At the request of some of our readers, we are again making this article, which links the importance of the Sermon with the Holy Eucharist, available at Preachers Institute. This two part article by Prof. Steenberg is based on a talk originally given in November 2007 at Ampleforth Abbey, Yorkshire, United Kingdom, as part of a day conference on St John Chrysostom during the year commemorating the 1,600th anniversary of the saint’s repose.
St John Chrysostom on receiving the Word of God
In undoubtedly his most well-known homily, read in every Orthodox church at the matins of Pascha, St John Chrysostom proclaims:
Enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honour the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.
It is an exuberant text, a capstone of Paschal reflection, and a shining example of patristic homiletics. If St John is known, as his very name, ‘Golden-mouthed’ would have it, as the great preacher, this is known as one of his great sermons. Yet it would be careless to attempt a reading of his theology of the sermon from this text alone: it is unique, in tone and in form, and unrepeatable in character, even among the corpus of his other works (even if we accept that, given its long liturgical incorporation and traditional character, it is a text about which a lively discussion regarding the specifics of its Johannine authorship might certainly be had ). Amongst the vast library that makes up the corpus of St John’s received and extant works, some 700 homilies have come down to us; yet many will know only this single one.
Still, the sentiment in this exuberant Paschal cry reflects the wider vision of the sermon that inspired the other 699 —and if the final form as we have it may not be St John’s, it is certainly wholly in keeping this is homiletic style. The text is scriptural, rooted in biblical themes and imagery (the portion I have quoted above, though under a single paragraph in length, alludes to no less than eight distinct scriptural scenes). It is also Eucharistic: it calls its hearer from the world of biblical narrative into the present moment of sacramental encounter. ‘The table is full-laden’ points from the Gospel image of the feast provided for the prodigal son (see Luke 15.23, 24) to the resurrectional feast laid upon the Holy Table of the altar. The words of the Gospel call the hearer to receipt of the Word in the chalice.
It is this interrelation of sermon and chalice, of preaching the Word and receiving the Word, that I would like to focus on today. I should like to begin with a few words on the saint as preacher, and the ascetical nature of St John’s homilies; then proceed with an exploration of the relationship of Word and Spirit in his theology of the sermon. Thirdly and finally, I would like to explore the relationship of the homily to the liturgical celebration itself, focusing on the relationship of the Word heard, and the Word encountered in the chalice.
St John as preacher
St John’s cognomen, Chrysostomos, ‘Golden-mouthed’, betrays his reputation. He is known above all as a preacher, famed for his attention to textual minutiae on the one hand, yet an ability to captivate his hearers on the other (we can be only too aware that intense textual criticism holds less popular appeal today than it did in his century). Bouts of laughter, even bursts of applause, were known to accompany his homilies—a response that appears to have annoyed him, yet which he more than once uses to rhetorical effect. Speaking of this tendency, he questioned his hearers during a homily on St Matthew’s Gospel:
Do you give praise to what has been said? Alas, I do not want not applause, nor tumults, nor noise. One thing only do I wish: that quietly and intelligently listening, you should do what is said. This is the applause, this the panegyric for me. But if you praise what I say, but fail to do the things for which you give applause, greater is the punishment, more aggravated the accusation! And to me it is shame and ridicule.
At another point he notes, with rather more evident frustration, that though the gathered faithful may applaud his words in church, they quickly leave it to attend the horse races, offering there an applause that echoes yet more loudly.
St John’s popularity as a preacher is not hard to understand. While at once a fierce adherent to detailed textual exploration—a flagship proponent of the ‘literal’ interpretative style favoured in and around Antioch, where he had served as deacon and priest—his ability to take even the most adjunct detail of a passage and relate it to the common living-out of the Gospel message, made the texts come alive to his hearers. This, and he was not afraid of bringing the scriptures to bear directly on the heated political and social issues of the day. His homily on Matthew 26.19, Jesus’ petition Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me…, is, for example, a focused attack on the remnant followers of Marcion and Mani—groups with legacies still disruptive to the Christian community, so many decades and centuries after their origins. The concerns of the ecclesiastical world were known to St John as preacher, and formed the grist of more than one enthusiastic sermon.
Yet his focus on themes of the day was supremely rooted in the biblical word. St John’s attentiveness to the text of scripture, to unfolding its meaning, reveals not only the degree of his education, but also something of his understanding of priestly ministry. As much as it is the privilege and duty of the priest to stand at the altar in the celebration of the holy Mysteries, so is it his responsibility to bring the faithful to those mysteries through the Word. So he writes:
It is necessary for the teacher to sow every day, so to speak, in order that by its frequency at least, the word of doctrine may be able to be grasped by those who hear.
This ‘every day’ we can take literally; at least during Great Lent, St John’s often lengthy homilies must have been daily affairs. But it is the ‘sowing’ of ‘the word of doctrine’ that is of special interest. The priest, part of whose particular vocation it is to preach at the liturgical services, is allegorised to the sower (perhaps in reference to 2 Corinthians 9.10: Now may he who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteousness). In the homily, the priest sows—tends to, waters, fosters—the Word found in the scriptures, which thus becomes a living doctrine grasped by its hearers.
St John is convinced, like others before him, that the Word in the scriptures is the inscribed presence of the eternal Word, Son of the Father and God consubstantial with him. It was Origen of Alexandria, much maligned in the centuries following John’s life for perversions of doctrine (on some counts, rightly so—particularly on speculations regarding the eternity of souls, a problematic trinitarian articulation and a peculiar sense of incarnational becoming in Christ), though who had not yet come under conciliar censure in St John’s day, who referred to scripture famously as the ‘permanent incarnation of the Word’. Chrysostom does not echo this precisely, but the sense is certainly present in many of his works; as, too, is Origen’s emphasis on the Spirit as the revealer of scripture’s deepest meaning, and, in turn, the one whom those scriptures also reveal. In his first homily on the Gospel of Matthew, St John writes:
It were indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written Word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course.
The Word encountered in the written text may effect the transformation into the grace of the Spirit that obedience and piety should produce naturally. This is followed up in an important comment on the need for the textual Word:
Reflect then how great an evil it is for us, who ought to live so purely as not even to need written words, but to yield up our hearts, as books, to the Spirit; now that we have lost that honour, and are come to have need of these, to fail again in duly employing even this second remedy. For if it be a blame to stand in need of written words, and not to have brought down on ourselves the grace of the Spirit; consider how heavy the charge of not choosing to profit even after this assistance, but rather treating what is written with neglect, as if it were cast forth without purpose, and at random, and so bringing down upon ourselves our punishment with increase.
The human heart may, in the perfection that is open to man as a creature of the redeeming God, become a ‘book to the Spirit’ in which the written Word is no longer needed, since the Spirit will himself bring communion with the Word eternal, inscribing him in the heart. But since ‘we have utterly put away from us this grace’, the written Word is a ‘remedy’; and more than this, it is a remedy met out in ordered fashion, for a specific purpose. St John refers to the neglect of considering the Word ‘as if it were cast forth without purpose’—a clear reference to the prophetic utterance in Isaias: So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it (Isaias 55.11). The Word works a purpose. The written Word, more specifically, works the purpose of human communion with the divine, and it is this that the priest is charged to sow. The homily, then, becomes the trowel, the tool, for this sowing.
Part Two will be published tomorrow.
The Rev. Dr. Dcn. M.C. Steenberg is a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain (Diocese of Sourozh). A patristics scholar, and formerly a Fellow in Theology at Greyfriars, Oxford, he is currently chair of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Leeds Trinity & All Saints. He serves in the parish of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, Oxford, and is to be heard in the weekly ‘A Word From the Holy Fathers’ broadcasts of Ancient Faith Radio and Monachos.net.