John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, is one of the great saints of the Eastern Church. He was born about 354 in Antioch, Syria. Brought up by his widowed mother, he received the best education that Antioch could offer, both in oratory and in law. As a young man, he responded to the call of desert monasticism until his health was impaired through the austerities and dampness of his cave hermitage. He returned to Antioch after six years, and was ordained a deacon, serving until his ordination as a presbyter five years later. He then became a special assistant to the bishop of Antioch, particularly in the temporal care and spiritual instruction of the numerous Christian poor of the city.
In 397, he became Bishop (Patriarch) of Constantinople. On arrival in the capital city, he set at once to reforming the morals of the clergy, the court, and the people, whose corruption had been encouraged by the complacence and self-indulgence of his predecessor, Nectarius. He reduced the customary spending of his own household in favor of the poor and the hospitals. He enacted severe disciplinary rules for the clergy. He attacked the behavior, clothing, and makeup of the women at court, and denounced the practice of many Christians attending the races on Good Friday and the games at the stadium on Holy Saturday. His episcopate was short and tumultuous. Many criticized his ascetical life in the episcopal residence, and he incurred the wrath of the empress Eudoxia, who believed that he had called her a “Jezebel”. Taking advantage of John’s having sheltered four monks who had fled Egypt after the condemnation of their Origenist theology, his rival Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, convened a carefully packed synod that deposed John in 403 on a series of mostly false charges. He was then exiled, but when shortly afterwards an earthquake rocked Constantinople, a terrified Eudoxia recalled him to his see. His plain speaking soon brought the displeasure of the empress again, and his enemies secured his banishment after condemnation by an Arian council at Antioch in 404, on charges of his having resumed the duties of a see from which he had lawfully been deposed. Despite the support of the people of Constantinople, of Pope Innocent the First, and of the entire Western Church, he was exiled first to near Antioch, then to Pontus, and was finally deliberately killed by enforced traveling on foot in severe weather. He died on September 14, 407. Thirty-one years after his death, his remains were brought back to Constantinople and reburied in the Church of the Apostles on January 27.
John, whose epithet “Chrysostom” means “golden-mouthed”, was one of the greatest preachers in the history of the Church. People flocked to hear him, and they often dismayed him by applauding his sermons. His eloquence was accompanied by an acute sensitivity to the needs of his people. He saw preaching as an integral part of pastoral care, and as a medium of teaching. He warned that if a presbyter had no talent for preaching the Word, the souls of those in his charge “will fare no better than ships tossed in the storm.”
His sermons provide insights into the liturgy of the Church, and especially into eucharistic practices. He describes the liturgy as a glorious experience, in which all heaven and earth join. His sermons emphasize the importance of lay participation in the Eucharist. “Why do you marvel,” he wrote, “that the people anywhere utter anything with the priest at the altar, when in fact they join with the Cherubim themselves, and the heavenly powers, in offering up sacred hymns.” To this day, the principal liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church is entitled, “The Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom”.
His treatise, Six Books on the Priesthood, is a classic manual on the presbyteral office and its awesome demands. The priest, he wrote, must be “dignified, but not haughty; awe-inspiring, but kind; affable in his authority; impartial, but courteous; humble, but not servile; strong but gentle….”
adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts and other sources
O God, you gave your servant John Chrysostom grace eloquently to proclaim your righteousness in the great congregation, and fearlessly to bear reproach for the honor of your Name: Mercifully grant to all bishops and pastors such excellence in preaching, and faithfulness in ministering your Word, that your people may be partakers with them of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The propers for the commemoration of John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, are published on the Lectionary Page website.