September 13th is the feast day of Saint John Chrysostom (d. 407), patriarch of Constantinople and Doctor of the Church. Ordained a priest in Antioch in 386, he quickly gained fame as a preacher (hence the posthumous title chrysostom or golden mouth). In 397, he was chosen to succeed Nectarius as bishop of Constantinople. His sweeping program of moral and ecclesiastical reforms succeeded in alienating just about every established constituency in the city: clergy, monks, political leaders, and the imperial family (and particularly the Empress Eudoxia, who he at one point referred to as Jezebel.). He was exiled twice and died during his second exile in 407.Chrysostom is revered in the Eastern Church, where the liturgy that bears his name is still in use. My perception is that his contemporary appreciation in the Western Church has been made more difficult by the survival of a set of vitriolic sermons against Judaism, preached while he was still bishop of Antioch. In the light of the history of the later use of these sermons in promoting anti-Semitism, it is perhaps too easy to argue that they should be read in their historical context. Chrysostom was a man of many passions and an energetic reformer. He was an early advocate of confessing sins privately, believing that the errors of fellow Christians are not to be made public. He opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood but supported their presence in the diaconate. He once built a leper hospice outside the city walls, angering wealthy property owners who saw the value of their property fall. For an ascetic, he was surprisingly positive about marriage and sex. He aggressively promoted charitable works; at one point his church in Antioch supported 3,000 widows and prisoners. He challenged his listeners with words like these:
Do you want to honour Christs body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honour him here in the church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as youdid not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers, you did not do it for me. What we do here in the church requires a pure heart, not special garments; what we do outside requires great dedication.
Hat tip to Karen Marie at From the Anchor Hold for the quote and to Henry Chadwicks The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great for these and other fascinating tidbits about the life of Saint John Chrysostom. You can find some of his writings here.