The Church celebrates the Feast of St. John Chrysostom on September 13th. It was transferred to this date in order to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross on the 14th. St. John of Antioch was born in 349 A.D. and was nicknamed “Chrysostom” which means “golden-mouthed” because he had a profound gift of eloquence. He was born and lived in Antioch, Syria which is modern day Antakaya, Turkey. He worked in priestly service there for about eleven years until when in 397 he was appointed Bishop of Constantinople. He served in the episcopacy before he was exiled in 403 and 407.
His work was prolific and he is considered the most influential of all the Greek Fathers. He preached and wrote extensively to include: seventeen treatises, more than seven hundred authentic homilies, commentaries on Matthew and on Paul (Letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, and Hebrews) and two hundred forty-one letters. He worked hard to present the Church’s tradition and doctrine correctly in an age marked by heresies and conflict. It was during this time that Arianism was wreaking havoc on the Church. He witnessed dogmatic developments within the fourth and fifth centuries and is a reliable witness to what transpired.
Chrysostom was deeply devoted to teaching catechumens as they prepared for Baptism, as well as deepening the faith of the laity. He was a firm believer in doctrine and truth. When he was nearing his death he stated that the value of human beings lies in “exact knowledge of true doctrine and in rectitude of life” (Letter from Exile). A person must have knowledge of the truth so that they may go live it in their daily lives. He intuitively understood the deep connection between knowledge and living the Christian life. He was able to connect the stages of human development with his theological works. He saw the development of the physical, religious, and intellectual aspects of the person as an integral whole.
In his descriptions of the different phases of life Chrysostom liked to compare these periods to the seas. The first sea is that of childhood. He said, “It is precisely at this early age that inclinations to vice or virtue are manifest.” God’s law and teachings were to be taught to the child as early as possible so they would be attached as if “on a wax tablet.” This age is crucial for all further development. The spiritual life must begin at birth and progress until death. His recommendation was:
From the tenderest age, arm children with spiritual weapons and teach them to make the Sign of the Cross on their forehead with their hand” (Homily 12, 7 on First Corinthians).
Adolescence is a difficult and arduous time during the spiritual development of a person because “concupiscence…grows within us” (Homily 81, 5 on Matthew’s Gospel). This is when the seas can become violent and stormy. This is a time where the spiritual life must engage in battle to mature and develop to the next stage, which is the most stable of a person’s life.
After the stormy seas of adolescence the individual has matured and begins the long stage of marriage and family life. It is within marriage that the man and woman can grow in temperance and virtue. When a child is born, Chrysostom said, he is “like a bridge; the three become one flesh because the child joins the two parts” (Homily 12, 5 on Letter to the Colossians). It is within this family structure that “a Church in miniature” is formed.
St. John Chrysostom focused his teaching within the liturgical life of the Church. The bulk of his preaching took place during the Liturgy, in the presence of the Eucharistic sacrifice. He worked hard to develop the lay faithful so that they grew in a deeper understanding of their Baptismal promises. He desired that they fulfill their roles as priest, prophet, and king that were bestowed upon them through the common priesthood. These roles were lived in the life of the Church, but most significantly within the family structure.
St. John Chrysostom went through a difficult period and was exiled on two occasions. His second exile would prove to lead to his death. While journeying from Cucusus to Pityus he entered the Chapel of the Martyr St. Basiliscus at Comano in Ponto and died and was buried as a martyr. He lived during a time when doctrinal battles could lead to exile and death. He persevered in his devotion to the truth and gave his life defending the Faith.
He lived a life devoted to Christ and worked tirelessly to teach the people he was asked to shepherd the truth. It was Christ become flesh that changed human history. He was not an abstraction, but flesh and blood. It was this reality that was the entire center of Chrysostom’s life.
God does not only give us a letter: ultimately, he himself comes down to us, he takes flesh, becomes truly “God-with-us,” our brother until his death on a Cross. And to these three steps—God is visible in creation, God gives us a letter, God descends and becomes one of us—fourth is added at the end. In the Christian’s life and action, the vital dynamic principle is the Holy Spirit (Pneuma) who transforms the realities of the world. God enters our very existence through the Holy Spirit and transforms us from within our hearts.
Pope Benedict XVI, Doctors of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, 66
Even though Chrysostom was persecuted for defending the truth, he never wavered in his devotion to Christ and His Church. At the end of his life he focused on God’s “indescribable and incomprehensible plan” that is guided by His love.
Of this we are certain. Even if we are unable to unravel the details of our personal and collective history, we know that God’s plan is always inspired by his love. Thus, despite his suffering, Chrysostom reaffirmed the discovery that God loves each one of us with an infinite love and therefore desires salvation for us all.
Pope Benedict XVI, Doctors of the Church, 67
The final testament before his death was: “Glory be to God for all things” (Palladius, op. cit., n. 11). He died on September 14, 407.
St. John Chrysostom devoted his life to the service of Christ and the Church. He desired to draw the laity into their Baptismal vocation, so that they could grow in holiness. His teaching relating stages of life to the spiritual life reminded his listeners that being Christian is a lifelong endeavor that requires maturation and perseverance. When conflict erupted and he was exiled, he refused to stop defending the truth, even unto his own death. St. John Chrysostom’s work and life is an example to all the faithful. His work is relevant to us centuries later and in studying his preaching we can grow in a deeper understanding of Christ, so that we may continue to grow on the path to holiness. St. John Chrysostom, ora pro nobis.