John Chrysostom

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John Chrysostom (347 - 407) was a notable Christian bishop and preacher from the 4th century. He is famous for eloquence in public speaking and his denunication of abuse of authority in the church of the time. He had notable ascetic sensibilities. His name (given to him after his death) comes form the Greek chrysostomos, "golden mouthed". The Eastern Orthodox churches honors him as a saint and counts him among the Three Holy Hierarchs, together with Saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian.

He was born in Antioch of high-bred parents: his father was a high ranking military officer. His father died soon after his birth and so he was brought up by his Christian mother. He was baptised in 370 and ordained a "reader". He had began his education under a pagan teacher named Libanius, but now went on to study theology under Diodorus of Tarsus (one of the leaders of the later Antiochan school) while practising extreme asceticism. He was not statisfied, however and became a hermit (circa 375) and remained so untill poor health forced a return to Antioch.

He was then appointed to be a deacon in 381, and went on to presbyter in 386. It seems this was the happiest period of his life. Over about twelve years, he gained much popularity for the eloquence of his public speaking. Notable are his insightfull expositions of Bible passages and moral teaching. The most valuable of his works are his Homilies on various books of the Bible. He emphasised alms giving. He was most concerned with the spiritual and temporal needs of the poor. He also spoke out out against abuse of wealth and personal property. In many respects, the following he amassed was no surprise. His straightforward understanding of the Scriptures (in contrast to the Alexandrian tendency towards allegorical interpritation) meant that the themes of his talks were eminently social, explaining the Christian's conduct in life.

One incident that happened during his service in Antioch perhaps illustrates the influence of his sermons best. Around the time he arrived in Antioch, the bishop had to intervene with the Emperor Theodosius I on behalf of citizens who had gone on a riotous rampage in which statues of the Emperor and his family were mutilated. During the weeks of Lent in 397, John preached twenty one sermons in which he entreated the people to see the error of their ways. These apparently had a lasting impression on the people: many pagans reportedly converted to Christianity as a result of them. In the event, Theodosius' vengence was not as severe as it might have been.

In 398 he was called (somewhat against his will) to be the bishop in Constantinople. He deplored the fact that Imperial court protocol would now assign to him presidence over the highest state officials. During his time as bishop he bullishly refused to host lavish entertainments. This meant he was popular with the common people, but unpopular with the wealthy and the clergy. In a sermon soon after his arrival he said "people praise the predecessor to disparage the successor". His reforms of the clergy were also unpopular with these groups. He told visiting regional preachers to return to the churches they were meant to be serving - without any pay out.

His time there was to be far less at ease than in Antioch. Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria, wanted to bring Constantinople under his sway and opposed John's apointment to Constantinople. Being an opponent of Origen's teachings, he accused John of being too partial to the teachings of that master. Theophilus had disciplined four Egyptian monks (known as "the tall brothers") over their support of Origen's teachings. They fled to and were welcomed by John. He made another enemy in Eudoxia, the wife of the eastern Emperor Arcadius, who assumed (perhaps with justification) that his denunciations of extravagance in feminine dress were aimed at herself.

Depending on one's outlook, John was either tactless or fearless when denouncing offences in high places. An alliance was soon formed against him by Eudoxia, Theophilus and others of his enemies. They held a synod in 403 to charge John, in which the Origen factor was used against him. It resulted in his deposition and banishment. He was called back by Arcadius almost immediately, however. The people were very angry about his departure. There was also an earth tremour which was seen as a sign of God's anger. Peace was shortlived. A silver statue of Eudoxia was erected near his cathedral. John denounced the dedication ceremonies. He spoke against her in harsh terms: "Again Herodias rages; again she is confounded; again she demands the head of John on a charger" (an alusion to the events surrounding the death of John the Baptist). Once again he was banished, this time to Cucusus in Armenia.

The bishop of Rome (Innocent I at this time) protested at this banishment, but to no avail. John wrote letters which still held great influence in Constantinople. As a result of this, he was further banished to Pityus (on the eastern edge of the Black Sea). However, he never reached this destination as he died during the journey.

His Importance

During a time when city clergy were subject to much critism for their high life style, John was determined to reform his clergy at Constantinople. These efforts met with resistence and limited success. He was not an important theologian, but an excellent preacher. He rejected the contemporary trend for allegory, instead speaking plainly and applying Bible passages and lessons to everyday life.

His banishments demonstrated that secular powers dominated the eastern church at this period in history. It also demonstrated the rivalry between Contantinople and Alexandria, both wanting to be recognised as the preminant eastern see. This mutual hostility would eventually lead to much suffering for the church and the Eastern Empire. Meanwhile in the west, Rome's primacy had been unquestioned from the fourth century onwards. An interesting point to note in the wider development of the papacy, is the fact that Innocent's protests had availed nothing: demonstrating the lack of influence the bishops of Rome held in the east at this time.

Two of his writings deserve special mention. He harmonized the liturgical life of the church by revising the prayers and rubrics of the Divine Liturgy, or celebration of the Holy Eucharist. To this day, Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom, together with Roman Catholic churches that are in the Eastern or Byzantine rites. These same churches continue to read his Catechetical Homily at every Easter, the greatest feast of the church year.

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