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Chrysostom |
The Golden Mouth is silenced

Chrysostom is drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 108, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Greatest preacher of the early church, John Chrysostom was a clear choice for archbishop, until he defied officialdom and was hounded to death

Chrysostom - The Golden Mouth is silenced

Chrysostom - The Golden Mouth is silenced
Because of his importance as a preacher and liturgist, icons of John Chrysostom, such as this fifteenth-century Russian example, were frequently placed on the sanctuary doors of Orthodox churches.

The invitation seemed innocent enough. Would he, the man called John Chrysostom, meet a certain Count Asterius at a martyr’s shrine outside the walls of Antioch? John knew, of course, that the imperial government must appoint a new patriarch of Constantinople. He knew, too, that his reputation as a writer and preacher made him a candidate for the job. But who was this Asterius? He could not connect that name with the search for a new patriarch.

So he met the count and accepted an invitation into his carriage. Suddenly, the doors were closed and the carriage lurched toward Constantinople. He had been kidnapped. His orders were, said the count, that he bring John to the capital, where the emperor had arranged his consecration as patriarch of Constantinople, successor to Nectarius, who had died in office.

John Chrysostom took his eventful carriage ride in the spring of 398. In the ensuing nine years, the most renowned preacher in the Christian world would fiercely collide with an imperial empress and her irresolute husband, and die miserably as he was being dragged, sick, staggering and exhausted, into a wilderness exile.

Chrysostom was no stranger to theological controversy. Martyrs’ shrines ringed his native city of Antioch, and the Arian controversy had raged there, as it had all over the empire, from the Council of Nicea in 325 to Arianism’s decisive defeat at the Council of Constantinople in 381. This was the troubled world in which he had grown up. His mother, a staunchly Trinitarian Christian, widowed at age twenty, had raised her children in Nicene Christianity and sent John to Antioch’s best secular schools. There, Libanius, the era’s greatest pagan philosopher, taught him to write eloquently and schooled him in classical thought.

However, his mother’s influence prevailed over that of his schoolmaster, and John seems never to have even contemplated a secular career. “God, what women these Christians have,” lamented the disappointed Libanius. John studied law and rhetoric as a curriculum requirement, but only, says one biographer, “for the service of the Word of God.” Similarly, he read pagan literature, but only in order to fashion a model for a Christian philosophy. At about eighteen, he met the revered Meletius, patriarch of Antioch, a man so holy that even before he died, parents named their children for him. An instant rapport developed between the two, and they fell spontaneously into the roles of teacher and disciple.

In his mid-twenties, John was baptized, and soon thereafter joined one of Antioch’s many monasteries. Then he retired to a cave near the city where he attempted the life of a hermit. When severe stomach problems forced him to abandon that plan, he returned to Antioch and became a deacon. Five years later, in 386, the patriarch Flavian, Meletius’s successor, ordained him a priest, and he established the daily routine of prayer, worship and ministry to the sick and helpless that he would observe for the rest of his life.

But he was chiefly distinguished as a preacher. So powerful were his sermons that people would laugh, weep or applaud. When published, they gained a vast circulation, and the more than sixteen centuries since they were written have not diminished their readability. Significantly, however, they broach none of the great doctrinal debates of his age. Chrysostom refuted no heresies, brokered no deals among rival theologians. He wrote as he believed, putting the case for Christ with such clarity and emotive power that even hardened skeptics sometimes found them irresistible.

Wherever possible, he took the Bible at face value. In his view, what God said was what God meant, and what the church said was what the church meant. He talked directly to his audience, asking them questions, reminding them of unfulfilled past promises, congratulating them on current achievements, urging them to resist temptations, to get back on their feet after stumbling, and to remember that Christ loves as well as judges them.

The sermons are not essays; they are outpourings of his spirit, unstructured but translucent, poetry in the form of prose. His contemporaries called him Khrisostom or “Golden Mouth,” a tribute to his enduring eloquence, borne witness to in the prayer books and devotional literature of Christians through the ages. More of his works have survived than those of any other early Christian author.

Small wonder therefore, that he was sought as the next patriarch of Constantinople. Officialdom knew that Antioch would not lightly part with him; hence his furtive removal to the capital. At first, all went well there. He quickly preached his way into the affections of his new flock. The empress Eudoxia, daughter of a barbarian general and manipulator of her unresisting husband, the emperor Arcadius, became an early enthusiast. Even Theophilus, the patriarch of Alexandria, who had advanced another candidate for the patriarchate in the capital, signaled his support by consecrating the new prelate before hurrying back to Egypt. Finally, Eutropius, the emperor’s first minister, had not only persuaded Arcadius to promote Chrysostom, but had organized the kidnapping.

This acceptance in high places, however, was short-lived. His predecessor, Nectarius, had been pleasant, easygoing, always careful to say the right things, and appreciated the value of good cheer. Chrysostom was different. Prevented only by a weak stomach from a lifetime commitment to asceticism, he introduced deep cuts in the episcopal entertainment budget, stopped throwing banquets, dined alone on a spartan diet, and sold off all unnecessary palace furnishings, using the money to finance a hospital.

This did not meet with universal enthusiasm. His popularity waned among Nectarius’s old dining companions and also among the clergy, particularly when he condemned their predilection for avarice and luxury. Moreover, he ended a practice that allowed priests to take in consecrated virgins as housekeepers. Then, adding injury to insult, he defrocked two deacons, one for murder, the other for adultery. He ordered the monks to stop wandering the streets and return to their monasteries. He attacked the problem of scandalously living widows by requiring them either to remarry or observe appropriate standards of chastity and decorum.

In short, notes his biographer Palladius, he began “by sweeping the stairs from the top.” At the top was the empress Eudoxia. She and her female courtiers took offense at his constant harping on the sinfulness of obsessive interest in dress and adornment. And after Eudoxia had allegedly used questionable means to acquire for herself a choice vineyard, Chrysostom saw fit to remind the faithful how Elijah had rebuked Jezebel for contriving the murder of Naboth, simply because Naboth refused to sell his vineyard to her husband, King Ahab (1 Kings 21).

The bishop’s defenders, far more numerous among the people than in the court, no doubt pointed out that admonishing sinners is a spiritual work of mercy, which all Christians are obliged to perform. After all, the bishop was a pastor whose job it was to oversee the moral and spiritual lives of his flock. Those he criticized, however, saw him as merely arrogant, tactless and self-righteous.

In 399, an ironic event pitted Chrysostom against the palace. Eutropius, the emperor’s erstwhile chief minister, who had once vigorously opposed the right of the church to provide sanctuary against the state, had fallen sharply from imperial favor, probably through gambling debt. He himself took sanctuary in Chrysostom’s cathedral, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, known as the “Great Church” of the capital. “And so,” declaimed the preacher, a cringing Eutropius pressed to a pillar behind him, “the Hippodrome having exhausted your wealth has whetted the sword against you. But the church, which has experienced your untimely wrath, is hurrying in every direction to pluck you out of the net.” In the end, Eutropius broke sanctuary himself, was arrested, exiled and murdered. Chrysostom meanwhile, was accused of rendering unto God the things that were caesar’s.

Thus far, Chrysostom’s foes had been confined to the imperial circle. In 401, he made a move that created a lethal ecclesiastical enemy. Exercising an authority conferred by the First Council of Constantinople in 381, that put all the eastern bishops under the patriarchate of Constantinople, Chrysostom appointed a new bishop for Ephesus. He also deposed, for taking bribes, six bishops from around that city. Alexandria took instant umbrage. As second city of the empire, it was keenly resentful of the powers being acquired by (as they saw it) upstart Constantinople. Theophilus, its patriarch, perceived the Ephesus episode as a warning. If Constantinople could unilaterally hire and fire at Ephesus, then Alexandria might be next. So Theophilus set out to destroy Chrysostom. It didn’t take him long.

He had another grievance. Many Egyptian monks had developed an avid devotion to Origen, the third-century Alexandrian theologian. (See earlier volume, A Pinch of Incense, chapters 7 and 8.) They singled out, in particular, what they took to be Origen’s teaching that Jesus Christ had no genuinely human existence, and that Jesus must therefore be regarded as a kind of ghost. When this was challenged, four monks acting as spokesmen for the “Origenists,” and known from their height as “the Tall Brothers,” took their case to their patriarch, Theophilus. He denounced them as heretics, so the four took their cause to Constantinople. Chrysostom refused to rule on it and referred the case back to Theophilus, meanwhile providing shelter and food for the four. To Theophilus, this amounted to interference by Constantinople in Alexandria’s affairs. Chrysostom was harboring heretics, he said.

Theophilus, along with supporting bishops from Egypt and others he had recruited along the way, descended upon Constantinople in 403, where they planned a synod that would depose Chrysostom. He soon won over the empress, still smarting from Chrysostom’s sermonizing and further angered at Chrysostom’s invective against three of her friends, all widows, and therefore all targets of his remarriage-or-celibacy dictum.

Theophilus assembled his supporters at a villa outside Constantinople called The Oak, in fact the home of a friend of the empress. There they drew up a list of twenty-nine accusations against Chrysostom. Some of the charges seem absurd: He assaulted people physically. He deposed bishops and appointed them without proper inquiry. He wasted ecclesiastical property. He ate lozenges in church after taking Holy Communion. He dined alone and gorged “like a cyclops.”

The synod summoned Chrysostom to answer these in person. Not wishing to be judged by his enemies, he sent messengers bearing word that he refused to recognize the Synod of the Oak. The bishops took the rebuff out on the messengers: one was beaten, one had his clothes torn off, one was heaped with the chains they had planned to heap on Chrysostom. Nevertheless, the emperor Arcadius ordered Chrysostom to appear. When he still refused, the synod condemned him, not on the schedule of charges, but for defying the synod’s authority. They also charged him with treason (i.e., criticizing the empress) but referred this to the emperor as a civil offense. Arcadius ordered him deposed and exiled.

When crowds assembled to prevent his arrest, Chrysostom calmed them, urged them to not resist, gave himself up, and was quietly removed from the city aboard a vessel by night. Theophilus attempted a triumphal entry into the city the following day. He was chased out of town by a mob, which then clashed with his Egyptian sailors. Meanwhile in the palace, some unknown but serious mishap occurred. It is usually assumed that the superstitious Eudoxia miscarried. She pleaded with her husband to bring Chrysostom back. An imperial courier promptly tracked him down with a message from the empress. “Your Holiness must not suppose I was privy to what was done,” she said. “I am innocent of your blood. This conspiracy is the work of depraved and wicked men. I remember that my children were baptized by you. God, whom I serve, is witness of my tears.”

So Chrysostom sailed home. As he approached the city, he found the harbor and the Bosporus ablaze with the lights of welcoming vessels, the shore lined with the torches of people cheering his return. But he did not return to his church. Instead he went to a home that the empress had provided. He knew that a synod at Antioch, actually an Arian synod, had some time ago passed a rule that no deposed bishop could return to his church unless another synod authorized him to do so. None had. Crowd approval, even imperial approval, did not count.

But to the crowd such ecclesiastical niceties meant nothing. They seized their beloved bishop, carried him bodily into the Great Church and deposited him on the episcopal throne. As events would soon prove, however, they had done him no favor. Meanwhile, the Constantinople crowd clashed in the streets with Theophilus’s supporters, threatening to throw Theophilus and company into the Bosporus. They hurriedly left for home.

Peace prevailed for two months. Then, in October 403, another incident terminated it. The Great Church stood beside a big square near the center of the city, across from the Senate House. In the midst of the square was a rostrum, used for public speaking. Here the empress Eudoxia had the city erect a large column, topped by a silver statue of herself. As was customary, festivities accompanied the unveiling of the statue. The cheering interfered with a service in the church. A sermon attributed to John, one that some historians think spurious, describes the consequence. Alluding to the biblical story of the execution of John the Baptist (Mark 6:21—26), the bishop declared from the pulpit: “Again, Herodias storms and runs wild. Again she dances. Again she asks for John’s head on a platter.” Whether he said it or he did not, the story got back to the empress and the war was on again.

Spurred by Eudoxia, bishops opposed to Chrysostom began demanding a new synod to try him on a new charge, namely that he had occupied his church without first being cleared by another synod. Again the emperor vacillated. Two attempts on Chrysostom’s life failed. Then, at Christmas 404, came the first certain sign that the emperor was turning decisively against him. Arcadius pointedly neglected to attend the Christmas Liturgy at the Great Church. How could he be present, he asked, when the archbishop had not been cleared of the charges made against him? At the end of Lent 405, the emperor finally acted, forbidding Chrysostom to officiate at the Easter services. Chrysostom defied him. “I have received this church from God,” he said. “I am responsible for the salvation of my flock, and am not free to desert it. The city is yours and you can turn me out by force, if you like. It will be on your head that I leave my post.”

On Easter Eve, the emperor responded. The Great Church was crowded for the vigil service and the baptism of catechumens. Suddenly, soldiers burst in through the doors. They surrounded the altar. Baptism was then by total immersion, and many women were half-dressed in preparation for it. They fled screaming. Some were wounded and thrown outside. The waters of the great font ran red with blood. Most of the churches of Constantinople were empty that Easter, people being too terrified to attend.

Chrysostom retired to his house, vigilantly guarded by the faithful. Five days after Pentecost, Arcadius signed an order expelling him from the city. To prevent a riot, John quietly surrendered to a military guard, and a vessel rapidly removed him from the city he would never see again. Meanwhile, a pandemonium of protest broke out in which the Great Church was set afire. It spread to the Senate House.

Several nights before the bishop’s forced departure, a hailstorm had burst upon the city, terrifying the empress. Throughout the summer, she seemed to suffer from some undisclosed illness. She died in childbirth on October 6.

The place of exile chosen for Chrysostom was Cucusus in the Taurus Mountains of Lesser Armenia, a town constantly under attack by the wild Isaurian barbarians. In the sweltering August heat, he was trekked across the uplands of Asia Minor, living on hard, moldy bread and rank water. At Caesarea, capital of Cappadocia, conditions briefly eased. But then the Isaurians sacked the town, and the local monks blamed the presence of Chrysostom for such bad luck and late one night drove him away.

Sick and unable to walk, he was carried into the mountains on a litter borne by a mule. The animal slipped and fell, almost killing him. He dragged himself to his feet and trudged on, over the rocky ground in pitch dark. Finally, early in September, they reached Cucusus. He was treated kindly there. Someone gave him a town house. But two successive winters gradually destroyed his health entirely. He was suffering from vomiting, headaches and sleeplessness. He could not eat.

Then came word from the capital. He was to be moved to Pityas, a tiny port at the eastern end of the Black Sea, with not even a road to connect it to civilization. Accompanied by two praetorian guardsmen, he began the trek. After four hundred miles, they came to a little village, and a chapel dedicated to the martyr Basiliscus. That night, said Chrysostom, Basiliscus himself came to him in a dream and said: “Cheer up, brother. Tomorrow, we’ll be together.” The following day, September 14, 407, he found he could no longer keep walking. They brought him back to the chapel, where the local clergy dressed him in clean white clothing and put him to bed. In about two hours, he turned to them and said: “Glory be to God in all things.” Then he died. He was buried in the tomb of St. Basiliscus.

Meanwhile, at Constantinople, those bishops and laypeople who supported him were ruthlessly persecuted with fines, imprisonment, torture and exile. Laymen who refused Communion from his successors, the patriarchs Arsacius and Atticus, lost their jobs. Soldiers were demoted. In the midst of his trials, Chrysostom had appealed to Pope Innocent I, who sent a nine-man delegation–five western bishops and four eastern–to Constantinople, urging Chrysostom’s reinstatement. The four eastern bishops were imprisoned, the western bishops jailed, then sent home on a leaky ship that was expected to sink. It didn’t. Innocent cut off communion with the patriarch of Constantinople until John’s name could be cleared and restored to the dignities of the church.

After the death of Arcadius a year after Chrysostom, this process of rehabilitation went slowly forward. Finally, in 438, his relics were moved to Constantinople, where the emperor, Theodosius II, bowed to kiss the reliquary and beg God’s forgiveness for his parents, Eudoxia and Arcadius. The relics were then buried beside the tomb of Eudoxia in the Church of the Apostles.

John Chrysostom became one of the Three Holy Hierarchs of the Eastern Churches (with Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus), and the Liturgy ascribed to him is sung in all Eastern churches most Sundays of the year. From that Liturgy, the Anglican Church for more than four hundred years preserved in its Book of Common Prayer what it called “The Prayer of Saint Chrysostom.” It reads:

Almighty God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests: Fulfill now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting. Amen.

Perhaps more closely related to Chrysostom’s own life than to his theology is the “Gradual,” sung between the epistle and gospel in the old Roman Catholic Mass for the Feast of St. John Chrysostom, January 27: “Blessed is the man who suffers trials, for when he has been proved, he shall receive the crown of life. Alleluia!”

This is the end of the Chrysostom category article drawn from Chapter Three, beginning on page 108, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Chrysostom from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at