I sometimes wonder if Saint John Chrysostom is happy with the name we’ve given him. Chyrsostom means “Golden mouth” and we call him that because his homilies are some of the best sermons ever recorded. His Pascha sermon is read worldwide every year, sixteen hundred (yes, that’s 1,600) years after he first gave it.
But there’s an irony in the name too. He battled all his life with a tendency to slanderous talk, and before he became a monk, he took a vow of silence to try to master his weakness. While he never managed to completely defeat either it or his bad temper, he did manage to turn it to good use, even though it ended up getting him in more trouble than he would ever have imagined possible.
As long as he was a priest in Antioch, things weren’t too bad. Sure, he annoyed some people but his sermons saved the city from the Emperor’s wrath, which was fearsome. Theodosius had demanded the city pay for some military expenses, and the citizens rioted, destroying paintings and statues of the emperor and his late, beloved wife. It was because of the homilies St. John preached, counselling repentance and contrition, that the city was spared the fate of Thessalonica, when the emperor’s fury led to the slaughter of 7,000 of the city’s inhabitants.
Then a very influential man heard St. John speak and went back to Constantinople certain that he’d found the next Bishop. By the time St. John was enthroned, he had, in some ways, learned to control his tongue. Instead of simply passing on vicious gossip with a side of pointed opinion, he tended now to point out the failings and weaknesses of the people from the ambo as his priestly duty. The trouble was that he either didn’t care about people’s reactions, or didn’t think to engage his brain and use some diplomacy before opening his mouth.
He made an enemy of the Patriarch of Alexandria, and his own clergy were less than happy with him when he decided to clean house and insist his priests act as if they were ministers of Christ and pious, dedicated Christians instead of lazy, immoral and corrupt bureaucrats. (Adultery and homicide were only two of the charges he brought against some of his priests). He insisted that the out of town priests leave the city and go back and care for their people.
He criticized the aristocracy freely and refused to give the lavish banquets expected of the bishop. In fact, he sold the expensive furnishings and plate in the bishop’s palace to give it to the poor and ill of the city.
But in the Empress Eudoxia, he met his match. She was a vain, selfish, and decadent woman. She ruled her weak-willed husband, Arcadius, and through him, the empire. While she had taken upon herself the role of patron of the church which was usually reserved for the emperor, which endeared her for a time to St. John, it wasn’t long before they were at odds.
True to form, St. John did not mince words when he preached, and when his enemies made sure she heard about a sermon criticizing women’s extravagance in dress, she assumed it was aimed at her. (It probably was.) At one point, he compared her to Jezebel, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He was brought to trial and exiled, but it was rescinded after an earthquake convinced the Empress that God didn’t approve.
The reprieve was short lived. A silver statue of Eudoxia was erected not far from Hagia Sophia, and the celebrations were so loud and raucous that they interrupted the services going on inside the church. This time, St. John compared her to Herodias, and that sealed his fate. He was tried, convicted and exiled again, in spite of three days worth of riots, and in spite of Hagia Sophia and the Senate House burning to the ground the night he left the city.
He spent the rest of his life (3 years) in exile, dying at the shrine of a martyr. He might have been more diplomatic in his criticisms, but like his biblical interpretation, his blunt and straightforward honesty showed men and women the way God intended them to live, the way they were supposed to live and if exile and suffering were his lot for speaking the truth, he would pay that price willingly and happily.
To find out more about St. John Golden mouth, check out our reference page here.
Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.