The Last Words of St. John Chrysostom

St. John Chrysostom reposed in the Lord 1600 years ago. He died from exhaustion in a small, out-of-the-way village called Comana.

Earlier that day he had collapsed, out of breath, while stumbling between two armed guards. They had been hiking on a long twisting path in the wilderness. The sixty-year-old St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople, had been exiled out of his cathedral, his city and his home by a jealous gang of politicians. He was forced to march the whole way, from the civilized neighborhood of Constantinople for hundreds of rocky miles into the wilds of bandits, enemies, severe weather and unfriendly land.

During that long march, he remembered years before when he had prayed outside entire nights in the wintry cold. He had been a fervent monastic in his early twenties. But he had ruined his health with severe fastings and vigils. Now, after walking for hundreds of miles, his "body of cobwebs" had reached its limit: the spirit was willing, but the flesh had become all too weak.

Now, while he was being prodded by his cruel imperial guards over the miles, he remembered his many enemies in Constantinople. He thought of the rich and the powerful whom he challenged from the great pulpit of Hagia Sophia. He had told them that God had given them riches to provide for the poor, and that God had made them powerful to protect the weak. Some of them heard his message with an open heart. Others only thought of revenge, and how they could rid the city of this voice of conscience.

He thought of the clergy of Constantinople, some of whom were corrupt. He remembered how he put a stop to the ridiculous parties that were held at such enormous expense. He remembered how he told the monastics to stay in the monasteries and priests to stay in their parishes, instead of traveling to the big city to play at politics and win fame and riches. He remembered how his many reforms made him many enemies.

He thought, too, of the Empress Eudoxia, wife of the Emperor Arcadius. It was Eudoxia who had welcomed him with open arms when he first arrived in Constantinople that February in the year 398, only nine years ago. She even presented the gift of new silver candlesticks to the cathedral soon after he came.

But then she heard of his sermons on the vanity of materialism and luxury, and she took personal offense. She did not like it when he said that "In the matter of piety, poverty serves us better than wealth, and work better than idleness." She did not like it at all when he said that the beggars in the streets should be treated like Holy Altars, with the same dignity and care.

She, and all of John's enemies, did not like his earnestness, his conservatism, his unyielding dedication to the Gospel of Christ, and his uncompromising moralism. He preached against sin in vivid terms. He made everyone uncomfortable, especially the cultured and the cognoscenti. He condemned the pornographic theater of the day. He warned his people against sex outside of marriage. He hated gambling and conspicuous consumption. He frequently preached on the danger of damnation and hell, and he even said that the fear of hell is a necessary motivation for purity and repentance.

He preached mightily on repentance. On one hand, he was stern and frightening: "Repentance consists in no longer doing the same things. For he who reverts to the same sins is like a dog returning to its vomit, and like the person who cards wool into the fire, or pours water into a container full of holes."

But on the other hand, he spoke of healing and promise: "Enter into the Church and wash away your sins. For here there is a hospital and not a court of law. Do not be ashamed again to enter the Church; be ashamed when you sin, but not when you repent."

He thought of repentance much as he approached the moment of his repose. He remembered those years, long ago, when he was just a newly-ordained priest in his hometown of Antioch, under the omophorion of Bishop Flavian. There was a crisis in the city, just one year into his priesthood. The people had been protesting a tax increase earlier that year, and in a riot they tore down the statues of the Emperor and his family.

The Emperor was not amused, and the city braced itself for his anger and revenge. The frail eighty-year-old Bishop Flavian traveled to Constantinople to plead mercy for the city of Antioch. The young priest John remained to preach to the people.

Antioch was stricken by dire threat: "There is silence in the streets," John said, "huge with terror and utter loneliness everywhere." It was Great Lent in the year 387 while the people waited, forlorn, for the old bishop to return from his journey of eight hundred miles in the mountains and snow.

And then St. John Chrysostom preached the Gospel. He preached about God's mercy, and how there were things far worse than death or slavery. He reminded them that in this emergency, they were being shown that this is the way things really are for human life: a man or woman is always living one moment away from eternity, when he is always making the choice for heaven or hell.

John called them to repent and come to the grace of Jesus Christ in the Orthodox Church. He called them to partake of the Eucharist while they still had the chance. He called them to make peace with their spouses and children, parents and friends, while they were still alive, before it was too late.

During that crisis and for the rest of his life, his preaching was charged with the electricity of the Bible. His long sermons journeyed verse by verse through entire books of the Bible, and brought the mysteries and doctrines of the Faith down to the plain understanding of everyman. The Bible told people in every land and time just where they were, who they were and Who made them, and to Whom they had to answer at Judgment Day. The Bible, and this Orthodox Preacher, made things clear for this emergency, and for every emergency. Even now, when the poor are getting poorer (or more indebted and indentured) and the days are getting longer.

He set the Bible firmly in the prayers he wrote for his people. In repentance, his prayers called to mind St. Paul who had been a persecutor, the harlot who bathed the feet of Jesus with tears and the publican who prayed for mercy. In the Divine Liturgy that is celebrated every Sunday except Lent, the Bible is quoted, word for word, nearly one hundred times. Whatever man says that the Orthodox Church is not Biblical does not know Orthodoxy ... and he does not know St. John Chrysostom.

He remembered telling them, in that memorable Great Lent of the year 387: "Strip yourselves, for it is the season of wrestling. Clothe yourselves, for we are engaged in a fierce warfare with devils. Whet your sickles which are blunted with long stuffing and gluttony, and then sharpen them with fasting and prayer."

And many, many of the people did just that. By the time Bishop Flavian returned with good news, many had come back to God. Many repented. Many believed. Many homes were renewed. Many marriages were restored. Many friendships were regained. In Antioch and in Constantinople, and all over the world, many, many ran into the Church and turned away from their selfishness, and turned to the Cross of Christ, all because of this one St. John, whose mouth was golden.

Many came, and they still come, because this Orthodox Preacher once said, when the night is ever the darkest, "Let everyone who loves God rejoice in this festival of light ... for He welcomes the last to come no less than the first ... Enter then all of you into the joy of your Master ... Christ is risen and life has prevailed!"

Many came and repented, because John the Golden-Mouthed Preacher of the Bible, and Patriarch of Constantinople, showed them the glory of the Risen Christ, and the splendor of the Trinity.

John remembered all these things, and he knew that his time was ending. He was not afraid. Even as a young monk he was never afraid of the night, because for him it was never dark. In one of his many sermons on the Psalms, he said that "... it is during the night that all the plants respire, and it is then also that the soul of man is more penetrated with the dews falling from Heaven ... night heals the wounds of our soul and calms our griefs."

He was exhausted, and his body was broken by exposure to the wind and rain, the rocks and thorns, strong enemies and a weak body. But he wasn't brokenhearted, and he was not bitter. He was not depressed or hopeless.

He remembered all these things: his enemies, his disappointments and defeats, his last long journey into the wild lands, and the beatings and lashings of his two imperial guards.

He forgave them, every one, for each and every hurt and trespass. In this world, you can forgive, but you don't forget. But every time you remember is one more instance in the infinite count of seventy times seven.

John remembered and forgave them all, just as his own Lord forgave his every sin on the Cross.

His body was fading, but he was still on fire for the Lord. His soul was even brighter with the flame of Divine Love, and the glory of God's grace.

On fire and not in darkness, in strength and not weakness, and in the greatest sermon of his lifetime, St. John Chrysostom the Golden-Mouthed, whispered out his last words: "Glory to God for all things!"

Only a man who had given his heart solely to the Lord Jesus, who had sacrificed his everything to the Holy Trinity, who had soared to the heights of the Church and earthly power, who had it all taken away and spent his last years on dusty, forgotten roads ... only such a man could say such things, giving God all the glory, Who gave this last sermon such golden, eternal wings.


(A Homily On The 1600th Anniversary Of The Repose Of St. John Chrysostom-November 26,2007)