(Sretensky Monastery choir sings Ps. 33/34):
I will bless the Lord at every time… Hello, I‘m Sr. Vassa,
and I‘m making my coffee right now here in Vienna, in Austria.
We have a very exciting episode for you today, because we‘re going to talk about St. John
Chrysostom, a very important figure in the Byzantine tradition. He is so important, in fact, that if you don‘t know anything about him, you should really drop everything – that‘s
right, drop everything – and find out about him. St. John Chrysostom is remembered
throughout the entire year, really, because his Divine Liturgy, the Eucharistic Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, is celebrated almost the entire year, with the exception of most days of Great Lent,
and some other days in the year. And we also have several feasts
in his honor: on January 27th we celebrate the transfer of his relics to Constantinople to Comana in Pontus, where he died on the way to his exile; on January 30th he is celebrated as one of the
Three Holy Hierarchs, along with Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian; September
14th is the day of his repose – but we have no service to him on that day, in the Byzantine
tradition, because it is also the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross. So his main feast
is celebrated on November 13th, which, according to some sources, is the day he became Archbishop
of Constantinople. St. John is known for his eloquent preaching,
for which he was called, already during his life-time, “Hrisostomos”,
which means “golden-mouthed.“ So let‘s take a look at the life of this great saint! St. John was born in around the year
349 in Antioch, an ancient city on the river Orontes. It was
once the capital-city of Syria, but today mere ruins of this once-great city lie near
the modern city of Antakya in Turkey. Antioch
had a very vibrant pagan population, and pagan customs,
as well as a large Jewish population, but it was also an important
center of early Christianity, evangelized by the Apostles Peter, Paul, and
Barnabas. And Antioch is called the “the cradle of Christianity,“ because, acording to the Book of Acts,
Antioch‘s converts were the first to be called “Christians“ (Acts 11:26). John was born to wealthy
parents named Anthusa and Secundus, who was a high-ranking military officer. But Secundus,
John’s father, died shortly after the birth of John, who was brought up by his Christian mother, Anthusa,
to whom John remained very close throughout her life. John studied under the famous pagan
teacher Libanius, from whom he acquired the skills of rhetoric and
a love for the Greek language. At age 20, John became a catechumen, which means he was preparing
for baptism. As I mentioned in several previous episodes, zillions, it was not customary yet for
Christians to be baptized as infants. They did this at an adult age. John studied theology under Diodor of Tarsus
at this point, and he also felt a strong desire to dedicate his life to asceticism
and become a hermit, but his mother opposed this, so he promised her that he would not
leave her and become a hermit during her lifetime. After 3 years as a catechumen, John was baptized
and also ordained reader by the Bishop of Antioch, St. Meletius. John‘s mother died when he was
in his late 20‘s, so he became a monk in the mountains outside Antioch,
and lived as a hermit for 2 years, leading a severe ascetical life, strictly fasting,
barely sleeping, and committing the Bible to memory. But he so weakened his health through
ascetical practices, that he was compelled to return to Antioch, where he ended up serving as a priest for
20 years. As priest, John became immensely popular and well-known as a very gifted preacher.
Now, although John lived during the time of the Arian controversies and other theological controversies, in his sermons he did not focus on dogmatical formulations, but rather on the practical application of Scripture in everyday life.
He particularly focused on the importance of charity to the poor, and he often admonished the
wealthy for their neglect of the needy. In the year 397 he was
appointed by the Byzantine Emperor Arcadius Archbishop of Constantinople.
At this time, the church of the capital city of Constantinople was in disarray,
with the clergy leading a life of luxury and much corruption. As Archbishop, John was expected to host and
attend expensive receptions, together with other powerful dignitaries of the city. However,
much to the chagrin of the establishment, John did not do what was expected of him,
and continued his ascetical lifestyle, spending the money of his see on care for the
poor. He often admonished the wealthy men and women of this city for their showy piety,
which made lavish donations for the expensive decoration of churches, while disregarding
beggars on the street. So John said to them:
“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.“ (Hom. 50 on Matthew 3-4)
Thus Chrysostom became very unpopular with both the clergy and the other wealthy of the city,
particularly with the Empress Eudoxia, the wife of Emperor Arcadius.
You see, the Empress often suspected that John was, actually, criticizing
her personally. I must cut the story short, as usual, and I will only say that, despite John’s
popularity with the simple folk, his powerful enemies prevailed, and had him exiled.
He died while being brutally marched to his place of exile on September 14th, 407. His last words
were, famously: “Glory be to God for everything!“ There is a lot more to be said about St. John
Chrysostom, but I will just note the following: He was not a people-pleaser. And that means,
he did not sacrifice who he was, – and that was a Christian – one motivated by
a love for Christ – in order to please other people. That means he was
motivated by love, and not by fear. He did not fear human opinion, even
when it was the opinion of other hierarchs and very powerful people, because his focus remained
on God and His word. You see, when we fall into the rut of people-pleasing,
zillions, which has been called “the disease to please,“ we experience a loss of focus. We shift from
attending to our connection to God and attending to His word, and replace that with a focus
on the ever-changing and thus uncontrollable phenomenon of human opinion. This focus is
tied to a fear of rejection; of not being liked. We might imagine we are being kind
to others, or even being some sort of “peacemakers,“ but people-pleasing actually leads to us to
lose our own inner peace, without which we cannot truly benefit others or ourselves.
Of course, it‘s easy to fall into this rut, when we’re not focused on God
and His word, on serving Him, because you’ve got to serve somebody,
as Bob Dylan says, and if we‘re not serving God, you’re going to end up
serving somebody or everybody else. When we do fall into this rut, let‘s remind ourselves
to refocus on God in quiet daily prayer, and attention to His word, which tells us,
among other things: “Love your neighbor as yourself“ (Mk 12:31). And that means that we can’t
care for our neighbor, without, first,
caring for ourselves. Thus, a focus on serving God
and His word, helps us to let go of the constant
need that is self-destructive and unhealthy, – to serve everyone else. That’s it for today, ladies and gentlemen.
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Saint John Chrysostom! Thank you!