St. John Chrysostom, the "Doctor Eucharisticus" and "a second Paul"
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Back in 2007, which marked the 16th centenary of the death of St John Chrysostom—whose feast is celebrated today in the West (it is celebrated on November 13th in the East)—Pope Benedict XVI gave two general audiences and wrote a fairly lengthy letter about the great Eastern Father and Doctor. In the first general audience, given on September 19, 2007, Benedict presented an overview of Chrysostom's life and work, stating:
Chrysostom is among the most prolific of the Fathers: 17 treatises, more than 700 authentic homilies, commentaries on Matthew and on Paul (Letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians and Hebrews) and 241 letters are extant. He was not a speculative theologian.
Nevertheless, he passed on the Church's tradition and reliable doctrine in an age of theological controversies, sparked above all by Arianism or, in other words, the denial of Christ's divinity. He is therefore a trustworthy witness of the dogmatic development achieved by the Church from the fourth to the fifth centuries.
His is a perfectly pastoral theology in which there is constant concern for consistency between thought expressed via words and existential experience. It is this in particular that forms the main theme of the splendid catecheses with which he prepared catechumens to receive Baptism.
On approaching death, he wrote that the value of the human being lies in "exact knowledge of true doctrine and in rectitude of life" (Letter from Exile). Both these things, knowledge of truth and rectitude of life, go hand in hand: knowledge has to be expressed in life. All his discourses aimed to develop in the faithful the use of intelligence, of true reason, in order to understand and to put into practice the moral and spiritual requirements of faith.
In the second audience, given a week later on September 26, 2007, the Holy Father said:
It is said of John Chrysostom that when he was seated upon the throne of the New Rome, that is, Constantinople, God caused him to be seen as a second Paul, a doctor of the Universe. Indeed, there is in Chrysostom a substantial unity of thought and action, in Antioch as in Constantinople. It is only the role and situations that change. In his commentary on Genesis, in meditating on God's eight acts in the sequence of six days, Chrysostom desired to restore the faithful from the creation to the Creator: "It is a great good", he said, "to know the creature from the Creator", He shows us the beauty of the creation and God's transparency in his creation, which thus becomes, as it were, a "ladder" to ascend to God in order to know him. To this first step, however, is added a second: this God Creator is also the God of indulgence (synkatabasis). We are weak in "climbing", our eyes grow dim. Thus, God becomes an indulgent God who sends to fallen man, foreign man, a letter, Sacred Scripture, so that the creation and Scripture may complete each another. We can decipher creation in the light of Scripture, the letter that God has given to us. God is called a "tender father" (philostorgios) (ibid.), a healer of souls (Homily on Genesis, 40, 3), a mother (ibid.) and an affectionate friend (On Providence 8, 11-12). But in addition to this second step - first, the creation as a "ladder" to God, and then, the indulgence of God through a letter which he has given to us, Sacred Scripture - there is a third step. God does not only give us a letter: ultimately, he himself comes down to us, he takes flesh, becomes truly "God-with-us", our brother until his death on a Cross. And to these three steps - God is visible in creation, God gives us a letter, God descends and becomes one of us - a fourth is added at the end. In the Christian's life and action, the vital and dynamic principle is the Holy Spirit (Pneuma) who transforms the realities of the world. God enters our very existence through the Holy Spirit and transforms us from within our hearts.
Against this background, in Constantinople itself, John proposed in his continuing Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles the model of the primitive Church (Acts 4: 32-37) as a pattern for society, developing a social "utopia" (almost an "ideal city"). In fact, it was a question of giving the city a soul and a Christian face. In other words, Chrysostom realized that it is not enough to give alms, to help the poor sporadically, but it is necessary to create a new structure, a new model of society; a model based on the outlook of the New Testament. It was this new society that was revealed in the newborn Church. John Chrysostom thus truly became one of the great Fathers of the Church's social doctrine: the old idea of the Greek "polis" gave way to the new idea of a city inspired by Christian faith. With Paul (cf. I Cor 8: 11), Chrysostom upheld the primacy of the individual Christian, of the person as such, even of the slave and the poor person.
In his letter presented on August 10, 2007, Benedict reflected in more detail on various aspects of Chrysostom's thought, including his understanding of the intimate relationship between liturgy, Eucharist, and ecclesial communion—a topic of great interest to the Holy Father:
John held that the Church's unity was founded on Christ, the Divine Word who with his Incarnation was united to the Church as the head is united to the body. "Where the head is, there also is the body", and that is why "there is no separation between the head and the body". He had comprehended that in the Incarnation the Divine Word not only became man but also united himself to us, making us his body: "Since it did not suffice for him to make himself a man to be scourged and killed, he united himself to us not only through faith but also de facto makes us his body". Commenting on the passage of the Letter of St Paul to the Ephesians: "In fact, he put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the Church which is his body, the fullness of him who is fully realized in all things", John explained that "it is as if the head were completed by the body, because the body is made up and formed of its various parts. His body is therefore composed by all. Thus, the head is completed and the body rendered perfect when we are all clustered closely together and united". John then concluded that Christ unites all the members of his Church with himself and with one another. Our faith in Christ requires us to work hard for an effective, sacramental union among the members of the Church, putting an end to all divisions.
For Chrysostom, the ecclesial unity that is brought about in Christ is attested to in a quite special way in the Eucharist. "Called "Doctor of the Eucharist' because of the vastness and depth of his teaching on the Most Holy Sacrament", he taught that the sacramental unity of the Eucharist constitutes the basis of ecclesial unity in and for Christ. "Of course, there are many things to keep us united. A table is prepared before all... all are offered the same drink, or, rather, not only the same drink but also the same cup. Our Father, desiring to lead us to tender affection, has also disposed this: that we drink from one cup, something that is befitting to an intense love". Reflecting on the words of St Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, "The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?", John commented: for the Apostle, therefore, "just as that body is united to Christ, so we are united to him through this bread". And even more clearly, in the light of the Apostle's subsequent words: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body", John argued: "What is bread? The Body of Christ. And what does it become when we eat it? The Body of Christ; not many bodies but one body. "Just as bread becomes one loaf although it is made of numerous grains of wheat..., so we too are united both with one another and with Christ.... Now, if we are nourished by the same loaf and all become the same thing, why do we not also show the same love, so as to become one in this dimension, too?"
Chrysostom's faith in the mystery of love that binds believers to Christ and to one another led him to experience profound veneration for the Eucharist, a veneration which he nourished in particular in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Indeed, one of the richest forms of the Eastern Liturgy bears his name: "The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom". John understood that the Divine Liturgy places the believer spiritually between earthly life and the heavenly realities that have been promised by the Lord. He told Basil the Great of the reverential awe he felt in celebrating the sacred mysteries with these words: "When you see the immolated Lord lying on the altar and the priest who, standing, prays over the victim... can you still believe you are among men, that you are on earth? Are you not on the contrary suddenly transported to Heaven?". The sacred rites, John said, "are not only marvellous to see, but extraordinary because of the reverential awe they inspire. The priest who brings down the Holy Spirit stands there... he prays at length that the grace which descends on the sacrifice may illuminate the minds of all in that place and make them brighter than silver purified in the crucible. Who can spurn this venerable mystery?"
With great depth, Chrysostom developed his reflection on the effect of sacramental Communion in believers: "The Blood of Christ renews in us the image of our King, it produces an indescribable beauty and does not allow the nobility of our souls to be destroyed but ceaselessly waters and nourishes them". For this reason, John often and insistently urged the faithful to approach the Lord's altar in a dignified manner, "not with levity... not by habit or with formality", but with "sincerity and purity of spirit".
This same topic was addressed by Adrian Fortescue over a hundred years ago in his classic study, The Greek Fathers: Their Lives and Writings (Ignatius Press, 2007; orig. 1908):
Most of the Doctors of the Church have some one point of the faith of which they are the classic exponents: thus, Saint Athanasius is the Doctor of the Divinity of Christ, Saint Augustine is the "Mouth of the Church about Grace". By universal consent, Saint John Chrysostom is looked upon as the great defender of the holy Eucharist. He is the Doctor Eucharisticus. The Blessed Sacrament and the Real Presence are the subjects to which he turns most often; his writings on this question form a complete defence and exposition of the teaching of the Catholic Church about her most sacred inheritance. In his homilies On the Sixth Chapter of St John, he develops the ideas that our Lord has given us "Bread from Heaven, that he who eats it may not perish", that he himself is the "Living Bread that came down from heaven", that we are to "eat his Body and drink his Blood". "We must listen", says Chrysostom, "to this teaching with fear, because what we have to say today is very awful." He points to the altar and says, "Christ lies there sacrificed" "His Body lies before us", "That which is there in the chalice is what flowed from the side of Christ. What is the Bread? The Body of Christ." "Think, man, what sacrifice you receive in your hand [people took the Blessed Sacrament in their right hands], what altar you approach. Consider that you, dust and ashes, receive the Body and Blood of Christ." We not only see the Lord, "we take him in our hand, eat, our teeth pierce his flesh, that we may be closely joined to him." "What he did not allow on the cross, that he allows now at the Liturgy; for your sake he is broken, that all may receive." "It is not a man who causes the Offering to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he himself who died for us. The priest stands there as his minister when he speaks the words, but the power and grace come from the Lord. This is my Body, he says. This word changes the Offering." "With confidence we receive your gift," he says in a prayer, "and because of your word we firmly believe that we receive a pledge of eternal life, because you say so, Lord, Son of God, who live with the Father in eternal life." (pp. 120-21)LISTENING IN TO CONVERSATIONS OF ORTHODOX BISHOPS IN AMERICA (to listen to the podcasts, click title)
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