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John Chrysostom: saint for our times.

"The most charming of the Greek Fathers, and one of the most congenial personalities of Christian antiquity"--Joannes Quasten.

Born c.340-350 at Antioch, John was raised by his wealthy widowed mother, educated by Diodorus, Bishop of Tarsus, and the famous pagan Libanius. "At the age of 18 (says his biographer Palladius) he delighted in divine learning," impressing Bishop Meletius, by whom he was baptised (at age 18) and appointed lector.

The ascetic John moved from domestic mortification to the desert life, but ill health forced his return after four years. Ordained deacon (381) and priest (386), he was Antioch's principal pulpit preacher until, under imperial pressure, he was consecrated Patriarch of Constantinople (February 26, 398). His uncompromising sermons denounced Empress Eudoxia ("a Jezabel and Herodias") for immorality, the rich for selfish luxury, and the bishops for hypocrisy and loose-living.

Making common cause, his enemies had him deposed (August 403) by the rigged Synod of the Oak. Popular clamour prevented his exile until renewed hostilities ended in his enemies' triumph. Sent to a bleak spot, with harsh travelling conditions and harsher guards, he died on September 14, 407. Thirty years later, his remains were returned to Constantinople and reverently interred (January 27, 438) in the Church of the Apostles.

His many church portraits include a mosaic in Hagia Sophia (illustrated above). Manuscript illuminations emphasise his high forehead and sunken cheeks, often depicting him with St. Paul, whose bust he kept on his desk; the Byzantine painter Ulpius envisaged him as short and serious-looking; Feast Days January 27, September 13, November 13.

John is the most eulogised of Fathers; even Gibbon spares a few kind words. The nickname Chrysostom (Golden-Mouth) compliments his eloquence. The great German classicist Wilamowitz said his style was "the harmonious expression of an Attic soul." Photius, who excerpted more of his works than of any other, concludes, "I always marvel at the style of this thrice-blessed man, because he makes his listeners' profit his main aim." A pleasant anecdote has an old woman interrupt his sermon because its Greek was too sophisticated; he obligingly switched into the vernacular.

His works (2000 manuscripts) fill 15 volumes (47-62) of Migne's Patrology. Hundreds are exegeses of Old and New Testament books. Those on Romans are held to be his best, marked by John's correlated respect for pagan Rome and delight in its new Christianity. They are complemented by panegyrics on Old Testament notables and Christian martyrs, also homilies against pagans, Jews, and heretics, especially the one on God's Incomprehensible Nature.

John was more concerned with pastoral care of bodies and souls than abstruse philosophy, composing both On the Priesthood (the first such Christian treatise) and On the Education of Children, with such still-timely admonitions as (17) "The present-day corruption goes unchecked because nobody protects their children, nobody speaks to them of chastity, the vanity of possessions, and the commandments of God," adding that they should not be unduly indulged with hugging or fine clothes.

He thundered against the vulgarity of fashionable weddings (equally timely!), and above all the games and theatre as "Satan's assembly," a breeding ground for riots. John was also an early critic of Sunday sports.

Concern for the poor permeates his words and deeds; e.g., his 11th homily on Acts deplores the poverty of half the populations of Antioch and Constantinople, while his personal philanthropies earned him the extra nickname John the Almsgiver, further vindication of Julian's complaint that Christians 'out-charitied' the pagans.

Theologically, John uses such Nicene formulas as Homoousion. Pelagians twisted his views on children's innocence to prove he sided with them over Original Sin, a claim rebutted by Augustine (Against Julian 1.27). He was passionate over the Sacraments, calling (e.g.) the altar "an awe-inspiring and divine table," thus earning the sobriquet Teacher of the Eucharist. His Mariology is striking. He refused her the now-fashionable title Theotokos (Mother of God), while snide remarks on her human weaknesses earned him eyebrow-raised rebuke ("in those words John Chrysostom went too far") from St. Thomas Aquinas.

FURTHER READING:

59,900 'Google' sites include his Catholic Encyclopedia notice. There are 16 volumes of variously translated works in the Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford, 1839-1852), also 5 by P. Schaff & H. Wace (New York, 1889-1893). See further J.N.D. Kelly's Golden Mouth: the Story of John Chrysostom: Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Ithaca, 1996).

From a homily by St. John Chrysostom, bishop, before his exile

Life to me means Christ, and death is again

The waters have risen and severe storms are upon us, but we do not fear drowning, for we stand firmly upon a rock. Let the sea rage, it cannot break the rock. Let the waves rise, they cannot sink the boat of Jesus. What are we to fear? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. The confiscation of our goods? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world's threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence.

Do you not hear the Lord saying: "Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst"? Will he be absent, then, when so many people united in love are gathered together? I have his promise; I am surely not going to rely on my own strength! I have what he has written; that is my staff, my security, my peaceful harbour. Let the world be in upheaval. I hold to his promise and read his message; that is my protecting wall and garrison. What message? Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world!

If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? Though waves and the sea and the anger of princes are roused against me, they are less to me than a spider's web. Indeed, unless you, my brothers, had detained me, I would have left this very day. For I always say: Lord, your will be done; not what this fellow or that would have me do, but what you want me to do. That is my strong tower, my immovable rock, my staff that never gives way. If God wants something, let it be done! If he 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, and the body cannot be separated from the head nor the head from the 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.

You are my fellow citizens, my fathers, my brothers, my sons, my limbs, my body. You are my light, sweeter to me than the visible light. For what can the rays of the sun bestow on me that is comparable to your love? The sun's light is useful in my earthly life, but your love is fashioning a crown for me in the life to come.

Barry Baldwin is Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Calgary in Alberta.
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Title Annotation:Fathers Of The Church
Author:Baldwin, Barry
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 1, 2005
Words:1257
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