John, better known by his title “Chrysostom,” was born in Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey). Having spent his early years as a student of rhetoric, philosophy, and the Bible, he was ordained as a deacon in 381, and then five years later as a priest. Chrysostom subsequently became the Bishop of Constantinople in 398, outshining several key individuals to become one of the leading figures of the Eastern Church. Augustine, his slightly younger Western contemporary, described him as eruditus et erudiens in the Catholic faith and esteemed him as a distinguished witness and defender of the faith, placing him among the most celebrated learned men and saints (Contra Julianum, 1.6.22).
Chrysostom studied rhetoric under the well-known rhetorician Libanius, and philosophy under Andragathius. At some point following his graduation, he became deeply interested in the religious life and dedicated himself to studying the scriptures. He later joined the school led by Diodore and Carterius, where theology and exegesis were taught. Theodore, later to become the Bishop of Mopsuestia, and Maximus, later the Bishop of Seleucia, were students of Diodore along with Chrysostom.
Chrysostom's advanced training under the pagan rhetorician Libanius, and years of theological training under Diodore, contributed greatly to his fame both as a preacher and an exegete. Rhetorical devices evident in his preaching are consistent with examples found in ancient handbooks. Chrysostom's skillful use of metaphors, mostly drawn from athletics, the military, the sea, pastoral life, and medicine, reflect his gift as an orator. Sozomen points out that when Libanius was asked who he wanted to become his successor, he replied, “John, if the Christians had not stolen him” (Historia Ecclesiastica, 8.2). Chrysostom's homilies, considered as prime examples of late 4th century Christian oratory, are replete with poignant verbal images. His level-headed interpretation of Scripture is characteristic of the tradition to which he belonged. Consequently, it is not surprising that it was John's reputation as an orator, preacher, and teacher which eventually earned him his well-deserved sobriquet Chrysostomos (golden mouth) and a place of honor as one of only four Doctors among the Greek fathers in the Eastern tradition.
Chrysostom served as a deacon before he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Flavian in 386. Flavian was installed as the Bishop of Antioch after Miletius, who died as the presiding bishop at the Council of Constantinople in 381. It was during these years as a deacon and subsequently as a priest in Antioch that John's fame as an eloquent preacher and expositor spread far and wide. This is attested by the fact that Jerome would accord Chrysostom a place in his Viri Illustres in the year 392, mentioning his literary activity and esteeming him as a theological writer. Antioch, therefore, would become the city where Chrysostom spent most of his theological and ecclesiastical career: five years as a deacon and 12 as a priest. He spent approximately five and a half years as the Bishop of Constantinople before his ecclesiastical career came to an abrupt end.
John preached extensively during his term as a priest; over 900 sermons, most of which are attributable to this period, survive. It is generally maintained that his sermons were taken down by stenographers and, in some cases, revised before he published them himself.
In Lent of 387, a year after Chrysostom was ordained to the priesthood, his pastoral mettle was put to the test. The Emperor Theodosius had imposed a heavy tax on the citizens of Antioch which resulted in a riot and destruction of the imperial statues, an incident that made it into the history textbooks of antiquity. In his well-known treatise, On the Priesthood, Chrysostom remarks that the prowess and caliber of a steersman cannot be determined while the ship is in the harbor. Only a pilot who is able to navigate his ship to safety through a stormy sea deserves the title of an exceptional steersman (On the Priesthood, 6:6-7). Chrysostom did precisely this, as he comforted and counseled his panic-stricken congregation at Antioch after the riot of the statues.
Chrysostom's abrupt promotion to the office of Bishop of Constantinople took place when Nectarius (who succeeded Gregory of Nazianzus), died on September 26, 397.
As the Bishop of Constantinople, Chrysostom maintained a busy life. In addition to his episcopal duties, he traveled to other sees under his jurisdiction to ordain clergy, sent missionaries to neighboring provinces (especially to the Goths), and also founded hospitals. Chrysostom was popular as a preacher, and his services were well attended. It was his insistence on high moral standards that eventually soured and severed his cordial relations with the imperial family, and ultimately led to his short tenure as bishop.
Chrysostom practiced what he preached; he cut down on unnecessary expenses and reduced the episcopal budget. He vehemently opposed the common practice whereby unmarried virgins (suneisaktoi; Latin subintroductae) lived with and governed the household affairs of monks and priests. As in Antioch, he continued to preach against extravagant living and attending the theater, the circus, and the races. His sermons were filled with exhortations to his listeners to lead simple, holy, and moral lives. In a community where a gulf divided the wealthy and the poor, generosity was constantly encouraged.
The Empress Eudoxia resented Chrysostom's vitriolic preaching against extravagance and vain-glory. The anti-Chrysostom feelings that were brewing in the palace presented Theophilus, the bishop of the rival see of Alexandria and the uncle of Cyril, an ideal opportunity to dethrone Chrysostom, the very candidate he had been forced to ordain as bishop a few years earlier instead of one of his own priests. Chrysostom was deposed on disciplinary grounds for failing to appear at the Synod of the Oak on charges of wrongdoing which involved receiving Egyptian monks accused of Origenism, who were ex-communicated and expelled from Alexandria. This decision was supported by the Emperor Arcadius and Chrysostom was exiled. He was taken to the harbor and put on a boat heading for Praenetos, a port between Helenopolis and Nicomedia.
Interestingly, no sooner had he left than he was recalled by the superstitious empress due to a mishap which was interpreted as a bad omen. Chrysostom's return to the capital was short-lived as he was exiled for good in June 404. This time Chrysostom's opposition convinced the emperor to issue a decree to exile him to Cocussus (modern-day Guksun, Turkey), the extreme boundary of the Empire. John Chrysostom died on the way in Comana in Pontus (modern-day Şarköy, Turkey), on September 14, 407, at the age of 58.
SEE ALSO: Christian-Jewish Relations; Kyrie Eleison; Miracles; Poor, Christianity and the; Preaching; Temperance and Prohibition; Worship
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