Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Feast of St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople
O God, you gave your servant John Chrysostom grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation, and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honor of your Name: Mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence
in preaching, and faithfulness in ministering your Word, that your people may be partakers with them of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
John was born in Antioch in the year 347 to an illustrious Greek family. His father was a pagan and was the General in charge of the Eastern army. He died shortly after John's birth. His mother, Anthusa, was a Christian whose "piety was unexcelled among the women of Antioch." An older sister completed the family. John was educated on the family's estate and had the finest teachers. He was fortunate to be raised a Christian in a town where half the population was Christian. John did attend university in Athens for a short while, but most of his education was in Antioch. He studied rhetoric under the great Neoplatonist philosopher Libanius, a man who was violently opposed to Christianity. John was one of Libanius' best students, and Libanius wanted John to succeed him as head of the philosophical school "had not the Christians stolen him." John had met a monk, Diodorus, who lived in a monastery in the mountains, and John was very much interested in the monastic life. At the age of eighteen John suddenly turned against the teachings of Libanius. He decided to put aside all "this debauchery of learning" and become a monk. He was baptized by Meletius the Confessor, Patriarch of Antioch, but Bishop Meletius refused to allow John to live as a monk. He spent three years as an acolyte for the Patriarch's palace, and he later served as a Lector. Finally, after several years, the Bishop relented and John headed for the hills. He went to live with Hesychius, a Syrian monk whose name means quietness, and they spent their time in quiet meditation. They followed the Pachomian Rule, a very austere way of life. John retired to a cave, denied himself sleep, constantly read the Bible and spent two years without lying down because he believed that "a Christian must be watchful." He didn't have the physical constitution for such a life; his stomach shriveled up, his kidneys were damaged by the cold, and his digestion was permanently impaired. He realized that he could not doctor himself, so he came down from the mountain, went into Antioch and presented himself to the bishop, who sent him to the doctor and then assigned him to the office of "attendant upon the altar." Six years later Meletius died and Flavian became Patriarch of Antioch. John was ordained a priest and he began to develop this style of preaching. The people of Antioch, including the Christians, enjoyed the Theatre and horse racing, and they also had a great love of luxury. They were just a bit hedonistic. John preached against the past vices of the Antiocheans, he preached against their addiction to wealth, their love of the theatre, and their sensual enjoyments. When the people of Antioch, in reaction to a tax, rioted and destroyed statues of the Emperor (which resulted in the Imperial Army taking over the city and executing those involved), John preached for seven days in order to keep the peace. These sermons were written down and published as On The Statues and they are a great example of his preaching style. Due to his preaching and the pleading of Bishop Flavian, Antioch was spared destruction by the Emperor. John's preaching was loved by the Christians of Antioch, and he was called Chrysostom which means Golden Mouth. It is said that he would become angry because people would begin to cheer in the middle of his sermons! John was very happy to serve God and the people of God as a priest in Antioch.
This was a strange period in the Roman Empire. Constantine had moved the capitol from Rome to his new city of Constantinople earlier in the century, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople became an important See. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Bishop Nectarius, was a very loose-living, corrupt person, and he spent his sixteen years as Patriarch gaining wealth and indulging in gluttony, drunkenness, and the accumulation of power. Emperor Theodosius had a certain advisor named Eutropius, a eunuch, whom he had sent to visit the monks in Egypt, where Eutropius heard of John. Bishop Nectarius and Eutropius decided that the next Patriarch of Constantinople would be the priest John of Antioch and not Theophilus of Alexandria (these were the days when there was no love lost between Antioch and Alexandria). For some reason, these two corrupt persons chose the very person who would work hard to clean-up Constantinople and put everyone back on the correct path; I guess the Holy Spirit influences whomsoever the Spirit wants to influence and this is another example of how God uses people, even corrupt people, to bring about God's plan. Eutropius figured that John would probably refuse the offer, and that, even if he did accept, the people of Antioch would not let him go, so he used his political power to get John to Constantinople. Eutropius sent a letter to Asterius, the Governor of Syria, ordering him to put John out of the city secretly and take him under a strong escort to Constantinople. He suggested that he have John meet him at one of the martyr chapels just outside of the city's walls, and that is exactly what Asterius did. John thought he was going to a pastoral evening with the Governor; he rode out of the Roman gate at Antioch, never to return. As soon as he got outside of the gate, soldiers pounced on him, and he was tossed into an imperial carriage and spirited off to Constantinople. There a lots of stories about men being grabbed by crowds and dragged to the bishop for ordination, but John is one of the few of which I've heard who was grabbed by the army and dragged to the capitol to be ordained a bishop!
A Patriarch may only be consecrated by another Patriarch, and Theophilus of Alexandria was in Constantinople at the time, but he refused to consecrate John, since he'd had his eye on this particular Episcopal Throne. Eutropius brought out a sheet of paper containing charges so damaging against Theophilus that the Patriarch's face turned white! Eutropius said, "You will consecrate him, or face trial on the charges listed here." So, on February 26, 398, John of Antioch was enthroned as Patriarch of Constantinople. The man who fought against luxury and despised kings now lived in a luxurious palace close to the Emperor's palace. Now the priest of Antioch who preached against love of wealth was standing before ornate golden altars and wearing silk vestments. Of course, as soon as he became Patriarch, he began to a campaign to sweep the Church in Constantinople clean of corruption. He took all the fancy furniture and silver-plated items of the bishop's place, along with the marble columns purchased for the Church of Anastasia, and sold them, using the money to build a hospital. He reformed the lives of the clergy; he learned that they were in the habit of living with widows and consecrated virgins, women who had dedicated themselves to lives of celibacy in the Church. John called the "spiritual sisters" in, harangued them for the evil they had caused and then called in the priests and told them that they were a blight on the Church. Within three months the "spiritual sisters" and clergy were up in arms against their bishop. He told the wealthy to stop making donations to the priests and to give their alms to those who were worthy and in need. The priests, who feared a loss of income, began a campaign of rumours against their new bishop. Since he lived quietly and alone, in austerity, they whispered that he spent his days in orgies, stuffing himself with fine food, and the rumours spread all over the city, until one day when John showed himself half-naked, with his rib bones showing through his half-starved and ravaged flesh, but his austerities simply angered the luxury-loving priests of Constantinople. He examined the church accounting books and ordered the bishops to list their expenditures. He preached against horse racing and theatre and he ridiculed the wealth of the city. He refused invitations to parties and he never hosted any official dinners. He spoke out against the sensuality of the city, against its dancing girls and their indecent songs. He spoke out against ostentatious wealth, asking why must people have houses with doors of ivory and ceilings inlaid with gold? Why must a nobleman have ten or twenty mansions while others lived in hovels? He was pretty much preaching the same line which made him popular back home in Antioch. He ridiculed the clergy for their frailties and the rich for their hedonism, and he must have known that one day they would all turn against him!
At first, the Empress, Eudoxia, supported John's campaign and she sent magnificent gifts to the churches and the poor. But later, for some reason, she felt that all of John's talk of reform was talk against her. She eventually became one of John's many enemies in the city. John's greatest and most vindictive enemy was Theophilus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, the man who, under threat, had ordained him bishop. He hated John because John was from Antioch; he hated John because he was made Patriarch of Constantinople when Theophilus was sure that he had that position in the bag. He hated John because of his austerities, of his monastic-style of life. Theophilus had spent part of his youth in the desert, and he had been dedicated to Origenistic mysticism, named after the great Church Father Origen of Alexandria, one of the first theologians to understand the use of analogy in scripture. But he suddenly turned against Origen and the communities of monks living in the Egyptian desert. He attacked the four Tall Brothers, monks of the desert whose ascetic life-style had brought the Romans to a love of monasticism. Theophilus excommunicated the Tall Brothers and banished them from his See. He sent armed ruffians and Ethiopian slaves to attack their mountain refuges. The four monks escaped to Constantinople where they put themselves at the mercy of John, Patriarch of Constantinople. John gave them a place to sleep but no other aid. He was an Antiochian and had no love for Alexandrian mysticism. He wrote a letter to Theophilus, begging him to receive back his flock, especially before they could file indictments against him. Theophilus answered that the fate of the monks was not his affair; he could not be put on trail in Constantinople, he could only be tried by his peers, the bishops of Alexandria. The monks asked the Empress Eudoxia for help, and she issued an imperial edict ordering Theophilus to come to Constantinople. He arrived in Constantinople in August of the year 403, laden with gifts for the Empress. John invited him to stay at the episcopal palace, but Thoephilus accepted a suite at the Imperial palace at Pera instead. He spent three weeks in Pera, giving banquets for the clergy and nobility, and holding conferences with the defrocked priests. Two deacons, whom John had expelled for murder and fornication, spent long hours with the Patriarch of Alexandria. One of them presented him with a long list of crimes committed by John: He accused Chrysostom of selling church property, leaving the church without saying his prayers, illegally deposing bishops in Asia, striking a man in the face, holding private audiences with women, dining on gargantuan feasts, and robing and disrobing at the bishop's throne. The were a total of 29 charges and none of them were true. The fate of the four Tall Brothers was now forgotten; now Theophilus and his group simply wanted to destroy John Chrysostom.
Theophilus called a Synod at the Palace of the Oak Tree, and there he sat, along with thirty-six bishops in judgment of John. Twenty-nine of these bishops were from Alexandria and had no authority in Constantinople, but they did have the protection of the Emperor, through Eudoxia. Another eight charges were added to the original twenty-nine, including a charge that John had called the Empress a Jezebel. This wasn't true, although he had once said that the clergy of Constantinople were like the priests who ate at Jezebel's table. The Synod passed a resolution depriving Chrysostom of all his offices. The Emperor ratified the decree, banishing John on the false charges of immorality and high treason. With just a word, John could have brought a mob into the streets to defend him, but that was not his way, and he gave a farewell sermon and slipped out of town. The next day an earthquake struck Constantinople, shaking the Imperial Palace and the Empress' bedchamber. She was terrified and wrote a letter begging John to return and that he would be restored to the Episcopal Throne. He refused to enter the Cathedral of Hagia Sofia, saying that he could only be restored to power by the Synod which had dethroned him. Theophilus and his Synod, however, were no where to be found; they had run out of the city right after deposing Chrysostom. A new Synod of sixty bishops met, and all the proceedings of the Synod of the Oak Tree were annulled. However, only two months later, Chrysostom managed to upset the Royal Family once again. Eudoxia had a silver statue of herself erected just across from the entrance of Hagia Sofia, and Chrysostom was enraged, comparing her to Herodias demanding the head of John the Baptist. This time Eudoxia was not frightened by earthquakes, and she acted immediately. That Christmas neither the Empress nor the Emperor took communion in the Cathedral, and the Emperor issued an edict stripping Chrysostom of his position and powers. This time John refused to obey, saying I have received the Church from God our Saviour for the care of the salvation of the people. I cannot desert it unless you thrust me out by force; only then can I plead your authority in defending myself against the charge that I have deserted my post.
On Easter Sunday, April 16, 404, the Emperor ordered 400 archers to scatter the Christians who accepted Chrysostom as their Patriarch. They polluted the churches, plundered the church treasures, and drove the catechumens half-naked into the streets. They tried to kill Chrysostom twice, and he stayed in the Episcopal Palace for two months. Finally, realizing that the lives of the faithful were in danger, he obeyed the Emperor's order and left Constantinople. He told the Christians of Constantinople to obey their new bishop, and he was escorted by army troops into a live in exile. He spent three years being moved to the farthest borders of the Empire, treated horribly by the troops who escorted him. Finally, on September 7, 407, in Comana, John of Antioch, Patriarch of Constantinople, the Golden Mouth, who defied emperors and loved God, died. The news spread like wildfire, and his burial was attended by monks, consecrated virgins, and ascetics from Armenia, Pontus, Cilicia, and Syria. His body remained at the shrine in Comana for thirty years, until, at the beginning of the year 438, the relics were solemnly removed to Constantinople, where the people gathered in close-packed boats lit with torches at the mouth of the river to see his relics arrive. His remains were deposited in the Church of the Apostles, with those of emperors and patriarch, and a new Emperor laid his head on the box which carried John's remain, imploring forgiveness before God for the wrongs committed by his mother and father. And so, John Chrysostom returned to the city from which he had been expelled.
Like all the saints, John Chrysostom was human and had his failings; he was very anti-Semitic and some of his writings can be disturbing for that reason. But we are very fortunate that his sermons were transcribed by his deacons as he was delivering them and they survive to this day. His farewell sermon to the people of Constantinople is an amazing document.
I think one of the treasures of the Book of Common Prayer is this prayer attributed to St. John Chrysostom: Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.
I See You!
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