September 9, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The wisdom of the saints: St. John Chrysostom

John F. FinkThis is the 50th column in my series on the wisdom of the saints. Next week, I will move on to another topic.

The feast of St. John Chrysostom, one of the original four Doctors of the Church from the East, is on Sept. 13.

He was originally known as John of Antioch, where he was born, but earned the name “Chrysostom” by his preaching. It means “golden-mouthed.” His preaching, though, got him in a lot of trouble.

Because of his reputation as a preacher, he was actually kidnapped by the forces of Emperor Arcadius, taken to Constantinople and forced to become archbishop there in 389. But he made an enemy of Empress Eudoxia when he began to preach against the extravagances and immodesty of the wealthy women that he saw in Constantinople.

There’s dispute over whether John actually called Eudoxia a Jezebel, in reference to the biblical wife of King Ahab, who plotted the killing of Naboth so Ahab could get his vineyard, but Eudoxia thought he did and plotted with Archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria to get rid of this troublemaker. The plot worked, John was deposed, and he spent the rest of his life in exile.

The Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours includes 20 excerpts from John’s homilies. In one of them, he declared, “There is nothing colder than a Christian who does not seek to save others.”

You cannot plead poverty, he said, giving the example of the widow who contributed her last coins, or St. Paul, who was so poor he was often hungry.

You cannot plead humble birth, he said, for the Apostles were humbly born. You cannot plead lack of education because they were uneducated. You cannot plead ill health for Timothy also had poor health with frequent illnesses. “Each one can help his neighbor if only he is willing to do what is in his power,” he said.

People who are selfish are fit only for punishment, he said. “Such are those men who refuse to give Christ food,” he said, referring to Christ’s words that those who do not feed the hungry “will go off to eternal punishment” (Mt 25:46).

Notice that none of them is accused of personal sins, he said. “They are not accused of committing fornication or perjury or any such sin at all—only of not helping anybody else. The man who buried the talent was like this. His life was blameless, but he was of no service to others.”

Don’t say that it’s impossible for you to influence others, he continued. “If you are a Christian, it is impossible for this not to happen.”

We insult God, he said, if we say that a Christian cannot help others. “It is easier for the sun not to give warmth or shine than for the Christian not to shed his light. It is easier for light to be darkness than for this to happen.”

If we actually live as a Christian and seek to save others, he said, “the light of a Christian cannot escape notice. So bright a lamp cannot be hidden.” †

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