OF ALL THE SAINTS on our Church calendar there is none – apart from the Theotokos and some biblical figures – with the name recognition of St. John Chrysostom. Since the Divine Liturgy bearing his name is our most frequently served eucharistic rite, most Byzantine Christians, Catholic and Orthodox, know his name, even if they know little else about him.
John was born in 349 to a well-placed family in Antioch, then the capital both of the province of Syria and of the imperial diocese called “the East.” His mother was certainly a Christian; scholars are not so sure about his father. In any event, John’s father died shortly after the boy’s birth and he was raised by his mother as a Christian. He was given the usual classical education of his day and was apprenticed to a noted orator, Libanius, probably to prepare him for entering the civil service like his father. Libanius would later call John his most apt pupil.
John and the Church of Antioch
In fourth-century Antioch the children of Christians were considered catechumens from birth, but often baptized only later in life. John was baptized after completing his studies and attached himself, not to the civil service but to the household of the bishop, Meletios of Antioch. At the same time he frequented the ascetic school (asketerion) of Diodoros as did many serious young Christians. After about three years in the bishop’s household, John was ordained as a reader.
The ideals of monasticism had made a great impact on the Church in Syria, including John. When it seemed that the bishop was intent on making John a priest, he left the city and lived among the ascetics in the mountains. John felt he was unworthy of the priesthood, as he would describe in his essay On the Priesthood. Since the Church of Antioch was at that time divided among rival groups and theologies, John may have felt that his priesthood would have been bogged down by these controversies and rivalries. John spent about two years as a hermit (375-377) but his ascetical rigors affected his health and he was obliged to return to the city.
Back in Antioch John resumed his place among the clergy, eventually becoming a deacon (381) and then a priest (386). Over the next twelve years John became widely known as a preacher, delivering lengthy Scriptural commentaries which earned him the nickname Chrysostomos (golden-mouhed). John became responsible for the catechumenate; many of the instructions he delivered have been preserved. John also preached regular series of homilies commenting on biblical books verse-by-verse. It may be that the Antiochian Church did not have prescribed readings for every day leaving John free to choose his own texts. In any case most of these homilies were preached in the time between Pentecost and the Naticity Fast, when the absence of Church feasts meant that he could focus more freely on the book he had chosen.
Archbishop of Constantinople
In October, 397 John was summoned by the Count of the East and Governor of Antioch to meet him at a martyr’s shrine outside the city. Driving toward Tarsus the governor informed John that he had been chosen as archbishop of the imperial capital. The emperor had ordered that John be taken from Antioch quietly lest the people try to prevent him from leaving. The emperor had also convoked a synod to formally elect and then ordain John, but it was clear that John was the emperor’s choice.
John’s years in Constantinople were filled with strife. John saw himself as the bishop of the people, who grew to love him, rather than as the bishop of the imperial court. Attempting to energize the clergy, he aroused the resentment of many who were content with the status quo. In his concern for the poor he pressured the leading citizens to live more simply so that they could contribute to his works. He infuriated some when he sought to build a leprosarium near their estates and angered others when he sold some treasures which his predecessors had accumulated in order to assist the needy.
John ran afoul of the second-ranking bishop in the empire, Theophilos of Alexandria, for supporting the Egyptian’s theological opponents. Finally he lost the favor of the emperor and empress, and a synod arranged by John’s enemies sent him into exile in 403 for a number of offenses. He was almost immediately reinstated as the people threatened revolt. John would be exiled again in 404, sent to Abkhazia in the Caucasus, where he died during a forced march under military guard on September 14, 407.
Many in Constantinople refused to accept John’s removal and maintained separate communities for 30 years. The schism was finally healed in 438 when, with the emperor’s permission, John’s relics were brought back to Constantinople and enshrined in the Church of the Holy Apostles. The relics remained there unil the Crusaders’ sack of Constantinople in 1204 when most of them were taken to Rome. On November 27, 2004 Pope John Paul II returned a number of these relics to the Patriarch of Constantinople. They are enshrined in the Patriarchal Church of St George.
Most people in today’s Byzantine Churches know Chrysostom for two texts.His catechetical homily on the resurrection is read every year on Pascha in Byzantine churches throughout the world. The Divine Liturgy which bears his name was probably the Liturgy used in Antioch when St John was a priest there. Its most important elements – the anaphora and the priest’s prayers – are probably Chrysostom’s. Other parts like the litanies and troparia are likely of later origin. We know that Chrysostom encouraged antiphonal singing, such as our antiphons today; this may have taken place before the actual Eucharistic Liturgy as the people waited for the bishop to arrive. Since St John’s homilies could last for two or ever three hours, it is not likely that the liturgical rite was as elaborate as it later became.
“Would you also learn from another miracle the exceeding sanctity of this office? Picture Elijah and the vast multitude standing around him, and the sacrifice laid upon the altar of stones, and all the rest of the people hushed into a deep silence while the prophet alone offers up prayer: then the sudden rush of fire from Heaven upon the sacrifice:— these are marvelous things, charged with terror. Now then pass from this scene to the rites which are celebrated in the present day; they are not only marvelous to behold, but transcendent in terror. There stands the priest, not bringing down fire from Heaven, but the Holy Spirit: and he makes prolonged supplication, not that some flame sent down from on high may consume the offerings, but that grace descending on the sacrifice may thereby enlighten the souls of all, and render them more refulgent than silver purified by fire. Who can despise this most awful mystery, unless he is stark mad and senseless?” (On the Priesthood, Book III.4)