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Life Of John Chrysostom by Frederic M. Perthes


THE bishop Meletius gave him the office of deacon, which required of him only subordinate services; but his successor, Flavianus, six years later, 386, made him a presbyter. He now came forward as a preacher in the city. The presbyters were assistants of the bishop, and were employed by him; one mainly as a pastor, another as a preacher, according to their various gifts. The rare abilities of John led the bishop not only to place him in the pulpit oftener than the other presbyters, but also to yield, in his own person, the precedence to Chrysostom. His conduct does him honor. John appears soon to have become the preacher of the church, and to have continued such twelve years.

This time passed, on the whole, quietly by; I mean without extraordinary events. He had not, to be sure, unmingled joy and satisfaction in his office. In such a city as Antioch, and with a large church, many a grief, many a painful experience, many a sharp conflict, must be endured; but this is only the lot of every clergyman who is earnest to do the work of his office; it may not be otherwise on earth. But aside from this, these twelve years, as a whole, went quietly past. John, who now became “Chrysostom,” stood in his pulpit, and scattered the seed of God’s Word. And not without a blessing; for the members of the church were present in large numbers, heard him with pleasure, and often received deep impressions from his discourse. We hear of many a sermon which he delivered during this period, and of its effects. Many of his addresses have been preserved for us, and are within the reach of those who desire to peruse them.

A few extracts will here be in place. I select for this purpose the homilies which he delivered through a series of weeks in Lent of the year 387. They were occasioned by an event of serious import to the city and to him.

The reigning Emperor, Theodosius the Great, had laid upon the city of Antioch an impost which, notwithstanding her wealth, was very large and oppressive. The Governor and his officers attempted to collect it. This excited displeasure, and the hard, rough way in which the officers proceeded, put the whole city in commotion: the great murmured, and the lower classes ran together in the streets and market-place. Still they might perhaps have submitted and become quiet again, had there not been in the city a party of men, who, free from the higher restraints of conscience, asked not for law or order, and had nothing to lose, but eagerly sought for gain, and therefore availed themselves with joy of occasions to excite disturbance and alarm, that they might fish in the troubled waters. They were mostly residents from abroad, who had been driven from home for evil conduct, or had left, because, unwilling to earn their bread in a respectable employment, they hoped to acquire money in the great city. Here, in the theatre and upon the numerous play grounds, they were at home, and were often hired by the comedians and female dancers to applaud them by clapping. Moreover, high officers, who had not the love of the people, but who coveted applause, gave the men in question money for crying “hurrah” at the right time, and for leading the populace to do the same. Thus Chrysostom describes them, warning the church of their character. And Libanius expresses himself to the same effect concerning them. He supposes there were four hundred fellows of this sort in the city, and says: The dancers are dearer to them than sun, moon, and stars. Nothing is so holy to them as the theatre; and never till they are driven out of the city shall we have rest, security, and peace. To these venal men the alarm in Antioch was right welcome. They spread themselves through the city, excited the people more and more, and led them to assemble in wild tumult before the castle of the Governor, for the purpose of compelling him to cease the exaction of the money. But as he would not and could not accede to their demand, they rushed furiously to the market-place, tore down the statues of the Emperor, Empress, and princes, trampled them underfoot, and sung satirical and abusive songs over them. Then they sought the dwellings of the great, who would not join their riotous movement, and set them on fire. One of the palaces was already in flames, when, at the Governor’s command, soldiers marched up, quickly scattered the people, and restored quiet to the city.

The authorities also discharged their duty, by seizing several ringleaders of the riot and punishing them. They then sent couriers to Constantinople, to acquaint the Emperor with the affair, and to receive further commands. The fear and distress were now equal to the noise and rage. Theodosius was not an evil man, but he was very passionate. Such a rising against the Emperor and abuse of his statues was deemed, especially at that time, the worst of crimes; and it was naturally feared—there were examples of the kind—that the Emperor, in his first wrath, might give command to lay the city in ashes. Antioch quickly assumed another aspect. Gaming-houses and pleasure-grounds were unvisited, the baths were empty, the great and the rich were packing up their goods for removal to a place of safety, students left for home, and upon the markets and streets the customary crowd failed; all was still as death, for every one sat speechless at home, awaiting with fear the things which were to come.

John Chrysostom sat also at home, but with other thoughts than most of the inhabitants. He hoped from this event a blessing to the hearts of the people, and he meditated how to employ the occasion and terror for their best good.

He permitted seven days to pass before he ascended the pulpit, in order, first, to press the event home to their consciences, and then, lead them to peace, that their ears might be able to hear. After this delay he took up his discourse in his church crowded with hearers.

Lent was at hand; and on the Sunday before the outbreak he had spoken in a remarkable manner to the church of the pernicious influence which those bands of restless and reckless men exercised, and had closed his sermon with these words: “I desire of you one expression of thanks for the discourse, namely, that you reduce to order the blasphemers of God in this city. May the Jews and heathen of Antioch find in you, who are Christians, their deliverers. Think not there is danger in putting your hand on these men,—there will be no advantage in making them your enemies. There was no advantage in having Herod for an enemy, and yet John the Baptist testified against him. And if you suffer for it, you will suffer, like John, as martyrs for truth and right. And let no one utter the cold, heartless words, How does it concern me? what have I to do with these men? I have an interest in every man. Have not all men the same nature as yourself, the same Lord, the same Divine law over them? If you who are present would divide among yourselves this care for the city’s welfare, Antioch would surely perceive the power of your action. In number the smallest part of the inhabitants, but in heart the best, I say to you: One man, glowing with holy zeal, is able to change a whole city.”

A few days after he had thus spoken, the wild outbreak described above was occasioned by those men. When now Chrysostom ascended the pulpit again, he reminded them of what they had last heard, and said: “I believe that I spoke not those words of myself, but God, who sees into the future, put them in my heart. Had we punished the blasphemers, what has now happened would not have taken place. These people are to blame for our present fear. Had we removed them before, or reduced them to quiet, we should not now need to tremble. I well know, that from early times good morals have prevailed in our city; but alien and profligate men, above all law, have corrupted us. You have suffered their ungodly conduct, and God also has now suffered the Emperor to be vilified, that we may be punished for our indifference.”

When he uttered these words there was a movement in the audience. They nodded approval, “he is right,” and some clapped their hands in applause, according to the custom of the time. Then Chrysostom raised his voice: “How does your applause help me? It will be the right approval if you practice in life what I say to you. The church is no theatre, where men listen for their own pleasure.” Yet he did not reprove merely, he sought to restore courage to their terrified spirits.

“A Christian,” said he, “must be distinguished from the heathen by enduring all courageously. Filled with the hope of future blessings, he must be raised above the assault of temporal sufferings. The believer stands upon a rock; hence the floods cannot overthrow him. Let us take heart, for God cares for us more than we care for ourselves.”

In the same discourse, he turned to the rich men of the city, and said:—

“Of what profit to you now are your gorgeous palaces? You leave them to flee away. How does your gold assist you? If gold cannot help you against the anger of a man, how much less will it aid you against the wrath of Him who needs no gold! What do you have from it? A double burden and vexation. The poor man is soon equipped and ready; you go about and seek and seek for one with whom your moneys may be preserved secure.”

Meanwhile, that every possible effort might be made to save the city, the venerable bishop Flavian, though old and sickly, and though his sister lay at the point of death, set out for the court, to intercede with the Emperor. When Chrysostom ascended the chancel on the next Sabbath, he related this to the church, and said:—

“As the bishop has heard from his Saviour, that a good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep, he has gone to give his life for us all, if it must be. It has not been easy for him to make the journey. He is very aged, weak in body, the season is rough, the approaching Lent properly calls for his presence here, and his only sister, lying sick unto death, would fain have held her brother to her bedside. But he tore himself away, and the desire to help us has given to his old age the spirit of youth. He thought: Christ has given Himself for us; and what can be our excuse, if we, to whom so large a church has been committed, are not ready to do all for her safety? God in heaven will not overlook such love; He will not permit His servant to return without the fulfilment of his desire. His appearance, merely, will soften the wrath of the pious Emperor,—the countenance of holy men is full of spiritual power,—and he knows how to speak. He will say to the Emperor, as Moses once said: Forgive them their trespass, or else, slay me with them. He will remind him of Christ the Lord, who, in these weeks of fasting, purchased forgiveness for the sin of the whole world; and of that parable of the servant owing ten thousand talents and exacting the hundred pence. I know the courage of our father. He will say to the Emperor: “Beware lest you hear from the Lord on that day,—Thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt; shouldest thou not also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?” We have a good bishop and no bad Emperor; thus upon both sides there is hope. But let us trust in God more than in both of them; for He will stand between them, inspire the bishop’s discourse, and soften the Emperor’s heart. Let us go to our Father for help; let us cry also unto God! United prayer availeth much, if it is earnest. We need not journey beyond the sea; each one of us, man and woman, can here in the church, and also at home, cry unto God, and God—O assuredly, He will hear us.”

He then shows them, that the sad revolt in connection with the time of Lent, in which it took place, had already brought them many a blessing:—

“The market is empty, but the church is full. While we must search, as in a desert, after men upon the streets of the city, we find here no place for the multitude of hearers. As seamen in a furious storm seek the harbor, so the storm, which has fallen upon our city, drives all, from every side, together into the church, and here unites us all, as members, by the bond of love. We rejoice to see one another here in the danger, to weep and pray together, and daily to hear the Divine Word; quickened, encouraged, strengthened, we return to our homes.

“Let us not lament over the danger which has befallen us, but thank God that He has awakened us once more from our languid and slothful, fickle and wandering mind, to deep earnestness! How many times heretofore have I admonished men to leave the theatre and dissolute plays, and not to amuse themselves with unseemly dances. But I could not reach the object with my words; when songs of praise resounded here, the wild cry of mirth echoed there. But now, of their own accord, they leave those places, dissolute songs are no more heard, even the workshops are deserted, labor rests, our whole city seems to be a church.

“Let us thank God, but—let us continue on the way which we have taken; let us beware, lest, when the storm is past, we again cease to pray! Of what use is it, for one who has become sick by a disorderly life, to live temperately three or four days, but then fall back into his old course? In those days, when the earth quaked, or famine threatened, you once before paused for a time. Let us now persevere in the direction we have taken, that God may not be compelled to bring a worse thing upon us.

“Now you are daily in the church, but truly we go not into the church merely for the sake of being present, but in order to bear home treasures from this place. We sin by going empty away from the house of God. Therefore, when you go home, let the friend bear somewhat to his friend, the father to his children, the masters to their slaves. From the garden and the forest we bring flowers and branches to our friends, from banquets the mother brings dainties to her children; and shall we return empty from the house of God to our families?”

With the first information of what had taken place in Antioch, and before bishop Flavian had arrived in Constantinople, the Emperor had sent two officers, Cæsarius and Hellebichus, to make the sharpest examination, and to detect and punish the guilty. These two judges appeared in the city, and, according to the custom of that age, applied the torture, in order to force those concerned to confess their own guilt and that of their associates. Great and small, men from the common people and from the most illustrious families, were brought in chains to the hall of judgment. Upon the space before the hall stood wives, children, and friends, weeping and lamenting, to hear what would become of those dearest to them.

There was great sorrow in the city, when one morning a number of monks, who living in seclusion near Antioch had heard of the calamity, came into the city, and, just when the high lords were riding back to the hall of justice, placed themselves in their way. One of them, Macedonius, who had been hitherto unknown among men, who had no human greatness, who could not even read, but who, by silent communion with God, had become strong and courageous, and possessed a heart full of genuine love,—this man seized the horse of the judges by the bridle, and summoned them to alight. His word, the spiritual power in it, was effectual, and they alighted. Then said Macedonius:—

“Sirs, say to your lord, that he is not merely an emperor, he is also a man, and rules over his fellows. Human nature is made after the image of God, and he ought not so unmercifully and cruelly to destroy God’s image; he provokes God by misusing His image. Your master will punish because his statue of brass is dishonored; but what is the statue compared with the image of the living God? Statues of brass he can easily cause to be replaced; but he is unable to restore a hair of his head to the murdered man.”

These words were decisive. The judges, who knew the Emperor’s heart as a heart not indifferent to God, laid down the sword of judgment, and promised to lay before their master the address of the monks, and to await new commands.

The affair had made a deep impression on all the inhabitants. It had gone to the heart of Chrysostom also, and the next day he poured out the fulness of his soul before the church.

“The rich lords,” he said among other things, “the first men of the city, the members of our council, who at other times were of so much consequence with our Emperor,—they left their houses, and thought only of finding safety for themselves and their property. But these monks, poor men, having nothing but their rough garment, men without culture and hitherto unnoticed, holding intercourse with trees and mountains and rocks alone,—these hasten to us in our necessity, without hesitation or fear, and have power and energy of spirit to quell in a few moments the threatening storm;—and then they go softly back, as if they had done nothing, and without desiring any thanks, into their silent dwelling.”

In the following days, Chrysostom had many a serious and sharp word to speak, for scarcely had hope revived in consequence of this event, when the old disposition was again active. Men complained of stillness in the city; the theatre and bathing houses ought again to be opened; and when this was not done, they murmured. I pause in the account—men are everywhere alike—and hasten to the conclusion.

It happened as Chrysostom predicted. Bishop Flavian was successful in his plea with the Emperor. As Lent approached, Theodosius had sent a letter into all the provinces, giving liberty to many who had been imprisoned for this or that crime, and at the end of this letter he had said: “O, that I might recall to life the executed.” Flavian reminded him of this, and not in vain. Theodosius answered him: “What great thing is it, then, if we who are mere men restrain our anger, when the Lord of the world, who for our sakes took the form of a servant, prayed for those who nailed Him to the cross: ‘Father, forgive them!’ Ought I not then to forgive my fellow-servants?”

Theodosius wrote a letter to Antioch, in which he declared that all which had taken place was pardoned and forgotten. With this, Flavian hastened from the court, in order to reach home with the joyful message in time for the festival. On the morning of Easter, Chrysostom was able to begin from his pulpit:—

“I will commence to-day with the words, with which I was wont to begin in the time of danger: Say with me, Praised be God! who enables us this day to celebrate our festival with so light and joyful a heart. Praised be God! who does exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.”

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