HOMILY for St John Chrysostom
So far as I can tell, St John wasn’t an especially original thinker, and yet, he is numbered among the great Greek-speaking doctors of the Church, which include such great 4th-century theologians as St Athanasius, St Basil the Great and St Gregory Nazianzen. So, if it isn’t a particular theological ‘break-through’, so to speak, that he teaches us, what lesson does St John, as a doctor of the Church, have for us?
The epithet he was given after his death may help. He was called Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed because he was renowned as a great preacher. Hence, he is the patron saint of orators and preachers. So, perhaps the first thing he teaches us is that the preacher is not necessarily called to be an original thinker, dazzling the world with theological subtleties, and a show of his own cleverness. After all, as St Paul warns, “knowledge puffs up”. Rather, the preacher is motivated by a love of the Word, and a desire to know the One he loves so that he can use that knowledge to build up God’s people. Hence, as St Paul says, “love builds up”.
In order to do this, the preacher’s words must be golden, that is, untarnished by falsehood, error, and one’s own untested opinions; golden, too, in that they shine attractively to draw others to Christ’s light and wisdom; golden, then, because they are true and, so, ever-enduring. Saving truth is what the preacher is called to hand on, and the famous English Dominican preacher, fr Vincent McNabb put it so well. He once said: “I have devoted my life to the preaching of platitudes; it is one of the satisfactions of my life. I like the old things – sun and moon, fresh air, bread and butter, work, friendship, avoiding the occasions of sin. Sometimes the devil would say to me, ‘Now, Father Vincent, people don’t like those sorts of things, give them something modern.’ My Guardian Angel says, ‘It isn’t your duty to be modern. You must give something true.’”
But mere words, even true ones, can be cheap if not lived. And St John’s life witnesses to the golden example he set of suffering for the sake of the truth he preached. For as Patriarch of Constantinople he preached against the corruption of the Church and imperial Court, seeking to reform society. This gained him some powerful enemies, including the Empress, who contrived to have him exiled twice. But even so, he would not water down the Gospel for love of the Word and love for his enemies. Christ says: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you”. And this is the good, the loving act that the preacher does, which is to speak the blessed words of Truth to those who hate us. So, in the midst of his sufferings, like the apostle St Paul, whom he so greatly admired, St John found the greatest peace and happiness.
But St John’s enemies were not satisfied with the sufferings he had already endured, and they banished him still further, to Pythius, at the very extremity of the Empire. On 14 September 407, he died on his way there from the severe maltreatment meted out by the imperial soldiers. Thus he is regarded by many as a martyr for truth.
This great doctor of the Church teaches us, then, but also sounds a warning, that the truth we preach has to be borne out in our lives – sometimes with great sacrifice and suffering. But these trials and difficulties are precisely the flames that test and prove what we say, so that not only our words or mouth, but our lives and entire person becomes golden.
May St John pray for us, that we may be faithful and courageous preachers of Christ’s Gospel.