In the second half of the 4th Century the world was blessed with a preacher still unsurpassed in eloquence, and today is his feast day: St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople.
St. Chrysostom (which literally means “golden-mouthed”) was born in Antioch and trained under the famous philosopher Libanius, who named him “brilliant,” and the biblical scholar Diodorus. Though Libanius wanted him to become a lawyer, John chose the more-secure-but-less-lucrative route of ministry, and was baptized at the Easter Vigil in ca 368 at the age of 18.
He lived as a hermit for a while, contemplating the life of a, well, contemplative, but was finally ordained into the priesthood and served the Bishop of Antioch, Flavian.
He became famous for his sermons as he preached with the “scriptures in one hand and the headlines in the other,” to borrow a popular phrase. His sermons were thematic and contemporary, addressing topics like social justice, the equality of women in society, his opposition to slavery, and emphasizing the role of laypeople in worship and the church.
He even did a whole series on “toppling statues” as the people of Antioch had rioted and destroyed some statues of the emperor. How’s that for timely?
In 398 St. Chrysostom was chosen (surprisingly) to become Bishop of Constantinople (or is it Istanbul?). This was an important and consequential post in the Church. He won people’s affections for his simplicity, honesty, clarity, and eloquent sermons. Unfortunately, these qualities also caused many people to despise him…if he were around today he’d have gotten many emails. He refused to play political games, and had no problem ousting clergy and Deacons for murder, adultery, and the like.
In 403 the empress and Theophilus of Alexandria conspired to take down this popular and principled prelate at a conference called the Synod of the Oak. There they condemned St. Chrysostom on false charges of heresy and he was officially banished from the city.
The people were outraged and riotous and, coincidentally, the empress herself had a personal tragedy. These events were taken by religious leaders as “signs from God” that they had made a mistake, and they brought St. Chrysostom out of exile. But, because he wouldn’t admit any wrongdoing, they prevented him from taking his seat in the cathedral. Still, John had enormous pull, and on the Easter Vigil, 3,000 converts came to the Baths of Constantine for baptism that year, which amounted to a riot itself. Soldiers broke up the service, and some were killed.
Unable to control the people with this golden-tongued popular prophet around, John was once again exiled, this time to Armenia. He continued to write, however, and was able to be enormously influential even in exile as he corresponded with friends back in Constantinople.
Pope Innocent I finally was prompted to get involved and, following the people’s lead, supported his Bishop. He condemned the Synod of the Oak as illegal, and when he sent papal envoys to Constantinople to investigate the ordeal, his envoy was treated poorly, some were even jailed, and sent back to Rome.
Now Pope Innocent was furious.
As retaliation for the Pope’s intrusion into his matters, the emperor had St. Chrysostom further exiled, and moved to an even more remote location. Having been given orders to vacate Armenia and move to isolated Pityus, John took up this cross on foot, bareheaded, and began the journey that would be his last.
He died at Comana in Pontus, never reaching Pityus. In his last breath he said, “Glory to God for all things.”
His grave is in the choir chapel at St. Peter’s Basilica. He is still remembered as the most eloquent preacher the church has ever produced, and his Christmas sermon is still preached by many faithful clergy every year.
St. Chrysostom is a reminder for me, and for the church, of a few things:
First, a sermon isn’t worth its salt if it doesn’t say something that connects God’s promises to the headlines of the day.
And, secondly, that every good pastor/prophet who does the above will have enemies. Sometimes, unfortunately, those enemies are close to home.
Indeed, it has always been so.
But the work continues, Beloved.
-historical pieces absorbed from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations
-They Might Be Giants references are yours truly’s