St. John Chrysostom is known as one of the greatest preachers in the long history of the Church, and surely his homilies form a major legacy, but John lived at a time and in circumstances which demanded great holiness – something which God granted him in abundance.
John was born in 347, the son of Christian parents. His mother, Anthusa, was widowed at the age of twenty, soon after his birth. Anthusa gave all of her attention to her son. She gave him the best classical education available, and he was enrolled as a catechumen when he was eighteen. He came under the influence of Bishop Meletius of Antioch, who baptized him and ordained him lector.
At this time, John felt called to lead the life of a monk-hermit. He took up residence in a cave, spent his time studying the Scriptures, and put himself under the discipline of an elderly hermit named Hesychius. The discipline was demanding and austere, eventually breaking the health of John. He returned to Antioch, where he was ordained a priest, and he came to be known as a great preacher.
During the next twelve years the people of Antioch were enthralled with his sermons. He preached with a depth of knowledge and persuasiveness that were memorable to those who heard him. It was during this time that he received the nickname of Chrysostom, or “golden mouth,” because it was commonly said that “his words are like pure gold.” In the year 397, the Emperor Arcadius appointed John Chrysostom to the vacant See of Constantinople. It was feared that John’s humility would lead him to refuse the position, so he had to be lured to Constantinople, where he subsequently was consecrated bishop in 398.
It was not a peaceful or holy place in which John Chrysostom found himself. There was an abundance of political intrigue. Fraud and extravagance were the order of the day. Those around him were driven by their raw ambition to be advanced in their positions. John Chrysostom brought about immediate changes: he cut back expenses; he gave generously to the poor; he constructed hospitals. He set about reforming the clergy, called the monks back to a life of discipline, and reminded all the people of the importance of leading faithful and moral lives.
As might be expected, his program of reforms made enemies – especially the Empress Eudoxia along with Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria. With the city of Constantinople in an uproar and his life under threat, John was exiled by the emperor in the year 404.
The situation continued to deteriorate, with the papal envoys being imprisoned, and John (who was defended by the pope and who had ordered John to be restored to his See) was sent even further into exile. Eventually he found himself six hundred miles from Constantinople, across the Black Sea. St. John Chrysostom was weary and he was sick. He died in exile in the year 407, and yet his last words were, "Glory to God for all things."
O God of truth and love, who gavest to thy Bishop John Chrysostom eloquence to declare thy righteousness in the great congregation, and courage to bear reproach for the honour of thy Name: mercifully grant to the ministers of thy Word such excellence in preaching; that all people may share with them in the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.