The days around September 14 are filled with celestial graces for those who can perceive and receive them. It was on September 14 that one of the most celebrated martyrs of the African church offered up his life for Christ, for his gospel, and for his church. On that day St. Cyprian of Carthage died for the integrity and unity of the church. If Saints in heaven could anguish, he would still be reeling from the corruption and disunity among those called Christians. September 14 also celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross that marks St. Helena’s transporting of the true cross of Christ to Rome from the Holy Land. And that same day in 407 witnessed the greatest preacher of the Greek speaking church dying on his way to permanent exile near the Black Sea. St. John Chrysostom (ca. 346-407) is celebrated in the East as one of the three great Hierarchs of Byzantine Christianity.
Like St. Augustine in the western church, St. John Chrysostom left us more words than any other Greek speaking Church Father. His homilies and speeches are some of the most extensive commentaries on Scripture that we possess from antiquity. This son of Antioch was born around 346 to Christian parents who ensured their son’s success by sending him to one of the greatest pagan orators of late antiquity, Libanius. John put his training to good use when he decided to retreat to a cave in the wilderness outside Antioch where he committed large portions of the Old Testament to memory. This memory served him well in preaching at Antioch as a deacon and then a priest. In 397, Chrysostom was consecrated the Patriarch of Constantinople, the capital of the eastern Empire, where he found high acclaim from many people but also angered many in the royal household.
St. John Chrysostom is called the Doctor of the Eucharist in the western church and with good reason. Although he never devoted a homily to the subject per se, the majority of his homilies eventually end up introducing the Eucharist as a way of applying the biblical text to his hearers. As a consequence, he wrote more on the Eucharist than any other eastern Church Father, but he always did so by emphasizing the liturgical home of the Eucharist. In keeping with an emphasis evident in other eastern Fathers, Chrysostom always portrays the liturgy as the union of heaven and earth.
The Divine Liturgy brings into one the earthly and the heavenly church so that heaven with all its citizens are among the faithful on earth. In turn, the earthly church at liturgy participates in the eternal praise of God offered by the angels and Saints above. One of John’s favorite scriptural passages was Isaiah 6:1-7 from which the church, both East and West, has taken the Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”). In his Homily Six on Isaiah, Chrysostom glories in this union of heaven and earth:
Did you recognize this sound? Is it ours or the Seraphim’s? It is in fact ours and the Seraphim’s. This is because Christ destroyed the dividing wall of partition when he made peace between the things in heaven and on earth. It is because he made them both one. This hymn was first known only in heaven but the Master deemed it right to descend to the earth and to bring down this melody to us. This great high priest, when he stands at this holy table offering rational worship and lifting up the bloodless sacrifice, he is not simply calling on us for this praise. When he spoke to the Cherubim and reminded the Seraphim, he commanded everyone to send up this most awesome sound, thereby drawing our understanding away from the earth by the memory of this united chorus. He all but cried out to each of us, “you sing with the Seraphim, you stand with the Seraphim, flap your wings with them, and with them fly around the royal throne.
The absolutely unique character of the Divine Liturgy, then, implies that there is no other place or moment in the life of the Christian where he or she can experience the realities of heaven so objectively, so intensely. And the uniqueness of divine worship lies in the irreplaceable fact of the Eucharist as the fullness of the Son of God. In several of his homilies on the life of Christ, St. John affirms that the Christian today has the same access to Jesus Christ as those who encountered him when he was on earth. The events of Jesus’s life—miracles, teachings, healings—are all available to one who receives him in the Eucharist.
Such an auspicious event calls for the Christian to be well prepared for holy communion. While John Chrysostom eventually will mention all the moral virtues, his overwhelming focus falls on the problem of the lack of forgiveness and an embittered heart. As a master spiritual guide, John saw that the root of bitterness could destroy a pure heart and soil it with the filth of hate. To receive Christ in the Eucharist means to receive Love itself and the only disposition proper to such an act is a heart open to Love. “Christ always commands us to be pure of heart because this mystery of the Eucharist is a mystery of peace” (Homily Fifty on Matthew).
Chrysostom had learned well the lessons of the cross, how Jesus had prayed for those who crucified him. In his sermon On the Cross and the Thief, St. John urged his hearers to imitate the Savior’s example by praying for their enemies. On the numerous occasions he returns to this theme with the hope that their hearts would expand with love. He juxtaposes two words which capture the essence of forgiveness. He calls all to “put away enmity and pusillanimity” because the former inevitably leads to the latter. What is the difference between people that are generous, open-minded, and giving (i.e. magnanimous) and those who are selfish, self-interested, and closed off from others (i.e. pusillanimous)? Enmity, hatred, and anger shrink the soul and close it off from the enormous love for humanity that flows from the heart of God.
John expresses God’s love in a wide variety of vocabulary but none is more his own than philanthropia. Almost all of his homilies close with a wish that his flock would be filled with “the grace and love for humanity (philanthropia) of Jesus Christ.” Used only two times in the New Testament—agape is the usual word—philanthropia (love of humanity) expresses for Chrysostom the essence of the divine disposition toward the fallen human race. Part of the reason may be that in Greco-Roman culture philanthropia (Latin benignitas) was supposed to be a leading virtue of rulers. Chrysostom often uses the term “Master” of both the Father and the Son. So, as an implied call to virtue for earthly rulers, John focuses on God’s love for humanity because God is the ultimate Master of all. In his benevolence, Jesus Christ opens the door of forgiveness for all. The benevolence of God is unbounding.
God’s love for the human race must be expressed in one’s use of material wealth. By the time Chrysostom arrived in Constantinople in 397, the capital of the eastern Empire was full of elaborate churches to an even greater measure than his native Antioch which boasted of some beautiful structures. Many wealthy people, it seems, were fond of bestowing their gifts on the churches as a display of their benevolent spirit. John viewed this as a two-edged sword. While never directly discouraging such generosity among believers, as time went on, the Patriarch emphasized the greater gifts of caring for the poor and needy. The way to lavish gifts on Christ and the church was by lavishing gifts on the poor.
In his Homily Fifty on Matthew Chrysostom unites his view of the liturgy as the union of heaven and earth with his exhortation to care for the poor, “So let’s fix our eyes, not on bringing golden vessels, but on things arising from righteous works … for the Church is not forged in a gold or silver shop but in the festal assembly of angels. Souls are what we need. And God permits gold and silver for the sake of souls.” John’s love of the Eucharist is only matched by his love of the Christian’s self-oblation. He asks how we can honor the body of Christ and answers unequivocally, “So, you too, honor him with the honor that he commanded, namely, to lavish wealth on the poor. God does not need golden vessels but golden souls.”
The golden voice of John Chrysostom reminds us that the journey of faith is all of a piece. Worship in the Divine Liturgy is an expression of love for the limitless love of the Redeemer, for his philanthropia. The experience of worship in the liturgy opens the soul to the deepest reality of who God is for the Eucharist pours God’s love for the human race into each soul. That same love moves the Christian to live in solidarity with all, but especially with the unfortunate and needy. Just as the liturgy is a service of praise in the milieu of love leading to union, so caring for the needy is a service, a liturgy, of peace in the milieu of love leading to union with all humanity.
Editor’s note: The image above is a Byzantine mosaic of St. John Chrysostom from the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (Constantinople).This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.