built them and served in them, and he believed that there was absolutely no substitute for urban Christians participating regularly in the divine services of the Church. The chaos and buzz of urban life is regulated and sanctified and elevated by participation in the morning and evening prayers offered in God’s temples. Chrysostom expected to see his people in church many times during the week, and many of his famous homilies were not delivered on Lord’s Day gatherings but during week day prayers. Chrysostom also believed that the key to sanctifying the city was to sanctify the home. The quality of home life will determine the quality of city life. All legitimate work should be embraced as true vocation, and it is the duty of the clergy to help the faithful appreciate their employment as a means to serving the Lord God.

City Christians must also, according to the Saint, make regular pilgrimage outside the hubbub of the city to the shrine of the sacred martyrs, and the desert dwellings of the holy monastics. The practice of regular pilgrimage is of great importance for those who live in the dense and pressure filled dwelling of the city. And though we should visit the hermits outside the city, we should also establish within the city a strong monastic presence. To make the city a monastery was Chrysostom’s dream. Though we have just a small number of monasteries in our land, yet even most of them are far outside the city. Chrysostom experienced something quite different, and just as traditional. Saint John promoted and invested in the perfection of city monasticism. Where was Saint Olympias’ convent but in the center of Constantinople? Where was Monk Isaac’s monastery but in the center of Constantinople? City monasticism provides both a refreshing reminder of our heavenly ambitions to city dwellers, and a strong force in the concrete and political expression of Christianity in our urban centers. Chrysostom exerted great energy to fight what he deemed a demonic and sensuous city culture and to Christianize it. He was not content to merely observe, let alone participate in, the endless stream of illicit entertainments and spiritual distractions that the great cities in this fallen world inevitably produce. He attacked the pagan forms of wedding celebrations, the sensuous theatre, the public excesses, the race track, and the immodesty of the Roman bath house. [17] Saint John Chrysostom can greatly assist us in our quest to sanctify city life in this age of radical urbanization.

The Supreme Importance of Churchmanship in an Age of Radical Individualism. Saint John taught that the κοινωνοία of the Church is a profound miracle. Whence is the origin of the Church? From where did our sacred community arise, brothers and sisters? It has no mere human foundation. The apostles did not simply gather together and come up with the idea of this organization, with certain goals, members, and dues. Not at all. The Church is the continuation of the miracle of the Nativity of Christ. The Son of God was enfleshed in the womb of the Holy Virgin, and born into the world. The Son of God is progressively enfleshed in the establishment and propagation of the Church in the world. The Church is His very Body, the miraculous expansion of His Incarnation in the world. The supernatural origin of the Church is demonstrated, according to St John Chrysostom, by the miracle that took place on the Precious and Life-Giving Cross. When our Savior was hanging upon the Cross He was pierced with a spear, and suddenly blood and water poured out from His sacred side. [18] This blood and water is Holy Baptism by which one is incorporated into the Church, and the Holy Eucharist by which one grows in the Church. These holy mysteries came forth from the side of our Savior in the same way that Eve was taken from the side of Adam. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and so was taken from His side while on the Cross as a fruit of His sacred atonement. She is a miracle of new creation.

Our unity in the Church, according to Chrysostom, is a supernatural wonder. In the Church we experience an intimate union with Jesus Christ. This reality of being “in Christ” is the most used image by the great Apostle Paul in describing the Christian life. The Christian life is a Church life, for it is by Holy Baptism that we are incorporated into Christ and His Church. As Christians we possess a unity far greater than that of earthly organizations. We share a common womb, a common mother in the Church, a common Father in God, a common table from which we eat our food of everlasting life, a common language of doxology, a common quest, a common animating spirit, a common ethic, and a common destiny. This unity is expressed each Divine Liturgy according to Saint John Chrysostom in our partaking of the Holy Eucharist in which partaking we are actualized together as the Body of Christ. This is the reason that we celebrate the Holy Liturgy with one single holy chalice. The singular sacred cup bears witness to our unity. Even should we distribute Holy Communion in multiple chalices we do not bless multiple chalices. We consecrate one alone, and then we bring other empty chalices and fill them from the one sacred chalice.

Our experience of Church is transformative. The sacredness of our community is testified to by what actually happens when we gather together around the holy altar. Divine services are the single most powerful agent in personal holiness. “Nothing contributes to a virtuous and moral way of life as does the time you spend here in church.” [19] There is grace behind every action of the Holy Liturgy. Chrysostom often waxes eloquent concerning the liturgical movements of the service. When the deacon exclaims “Stand upright,” he is addressing our souls primarily, and not just our bodies. The preaching sanctifies. The Holy Eucharist enlivens and flames leap from our mouths, blood is painted on the doorposts of our bodies and the angel of death passes over us. Nothing is more precious, more central, more transformative and miraculous, in our human existence than life in the Church.

With the gift of this sacred community come sacred obligations to every Christian. True sacred fellowship is the power of the Church. Listen to the words of Chrysostom,

“Let us prefer the time we spend here in church to any occupation or concern. Tell me this. What profit do you gain which can outweigh the loss you bring on yourself and your whole household when you stay away from the religious services? Suppose you find a whole treasure house full of gold, and this discovery is your reason for staying away. You have lost more than you found, and your loss is as much greater as things of the spirit are better than things we see. Attendance in the divine services greatly encourages your brothers and sisters in the faith and spiritual battle ... the Church went from 11 to 120 to three thousand to five thousand to the whole world and the reason for this growth was that they never left their gathering. They were constantly with each other, spending the whole day in the temple, and turning their attention to prayers and sacred readings. This is why they kindled a great fire. We too must imitate them.” [20]

Chrysostom taught that the communal responsibilities of Christian people far exceeded their merely needing to be faithful participants in the divine services. He called upon them to take responsibility for each other, and to function as an authentic family. If a faithful Christian is friends with a lazy Christian, the faithful one should go to the lazy one on Sunday, and literally drag him along to liturgy. While commenting on Ps. 50 Chrysostom stated that if an immoral Christian was seen by other congregants getting into the communion line the faithful should report this immediately to the priest so he can exclude him from communion. If a faithful Christian hears his brother blaspheme he should strike him in the mouth, and “sanctify his right hand.” The picture of communal responsibility is clear, and in our individualistic live-and-let-live context, appears extreme. But Chrysostom holds membership in the Church very high and assumes that there are many communal responsibilities associated with it designed by a loving God to work for the salvation of the entire community. And the responsibilities do not lie solely with the laity. The clergy must be serious pastors. They must not leave their sheep diseased or in danger. An example of such serious pastoring can be found in Chrysostom’s own life as a priest at the time of the tax riots in Antioch. Saint John preached a series of 21 sermons during the tense days following the riots. During this series Chrysostom sought to reform his people from the habit of swearing. No less than 15 times did Saint John address the subject in a period of just a few weeks, sermon after sermon. He knew his people were growing very weary of him preaching with the same focus, yet they had not ceased their bad habit and Chrysostom refused to pretend that they had and move on. Finally, he acknowledged their grievances and assured them that he could move on very quickly if they wished. They only needed to stop swearing and then he would move on. It was completely in their hands. He was a faithful physician, and not a professional or a show-man. He insisted on bettering his patients. The result was that swearing decreased and Chrysostom moved on, but a most important point about life in the Church had been expressed by the Saint. The life we lead in the Church is a life centered on personal change.

Brother and sisters, many of our Orthodox people do not have an authentic experience of what true ecclesial life is. We do not appreciate the miracle of life in the Church, and we content ourselves with an empty and alienating individualism. An evil spirit of “it’s just me and Jesus, baby” has permeated much of American Christianity today to our nation’s detriment. Our faith teaches us that there is no dichotomy between Jesus and the Church. Our Savior is not a floating head to be communed with apart from His sacred Body. Churchmanship is at an astonishing low in our times. Saint John Chrysostom stands at the throne of God ready to illumine us and our people about the miracle of sacred community, and to save us from the death of self-worship. [21] This age of individualism and religious game playing is a time for serious pastoring, revived churchmanship, and sacred obedience to the Church.

The Call to Trust the Lord in an Age of Acute Anxiety. Besides being an age of urbanization and radical individualism, contemporary life is an age of acute anxiety. The 20th century has been dubbed by some intellectuals the “age of anxiety.” That the last 100 years has witnessed a marked increase in anxiety levels and the numerous pathologies, such as depression, which stem from acute anxiety is a matter of scientific fact. In an authoritative and widely distributed article entitled The Age of Anxiety? Birth Cohort Change in Anxiety and Neuroticism, 1952-1993, [22] and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Case Western Reserve University Psychology Professor, Jean M. Twenge, documents through two meta-analyses of various sociological groups in America the effect of changing cultural times on personality development. Twenge documents the increase in anxiety levels in our culture in the last half-century, and argues that changes in the larger sociocultural environment have been a leading cause: changes such as the increase in violent crime, [23] worries concerning nuclear war, fear of disease such as AIDS, and the entrance of women into higher education and the workplace (a place of great stress). These contributing factors are exacerbated by media coverage, which leads to a greater perception of overall environmental threat.

More people visit doctors for anxiety than for colds. Anxiety is a predisposing factor for major depression and suicide attempts. Another area in which anxiety levels can be measured is in the prevalence of drug treatment for anxiety and depression. The common use of Prozac, so common that in recent times some one-fourth of the adult American population had been treated with it, is a major signal. Depression is an epidemic in our society. We live in an age of melancholy.

Many of our contemporary spiritual elders, such as Elder Paisios the Athonite, have addressed the anxiety of modern man. Elder Paisios taught that modern man is afflicted with three unique pains: divorce, cancer, and mental anxiety and illness. Out of his great love for his fellow man, Father Paisios wished to bear some of the burden. He could not bear the pain of divorce since he was not married, and he did not want to suffer mental anxiety and illness because it would affect his prayer. So he prayed for and received cancer, and taught modern men how to bear it for God. He wrote that cancer, with its typical drawn out process of killing its victim, has led untold numbers to repentance and has populated Paradise.

We have become an anxious people because our sins have increased, and our faith has waned. The 20th century was a century of acute anxiety because it was a century of hideous violence and unbridled licentiousness. Several years ago, in an effort to understand the 20th century better, I read Sir Martin Gilbert’s three-volume History of the 20th Century. His masterful work left me with a profound awareness of the 20th century as the most violent hundred years in the history of mankind. This is a judgment made by the World Wars and atrocities against human rights that filled the century. When the new abortion holocaust, which has taken the lives of more than 50 million unborn children in the last 34 years, is taken account violence becomes the defining motif of the century. Violence was the particular sin of Noah’s age that provoked the wrath of the Lord God to bring the universal flood upon mankind. [24] Certainly the Almighty cannot be pleased with the last hundred years, a century that many would like to forget.

We Christian believers must address our culture’s worry head-on. We are called by Jesus Christ to witness by our confidence and trust in Him in an anxious age. [25] We must live a life of serene trust in the Lord, the life of faith, and call our fellow man to such a trust. Saint John Chrysostom can be of great assistance to us in this calling. Chrysostom’s life was full of earthly sorrows: the loss of his father as an infant, and of his mother and sister as a young man; physical illnesses; tormenting passions; a turbulent and unstable civil and ecclesiastical ethos; [26] kidnapping and displacement; immense pastoral responsibilities; sustained opposition; false accusation by his brother bishops at the Synod of the Oak; imperial trickery; banishment and death in exile. Yes, it sounds like a Saint’s life does it not? One large cross upon which the Saint resolved to stay.

In the midst of these very sorrows Chrysostom found tremendous joy, and lived through them all by trusting confidently in the will of God. His most precious writings on this subject of faith in time of anxiety are, no doubt, those that were written by him while in exile. Here we have words crafted out of the very heat of the furnace, and we see the triumph of his faith. Two treatises particularly I would like to call to your attention. These two treatises were composed by Chrysostom in exile, not long before his death, in order to comfort his dear friend the Deaconess, Saint Olympias, who was suffering from extreme depression due to her spiritual father’s banishment.

The first is a small work, some fifteen pages, entitled That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself. In this beautiful work, Chrysostom teaches that there is only one thing in life to fear, only one thing to be anxious about. That one thing is sin. It is the only thing we should fear, and if we do fear it, then we will never have to fear anything else at all because the good God will see to it that nothing harms him who puts his trust in Him. I commend to each of you the reading of this profound treatise. The second work is longer, perhaps 100 pages (and needing its first English translation), entitled On Providence. In this more extended treatise, Chrysostom provides numerous justifications from reason and the creation to put one’s complete confidence in the governance of the Lord God, reminds his readers of the security of being a child of the one God, Who is the Father Almighty. God has the heart of a Father for us, and the resources of the Almighty to put a Father’s heart into action. There is no suffering endured in faith by the believer which will not be redemptive. And lastly, Chrysostom calls upon believers to remain in reverent silence before human outcomes and developments that are beyond our comprehension. Confident silence is the best response to events which we cannot understand. It was with such faith, such serene trust in the Lord God, that Chrysostom came to his end,lay down, received the Holy Gifts, made his Cross, and uttered his final words, with which I will conclude my lecture: “Glory to God for all things.”

Orthodox Christian Information Center



1. The title “Chrysostom” first was recorded by Pope Vigilius in the year 553: Constitutum Vigilii papae de tribus capitulis (PL 69:101).

2. This three-fold division is reflected in the subtitle of the most recent scholarly biography of Chrysostom in the English language by J. N. D. Kelly (1995) entitled, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom- Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop, Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY. For a more recent contribution in German, but with an English translation, I recommend Rudolph Brändle (1999) Johannes Chrysostomus: Bischoff- Reformer- Märtyrer, Köln: Kohlhammer: Berlin. English translation by John Cawte and Silke Trzcionka (2004), Saint Paul’s Publications: Strathfield, Australia.

3. Many of Libanius’ speeches are extant, and a nice collection exists in English in the Loeb series.

4. Thdr. I.51-52; SC 117, p. 50.

5. So esteemed was Saint John’s preaching that he was often asked to preach in the presence of and often in place of the Bishop or Bishops in attendance. Some of his homilies from this period reflect the unenviable position of Chrysostom being the first preacher to be followed by a bishop’s delivery. In these cases, though Chrysostom was to inevitably outshine his successor preacher he carefully laced his sermon with appreciation and praise for the bishop so as to soften the transition!

6. Chrysostom’s most famous 20th century biographer, Chrysostomos Baur, argued that Chrysostom wrote more than he preached, and that most of what we consider homilies were in fact never preached. Baur is veritably alone in this opinion.

7. Chrysostom’s sermons on Hebrews were published by the priest Constantios after Saint John’s death. They are taken from stenographer’s notes so we can see in them something close to the actual pre-editing homiletic content.

8. It was called this because it led north to Constantinople/New Rome.

9. Bishop Nektarios, Chrysostom’s predecessor, had been a favorite of Emperor Theodosios and was elected to the throne of Constantinople while still a layman.

10. The synodos enthemousa came into existence under his predecessor Bishop Nektarios.

11. The Church historian Socrates recorded that Chrysostom preached from the ambo, not the high place, because his voice was not strong.

12. Saint Jerome, who probably spent time in Antioch while Chrysostom was preaching, commented upon several of his works, and mentioned him in his famous Illustrious Men. Saint Augustine of Hippo was conversant with Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood.

13. Those who would like to explore this particular topic more deeply are directed to my doctoral dissertation to be published by St Herman Press in the coming months entitled, Terrestrial Angels: Marriage and Virginity according to Saint John Chrysostom.

14. On Vainglory and the Proper Education of Children.

15 Homily 1 on the Statues, NPNF, p. 343. He expected Christians by their zeal for God and His law to strike fear in their perverse fellow citizens. Chrysostom expected the Jews and Greeks to tremble at the shadows of the Christians for fear that they might rebuke their blasphemy and immorality.

16. This is most clear in his Homilies on the Statues delivered in A.D. 387 at the time of the tax riot. Throughout these homilies Chrysostom appeals to his congregation’s pride of belonging to such an esteemed πόλις, calls to mind the distinguished history of Antioch, and calls upon his listeners to prove themselves worthy of the city’s greatness by their virtue.

17. The replacement of the public bath with the private bath is largely a fruition of Christian vision and of the preaching of Chrysostom and other Holy Fathers of his age. Ward, Roy Bowen (1992). ‘Women in the Roman Baths,’ in Harvard Theological Review, 85:2.125-47. Principles from the Christianization of public baths ought to be applied today to the recent outcrop of coed gymnasia, which share many of the same features of the old Roman public bath.

18. Cat, ill 3, 17.

19. Homily 12 On the Incomprehensible Nature of God.

20. Homily 11 On the Incomprehensible Nature of God.

21. For those who wish to explore more fully Saint John Chrysostom’s ecclesiology and immense vision of church life I recommend Protopresbyter Gus George Christo’s (2006), The Church’s Identity Established through Images according to Saint John Chrysostom, Rollingsford, New Hampshire: Orthodox Research Institute.

22. Twenge (2000), Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 79, No. 6, 1007-1021.

23. Twenge’s article does not address the holocaust of abortion in the last 34 years. Mother Theresa of Calcutta powerfully articulated the point as no other that as long as a society sanctions the most violent crime possible, the murder of an infant in the womb by its own mother, no chance exists for controlling other violent crimes.

24. Genesis 6.

25. Perhaps now more than at any time in the history of the Church the three petitions for peace of the Great Litany that opens the Divine Liturgy resonate with great power among the congregants.

26. When I was new in the priesthood and disturbed by the many sorrows I had become privy to, a certain pious nun, Abbess Victoria of St Barbara Monastery, used to counsel me, “Father, if we could live through 4th century Antioch, we can live through anything.” It was a great encouragement.

Fr. Josiah Trenham

8 февраля 2011 г.

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Храм Новомученников Церкви Русской. Внести лепту
ivan27 февраля 2011, 05:00
very good, something we need to learn and live
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