Saint John Chrysostom was born around 340 into a military family in Antioch, now in modern Turkey. He studied under Libanius, the great rhetorician of the day and afterwards lived with monks in Syria for a few years, but poor health made him return to Antioch, where he served the church for five years as a deacon, taking care of the poor.
Ordained a priest in 386, John became a bishop of Constantinople, which was then the seat of Roman power. Rome was ruled from there. John was an outstanding preacher: his “golden mouth” (Chrysostom) delighted his ordinary hearers with sermons on the gospels and the letters of Paul. His sermons had the opposite effect on the rulers and churchmen of that city whom he attacked for their wealth and high living. The Empress Eudoxia exiled him briefly from the city in 402 AD.
John returned to resume his fearless preaching against the city’s powerful political and church elite. Eudoxia finally sent him into exile on the Black Sea after John gave a sermon that began “Again Herodias is raging, again she is perturbed, again she wants to receive the head of John on a dish.” Hardly a way to win friends in high places.
“ Glory be to God for everything. Amen” John said as he made his way to exile and death. “If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear. Though the waves and the sea and the anger of princes are against me, they’re as weak as a spider’s web.”
He died on September 14, 407 AD, the eve of the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross, which we celebrate tomorrow.
We always need people like John Chrysostom with “golden mouths” to speak to power. In our prayer for his feast, we thank God for this bishop made “illustrious by his wonderful eloquence and his example of suffering,” a nice reminder that preaching isn’t just beautiful words. It can be a costly gift, a dangerous act that brings suffering. John died, appropriately, on a feast of the Holy Cross.
Notice too that John spent some years as a deacon, taking care of the poor. Preaching is nourished by experience.
Here’s an example of his fearless preaching:
The waters are up; storms are on us, but we’re not afraid of drowning; we’re standing on a rock. The raging sea won’t break the rock. The rising waves won’t sink the boat of Jesus. What are we afraid of? Death? Life to me means Christ, and death is gain. Exile? The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord. Goods taken away? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it. I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good.
I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence. Do you not hear the Lord saying: Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst? Will he be absent, then, when so many people united in love are gathered together? I have his promise; I am surely not going to rely on my own strength! I have what he has written; that is my staff, my security, my peaceful harbour. Let the world be in upheaval. I hold to his promise and read his message; that is my protecting wall and garrison. What message? Know that I am with you always, until the end of the world! If Christ is with me, whom shall I fear?