Today, we’re spending time with the Fathers’ Father: St. John Chrysostom.
St. Paul whispering in the ear of St. John Chrysostom as the future fathers of the Church gather to drink from St. John’s wisdom. CC image from Ted on Flickr.
There is no way I can possibly do proper homage to this saint in one short blog post–the Church can’t even do it in one feast day! We celebrate St. John three times every year: November 13 for his own commemoration, January 27 for the translation of his relics, and January 30 along with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian on the the Synaxis of the Three Hierarchs. And that’s not counting the hundreds of times a year the Church commemorates him in the services as part of the dismissal prayers. I mean, he’s kind of a big deal.
St. John was raised by his Christian mother who was a widow and received a high-class “secular” education from the greatest scholars of his day (who were, by the way, pagans). Although it seemed that John would have a career in rhetoric ahead of him, he decided instead to dedicate himself to God as a monk. Extreme asceticism was not the path God had in store for him, however, and due to illnesses brought on by his ascetic lifestyle, he returned home to Antioch where he was ordained a deacon and later a presbyter in Antioch. It was as a priest in Antioch that he became chrysostom or “golden-mouthed,” known for his convicting sermons and thorough commentaries. Today we still have 1,447 of St. John’s sermons and 240 of his letters! I get a writer’s cramp just thinking about it.
Eventually, St. John was made the Patriarch of Constantinople, but it was not to be an easy road for him. Preaching against the moral laxity of the Empress Eudoxia, St. John got himself exiled twice, ultimately dying in exile. His famous last words were, “Glory to God for all things.”
The lasting impact St. John has had on our faith and our Church can hardly be measured. In addition to his homilies and letters, we have from this giant of a man a number of treatises on everything from heresy to monasticism to the priesthood. Oh, and then there’s that little service we do just about every day somewhere in the Orthodox world–the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
Countless later Church Fathers, bishops, priests, preachers, and scholars have looked to St. John for advice on Scripture, ethics, marriage, ordination, raising children, guiding parishes, writing sermons…the list just keeps going. If you ever have a question about our Faith or are confused when reading the Bible, there’s a pretty good chance St. John can help you out, too.
Check out his complete works, or, if that’s just a little too much all at once, you can try these volumes which are collections by topic:
O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen. -St. John’s Paschal Homily, read at every Paschal service
Wanting to upgrade your chapter Bible study? Here are some resources we suggest for helping you prayerfully study the Scriptures.
The Orthodox Study Bible: If you’re not already using it, the OSB has some helpful, basic articles and footnotes throughout the text.
An Interlinear or Side-by-Side Bible or New Testament: Using both the Greek and/or Hebrew text alongside the English text can really help when you get stumped on a passage or everyone has really different translations. Plus, it brings up other interesting questions as you go along. There are a few online sources like BibleHub or BibleStudyTools or you can find them on Amazon (here’s one suggestion). For this and other books, I suggest purchasing one or two OCF copies that can be passed down rather than having everyone in the chapter get one.
A Concordance: This nifty little book is basically a fancy index for the Bible, letting you find passages by topic. Again, there are some online tools on BibleStudyTools or you can go for Strong’s Concordance in print.
A Bible Dictionary: Ever come across a word and wonder the history of that word, idea, or object? A Bible Dictionary is a step up from Wikipedia. Try Vine’s.
Commentaries: There are about a million of these you could try, but the best, of course, are the Orthodox patristic commentaries, but certainly modern Orthodox (and non-Orthodox) authors have some things to add, too. Probably your local parish has a few of these you can borrow or might be willing to purchase them for the parish. Here are just a few:
Ancient Christian Commentary Series: This gives you just little snippits from a number of Fathers, East and West, on each passage. This is great for hearing from the cloud of witnesses and getting to know which Fathers you connect with the best.
St. John Chrysostom: Of course, St. John’s homilies are incredibly useful! You can find many of them for free in somewhat archaic English from Christian Classics Ethereal Library or you can order a volume such as this one. St. John has homilies on Genesis, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, I Thessalonians, II Thessalonians, I Timothy, II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews. Whew. I think that’s it.
The Orthodox Bible Study Companion Series: Written by Fr. Lawrence Farley, these offer some simple and helpful reflections on the entire New Testament and are meant to be especially helpful if you are reading in the OSB.
Fr. Paul Tarazi: A biblical scholar from St. Vlad’s, Fr. Paul has written on Genesis, Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (including his letters), Paul’s letters (with full volumes on Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Romans, I Thessalonians, and Galatians.
ExeGenius: Have you seen this really cool tool put out by the GOA’s Y2AM team? Go through the Sunday Gospel readings word by word with this interactive commentary which pulls together interesting portions of Bible dictionaries, concordances, and commentaries as well as adds a few thoughts geared specifically toward youth and young adults.
OrthodoxYouth: These resources from the Antiochian Archdiocese include study guides, quizzes, and mp3s on the books of the New Testament for youth and young adults.
Orthodox Scripture Study: Thanks to the ACROD seminary Christ the Saviour, you can tune in to live lectures on the Gospel of John or the Gospel of Matthew. They also archive video and audio versions of the lectures.
Your Spiritual Advisor: You can never go wrong with having a priest helping you walk through the words of the Bible.
Illumine our hearts, O Master Who lovest mankind, with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Thy gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto Thee. For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, Who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
It’s not uncommon in our Orthodox circles to start out a conversation with that line. But what do we really mean when we invoke “the Fathers?” It sometimes sounds as if we are relying on a sacred club of automatons who all thought, spoke, and acted in the same way. As if when we say, “the Fathers,” complete and singular authority rests in whatever follows that line.
In one sense, of course, this is true. The Fathers of the Church “are above all those human beings in whose texts we find the witness to orthodoxy and whose authority could secure the orthodox faith in all its aspects.”1 There is a harmony amongst their writings that emerges as one becomes familiar with their writings, their lives, and the contexts in which they wrote. And in this harmony, the authority of the Fathers is expressed.
But harmony is not the same as monotony. Each Church Father (and Mother) is as unique as you and I are, and their surrounding cultures, personal experiences, lifestyles, talents, and even preferences influenced what they said and did and how they said and did it. As children and inheritors of these great minds, it is good for us to take the time to get to know our ancestors as individuals so that when we invoke their authority, we do so having established an intimacy with them, respecting the individual notes they play in the beautiful harmony of the Orthodox Church.
For the next few weeks, we’ll try to do just that: get to know a few of the Fathers whose lives and words have shaped our Orthodox faith. Of course, a few hundred words will never do any of our great Fathers justice, but my hope is that the little of their stories that I share with you will inspire you to get to know them more deeply by asking for their prayers, reading their lives, and exploring their works.
St. Athanasios (commemorated May 2) was born around 298 in Alexandria, Egypt. A Copt by birth, he received a classical Greek education in addition to a Christian education. He was influenced by the ascetic life of St. Antony the Great and visited him and other desert monks throughout his life. As a teenager, he wrote two of his most famous books: Against the Heathenand On the Incarnation. In the first, he refutes the arguments of the pagans and in the second and more famous work, he lays out the Christian story simply, describing man’s creation and fall and God’s response in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Later, as an archdeacon, St. Athanasios became the foremost name at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea among the defenders of the christological position that Jesus Christ was homoousios or “of one essence” with God the Father. He held this claim in opposition to the Alexandrian presbyter Arius who emphasized the divinity of the Father over the Son, claiming that there was a time before the Son was begotten, thus, the Son must have been created and was of a different essence than his Father and Creator. The Council of Nicaea, to affirm the divinity of Christ, produced the Nicene Creed, the first official version of the creed we recite today in every Liturgy.
After the Council, the controversy of Arianism did not die quickly, and during his time as Bishop of Alexandria, St. Athanasios was exiled from his see five times for his theological position. During these times, St. Athanasios continued to defend the Orthodox understanding of Christ, and finally, in the last few years of his life, he was allowed to peacefully oversee the Alexandrian flock until his death in 373.
Let me leave you with some of this Church Father’s own words on Christ’s trampling down death by death:
The body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished.2
St. Athanasios, intercede for us.
1. Chrestou, Panagiotes K., Greek Orthodox Patrology: An Introduction to the Study of the Church Fathers (Rollinsford: Orthodox Research Institute, 2005), 14. 2. St. Athanasios, On the Incarnation (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1993), 49.