John Chrysostom was born in 347, the son of an army officer at Antioch in Syria. His father died soon after his birth and he was brought up by his widowed mother. She saw that he was well educated in oratory and law. (‘Chrysostom’, a later acquired name, means ‘golden-mouthed’.) From about 373 he became a monk in a mountain community not far from the city and, like many other holy men, damaged his health through excessive austerities as well as the uncongenial surroundings of his cave hermitage. He spent long periods standing, did not have sufficient sleep while spending his time learning the Bible by heart. As a result, his stomach and kidneys were permanently damaged and poor health forced him to leave his hermitage and return to Antioch.
He also began to make his name as a preacher and commentator on the letters of Paul and the gospels of Matthew and John. Against the Antiochene tradition, he emphasised the direct rather than the allegorical meaning of Scripture and how it could be applied to the problems of the age. In this sense, much of his writing is still relevant to our own day.
He gained political fame through his 21 sermons on “The Statues” in 387. These statues, representing the Emperor Theodosius, his father, dead wife and sons, had been smashed in a riot against the emperor’s taxation policy. Although reprisals were expected, an amnesty was won by the elderly bishop Flavian. Chrysostom’s sermons also helped bring peace and understanding to the issue.
Following the death in 397 of the Archbishop of Constantinople, the Emperor Arcadius wanted John Chrysostom to take his place. Fearing opposition from the people, an envoy was sent to take him secretly from Antioch. Theophilus, the Patriarch of Alexandria and uncle of the future Cyril of Alexandria, performed the consecration in 398, although he had coveted the post for himself.
John began immediately to reform the moral corruption of the imperial court, the clergy and the people. He reduced the expenditure on his own household and spent the money on the poor and on hospitals. He imposed strict discipline on the clergy which some regarded as too severe.
He also attacked the behaviour, dress and bodily decoration of the women at court and condemned Christians who went to the races on Good Friday and to games in the stadium on Holy Saturday. The Empress Eudoxia, probably with some justification, regarded many of these reforms as personally directed against her. It did not help when a statue of her was set up outside the cathedral of Santa Sophia. Its dedication was honoured by public games, an occasion for superstitious and immoral behaviour.John began immediately to reform the moral corruption of the imperial court, the clergy and the people. He reduced the expenditure on his own household and spent the money on the poor and on hospitals. He imposed strict discipline on the clergy which some regarded as too severe.
He also attacked the behaviour, dress and bodily decoration of the women at court and condemned Christians who went to the races on Good Friday and to games in the stadium on Holy Saturday. The Empress Eudoxia, probably with some justification, regarded many of these reforms as personally directed against her. It did not help when a statue of her was set up outside the cathedral of Santa Sophia. Its dedication was honoured by public games, an occasion for superstitious and immoral behaviour.
Theophilus, who had wanted the see of Constantinople for himself, now began supporting the empress. He brought together a number of bishops who gathered in Chalcedon. They condemned John in his absence with false or distorted charges. They also accused him of treason for calling the empress ‘Jezebel’. They called for his banishment and he was sent into exile. However, an earthquake in Constantinople frightened the superstitious empress and John was brought back to the city.
Undaunted, Chrysostom continued his verbal attacks which made the empress angry again. Theophilus once more turned against him by appealing to an Arian council in Antioch. Once again Chrysostom was banished. The accusation was that he had assumed authority in a diocese from which he had been “lawfully deposed”.
Although his people were behind him and he had the support of the pope and many western bishops, he was exiled once again in 404. He first went to Armenia and then to Pontus.
John died on 14 September 407 in the city of Comana on his way to his place of exile. He died as the result of the hardships of enforced travel on foot and in exhausting circumstances. There his relics remained until 438 when, thirty years after his death, they were transferred to the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople during the reign of the Empress Eudoxia’s son, the Emperor Theodosius II (408-450), under the guidance of John’s disciple, St. Proclus, who by that time had become Archbishop of Constantinople (434-447).
His relics were looted from Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 and brought to Rome, but were returned to the Orthodox Church on 27 November 2004 by Pope John Paul II. His silver and jewel-encrusted skull is now kept in the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in northern Greece, and is credited by Eastern Orthodox Christians with miraclulous healings. His right hand is also preserved on Mount Athos, and numerous smaller relics are scattered throughout the world.
In the Western Church he is invoked as one of the Four Greek Doctors (with Athanasius, Basil, and Gregory of Nazianzus) and in the East as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs and Universal Teachers.
His scripture commentaries and a treatise on the priesthood are his best known writings.
Some of his more trenchant sayings:
“It is not possible for one to be wealthy and just at the same time.”
“Do you pay such honour to your excrements as to receive them into a silver chamber-pot when another man made in the image of God is perishing in the cold?”
“Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same who said: ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food’, and ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me’… What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well