As someone who tries to specialize in the history of Istanbul, I need to open a special title for the people I frequently come across. St. John Chrysostom, as one of the people who marked the fourth century, draws attention with his passionate character and dedication.
Since St. John has an important reputation in the Christian world, it is worth mentioning the situation of Christianity in those years. As it is known, after Jesus’ death in 30 BC, his apostles began to spread Christianity to the world. They established the first churches in the most important cities of Antiquity such as Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus and Rome.
The Roman Empire, the world’s greatest political force, did not welcome the spread of Christianity and responded cruelly. The oppression and persecution against Christians lasted for nearly three centuries. Finally, in 313, Christianity was released with the Edict of Milan issued by Emperor Constantine. Even Constantine himself became a Christian. (according to traditional belief)
Christians, who had been persecuted until the reign of Emperor Constantine, could now live their religious life freely. With the decisions taken at the Council of Nicea in 325, Christian centers were determined. Accordingly, Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria would be the main episcopal centers.
Along with the freedom of belief, there has been tremendous progress in Christian philosophy. Early bishops laid the foundations of the rituals of worship that are still practiced in churches all over the world today. John Chrysostom was born just in such a convenient time and engraved his name in the history of the church in capital letters.
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Life Story of St. John Chrysostom
The life of Saint John Chrysostom (aka Ioannes Chrysostomos) was full of hardship and struggle. Born in 349 in Antioch, John lost his father, an officer, at an early age and was raised by his mother. Anthusa, who had a strong character, helped his son John receive a very good education. John was raised in the hands of Libanius, one of the best orator of the time.
John, who had a great passion for Christianity at a young age, chose to lead an ascetic life. Starting to live in the monastery as a monk, John concentrated primarily on self-discipline. During the monk’s life, John only ate enough food to survive and slept for several hours a day, devoting all his time to praying. However, this ordeal lasted 6 years between 375 and 381, caused permanent damage to John’s stomach and liver.
John’s health began to deteriorate and he decided to return to Antioch and serve in the church. He would continue his life as a deacon. During the years he served the church, he gave great sermons and gained a great reputation among the people of the city. John, who supported his early oratorial education with a simple discourse that appealed to the public, succeeded in influencing everyone, whether Christian or not.
1. Priesthood Years in Antioch
Raising the priesthood in 386, John’s area of responsibility expanded. He served in the Golden Church in Antioch between 386 and 397 years. He was loved by the public for conveying the teachings of the Bible to the daily life. For example, the sermons in Alexandria, the second most important church in the East at the time, were confusing because it contained abstract concepts. In contrast, John’s narratives in Antioch were simple enough to inspire people’s own way of life.
A rebellion against the Emperor Theodosius I erupted in Antioch during John’s priesthood. During the rebellion that soon spread throughout the city, the statues of the emperor were destroyed. John, who gave 20 long sermons during the rebellion, made a great effort to calm the events. Thanks to John’s passionate oratory, the people of the city calmed down and the rebellion ended. Theodosius I, who took away all the privileges of Antioch and reduced it to the status of a town with his first anger, stepped back and returned the rights of the city.
John, whose fame spread throughout the empire, became known as Chrysostomos, which means “Golden Mouth”. His success paved the way for his appointment as Archbishop to Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. He would continue to serve as the highest-ranking clergyman in the capital.
2. Archbishop of Constantinople
This was unexpected for John Chrysostom when he was appointed Archbishop of Constantinople. When John came to the capital, the first thing he observed was the flamboyant life of the people. In his sermons he criticized the life of the rich and stressed that they should share their wealth with the poor. He refused to participate in the flamboyant dinners he was invited to. He criticized luxury clothes and lifestyle.
John’s homilies, which recommended living a simple life, received great interest and appreciation from the poor. On the other hand, it also disturbed the rich. In addition, his reforms within the church were not welcomed by the church staff. John quickly made many enemies in the imperial capital of Constantinople.
John’s criticism also reached the palace, the peak of this lavish lifestyle. Even Empress Aelia Eudoxia was the target of John’s arrows of criticism. However, clashing with Emperor Arcadius and his wife Aelia Eudoxia would have caused John Chrysostom much harm in the long run.
3. Conflict with Alexandria
Theophilus, the Patriarch of Alexandria at the time, wanted to influence Constantinople. However, the presence of a popular person like John prevented him from achieving this goal. John welcomed the priests who had fallen into a theological dispute with Theophilus and hosted them in Constantinople. This gave Theophilus the opportunity to take action against John.
The exiled priests supported the teachings of Origin, which were incompatible with Orthodox Christianity. For this reason, they were condemned by the patriarch. Theophilus made the same accusation against John, who hosted these priests known as the Tall Brothers.
Constantinople was in conflict with Alexandria, and there were great accusations. Council of clergy gathered to reveal who was right. John, who had many enemies among the influential people, was exiled by the decision of the council. Of course, Empress Aelia Eudoxia had an impact on the outcome of this trial against John.
John Chrysostom was exiled into Anatolia. However, the night he left the city, there was a terrible earthquake. Everyone was scared, including the Empress. This disaster was interpreted by the people of the city as the wrath of God. Therefore, John was recalled and his position and reputation restored. But peace would not last long.
Aelia Eudoxia continued the same flamboyant life and John continued to criticize. A statue of Aelia Eudoxia was erected in the square near Hagia Sophia, the most sacred temple of the period. For John, this was clearly an insult. John suggested that Aelia Eudoxia brought back pagan rituals. This time the conflict would have irreversible consequences.
4. Exile from Constantinople
John Chrysostom was first exiled from Constantinople to Cappadocia. However, the people of the capital protested this decision. After a while, the protests turned into clashes. A fire broke out in Hagia Sophia (1st generation building) due to riots in the city and the church was devastated.
Emperor Arcadius decided to exile John further because of events in the capital. This was also due to the fact that John complained about the emperor and the empress to the Pope and the leading religious authorities of the time. John’s letters to religious authorities such as Rome, Milan and Aquileia disturbed the palace. Because many religious leaders, especially the Pope, condemned the emperor for his actions.
John died on his way to the exile in Georgia. (407) He had severe illnesses from his days as a monk, and his body could not bear this journey. Ironically, Empress Eudoxia died shortly thereafter.
5. The Legacy of St. John Chrysostom
The influence of John Chrysostom in the capital continued after his death. So much so that during the reign of Emperor Theodosius II, son of Arcadius and Eudoxia, his relics were brought back to Constantinople (438) and moved to The Church of the Holy Apostles, where members of the royal family were buried.
During the Sack of Constantinople, which took place in 1204, the relics of the city’s greatest Saints Gregorius and John were stolen. St John’s relics had remained in St. Peter’s Basilica for centuries. In 2004, the relics were returned to the Patriarchal Church of St George in Istanbul as a sign of goodwill by the Vatican.
The legacy of St John Chrysostom has survived to this day. The sermons and liturgy of John Chrysostom are highly respected in both Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul attributes many historical monuments (the patriarchate throne and pulpit) to him. He is still considered a very popular saint in the Christendom.
Written by Serhat Engul