This week, as millions of Americans around the world give thanks during the Thanksgiving holiday, the Coptic Orthodox Church commemorates the exemplary life and departure of one of the most influential figures in the Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church: St. John Chrysostom (the “Golden-Mouthed”). St. John was one of the most eloquent preachers of Christ’s Gospel as well as an ascetic and great teacher. His love for our Lord Jesus Christ was great, as was his love for the poor. Following the example of our Lord, the Good Shepherd, he guided his flock in righteousness until the time of his departure.
St. John Chrysostom was born around 347 A.D. in the great city of Antioch, which was one of the centers of Christianity in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria. His father departed this world while St. John was young. Nonetheless, his mother, St. Anthusa, dedicated her life to raising St. John and his sister. He was educated in the best schools of Antioch and ultimately became a student of the famous pagan rhetorician, Libanius. When he was twenty years of age, he was presented to Meletius, Bishop of Antioch. Abandoning his secular education under nonbelievers, he dedicated his life to spiritual learning. He studied the Holy Scriptures and practiced discipleship under Bishop Meletius. Three years later, he was ordained a Reader-Deacon. Immediately afterwards, he fled to a cave and lived as a hermit, practicing strict asceticism. After two years, his health began to deteriorate and he returned to Antioch. After resuming his spiritual studies for several years, Bishop Meletius ordained him a Deacon shortly before traveling to the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381. After Bishop Meletius’s departure, St. John was ordained Presbyter by Meletius’s successor, Flavian. During this time, the people of Antioch rioted against the Roman Emperor Theodosius and destroyed statues of him and his family, a crime that demanded severe punishment. St. John delivered a series of homilies entitled On the Statues that helped calm both the emperor and the people of Antioch. For almost a decade, St. John dedicated himself to his flock and delivered several exegetical homilies on the Holy Scriptures, many of which survive to the present day. These homilies became famous throughout the Roman Empire and beyond for their theological insight and spirituality.
On February 26, 398, St. John was consecrated as the Archbishop of the relatively new imperial capital of Constantinople. Immediately after his consecration, St. John made sweeping changes to the archiepiscopal office and the local church generally. He stripped the archbishop’s residence of luxurious items, which he then sold for the benefit of the city’s poor. Despite his position as the Archbishop of the new imperial capital, St. John continued to live like a monk. He preached against excess and the opulence of the rich in the face of widespread poverty. More than once during his life, there was controversy over his selling of the church’s golden utensils to raise money for the poor. His love for the poor made him a champion of the common people, but an enemy of the rich. The Empress Eudoxia became increasingly angered by his teachings against the rich. Through her influence and that of many rich patrons in the city, St. John was deposed and exiled. When the people heard about this, riots broke out and a great earthquake struck the city. Eudoxia and the rich quickly returned St. John to his position. However, none of this affected St. John’s message against the rich; he continued to preach just as he had before. Finally, on June 24, 404, he was exiled to the borders of Armenia and later, even further, to Pithyos near the shores of the North Sea. His exile was very difficult, as the soldiers who accompanied him were cruel and ruthless. St. John was made to walk in the worst conditions to his place of exile. Finally, while traveling to Pithyos, St. John Chrysostom reposed in the Lord. His famous last words before departing this world were “Glory to God for all things!” Thirty years after his departure, his relics were taken back to Constantinople with great honor. In 1204, the relics were taken by the Crusaders to Rome. On November 27, 2004, Pope John Paul II of Rome returned his relics to the Orthodox Church. They are now kept in Mount Athos, Greece, where they are a source of miraculous healing.
St. John Chrysostom left behind many important homilies and exegetical works on the Holy Scriptures. Among them are 59 homilies on the Psalms, 67 homilies on the Book of Genesis, 90 homilies on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, 88 homilies on the Gospel according to St. John, 55 homilies on the Book of Acts, and many homilies on all of St. Paul’s letters. The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates a Divine Liturgy that bears his name just as the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates a Divine Liturgy bearing the name of another great Father of the Church, St. Cyril of Alexandria.
St. John Chrysostom and Carrying the Cross
We see from St. John’s biography that he bore the cross and followed our Saviour, as the Coptic Orthodox Church will remind Her believers this Sunday with a passage from Luke 14:25-35. This is especially clear in St. John’s last days, when he was exiled to the edge of the known world in harsh conditions. He did not complain nor did he escape or pray to the Lord to take the affliction away from him. Rather, he uttered the powerful words of faith “Glory to God for all things!” In doing so, we see St. John as a good shepherd following the advice he routinely gave to his flock. For example, in Homily 33 on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, he said:
Let us bear all things thankfully, be it poverty, be it disease, be it anything else whatever: for He alone knows the things expedient for us…Are we in poverty? Let us give thanks. Are we in sickness? Let us give thanks. Are we falsely accused? Let us give thanks. When we suffer affliction, let us give thanks.
…Affliction is a great good. “Narrow is the way,” so that affliction thrusts us into the narrow way. He who is not pressed by affliction cannot enter. For he who afflicts himself in the narrow is he who also enjoys ease, but he that spreads himself out does not enter in and suffers from being, so to say, wedged in. See how Paul enters into this narrow way? He “keeps under” his body so as to be able to enter. Therefore, in all his afflictions, he continued giving thanks to God. Have you lost any property? This has lightened you of most of your wideness. Have you fallen from glory? This is another sort of wideness. Have you been falsely accused? Have the things said against you, of which you are not conscious, been believed [by others?] “Rejoice and leap for joy.” For “blessed are you,” [says the Lord], “when men reproach you and say all manner of evil against you, falsely, for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in Heaven.”
The commemoration of St. John Chrysostom is highly appropriate as we conclude the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States and approach the readings for the Divine Liturgy of the third week of Hatour, because St. John exemplifies how we should carry our cross and give thanks to God for all things. We oftentimes pray to God to remove affliction from us, forgetting St. John’s teaching that “affliction is a great good.” The blessed mother of the desert, Amma Syncletica, also taught that we should not ask God to take away affliction, but rather, grant us the power to endure it. God always answers our prayers, even though He may not answer them in the specific way we have in mind. He answers our prayers according to what is good for us and our spiritual growth, not what is best for our worldly concerns. Carrying the cross is enduring affliction with patience and complete faith in God, just as our father, St. John Chrysostom, did.
May God grant us the strength to endure all affliction so that we may be ever thankful and proclaim with our father, St. John Chrysostom, “Glory to God for all things!”
May He also remember the peace of the One, Only, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church and preserve the lives of our honored father, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III and his partner in the apostolic ministry, our bishop, His Grace Bishop Serapion, Amen.