Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages - George Hodges



When the imperial messenger had finished his address to the people of Antioch, there was a profound silence. Nobody said a word. Only in the borders of the crowd could be heard the sobs of frightened women. It was evident that the situation was most serious.

The emperor, the messenger said, is in need of money. He has to keep up a continual war with the miserable barbarians who plunder our unprotected towns, and the soldiers must be paid. You are all rich here. Theodosius lays a new tax on his faithful people, the citizens of Antioch.

Within an hour, the crowd which had listened in ominous silence was a vast mob, yelling in the streets. They attacked the palace of the governor, who happily escaped through the back door, and saved his life. They broke into the great hall of justice. There was the empty seat of judgment, and behind it, against the wall, a row of stately statues: the image of the emperor Theodosius, and of the empress Flacilla, recently dead and tenderly mourned, and of their two sons, Arcadius and Honorius. For an instant the mob stood still, like the crowd in the Shrine of Serapis at Alexandria. Then a boy threw a stone. It struck the figure of the emperor. Instantly, as if it had been the breaking of a spell, rough hands were laid upon the statues. They were pulled down from their places, kicked and struck with clubs, and broken, and the maimed trunks were dragged in the dust of the streets. The trouble lasted two or three hours. Then the soldiers came and took possession. And the people, scattering to their homes, began to consider what they had been about.

The massacre in the circus at Thessalonica had not yet taken place. That was three years in the future. But the furious temper of Theodosius was well known. What would he do? How would he avenge the insult to himself and his family? It was true that one time when he was told that a mob in Alexandria had stoned his statue, he had put his hand to his head, and laughed, saying, "It doesn't hurt." But this was a more serious affair. He might degrade the city from its proud place in the empire and thus destroy its business. He might multiply the tax by ten. He might take off the heads of a hundred leading citizens. He might do this or that. What would he do?

The only hope for Antioch lay in the fact that Theodosius was a Christian. He might listen to the apologies of a Christian bishop. The aged Flavian started, accordingly, in the dead of winter, over eight hundred miles of hard road, with snow lying deep in the passes of the Taurus Mountains, to carry the repentance of Antioch to the emperor at Constantinople.

Meanwhile, the city listened day after day to the sermons of a great preacher.

The name Chrysostom means Golden-mouth, and it was given to a man in Antioch whose other name was John. He had prepared himself for the work of the ministry by years of privation and solitude in the mountains, thinking and praying and listening to the voice of God in his soul. When he came out, he had a burning message to men about their sins. And he feared no living man. He was poor, and preferred to be poor. He asked nothing, except an opportunity to speak. And when he spoke, it was with an eloquence which made his hearers cry or laugh or tremble, as he pleased.

Thus Chrysostom ministered to Antioch during the long weeks of suspense. He preached daily. He taught to people the uncertainty of all the riches and pleasures of this life, and urged them day by day to store their treasures in heaven, and to lay hold upon that happiness which no chance or change can spoil. At last the bishop came in sight, sending his news ahead to Chrysostom, and he announced it from his pulpit. The emperor had pardoned the suppliant city. He was a Christian, and he was mindful of Christ's great words about forgiveness. Then came the bishop, welcomed with festivities like those at Alexandria, "when Pope Athanasius came home."

Chrysostom had been for ten years the splendid preacher of Antioch when the bishop of Constantinople died. Theodosius had died also, and his weak son, Arcadius, was in his place. The real ruler of the eastern empire was a man named Eutropius.

The career of Eutropius is one of the most singular in history. He had been born a slave, and had passed from one master to another. One of his occupations had been to comb his mistresses' hair. He had grown old and wrinkled and ugly, till nobody would buy him, and he had been turned out of doors, like an old horse. He had found work in the kitchen of the imperial palace, and had made his way from one domestic post to another, till he had become a chamberlain. Being thus near to the emperor's person, he had gained increasing influence over that weak youth, till he secured his amazing success by suggesting that he marry Eudoxia, the daughter of a general of the Franks. Now, the all powerful courtier and favorite and prime minister, Rufinus, had planned that his own daughter should become the bride of the emperor, and so slyly had Eutropius managed that when the wedding procession actually started out, Rufinus and his daughter waited to meet it in state, till it passed the house of Rufinus and stopped at the house of Eudoxia. That, of course, was the end of Rufinus, and Eutropius took his place. The old slave, who had begged in the streets of Constantinople, had become the right hand and master of the emperor.

Eutropius had once heard Chrysostom preach, and when the bishop of Constantinople lay dead, and the churchmen were eagerly discussing who should sit in his great seat, he sent secret messengers to Antioch, and they stole Chrysostom. They asked him to get into their carriage, and when he was once in, away they drove, at post haste, much against his will, to Constantinople, and there he was made bishop. The bishop of Alexandria, who was much disgusted, having other plans, was forced to consecrate him.

Thus Chrysostom became bishop of Constantinople, and found himself in the midst of the imperial court.

The first thing which he did was to take all the fine furniture which had belonged to his rich and luxurious predecessor, and put it out in the street, and sell it at auction. He dismissed all the servants. The splendid dinners, for which the bishop's house had been famous, came to a sudden end. The new bishop was as poor as the poorest of his people. All the money which came to him he spent for the relief of the needy and the care of the sick.

St. Chrysostom


Then he preached, as he had done at Antioch, terribly plain sermons about sin; and not about sin in general, but about the actual temptations and sins of the people to whom he spoke. He reproved them for the ways in which they made their money, and for the ways in which they spent it. He reproached them for the cries and groans of their slaves, which he heard from their windows as he passed by in the street. He even criticized the clothes of the ladies. He spared nobody, the court least of all. The proud, luxurious, and selfish life of the emperor and the empress and their friends he disliked exceedingly, and said so plainly.

From the people, he proceeded to speak his mind about the clergy. He found them idle and neglectful of their duties, and called them to account. Some he reproved, some he expelled. Thus every day, by every word he said, he made an enemy. They were enemies of the right kind, who had no place in the friendly approval of a true bishop, but they were many, and some of them were in places of great power. They were able, and more than willing, to do him harm.

Thus the ministry of Chrysostom in Constantinople was very hard. He was as eloquent as ever, and the churches were crowded to hear him, but people went away after the sermon clinching their fists.

At last, the great Eutropius fell from his high place. He presumed too much upon his power over the weak emperor. One day he said to the empress, "I put you on your throne, and I can thrust you down." Eudoxia ran crying to Arcadius, bringing her little children with her, and demanded the expulsion of Eutropius. And the emperor, with most unexpected energy, expelled him. So he fell, and an hour after he was without a friend. He had lost everything except his life. That he saved by running to the cathedral, and clinging to the altar. From that holy place, nobody ventured to drag him out. The bishop protected him. He faced the crowd which clamored for the old man's blood. He interceded for him with the emperor. He got him for a time into a safe exile. Even so, with his instinct for a preacher's occasion, he could not resist taking him for a tremendous text. There was the fallen favorite, in the sight of the congregation, on the floor by the altar, his hair in disorder, his clothes torn, trembling for fear of death. Chrysostom pointed at him from the pulpit. "You see," he said, "how uncertain are all the honors of the world."

Now, the empress Eudoxia had caused to be erected, in the square fronting the cathedral, a statue of herself. It was of silver, on a porphyry column. And on the day when it was set up there was such a clamor outside the church, with dancing and singing, that Chrysostom could scarcely hear himself preach. He expressed his displeasure in his blunt manner, and his words were reported to the empress. It was the crisis of a long hatred. The anger of the court was confirmed by the anger of the clergy. They were all against the righteous bishop, all whose evil lives he had condemned. The bishop of Alexandria had left his own city to trouble Chrysostom. Councils had convened to find some fault in him, like the councils which made false charges against Athanasius. The affair of the silver statue brought the full storm upon his head. Arcadius, whose father, Theodosius, had trembled before Ambrose, ordered Chrysostom into exile. And he had no friends to help him whose strength was of account in such a struggle.

Out he went, then, into exile. And as he went, a black smoke began to rise from the city, and flames beneath the smoke. The cathedral was mysteriously on fire. It was destroyed; and the great houses of government about it joined in its ruins. And beneath the charred and broken beams and stones which filled the square, lay the porphyry pedestal and the silver statue of Eudoxia.

They carried the old man, under a guard of soldiers, the whole length of Asia Minor, from Constantinople at the northwestern corner to the region above Antioch, in the southeastern corner. It was much the same journey which Bishop Flavian had made when he went to intercede for Antioch with Theodosius. But his place of exile was too near his friends to please his enemies. Letters of sympathy came to him by every mail, from the bishop of Rome, from the bishop of Milan, from bishops of the East who braved the enmity of the court. And every mail carried back letters from Chrysostom to his faithful people in Constantinople, who were suffering for his sake, to bishops and churches asking for his counsel. He speaks of exile and famine, war and pestilence, siege and solitude, as belonging now to his daily life. The place of his exile was bitterly cold in winter, and there were brigands who came down from the mountains to steal and kill. But he kept his courage and his good cheer.

At last an imperial order directed that he should be carried north to the shore of the Black Sea. Chrysostom was ill, and the summer was hot; the journey was long and difficult. The guards who conducted him had been given to understand that if their prisoner should chance to die by the way, it would be to their advantage, they would be paid so much the more. And die, he did. Beside a village in Pontus he sank down and could go no further. They dragged him on, but he was evidently dying. They took him to a little chapel, and there, crying, with his last breath, "Glory be to God for all things!" he passed away.

Chrysostom was as truly a martyr as Cyprian. But the bishop of Carthage had been put to death by pagans; the bishop of Constantinople was put to death by Christians. To this pass had the course of events come in that religion whose disciples had seemed to Cyprian so quiet and holy. While the Church in the West was mastering the evil passions even of emperors, the Church in the East was fighting a losing battle against the sin of the world. After that, in the East, the Court ruled the Church, as it does to this day. There were good and brave men, but the short list of eminent Eastern Saints and Heroes ends with Chrysostom.

The life of Chrysostom differed from the life of Ambrose as defeat differs from victory, but the two men were intent on the same thing. The emphasis of the ministry of Cyprian was upon the Church: he exalted the importance of the Church. The emphasis of the ministry of Athanasius was upon the creed: he magnified the importance of the creed. But the emphasis of the ministry of Ambrose and of Chrysostom was upon the essential and pre-eminent importance of character. That, they said, is the very heart and life of the Christian religion.