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An eloquent saint who ticked off an empress

The Feast of Saint John Chrysostom, one of my favorite saints, takes place on Monday, January 27th. Saint John, who lived from AD 349 to AD 407, was an important Early Church Father and Archbishop of Constantinople.

He was not only a theologian, but one of the most eloquent preachers to have graced the Church. He is also the author of probably the best known liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox: the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. Indeed, his nickname “Chrysostom” is a tribute to his eloquence. In English, the Greek word chrysostomos translates as “Golden Mouthed.”

Most Anglicans owe their acquaintance with Saint John to the magnificent prayer attributed to him that is usually said at the conclusion of the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests; Fulfill now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting. Amen.

Saint John Chrysostom, however, did not employ his eloquence to earn fame, fortune and cushy job in politics or the Church hierarchy. Indeed, he routinely denounced abuse of authority by both ecclesiastical and political leaders.

Saint John was born in Antioch, the second most important city after Constantinople, in the Eastern Roman Empire. His father, a high ranking military officer, died while he was still a toddler and he was raised by his mother, Anthusa.

There is some debate as to whether Anthusa was a pagan or Christian, but she was certainly committed to education. Through her influential connections in the city, he began his education under the famous teacher Libanius, a noted pagan.

Libanius cultivated John’s mastery of rhetoric, and gave him a lifelong love of the Greek language and literature. He did not, however, influence the boy’s spiritual life.

According to the Christian historian Sozomen, Libanius said on his deathbed that John would have been his successor “if the Christians had not taken him from us.”

St John was baptized in AD 368 or AD 373 and took minor orders as a reader. Later he went on to study theology under Diodore of Tarsus.

He became a hermit in about AD 375 and spent the next two years continually standing, scarcely sleeping, committing the Bible to memory. This permanently damaged his stomach and kidneys.

Poor health forced him to return to Antioch where he was ordained as a deacon in AD 381 and ordained priest five years later. Over the course of the nest twelve years, his reputation as a preacher and bible teacher grew rapidly.

St John’s eloquence won him an large number of admirers who followed him from church to church. Their enthusiasm was so unrestrained they might best be described as the counterparts of today’s “groupies.”

When the saint made a point in his sermons they particularly liked the congregation would often applaud him. Horrified by this, the saint preached a powerful sermon against applauding sermons. However, they applauded that one too.

We know this as many of Saint John’s sermons have come down to us exactly as he preached them because his followers were so inspired by his words they employed shorthand writers to taken them down verbatim.

In his teachings and sermons he emphasized charitable giving and spoke out against abuse of wealth and personal property.

The themes of his talks were practical, explaining the Bible’s application to everyday life. During his ministry in Constantinople, he put his preaching into practice, founding a series of hospitals to care for the poor.

In AD 398, against his will, John was consecrated Archbishop of Constantinople. One of his first acts was to deplore publicly the fact that Roman Imperial court protocol assigned him access to privileges greater than the highest state officials.

As archbishop, he was quite unconcerned with earning the respect of the wealthy.. He adamantly refused to host lavish social gatherings. In fact, he was reputed to keep the worst table in the city. This earned him the affection of the common man, but the enmity of the “upper crust.”

His attempts to reform the clergy won him few allies—especially when he ordered back, unpaid, to their parishes provincial clergymen who had come to the big city in hopes of advancing their careers

His time in Constantinople was tumultuous. He upset the Patriarch of Alexandria by welcoming Egyptian priests he had disciplined.

More dangerous, he made an enemy of the Empress Eudoxia, who assumed, rightly, that his denunciations of extravagance in feminine dress were aimed at herself. His enemies, led by Eudoxia, called a synod in AD 403, at which he was deposed and banished.

He was called back almost immediately. News of his departure not only provoked rioting, but an earthquake on the night of his arrest was interpreted by the empress as a sign of God’s displeasure.

But before long he was in hot water with Eudoxia once again. When a silver statue of the empress was erected near his cathedral. John denounced it in harsh terms, undiplomatically likening Eudoxia to Salome, who, as a reward for dancing the Seven Veils before Herod, was presented with the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Saint John was banished once again—first to Armenia and finally to Pitiunt in modern Georgia. His tomb in Pitiunt is still a shrine for pilgrims. His last words were: “Glory be to God for all things.” GPH✠

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