St. John Chrysostom, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
The Silent Rhetorician
John was born in 347 in Antioch and was baptized there more than twenty years later. Under the pagan teacher Libanius, he learned rhetoric and Greek literature. He reportedly so impressed his teacher that as Libanius lay dying, he lamented that John could have been his successor as master of rhetoric, “if the Christians had not stolen him from us.”
That gift with language that had so impressed Libanius would indeed be put to use, into a service far greater than any master rhetorician could hope for – but not before it had been purified with fasting and prayer. John became a hermit, coming to know his Lord in the silence of prayer. He did penance and at the same time savored Sacred Scripture, committing most of it to memory.
The golden-mouthed preacher
When poor health forced his return to Antioch, his gift with words, now purified by years of silent meditation on God’s Word, came alive again. John, ordained a priest, began to preach in Antioch’s cathedral. People came and the word began to spread: this preacher is “Chrysostom,” golden-mouthed. His words were not easy, but they were like gold: clear and full of God’s light.
Day in and day out, he broke open the word for them, exhorted them, and called them out for their lack of love. He reminded them of the unity of the Eucharistic liturgy with the liturgy of their lives: “Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked…. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food,’ and ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me’... What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger?”
The reluctant archbishop
In 397, against his will and knowledge, the golden-mouthed preacher was nominated archbishop, or Patriarch, of Constantinople, the capital of the Empire. Constantinople may have been the center of the Christian Empire, but the lifestyle of many of its wealthier inhabitants was far from holy. John saw this, and his gift with words spilled over into eloquent homilies.
The Patriarch reminded the wealthy that private property was a consequence of the Fall, and they had no right to withhold their riches from a brother or sister who was starving. He deposed corrupt bishops and refused to cater to the political intrigue of his day. Those seeking favor at bishops’ tables, where they were accustomed to eat well, found only modest fare in this bishop’s house. All this did not earn him friends in the city, where he joked that a bishop needed to have eyes on all sides of his head to please all of those seated around him at official banquets!
“Glory be to God for all things”
The disgruntled wealthy began to find their Patriarch irksome, as he called them to a conversion of life that they did not desire. They gossiped, as people in a large, politically charged city will do. The Empress Euxodia felt her conscience pricked when the Patriarch preached against the court’s extravagant fashions. She conspired with the Patriarch of Alexandria to send John into exile. His first exile was short-lived, for the people protested his departure so fiercely that he was called back. But then the Empress had a silver statue of herself erected near the cathedral, and John’s words, full of God’s clarity, spilled over once more.
John was exiled again. His health had never been good, and he died in 407, before reaching his final destination. He had suffered, but this man whose gift with words had served God’s Word could still praise. His last words are reported to have been, “Glory be to God for all things.”
John Chrysostom is one of the great Greek Fathers of the Church.