Today is St. John Chrysostom’s feast.
Ordained as a deacon, and then as a presbyter in the city of Antioch, Syria, this ascetic-turned-cleric became wildly popular for his clear and practical preaching – as well as for his unrelenting dedication to the poor. At the age of 49, St. John was taken somewhat against his will to the capital of the eastern Roman empire, Constantinople, to be made archbishop. Once there, he unleashed a radical top-down program of moral, fiscal and spiritual reform among the clergy. The elite in Constantinople would eventually rue the day he was consecrated their chief shepherd.
St. John is one of my favorite Fathers of the Church. I am particularly enamored by his (voluminous!) eloquent homilies, by his protective love of the poor, his teaching on marriage and family life, his reflections on the priesthood, his magnificent paschal homily, and his extreme boldness in confronting injustice and corruption.
This boldness would eventually lead to his 2x banishment from Constantinople. St. John embraced his trials in a manner he himself praised in the example of his beloved St. Paul,
Though housed in a narrow prison, Paul dwelt in heaven. He accepted beatings and wounds more readily than others reach out for rewards. Sufferings he loved as much as prizes; indeed he regarded them as his prizes, and therefore called them a grace or gift. Reflect on what this means. To depart and be with Christ was certainly a reward, while remaining in the flesh meant struggle. Yet such was his longing for Christ that he wanted to defer his reward and remain amid the fight; those were his priorities.
Now imagine Archbishop John preaching this homily in the presence of the Imperial court:
For our money is the Lord’s, however we may have gathered it. If we provide for those in need, we shall obtain great plenty. This is why God has allowed you to have more: not for you to waste on prostitutes, drink, fancy food, expensive clothes, and all the other kinds of indolence, but for you to distribute to those in need. Just as an official in the imperial treasury, if he neglects to distribute where he is ordered, but spends instead for his own indolence, plays the penalty and is put to death, so also the rich man is a kind of steward of the money which is owed for distribution to the poor.
Or again, preaching this sermon before the splendidly clad empress, Aelia Eudoxia:
If you wish to honor the Eucharistic Victim, offer your own soul for which the Victim was immolated. Make your own soul all of gold. If your soul remains viler than lead or clay, what good does it do to have a golden chalice? Do you wish to honor the Body of Christ? Then do not disdain Him when you see Him in rags. After having honored Him in Church with silken vestments, do not leave Him to die of cold outside for lack of clothing. For it is the same Jesus Who says, “This is My Body” and Who says “I was hungry but you would not feed Me. Whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me.” The Body of Christ in the Eucharist demands pure souls, not costly garments. But in the poor He demands all our care. Let us act wisely. Let us honor Christ as He Himself wishes to be honored; the most acceptable honor to one whom we would honor is the honor which He desired, not that which we ourselves imagine. Peter thought he was honoring his Master by not letting the Lord wash his feet; and yet it was just the opposite. Give Him the honor which He Himself has asked for, by giving your money to the poor. Once again what God wants is not so much golden chalices but golden souls.
One of St. John’s contemporaries, also a bishop in Asia Minor, St. Basil of Caesarea, possessed a similarly audacious apostolic courage. Once Basil was confronted by the emperor Valens’ prefect of the guard, who threatened Basil with poverty, exile, torture, and death if he failed to give public approval to the heretical, and emperor-supported, Arian doctrine. Basil replied that none of these threats frightened him, since he had nothing to lose except a few rags and books. Banishment could not remove him from the care of God, torture could not significantly diminish a body almost dead already, and death could only come as a friend to hasten his last journey. The prefect exclaimed in amazed outrage that he had never had anyone speak thus to him.
“Perhaps,” replied Basil, “you have never met a bishop before.”
St. John was a bishop seven times refined, showing his mettle especially in his last days lived out in exile. At the age of 59, he was driven by the emperor’s orders to the northernmost boundary of the empire, subjected to physical and verbal abuse by the guard who accompanied him. He was forced to make long marches, was exposed to sun’s blazing heat, to the rains and the cold of the nights. His body, already weakened by several severe illnesses, finally broke down. On 14 September, after arriving at Pontus, Chrysostom asked to rest but he was forced to continue his march. Soon he succumbed to his weakness and later in the day Chrysostom died along the roadside. His last words were, δόξα τῷ θεῷ πάντων ἕνεκεν – Glory be to God for all things.
Here is the lovely Eastern “troparion” sung joyously for his feast:
Father John, intercede for us that we may possess your eloquence in life and in death. Amen.