Saints of September: John the “Golden-Mouthed” one

Pope St. John Paul II famously used to say that in order fully to appreciate their faith, Christians need to learn to “breathe with both lungs” – East and West. By this, he reminded the faithful that the Church is universal, encompassing the great Eastern and Western traditions, even though she is centered in Rome. Historically, the Church had two great capitals: Rome in the West and Constantinople in the East. The Western tradition gave us the gift of rational theological thought (think St. Thomas Aquinas and other great theologians). The Eastern tradition focuses more on the mystery of Jesus the Christ – whose Divine love often surpasses human thought and can only be experienced in the deepest recesses of our soul into which Christ stamped a longing for eternity. We need both to be in right relationship with God.

One of the great Eastern saints was St. John Chrysostom (feast day: September 13th), from the 4th century in modern-day Turkey. He was bishop of Constantinople and one of the greatest preachers the Church has heard. On the way to becoming the shepherd of the second most important see of the Church, with all the busy-ness and worldly interaction that entailed, John had been a hermit for a while, thriving on contemplation of the mysteries of Christ. When he re-entered the world, he preached in a time of violent civil unrest. (Might sound a bit familiar to us 21st century Americans living in a time of Antifa riots, police station bombings, racial riots and more).

His preaching was so eloquent that he was named Chrysostom – not a surname, but a nickname meaning “golden-mouthed.” He was extraordinarily bold, always willing to preach the truth of Christ even to the powerful, even if he knew it might provoke them. There is a famous story of him preaching to Eudoxia, the Empress of Constantinople, in order to get her to convert from serious sins which endangered her salvation. She became so enraged at his willingness to preach about her faults that she threatened to take away all his wealth and banish him to the remotest part of the Byzantine Empire. He retorted that his treasure was in Heaven, and wherever he was, Christ would be with him. Eudoxia followed through on her threat and banished him to Armenia. But John knew she needed to hear the Gospel. Would that all priests and bishops were so willing to preach the fullness of the Gospel, especially to the rich and powerful!

Here is an excerpt from one of St. John’s beautiful homilies on the mystery of the Mass (the “Divine Liturgy” to use the Eastern term) [from Glimpses of the Church Fathers, Claire Russell, Ed. 1994, Scepter Publishers.]

When you behold the Lord immolated and lying on the altar, and the priest standing over the sacrifice and praying, and all the people purpled by that precious blood, do you imagine that you are still on earth among men, and not rather rapt in heaven? And casting away all worldly thoughts from your mind, do you not contemplate with a clean heart and pure mind the things of heaven? O miracle! O goodness of God! He that sits above with the Father…gives himself to all who desire to embrace and receive him. At that moment all do this with the eyes of faith.

Do these things seem to you deserving of contempt, or of such a nature that anyone could despise them? Do you want to learn from another miracle the excellence of that holiness? Picture to yourself Elijah, and the immense multitude standing around, and the victim laid on the altar, and all in stillness and deep silence, while the prophet alone prays; and the fire forthwith descends from heaven upon the altar (1 Kgs 18). All this is wonderful and awe-inspiring.

Pass from then to the sacrifice which is now offered, and you will behold what is not only wonderful, but what exceeds all admiration. For the priest stands bringing down not fire, but the Holy Spirit, and he prays long not that fire may descend from heaven and consume the oblation, but that grace may descend upon the victim, and through it inflame the souls of all and render them brighter than fire-tried silver.

Would that all Catholics (Eastern and Western) had this understanding of the sheer mystery of the Mass St. John so eloquently describes. In the Eastern liturgy, most of the “action” of the Mass is hidden behind a screen called an iconostasis decorated with contemplative artwork, mostly obscuring the view of the altar, separating the faithful from the sanctuary.

This is a bit different than the modern Western Rite (ordinary form) where the priest’s action is completely visible. The eastern symbolism is that there is not much to see at the altar without first contemplating the mystery. The real “action” is not visible to the naked eye. On the altar, made present again, is the very Lamb of God, Jesus, the sacrificial victim. Far greater than the biblical marvel he references of the great prophets literally bringing down flames of fire to consume animal sacrifices to God, the priest who stands in the person of Christ brings down the fire of the Holy Spirit to transform mere bread and wine into the very Body and Blood of Christ crucified and risen.

This tremendous mystery is available to us only in the Catholic Mass and the faithful are privileged to contemplate it.

St. John, pray for us!

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