St. John Chrysostom: The Golden Voice of Love

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).

Kenneth J. Howell

By

Kenneth J. Howell taught for thirty years in various colleges and universities before taking his present position as Resident Theologian of the Coming Home Network. He has published seven books including two on the early Church Fathers.

  • Jdonnell

    Chrysostom’s love was rather severely limited, despite the claims of this article. The glaring omission of any discussion–or even any reference to–Chrysostom’s virulent anti-Semitic writing makes this article a failure. Not to mention such a relevant feature is tantamount to suppression of information. The Nazis were well aware of Chrysostom’s statements about Jews and used them to advantage in gulling Christians.

    • Desmond

      The article is discussing his writings on the liturgy and the Eucharist, as well as his focus on charity for the poor. It is not a biography. Omitting an unrelated prejudice to focus on the beauty and clarity of thought on those topics does not make it a failure. If the article tried to portray the man without an personal failings, I would agree with you.

      • Desmond

        *any

      • Jdonnell

        You’re at least half right–but that’s not good enough. In fact, there is a full paragraph of biography, but biography is beside the point; it’s Chrysostom’s ideas that are at issue. The article also ranges outside specifically Eucharistic writings; it refers to his sermon, “On the Cross and the Thief and waxes effulgent over Chrysostom’s having urge love for all. To make that point without qualifying it by pointing out his vitriolic anti-Semitic outpourings is an evasion and distortion.

        • monk_87

          Anachronistic charges, without charity toward a saint of the Church of Christ, of “vitriolic anti-Semitism,” is likewise not good enough. Imagine if he had said something as incendiary as “”For “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,” as it is written.”” The Church will never be PC.

          • Jdonnell

            Accurately characterizing anti-Semitic remarks as such is not being uncharitable. Chrysostom had many wonderful things to say, as the article points out, but it is deceptive in ignoring something important in subsequent history. Jews can continue to point to these remarks as a source of Christian anti-Semitism. The Nazis were not alone in exploiting them.

            • monk_87

              “Jews can continue to point to these remarks as a source of Christian anti-Semitism. The Nazis were not alone in exploiting them.”

              Yeah, so? If I choose to characterize your remarks here as anti-Christian, I can exploit yours too. That doesn’t make it so. This is an irrelevant thesis.

              • Jdonnell

                My point about the history of Chrysostom’s anti-Semitic remarks is only a gloss on the fact–that you now ignore–that his remarks are baldly anti-Semitic. Are you denying that his statements, “I hate the synagogue…I hate Jews” is not anti-Semitic?
                You only end with a false analogy, since I have pointed to statements by a specific person, not to his religion. Desperation now turns you to bad logic.

                • monk_87

                  Only if you gloss over reality. How does an anti-Semite worship the Jewish Messiah, in succession from his Jewish apostles, preaching his gospel, in his Church?

                  St. John’s comment is no more anti-Semitic than, “for the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles on account of you!” Moreover, he did not write such things because Jews are Jews, as if there were something inherently evil or inferior about them as a race. Such an idea is wholly incoherent. These things are contextually discerned.

                  “Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve, and one of you is a devil?””

                  The Jews that persecuted the Lord Jesus Christ and the Church are such “devils.”

                  • Jdonnell

                    Your question as to how could someone who worshipped a Jewish Messiah might be asked of a Christian Europe in which so much anti-Semitism flourished. Chrysostom’s anti-Semitic remarks contradicts his Christianity, which is elsewhere so elegantly and fervently expressed. He has so many wonderful things to say about our religion that it makes his passionate excoriation of Jews and Judaism all the more sad. It is a flaw in an otherwise highly admirable body of work. But, the fact that he is so great cannot be used to hide the truth. That truth is part of a larger truth that the Love we profess as so central to our religion has too often been simply an empty expression, accompanied by contradictory words and deeds, exemplified no more shamefully than in the anti-Semitism that Hitler capitalized on in a Christian country. To be open about Chrysostom’s anti-Semitic words is not to persecute the Church but to contribute to cleansing it. Peace.

                    • monk_87

                      You didn’t answer the question of how the defense of the Christian faith against Christ-denying Jews equals anti-Semitism. That’s a logical non sequitur, and appeals to Hitler and the like are logical red herrings.

                      Peace

                    • Jdonnell

                      You are in a state of denial. When one “defends” the faith by saying, “I hate Jews,” the defense includes or has become anti-Semitic. I have quoted this statement and more, but you won’t own up to its anti-Semitic character. The legacy of such statements speaks for itself. The only red is what ought to be on your face.

                    • monk_87

                      You’re obviously “contextually challenged.”

                      Must be a Democrat…;)

                    • Jdonnell

                      My, what a clever lad, Monkey is. Which US party has done more to try to make government consistent with the Beatitudes?

    • richado

      Better check out the Talmud on the lack of love by its Jewish writer for Christianity. The Babylonian Talmud to be exact. See Peter Schafer’s academic book ‘Jesus in the Talmud’ before tossing accusations. Why one and not the other?

      John Chrysostom main battle was against Judaizers – a known threat to Orthodoxy – we have seen this before as evidenced in the epistles. Also who was behind the Judaizers? In order to get at what is going on, spurious accusations doesn’t get at the truth. What was going on the time? In other words, context? And why?

      • Jdonnell

        Your comments are beside the point. The article ignores prominent statements that run counter to what the article argues. The remarks express hatred, not “universal love.”
        As to your defense of those hateful remarks, you resort to context–which you don’t explain, asking me to support your argument. No context can justify some of those comments.

        • richado

          Well, you are commenting as if you knew the context , so I naturally asked the question.
          My comments are not beside the point. That is your opinion. The Bavli or Babylonian Talmud was largely finished by 200 AD – the hate and Christophobia was well known by Jews of Chrysostom’s time. Not unconnected.
          My point is that intellectual honesty and study is needed as to the context and reasons. The question is why, after a time, whenever Jews after the Diaspora settled in areas, they soon were hated. I wanted to find out why. So please don’t put words in my mouth that I defend hateful remarks- this is merely your deflecting. The Talmud preaches hate against Christians- check it out,and its toxin was around at the time of Chrysostom.

          Read

          “The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit: And Its Impact on World History.” by E.Michael Jones.

          • Jdonnell

            I am fully aware that context is important and know a bit about it. But, it does not excuse hatred as expressed in Chrysostom’s remarks. Your position is pretty much explained in your–again beside the point–comment that the Talmud “preaches hate against Christians,” as if that explains or excuses his remarks. Making anti-Semitic remarks is not loving your enemies. Get it? It rather qualifies protestations of Chrysostom’s about “universal love.” Get it? And you are defending C’s hateful remarks when you make the point about the Talmud. And when you offer context as if it excused them. Get it?

            • richado

              …”Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers. “You
              serpents, you brood of vipers, how will you escape the sentence of hell?
              “Therefore,behold, I am sending you prophets and wise men and scribes; some of them you will kill and crucify, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city,…

              ” Matthew 23_32-34

              And: “I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the Synagogue of Satan.” Rev.2:9

              Also: “I know that you are descendants of Abraham; yet you seek to kill me, because my word finds no place in you. I speak
              of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father. They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did.
              … You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your
              father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothingto do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, …for he is a liar and the father of lies. .”John 8;37-39 etc.

              Now these passages are from the NT -if taken out of context-do they reflect an attitude of “universal love”?

              Your comment above shows no specifics, no evidence, no facts, no argument,especially your assertion about other Church writers of the time not doing the same. My question then is why were JC’s sermons about Jews unique? An academic question,don’t you agree? Just calling him a some kind of ‘hater’ won’t do.
              You merely preach and pontificate.You simply deem JChrysostom a spewer of hate. OK, why? But no specifics. Yet you say you know something of the context. Well, what? Where? Why? I am willing to learn. I only have questions.You don’t answer my questions. Your tone is nothing but condescending. Does not universal love include forgiveness? Yet, you do not seem to be very forgiving of the great saint. But I digress.

              This might be a bit lengthy. But let me elaborate.

              First,have you actually read JC’s works- some of them perhaps? Currently, I am reading his commentary on Galatians. I have read his stuff for years in tandem with Scripture. So I have more than idea of the corpus of his works- his written context, if you will.

              More specifically, you donot mention the so-called hateful sermons as to where one finds them? Have you read them? Volume 68 of the Church Fathers. In the past, they were called ‘Against the Jews.’ However, the most up to date translation calls these sermons “Discourses against Judaizing Christians,” translated by Paul W.Harkins (1979). And scholars in the field consider this to be to be the best translation, and should be used by anyone wanting to comment on these sermons in any written work. Ihave had this translation for over ten years. Do you have access to one or do you own a copy? Read the preface and introduction. So we have here – the term “Judaizing Christians”. Now, that is something to consider. Get it?

              Where did these sermons take place? Do you know?
              Time is up. Answer: Antioch. A unique and important city with its own culture. Got that?

              Whydid JC write and preach these sermons in Antioch? You are correct to say no other writer at the time wrote with such bitterness and lack of restraint, against primarily the Judaizing Christians – his own congregation! and,yes, with some left over for the Jews of Antioch. Theywere delivered in a Christian Church where no Jew would be present! Histone was certainly sharp. Why? What was going on in Antioch that JC felt the need to speak in no uncertain terms? Plain hatred for no reason? I think not.

              What was going on at the time was the rising ranks of Judaizing Christians- this was a growing danger to the faith, and not only an ecclesiastic threat but social and political as well.
              The Judaizing ,no doubt was instigated and encouraged by the synagogues, as the Jewish elite in Antioch were wealthy and powerful. Why? As I have stated, the hatred of Christianity – btw the Talmud is not beside the point.
              Remember what the chief priests said that we have no king but Caesar.
              But then Caesar was pagan, but now he was a Christian. And this state ofaffairs limited Antiochian Jewish influence. But if the Christians could be Judaized….well, then.

              Let us go back even further to the time of Julian the Apostate (familiar to JC),well known for his persecution of Christianity and his attempt eradicate it from the Empire. The Jewish elite willingly allied themselves to Julian in this regard. In short, the deal was this: if the Jewish Temple could be rebuilt, Julian reasoned, then Christianity could be found to be discredited. And the Jewish elite were in it for the restoration of the Temple cult. The Jewish elite provided the money, and Julian, the Roman workers. Unforeseen circumstances and events scuttled this enterprise, and it went for naught. But memories are long, especially of betrayals.

              However,JC in these sermons preached, taught, and commanded that the Jews were NOT to be harmed. He also taught and preached that the Judaizing Christians were NOT to be persecuted. Love your neighbour, love your enemy, but hate their sin.

              So why did JC write and preach these sermons? He was after all the Shepherd of his flock in Antioch, and he was protecting his flock from destruction- yes, with extreme vigour. Such was the magnitude of his duty and responsibility towards insidious enemies, the wolves attacking his flock. Is he to be
              faulted for this? It is easy to project our displeasure at his sermons.
              Hindsight is so easy. So context is important- not only his writings as a corpus that show he was not a perpetual hate monger, but an ardent protector of his flock, given the specific context of the situation in Antioch at the time. Something you did not talk about.

              Love includes forgiveness. Love without the truth is not love.

              St.John Chrysostom, the Golden-Mouthed, pray for us.

          • Jdonnell

            I had another thought re. your remarks on “context.” Did that context elicit similar statement from other Church writers at the time? Not apparently.

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