St. John Chrysostom (347–407) by Jenny Schroedel
St. John Chrysostom was born to Christian parents in 347 in Antioch, Syria. As a young man, he studied for a career in law, and his professor, Libanius, was in awe of his eloquence. He felt that John had tremendous potential. When St. John was baptized as a young man, he decided to devote his talents to the church instead of to a career in law.
He eventually became a monk, and later a priest. During his years of solitary prayer, he nearly ruined his health because of his strict ascetic disciplines. But those years were rich, fruitful years. Because of the long hours spent in prayer, he had many treasures to offer the world when he entered back into it.
During his years as a priest, his greatest strength was also his greatest liability. Short in stature — only five feet tall — he was nonetheless a powerful personality. His preaching drew large crowds, attracting much attention and many followers. But he also alienated some important people because of his desire to strip the church of excess and to challenge the local rulers to live more simply and charitably.
By the time he was forty-nine years old, he was elected to become Patriarch of Constantinople. During his reign, he raised the hackles of the Empress Eudoxia by openly chastising her in his sermons, as well as likening her to unflattering biblical figures like Jezebel. He was extremely critical of opulence and luxury, refusing all invitations to banquets and giving away many of the material treasures that accompanied his position.
In 401 A.D., he deposed six bishops and made more enemies. He was demoted and sent into exile, but an earthquake terrified those responsible for his banishment and he was recalled. St. John continued to be a lively speaker and writer, and refused to soften the tone of his sermons. Despite his many supporters, he was again exiled. After three years in Curusus in Armenia, he was sent to Pontus. The journey there was incredibly difficult — the weather was harsh and he traveled on foot. Although he often complained of exhaustion, he was forced to continue on, and he died on September 14, 407. His last words were, “Glory be to God for all things!”
The bitter memory of St. John’s death lingered in the hearts of many Christians. St. John’s student, Proclus, who served as Patriarch of Constantinople, once preached a sermon about St. John. Those who heard the sermon were deeply moved. They begged the Patriarch to have the relics transferred back to Constantinople.
The Emperor, Theodosius II (the son of St. John’s archnemesis, the Empress Eudoxia), agreed to have the relics moved, but the men he sent were unable to lift St. John’s body. When Theodosius received word that the transfer was unsuccessful, he suddenly realized his oversight — he had forgotten to apologize on behalf of his mother for all that St. John had suffered. He sent a formal apology to be read over the relics. Immediately afterward, his men were able to lift the relics.
When the relics arrived in Constantinople, the Patriarch opened the coffin and discovered that the body of St. John was incorrupt. The church swarmed with people, who stayed beside the body of St. John all through the day and night. When the Emperor approached the coffin, he tearfully asked for forgiveness. The following morning, St. John’s body was carried to the Church of the Apostles, and all the people cried “Receive back thy throne, father!” At this, witnesses saw St. John open his mouth and say, “Peace be to all.”
St. John is commemorated on September 14. He left behind an impressive collection of sermons and writings. His liturgy continues to be celebrated each Sunday in Eastern Orthodox churches (although it is not entirely clear how much of the service he was directly responsible for). The bulk of his sermons were not committed to paper, but many of his letters, exegetical works, and books, especially On the Priesthood, have become classics and are read to this day.
The people were so inspired by his sermons and oratorical skills that they gave him, posthumously, the honorific title of Chrysostom (meaning golden mouthed in Greek) in tribute to his preaching skills.