Thursday, 13 November 2014

St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom[1] was born in 345 or 347 of a remarkable Antiochian family. His parents were quite wealthy and his mother is mentioned to have a large number of maids. His father, Secund, a high ranking army official, died soon after Ioannis’s birth and his upbringing was left entirely in the hand of his loving mother Anthoussa.

Ioannis received his training in the great educational institutes of Antioch, where the teachings of religious aspects and classic Greek philosophy were flourishing. He studied the art of rhetoric with the pagan sophist Livanios, who admired Ioannis’s mother and expressed this admiration by the phrase “what women do Christians have!” Livanius founded a school of rhetoric in Constantinople and was always declaring that Ioannis would be his successor had Christianity not taken him up. Later on Ioannis studied theology in Antioch’s School of Theology.

After practicing law for a while in Antioch, he retreated to the desert for six years, where in praying and fastig was preparing himself to be a clergyman. In 381 he was ordained deacon by Meletios, Archbishop of Antioch and escorted him to Constantinople in order to participate to the 2nd Ecumenical Synod (381). In 386 he was ordained priest by Flavianos, Archbishop of Antioch.

He devoted his life to the education of the illiterate and the relief of the poor. As a priest in Antioch he mobilized a lot of people and made great efforts in order to provide food and shelter for 3000 widows and hundreds of ill or imprisoned persons.

In Constantinople, utilizing all the opportunities that were given to him by the Archbishop’s office he supported and fed 7000 poor people. His love for the poor was so great that later on he even sailed objects of the Episcopal mansion and annulled official banquets in order to find money for the support of the city’s poor. For Ioannis the Church is “a laboratory of holiness and not a goldsmith's and silversmith's”.

He severely reproved those who did not follow Jesus path of ethic and duty and he fought with all his might the discriminations between rich and poor. In a fervent speech (61st speech to Mathew, Greek Patrology 58, 591, 2) he withered the cruel landowners who so bluntly took advantage of the poor people efforts: “…if one examines the way landowners treat poor, wretched farmers he will ascertain that they are more cruel than the barbarians. They ask ever larger shares and even more hard work from people struck by hard work and hunger… And who can count the added frauds and injustices they put into practice when they buy the share of the crops that happen to be left in the poor farmers hands? The landowners barns and cellars are filled by the farmers labor and sweat and in return as a payment they toss them a trivial amount...". For Chrysostomos the "poor man - rich man" schema does not exist. All goods are God's and "whatever the Lord offers is common for all" (Gr. P. 61, 85). "For all were given to as by Christ. Our existence and our breath and air and light... As for terms we use, such as 'mine' or 'yours', are simple words that do not correspond to reality. For the air and the earth and the land and the materials are the Creators'. We should spend money for our fellow-men sake, since they are God's and not ours. ...If you spend them for yourself, then they become alien, even though they belong to you... When you consider them a common good then they are yours as well as next men's in exactly as they are the sun and the air and the earth and all the rest of the natural goods" (GR. P. 61, 86(87)).

Ioannis Chrysostomos belongs to the chorus of the great men of Church and humanity. He loved people as Christ did and lean over their pains with true interest and compassion.

By 397 his reputation went over the limits of Antioch and the Byzantine Emperor Arkadios summoned him in Constantinople and appointed him Archbishop against his will. From his new position he tried to apply in Constantinople the same pastoral and social models as in Antioch. He set up a staff of clergymen and women devoted to the church's services in order to reform the whole of the pastoral works in Constantinople. He did not confine his interests only in his Episcopal region but did his best to organize and help the missionary work beyond his province even in pagan nations outside the borders of the empire[2].

In his sermons he spared no one. He accused the extravagance and materialism of the authorities, the unworthy officials of the royal court and the vain clergymen, preaching the need to return to the authentic content of Christian life. A judge and a censor of everyone and everything he was soon elevated to a renouned figure of public life not only in Constantinople but in the whole of the Empire.

His demand for strict implementation of the principles of Christian faith, his controlling language -from which not even Empress Eudoxia escaped- and his courage resulted in serious and dangerous reactions. His conflict with the Empress ended up in his removal from the Episcopal Throne and his exile in Armenia. Later on and due to the people’s reaction the Empress was forced to reinstate him. The restoration of his relations with the Empress was only temporary since Chrysostomos was not willing to tolerate uncomplainingly her last expression of vanity: her silver statue that was set in the Square of Senate. His disavowal of her actions once again turned her against him. A few days before the Easter of 404 he was arrested and escorted to the border of Armenia and Kappadokia while his supporters were persecuted. But Chrysostomos, despite the distance and his failing health continued to communicate with his flock through his letters while many of his supporters took the dangerous trip to visit him. Because of the dangers of their trip he decided to move to Comana in Pontus. He died on the way there on 14 September 407. His Last words were “Thank God for all his has given. Amen”.

His enemies did not seem to be satisfied with his death and the church of Agia Sofia and the Senate Building were set on fire and his supporters (named Ioannites, after him) were persecuted over a long period of time. Among them there were 40 archbishops. About 30 years later, Emperor Theodosios B’ allowed his relics to return and be buried in Constantinople (27 January 438). We celebrate his memory on November 13, because he died on the day the Holy Cross was celebrated.

Ioannis Chrysostomos is considered the greatest ecclesiastical orator with an impressive in extent and theologically exhaustive authoring work most of which is preserved. In Migne’s Patrology his works take up volumes 47 to 64. His speeches form a major part of his work, while the rest being dissertations and letters, in which one can feel the liveliness of his words. The reader feels the writer talking to him. His preaches were original and convincing and the faithful were literally “hang” from his lips. This is the reason he is called Chrysosotomos (Gold mouthed) and “Church’s Demosthenes”. It is about 1000 of his speeches that are preserved, a fine example of the art of oratory. 238 of his letters on various subjects are also preserved. Most of them were written during the years of his exile and were addressed to about 130 persons. He also wrote a Liturgy, named after him, that is still conducted in churches all year round.

Without a doubt in the face of Ioannis Chrysostomos all can identify, even to this day, the social worker, the great educator, the tireless prelate who fought to the end for the good of his flock.

Vassiliki V. Pappa, BD, MSc, MA

[1] Information about his life and works (written in Latin or Greek) can be found in his writings, especially in his letters, in works of his contemporaries or later historians, in biographies and speeches.
[2] Ioannis Chrysostomos, Letters: 53, PG 52, 637∙ 54, PG 52, 638∙ 55, PG 52, 639∙ 123, PG 52, 676-677∙ 126, PG 52, 685 εξ.

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