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Homilies from the Heart: The Life of John Chrysostom

“A bright, cheerful, gentle soul . . . elevated, refined, transformed by the touch of heaven”

By: Gregory K. Roa

Homilies from the Heart: The Life of John Chrysostom: “A bright, cheerful, gentle soul . . . elevated, refined, transformed by the touch of heaven”  by Gregory K. Roa

Lent of the year 387 was an anxious season for the Christians of Antioch.

They lived in one of the largest, wealthiest, and most magnificent cities in the Roman Empire, and their numbers had multiplied since Peter and Paul’s missionary work there. Their main church was one of the city’s most beautiful buildings.

But despite their history and heritage, Antioch’s future was in jeopardy. The sudden imposition of a new tax had triggered riots, and an angry mob had destroyed statues of the imperial family. Martial law was imposed, and messengers were sent to Constantinople to inform the emperor. Rumor had it that he would punish this personal insult by leveling the city.

Antioch’s archbishop made two fateful decisions. First, he raced to the capital to plead for mercy. Second, he left behind his assistant, John, with the charge of calming the terrified citizens.

Over the next few weeks, John gave a series of sermons that captured the public’s attention. He skillfully wove traditional Lenten themes of repentance and self-reflection together with exhortations to turn to God for spiritual and civic deliverance. But John was not just trying to raise morale; he used the crisis to raise people’s minds and hearts to God.

In these Homilies on the Statues, John called his hearers to the heroic holiness that characterized his own life. He urged them to see the impending disaster as a call to prayer, penance, and unwavering trust in God. His preaching was so moving that even non-Christians took his words to heart. The riots ceased, and after several anxious weeks, the emperor agreed to spare the city.

The episode made John famous and became part of the lore that later helped to earn him his nickname: Chrysostom, Greek for “golden mouth” or “golden tongue.” It was also his first brush with imperial politics—a foreshadowing of clashes that would eventually cost him his life.

A Foundation for Holiness.

John was born in Antioch around the year 350 and raised by his widowed mother, Anthousa, a pious Christian. He received a classical education from a famous pagan scholar who praised his talents, saying that John should have become his replacement—if only he had not chosen Christianity.

It had not been a simple decision for John. He loved the cultural attractions of Antioch’s courts and theaters. But when his close boyhood friend joined a local monastery, John knew he had to take a more serious approach to his own faith.

As he was considering his choices, a courageous bishop named Meletios took charge in Antioch. Together, these three witnesses—mother, friend, and bishop—moved the young man to make holiness his great ambition.

John, too, became part of a community of ascetic monks. He lived in seclusion in the hills outside the city and devoted himself to studying the word of God. According to one of his contemporaries, he “fell in love with sacred studies” and learned the Old and New Testaments by heart. He might gladly have remained a monk forever, but after six years, the ascetic rigors proved too much for him. Bad health forced him back to the city and caused him suffering for the rest of his life.

Aiming High. The monks’ loss was Antioch’s gain. John soon became active in the local church, first as a deacon and then as a priest. He began to produce writings—a defense of monasticism, a lives of the saints, and an important treatise, “On the Priesthood.” But his writings display a deep conviction that people from all walks of life can and should live in close union with Jesus. For example, he counseled newly baptized adults to establish a routine: they should start each day with morning prayer, and they should conclude each evening by asking God’s forgiveness for any sins.

Thanks, perhaps, to his mother’s influence, John strongly defended the sanctity of marriage and family life. He went so far as to call the home “a little church” and underscored the importance of the marriage vocation: “By becoming good husbands and wives, it is possible for us to surpass all others.” Parents should train their children as “athletes for Christ,” he urged. “When we teach our children to be good, to be gentle, to be forgiving, . . . we instill virtue in their souls, and reveal the image of God within them.”

Reveling in the Liturgy. John became Antioch’s chief homilist, often preaching on Scripture, and especially on Paul’s letters. Those who heard him marveled that he quoted from memory and never used notes. His homilies were so good that people even had them transcribed and published. Consequently, much of John’s preaching has survived to become a resource for preachers down through the centuries.

John also reveled in celebrating the liturgy and its cycle of feast days. He enthusiastically organized gatherings for saints’ festivals, all-night vigils, and processions to martyrs’ shrines. For him, such events were occasions to call people to God—the devout, to celebrate their faith, and the sinful, to receive mercy. “Let everyone enter into the joy of the Lord! The first and the last, receive your wages.” He wrote. “Let no one bewail his transgressions, for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.”

Bishop and Reformer. John became so popular that around 398, a new emperor, Arkadios, and his wife, Eudoxia, had him forcibly escorted to Constantinople and consecrated as bishop. They felt that their capital deserved the empire’s most renowned orator. Accepting this as God’s will, John strove to be the best pastor he could for the city. And as he had done in Antioch, he preached compassion and denounced the lack of charity he saw in Constantinople’s so-called Christian society.

The poor are not like marble statues that one can simply walk past and ignore, he said. “There is nothing so cold as a Christian who does not care about the salvation of others.” Rather than just preaching about the Christian life, John also led by example. He lived simply and sold off extravagant decorations from the episcopal palace to feed the hungry and to build hospitals.

John called on other Church leaders to reform. He decried sexual scandals among the clergy, chided certain monks for unruly behavior, and deposed several bishops convicted of financial abuses. Understandably, these reforms earned him many enemies.

“Whom Shall I Fear?” None of John’s enemies was more powerful than the Empress Eudoxia. Friendly at first, she came to resent the outspoken bishop. Court intrigues and factions played a part. Sometimes, too, when she attended his services in the great cathedral, he denounced the extravagance of women’s fashions—a not-too-subtle dig at her wardrobe. Once, after Eudoxia had underhandedly appropriated a widow’s estate, John publicly compared the empress to the infamous biblical queen Jezebel (see 1 Kings 21).

The rift with Eudoxia might have been repaired, had it not been for a dispute with Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria. When John ordered him to Constantinople to answer various charges of abuse, Theophilus allegedly sought help from some of Eudoxia’s advisors. The group orchestrated a council of clerics who were disgruntled by John’s earlier reforms. Together, they exacted revenge by voting to depose him from office.

Persuaded by this sham council, Arkadios sentenced John to exile. There was a brief “cease-fire” period, but John’s efforts to vindicate himself did not succeed. As the feud broke out anew, he likened Eudoxia to Herod’s wife, who had connived in John the Baptizer’s murder: “She seeks to have John’s head on a platter!”

When Arkadios again decreed that John must go, in 404, the people of Constantinople were outraged and threatened a revolt. John averted a tragedy by agreeing to leave peacefully. Just before he slipped away, he consoled his congregation with a statement of faith:

If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear? Though the waves and the sea and the anger of princes are roused against me, they are less to me than a spider’s web. . . .
If God 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. . . . 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.

Exile and Return. John began a long and painful journey. As he was shuttled from one frontier outpost to another, his frail health worsened. Still, he found the energy to write letters of encouragement to his supporters, who were being persecuted; he worried more about their sufferings than his own.

He never ceased appealing to the pope and other bishops for help, but it was already too late. In 407, as John was being transferred to yet another remote site on the Black Sea, death overtook him. Appropriately, he died in the chapel of a shrine to a local martyr—another “athlete for Christ” whose pursuit of holiness had cost him his life.

More than thirty years afterwards, John was vindicated. The heir to Arkadios and Eudoxia bowed to the will of Constantinople’s citizens by returning Chrysostom’s relics to the capital and publicly asking God to forgive his parents’ sins.

Today, John Chrysostom is honored as a Doctor of the Church and one of the greatest fathers of the early Eastern Church. His life more than matched his preaching, and his works have inspired Christians down through the ages. Blessed John Newman, who was an avid scholar of Church history, summed up his influence in this way: “A bright, cheerful, gentle soul; a sensitive heart, a temperament open to emotion and impulse; and all this elevated, refined, transformed by the touch of heaven—such was St. John Chrysostom.”

Gregory Roa lives near Washington D.C. with his wife and three children.