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|Fr. Theodore G. Stylianopoulos|
Gospel, spirituality and renewal in orthodoxy
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An assessment of Chrysostom's understanding of the nature and power of the Gospel would be incomplete without consideration of the indispensable element of the human response to the good news. Saint John possessed an unshakable confidence in the divine power behind the evangelistic mission of the Church. Yet, according to the Antiochean Father, the grace of the Spirit neither operates by compulsion, nor will penetrate stony hearts. Divine grace requires the synergy of human freedom. The power of the word of God is released in the act of reception by responsive souls. The proclamation of the Gospel takes hold and bears rich fruit where it finds fertile ground.
The most important aspect of the human response to the Gospel is, according to Chrysostom, the act of personal faith. A true, living faith, for St. John, is “a great blessing . . . which arises from glowing feelings, great love, and a fervent soul; it makes us truly wise, it hides our human meanness, and leaving reasonings beneath, it philosophizes about things in heaven.
Chrysostom turns time and again to the theme of faith. The first characteristic of faith, the mother of all good things, is its appropriate disposition in grasping the basic mysteries of revelation. Truths which transcend human reasoning, such as the incarnation, the virgin birth, the power of the cross, the heavenly birth of which Jesus spoke to Nicodemus, and the like, require faith alone. To try to offer rational explanations of these and such mysteries would be to invite derision, not because of the weakness of these truths themsevles but because heavenly matters cannot be brought under the scrutiny of earthly reasonings. The human mind is useful in interpreting and applying revelation, exactly what the Antiochean does in his homilies. Nevertheless human reasonings left alone are like “webs of spiders,” weaving such madness as to say sometimes that there is nothing real in the world and that all things are contrary to what they appear. The second characteristic of faith is its capacity to receive God's gifts, such as righteousness revealed through the preaching of the Gospel (Rom. 1:17). This righteousness, so Saint John states, is not your own, but that of God . . . “for you do not achieve it by toilings and labors, but you receive it from above, contributing one thing only from your own store, believing.” Here again we catch a clear view of Chrysostom’s underlying supposition, despite his emphasis on moral works, that Christians are justified and saved by grace through faith (cf. Eph. 2:8-10).
An example of Saint John’s understanding of the synergistic relationship between grace and faith is his interpretation of Jn 1:12: “But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God.” Chrysostom comments that, whether slave or free, Greek or barbarian, male or female, young or old, rich or poor, all are deemed worthy of the same privilege through faith. Faith and the grace of the Holy Spirit remove inequality and stamp all believers with a royal seal. What can equal the mercy of Christ who shared His very nature with publicans, sorcerers, slaves, and those suffering with many ills? Yet Christ works not by compulsion but requires free will (autoexousion). Christ has done all His part — He has made the marriage, has prepared the table, and has sent messengers to call us. It falls to us, both before and after baptism, to supply faith, and not only faith but also zeal and earnestness of a pure life. Chrysostom is aware of no tension or contrast between faith and good works; both are vital elements in one's response to grace. But faith comes first.
Another aspect of the human response in appropriating the power and blessings of the Gospel is, according to Chrysostom, serious and regular engamement with the Scriptures. To enter into one of the Gospels is to enter a city of gold; it is to hear the words not of an earthly king but of the Lord of angels. Hearing and reading the message of the Scriptures with appropriate receptivity has the power to lift human beings from earth to heaven.
In a particular way, Saint John concentrates on this theme of the earnest hearing and reading of Scripture in his first homily on the Gospel of St. John. Chrysostom first calls for zealous and earnest attention to God's word. If people long to know what is going on at the palace, what the king has said or done, or what thoughts he has about his subject, how much more should they be concerned about Christ's message which He brings from the Father. The attention required is not for one day but for all life. It is not merely external, requiring orderly behavior, but above all internal, the hearing of the soul, a deep silence which the Antiochean Father elsewhere calls “mystical silence” (mystike sige).
A second element in the transforming reception of the word of God is spiritual cleansing. The words of the Gospel can mean nothing to him who has no desire to be freed from a “swinish life.” Christ instructed the disciples not to give the holy to the dogs, nor to cast pearls to the swine (Mt. 7:6). Nothing is sweeter nor more precious than the words of Scripture (Ps. 19:10). Yet only to those who are in good spiritual health. The cleansing and healing power of God's word is given to receptive souls by the power of the Holy Spirit. Where Scripture is read and heard among receptive souls becomes a place of “spiritual surgery” (iatreion peumatikon). The Spirit Himself burns away the evil elements, making hard and stubborn hearts soft and yielding to divine grace.
A third element is a firm resolve or earnest will (espoudasmene boulesis) which leaves behind the desires and ways of the multitude. Armed with earnest will, it is possible, not in five days but in one moment, to change one's whole course of life, even to change suddenly like the robber on the cross. Evil and wickedness are grounded in free will and distort human beings into wilful beasts and many-faced monsters. But let no one despair. If human fierceness (agriotes) is caused by choice and not by nature, then the words of Scripture empowered by the grace of the Spirit can tame a human being far more effectively than human words can tame a beast. Staint John exhorts:
Let then the man who despairs of himself. . . come continually to this house of
healing (iatreion), let him hear at all times the laws of the Spirit, and on retiring
home let him write down in his mind the things which he has heard; so shall his
hopes will be good and his confidence great, as he feels his progress by experience.
For when the devil sees the law of God written in the soul, and the heart become
tablets to write it on, he will not approach any more.
A final aspect of the response to the Gospel is related to society at large and the witness of Christians within it. Saint John was concerned not only about the impact of the Gospel upon believers but also about its success in terms of the Church's mission in the world. The stress that Saint John places on this theme can hardly be exaggerated. The frequency and manner with which he returns to it shows that Christianity in the days of Chrysostom was still involved in a widespread confrontation with paganism over the true “philosophy” of life that can shown only by persuasive conduct. Precisely where Saint John develops a continuous case demonstrating the power of the Gospel in his homilies on the early chapters of 1 Corinthians, he also builds up a whole series of appeals to Christians on the theme of the evangelistic value of their lives. He cries out to his hearers:
Let us astound them [the pagans] by our way of life rather than by words. For
this is the main battle (megale mache), this is the unanswerable argument, the
argument from conduct. For though we give ten thousand precepts of philosophy
in words, if we do not exhibit a life better than theirs, the gain is nothing.
If the Gospel has had such amazing success since the days of the apostles, so Chrysostom asks, why do not all believe in his own days? The answer rests with the quality of life Christians display. The Antiochean candidly exposes and censures the failings of Christians. He comments that in his days “a dark night (batheia nyx) seemed to prevail among Christians themselves with respect to both teaching and life. For him the greatest critique of Christianity was not so much a good pagan as a corrupt Christian. The sharpest censure of his contemporary Church is perhaps to be found in his reflections on 1 Corinthians, chapter 14. As he contemplates the vigor of early Christian worship and of the charismatic phenomena reported by Saint Paul, Chrysostom bewails the conditions of the Church of his own days. Now, so Chrysostom laments, the Church has only empty signs and memorials of those things. He continues:
The Church now is like a woman who has fallen from her former prosperity and
in many respects retains the symbols only of that ancient good estate; displaying
indeed the cases and boxes of her golden ornaments but bereft of her wealth. . .
And I say not this concerning [special] gifts, for it would be nothing terrible
if it were this only, but also life and virtue.
These words, however, are not a counsel of resignation and despair. They are part of a prophetic critique based on the conviction that God's word is to be preached to all and that it is the responsibility of the hearers to pay heed. The personal failures of Christians and the shortcomings of the Church all the more challenged Saint John to preach and teach the good news of Christ with greater fervor and urgency, trusting that the grace of the Spirit would do its invincible work in willing and receptive hearts.
In his seventh homily on 1 Corinthians Chrysostom sums up his long and detailed exposition in demonstration of the triumph of the Gospel during the early centuries. It is clear that he had given much tought to the ongoing encounter between Christianity and culture. He wanted Christians to be keenly aware of this struggle and to be knowledgeable, confident and effective in their daily interactions with pagans on behalf of the cause of Christianity. It may be instructive to enumerate his major points by way of conclusion: 1) the overcoming of the tyranny of ancient custom through a new religion; 2) the courage of the apostles in the face of many perils; 3) the requirement of higher moral standards; 4) the scandalous nature of the Christian message concerning a crucified God; 5) the persuasion of the masses to truths that even philosophers like Plato could not comprehend; 6) the promise of future rather than immediate rewards, and 7) the fulfilment of Christ's prophecy that the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church. But Saint John also admonished Christians to convince pagans by the quality of their lives: “Of all these things then . . . let us speak to the Gentiles, and again, let us show them the evidence of our lives, that by both means we ourselves may be saved and they drawn over by our means to the glory of God.”
Receiving and enjoying the blessings of the Gospel, Christians ought to celebrate all of time as a festival. The Antiochean Father, rightly surnamed “Chrysostomos” (“Golden-mouthed”), offers to all these golden words:
The whole of time is a festival for Christians, because of the abundance of good
things that have been given. . . The Son of God was made man for you; He freed
you from death; and called you to a kingdom. Therefore, you who have obtained
and are still obtaining such things, how can it be less than your duty to keep the
feast all your life? Let no one then be downcast about poverty, and disease, and
craft of enemies. For it is a festival, even the whole of our time. For this reason
Paul said: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.”