Thursday, January 27, 2022

The Fearlessness of St John Chrysostom

Today is the feast of St John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople [1] from 397 until 404, when he was unlawfully deposed from his see. He was one of the first four Eastern Fathers to be officially recognized in the West as a Doctor of the Church, along with Ss Athanasius, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus. The epithet “Chrysostom” means “golden-mouthed”, since he has always been honored as one of the greatest preachers in the Church’s history. In 1908, Pope St Pius X declared him the Patron Saint of orators and public speakers, a role in which he is needed now as perhaps only very rarely before in the Church’s life; I attended a Mass on his feast day many years ago, the celebrant of which repeatedly called him, both while reading the prayers and in the sermon, “St John Christendom.”
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s great cathedra in St Peter’s Basilica, in which the throne of Peter is supported by two Latin Doctors, Ambrose and Augustine (with miters), and two Greek Doctors, Athanasius and John Chrysostom.
There is a popular notion that with the coming of Constantine and the end of persecution, the Church somehow sold its soul in part or whole to the Roman Empire. The falsity of this was demonstrated long ago by GK Chesterton, who was a convert from Anglicanism, and knew a state-owned church when he saw one. In the chapter of The Everlasting Man called “The Five Deaths of the Faith”, he rightly pointed out that the Creed of most of the early Christian Emperors was not Christianity, but a version of it far more in keeping with the spirit of the age, that which we now call Arianism. Caesar did not usually appreciate the Church’s resistance to his dogmatic meddling, and persecuted the orthodox Fathers such as St Athanasius. St Eusebius of Vercelli, one of the great Western opponents of Arianism, is even honored as martyr, although he did not die a violent death, because he was hounded into exile by an Arian Emperor.

The same might well have been applied to John, who unlike Eusebius, died in his exile, both from the rigors of the journey and the terrible ill-treatment meted out to him; the date of his death was September 14, 407. In his case, Caesar’s wrath was provoked against him not by dogmatic issues, but by moral ones. The Empress Eudoxia was the wife of the famously useless Emperor Arcadius, a man wholly under the control of his ministers and court sycophants. Taking personal offense at John’s words against the immorality and extravagances of the nobility, she had already arranged once before for John to be exiled. He was swiftly recalled, partly because of the popular uprising in his favor, partly because a small earthquake in the city was seen as a sign of divine displeasure, especially by the highly superstitious Empress. However, when a silver statue of her was erected on a pillar in front of Hagia Sophia [2], the dedication of it was celebrated with a series of “games”, as the Romans called them, an immoral spectacle which also disturbed the liturgy. St John had often preached against public license of this very sort, even when a simple priest in Antioch, and did not hesitate to do so on this occasion well.

A mosaic of St John Chrysostom in Hagia Sophia, ca. 1000. (Public domain image from Wikipedia.)
His sermon began with the words “Herodias is again become furious; again she is troubled, again she dances; and again desires to receive John’s head on a plate.” [3] A synod full of bishops hostile to him and in the Empress’ control was convoked, and deposed him on a canonically invalid pretext, but he refused to relinquish his see. A particularly ugly episode followed in which soldiers were sent to drive the people out of the churches on Holy Saturday, resulting in no little bloodshed in the sacred places themselves. The order for the Saint’s banishment was finally and definitively issued during Pentecost week.

The scene of St John preaching before Herodias was painted by two French artists of the later 19th century, Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921) and Joseph Wencker (1848-1919). This choice of subject reflects various events of their era, particularly the conquest of the Papal State, and the subsequent “exile” of Bl. Pope Pius IX, who refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Kingdom of Italy by setting foot on land which it illegally occupied. More broadly, it refers to the general situation of the Church in that period. Italy’s was not the only government hostile to the Church and seeking to reduce or destroy its influence by diminishing or destroying its institutions; this was also era of the German Kulturkampf, and the infamous French law of Separation of Church and State was soon to follow in 1905.

Laurens’ painting is the smaller of the two, but the more forceful. (See a higher resolution version here.) The Empress looks down with an expressionless face at the Saint, confident in her eventual triumph over him, but at the same time, she is almost lost in the trappings of her position, less distinct than St John in his white robes. (John also appears to be rather older than he should; historically, he was only about 55 at the time.) Both artists seem to accept the idea, common in their time, that churches in this period were “still” very austere; note that all of the decoration in both paintings is centered around the Empress, while the pulpits and the walls are very plain.
Jean Paul Laurens, 1872
Wencker’s version, on the other hand, is much larger (almost 14½ feet by 20), and he fills the space by showing the crowd in the church, the clergy, the nobility and the poor, and their varied reaction to the Saint’s words. John is on eye level with the Empress, so that she has to look up in order to pretend not to notice him as he points directly at her.
Joseph Wencker, ca. 1880
[1] It was not until well after St John’s death that the title “Patriarch” was given to the archbishops of Constantinople, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Even to this day, in the blessing at the end of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy which bears his name, he is referred to as “John Chrysostom, archbishop of Constantinople”, as also in the liturgical calendar, whereas his Sainted successors after 451 are called “Patriarch.”

[2] Not the church which is seen in Constantinople today, a construction of the 6th century, but the original built by Constantine in the 4th century. At the news of John’s second exile, the city was wracked with riots, during which the first Hagia Sophia was burnt down; nothing now remains of it. Its replacement, dedicated in 415, was also destroyed by riots, a very popular pastime in Constantinople, in 532; the present structure was built very shortly thereafter, by the Emperor Justinian.

[3] In the original edition of his Lives of the Saints, Alban Butler wrote that “Montfaucon refutes this slander, trumped up by his enemies. The sermon extant under that title is a manifest forgery.” Modern writers, including Butler’s revisers, all seem to accept its authenticity.

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