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John Chrysostom

Bishop of Constantinople, Teacher of the Faith, 407, 13 September

Wall painting of john Chrysostom “It was for his sermons that John earned the title "Chrysostom" (golden mouthed). They were always on point, they explained the Scriptures with clarity, and they sometimes went on for hours. Made a reluctant bishop of Constantinople in 398, a move that involved him in imperial politics.

He criticized the rich for not sharing their wealth, fought to reform the clergy, prevented the sale of ecclesiastical offices, called for fidelity in marriage, encouraged practices of justice and charity. Archbishop and Patriarch of Constantinople. Revised the Greek Liturgy. Greek Father of the Church. Proclaimed Doctor of the Church in 451.

John's sermons caused nobles and bishops to work to remove him from his diocese; twice exiled from his diocese. Banished to Pythius, and died on the way.”

from Orthodox wiki - this site gives a lot of interesting information about his theology.

It is interesting how often the saints lives are marked by persecution while they were alive. Not only by the secular powers either. Also, how often they earn their place in the calendar for tackling corruption in the Church!

Beggar“He generally rejected the contemporary trend for emphasis on allegory, instead speaking plainly and applying Bible passages and lessons to everyday life.” He is alleged to have said “Mules bear fortunes and Christ dies of hunger at your gate”. Unlike St Peter Chrysologous who was an Early Church Doctor and was afraid of wearying his audience by giving five minutes homilies, John was just the opposite and spoke for hours. A very useful little book is ‘Drinking From the Hidden Fountain – A Patristic Breviary’ edited by Thomas Spidlik. A selection of excerpts from the patristic literature. There is much wisdom to be found in the writings and lives of the Fathers of the Church. It is well worth reading about them. There are more quotes from John Chrysostom than anyone else. The quotes used here are from this book. From this selection he comes across as down to earth, practical. Uncompromising in preaching the difficult demands of the gospel to forgive our enemies, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

Drawing of an elderly couple huggingI particularly like his writings on marriage. In a sermon on Ephesians 5 21-33 where the usual focus is on Paul’s injunction to wives to be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, John addresses his remarks to husbands “Now listen to what Paul requires of you. Follow the same example ‘Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church’. You see how much obedience is asked of you. Now hear how much love is required.” He goes on to give examples including being prepared to die, and to forgive all marital wrongdoing. “You want your wife to obey you as the Church obeys Christ? Then you must care for her as much as Christ cares for the church. “ “By resorting to intimidation you might be able to keep a domestic servant attached to you – but not even him, for probably the servant will leave you and escape. The companion of your life, the mother of your children, the basis of all your joy, ought not to be tied to you by threats and fear, rather by love and the warmth of emotion. What sort of union would that be in which the wife is afraid of her husband? And what pleasure could her husband find in staying with her as if she were a servant?” Strong stuff, especially by the standards of the time. Perhaps we forget how revolutionary the Christian gospel was. And still should be. He has a lot of beautiful things to say about how the marital relationship is the expression of a sacrament, calling it a ‘beautiful state’. He had no time for the idea that virginity or celibacy has any special value over and above that of the married state. They are both equally valuable and each person should fulfil their calling to whichever state is their vocation.

Hand reaching out for moneyHe had a lot of very strong stuff to say about the rich and powerful and the use and misuse of their wealth and power. Some of it we might cavil against today, even those of us who do not consider ourselves rich and powerful. He feels we should take Jesus’ advice to give our riches to the poor rather more literally than we do. For example, he says that even if you suspect a beggar is exaggerating or falsifying his poverty, or will misuse anything given to him, the "beggar's made up tale is evidence of our inhumanity": Beggar with mohican and dog“It is folly, it is madness, to fill our wardrobes full of clothes and to regard with indifference a human being, …made in the image and likeness of God who is trembling with cold and almost unable to stand. If the poor fellow is putting it on it is because he is trapped between his own wretchedness and your cruelty. Yes, you are cruel and guilty of inhumanity. …But the shame and the blame for his made up tale falls less on him than on you. He has in fact a right to be pitied, finding himself in such an abyss of destitution. You on the other hand deserve a thousand punishments for having brought him to such humiliation.” One starts to see why the rich and powerful of his day turned on him!

Elderly woman holding rosary beadsIn a commentary on Isaiah his thoughts might seem familiar to a Buddhist. “There are good things, bad things and things that are indifferent. Some of the things that are indifferent people consider to be good or bad while in reality they are neither.” He goes on to contrast poverty and wealth as an example. “Poverty is in general thought to be an evil. Not so: if someone who is poor practices watchfulness and wisdom, poverty itself can completely overcome evil. On the other hand wealth is generally regarded as a good thing. But that…depends how you use it. If wealth were a good thing in itself and on its own account then everyone who possesses it ought to be good. Yet not all rich people are virtuous, only those who manage their money in a responsible way. Therefore wealth is not a good thing in itself, it is only an instrument for doing good. So with regard to indifferent things they are either good or bad according to the use that is made of them.”

Church with threatening skyRegrettably his arguments against the ‘Judaizers’ of the time have been used to justify christian anti-semitism. From Orthodox Wiki; “Many researchers believe that the purpose of these attacks was to prevent Christians from joining with Jewish customs, and thus prevent the erosion of Chrysostom's flock. Others characterize Chrysostom and other Church fathers as anti-Semitic.” It is hard to believe he intended his words against the Jewish people to be used in the way they were. On the other hand if you google his quotes you find the actual words he used and the sentiments expressed very forceful, very shocking. Similarly he had a lot to say about women and their role in the church and their spirituality which I could never agree with. They seem to convey a deeply misogynistic attitude quite at odds with some of his writings on marriage. He had firm views on the high calling of the priestly vocation which may have contributed to the problems of clericalism and abuse of power within the Churches.  So I feel unexpectedly ambivalent. Even the printed words retain enormous power, and one can onlyWorried woman begin to imagine the force of his oratory. Much of it is still challenging and relevant today. On the other hand they have been used for what I consider to be terrible destructive purposes. A mixed legacy. There has always been a strand of hatred and violent intolerance in Christianity. We see it emerging today in the proposal to burn copies of the Koran in the US. I wonder if this is part of John's legacy. I wonder how he would feel about it. It is a legacy I do not want to inherit. I have been thinking about his lengthy diatribes and the letter of James, 1:26 & 3:3-7 . Maybe words are another example of things that are indifferent in themselves, but become good or bad according the use that is made of them. Maybe Peter Chrysologous had the more excellent way.

I have found it incredibly difficult to keep this to any sort of reasonable length. You may think I have failed. It is hard to give a proper flavour of his writing without quoting at some length. He does not lend himself to pithy soundbites. A prayer of John Chrysostom which was used at the conclusion of Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer, and so was part of the regular worship of the Anglican Church for many centuries:

Man praying in a group

“Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and have promised that when two or three are gathered together in your name you will grant their requests. Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of your servants, as may be most expedient for them, granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the world to come, life everlasting. Amen”

One of the four liturgies of the Greek Orthodox Church is named after him It dates from the 5th century. It is the normal or day to day liturgy and is celebrated every Sunday and every holiday, (except when one of the other liturgies is celebrated!) I think one of John Chrysostom's sermons, or part of one is also read every year, possibly at Easter. All about him, a good read, and about 5th century monastic life.


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