This is part two of a 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.
The homily, the Word, and the Spirit
The particular connection to be made in the above, in terms of understanding St John Chrysostom as homilist, is that of the homily as the means of bringing about communion—of opening up the heart, in the Spirit, to the eternal Word of the Father—with the Eucharistic celebration as the mystery of this communion perfected. That at which the homily aims, is experienced fully in the Eucharist.
To this end, the relationship of the homily to the communion feast is of the most intimate sort. The sermon is not an extra component or a ‘learning segment’ in an otherwise liturgical act: it is itself intrinsically liturgical, inasmuch as it constitutes an ascetical tool bringing the faithful to the encounter at the chalice. This may be overtly obvious in St John’s Paschal homily (‘The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously […] receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness’), but it is no less true in his homiletic works taken as a whole. The homily, rightly employed in the ministry of the Church, is a means of ascesis, of conditioning, that prepares the heart to receive the Word in the sacrament.
To accomplish this, the homily seeks to draw out from the scriptural text those points of relevance and interest that make the heart receptive to the Spirit—since it is the Spirit who makes ready the person for union with God the Father in Christ. In his homily 47 on John 6, Chrysostom focuses on Christ’s words to his disciples, It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing:
His meaning is, ‘Ye must hear spiritually what relates to me, for he who hears carnally is not profited, nor does he gain any advantage.’ […] And what is ‘understanding carnally’? It is looking merely to what is before our eyes, without imagining anything beyond. This is understanding carnally. But we must not judge thus by sight, but must look into all mysteries with the eyes within. This is to see spiritually. St John may be a ‘literalist’, but it is his conviction that the Spirit renders spiritual what otherwise might be read as carnal—‘looking merely to what is before our eyes’—that grounds his charge for deepened perception. It would be wisest of all to say that this gives good challenge to what we mean—or think we mean—in referring to ‘literal’ versus ‘allegorical’ readings of scripture. But to the point of his understanding of the homily, this comment reveals the degree to which St John considers the work of the homilist as evoking the advent of such spiritual perception. It may understandably have been the case that the faithful standing in the stalls of the cathedral at Constantinople (though there is evidence they sat on the floor during his sermons) would hear the word of the text ‘only for what is before the eyes’. Enthusiastic hearers are not necessarily the same thing as detailed exegetes.
The role of the priest in the homily, then, is to move them more deeply into the scriptures’ meaning—to discover the written Word and the Spirit, to be led in due course to full communion with this Word in the Eucharist. The Eucharistic communion thus becomes the focus and perfection of the homily’s work.
The homily in the Liturgy – siting the sermon
As much as St John was a homilist, he was also a liturgist. His name is, of course, attached to what is generally considered the ‘standard Liturgy’ of the Orthodox Church, the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom; and while it is clear that the liturgical rite as a whole was not authored by him, it is generally accepted that the central prayers of the anaphora, together with perhaps the prayers of the antiphons, are his compositions. He was a theologian and bishop deeply concerned with the liturgical life of his diocese, and through it, the whole of the Orthodox Church.
When one engages with the texts of St John’s homilies, then, one must do so in cognisance of their delivery in this liturgical milieu of the worshipping Church. This is not to say that all homilies come in the context of the Divine Liturgy itself; some of St John’s make clear a delivery at vesperal or evening services, others at commemorative occasions, etc.
Nevertheless, it is in the framework of the Eucharistic celebration that the homily finds its natural home (part of the reason that the authority to preach is bound up in the same priestly office as the authority to officiate at the Mysteries; deacons, who otherwise concelebrate, traditionally do not preach at Liturgy except with a particular blessing). St John’s theology of the homily, its focus as an ascetical tool fostering Eucharistic communion, is dramatically reinforced by this liturgical character.
It is worth at this point calling in a caveat, to address the placement of the homily in the shape of the Divine Liturgy. In widespread Orthodox practice today, the homily tends to be delivered in one of two places: either directly after the reading of the Gospel, before the ‘Great Entrance’ of the gifts into the altar; or at the end of the Liturgy, either just before or just after the final blessing. In the broadest terms (and therefore ripe with exceptions), the former practice tends to be favoured amongst Russian and Slavic Orthodox traditions, while the latter is most often found in Greek contexts; but this pattern is so varied as to make any generalised characterisation difficult. Suffice it to say that the two patterns exist, and are fairly widespread. The text of the Divine Liturgy itself gives no specific instruction as to the location of the homily, and while some editions contain rubrics offering guidance on the subject, the core text gives no explicit direction that a sermon be preached at all (and the Liturgy without a homily is common practice on, for example, lesser feasts, at daily services, in monastic contexts, etc.).
The two potential locations for the delivery of the homily represent two ways of understanding how it interacts with, and relates to, the rest of the liturgical celebration. Preaching the sermon directly after the Gospel makes its connection to the scriptural text— as an exposition on the readings—clear, and gives it a certain eminence of place in the service. Preaching at the end of the Liturgy, on the other hand, is often understood as minimising interruption to the Eucharistic movements of the service, removing the sermon to its conclusion. This practice separates the homily from the Gospel reading by at least an hour, thus lessening its implicit linkage to the biblical text—a removal that can be seen, positively, as allowing it to focus more broadly on themes of the whole service or outside it.
It is not bound explicitly to the text of the Gospel pericope. Additionally, the homily delivered at the end of the service tends to link the Eucharistic celebration with the ‘going forth in peace’: the exit from the temple into the world, given message and meaning in the sermon.
The positive aspects of this pattern of a late homily notwithstanding, evidence of early practice suggests a normative pattern of the homily following the readings.15 Special prayers were included in some practices for the blessing of the homily by the bishop, and these are found at the end of the first segment of the service, oftentimes called the ‘Liturgy of the Word’—equating to that part of the service prior to the transition into the ‘Liturgy of the Faithful’ at the expulsion of the catechumens.
This is the pattern that appears to be indicated in the prayers surrounding the reading of the Gospel in the Divine Liturgy itself. Whether these particular prayers (which are found
in identical form in the Liturgy of St Basil) are the work of St John, or the stock of the received liturgical rite of his day, they clearly reflect the theology of scripture by which we have characterised the saint himself. The mystikos prayer of the priest, said as the censing of the church is taking place during the singing of the post-epistle Alleluia,16 indicates this focus:
O Master, who lovest mankind, make the pure light of Thy divine knowledge shine in our hearts, and open the eyes of our mind to perceive the message of Thy Gospel. Implant in us, also, the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that, trampling down all desires of the flesh, we may follow a way of life that is spiritual, both thinking and doing all those things that are well-pleasing to Thee. For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and to Thee we give glory, together with Thy Father who is without beginning, and Thine all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.
The engagement with scripture is to come about through an opening of ‘the eyes of our mind’ to its right perception; and the prayer specifically petitions that this may result in a hearing that leads away from the carnal, to ‘a way of life that is spiritual’. This seems a fairly convincing parallel to John’s comments on spiritual understanding in his homilies on Matthew, discussed above. The positioning of the sermon immediately following the Gospel reading, allows this ‘opening of the eyes of our mind’ to be aided by the homiletic charism of the priest, which St John indicates is his duty and mission. Further, the prayer uttered before the Gospel sets out the context for the larger work ahead: the Gospel, and its exposition, point toward the ‘illumination of our souls and bodies’—the Eucharistic encounter that enables the people to proclaim, in due course, ‘We have seen the true light’.18 The written Word becomes the spoken Word, and this spoken and proclaimed Word conditions its hearer to receive the Word embodied in the Eucharistic Body and Blood.
This focus resonates through the prayers of the entry and anaphora, more securely attributed to St John himself. The priest’s prayers during the Hymn of the Cherubim are directly connected to the prayers of the Gospel:
No one who is bound by the desires and pleasures of the flesh is worthy to approach or draw near or minister to Thee, O King of glory; for to serve Thee is great and awesome even for the heavenly powers. […] Look down upon me, Thy sinful and unprofitable servant, and cleanse my soul and heart from an evil conscience. And, by the power of Thy Holy Spirit, enable me who am clothed with the grace of the priesthood to stand before this, Thy Holy Table, and celebrate the mystery of Thy holy and most pure Body and Thy precious Blood.
Carnal is transformed to spiritual, by the Spirit Himself. The petitions of the prayer at the Gospel—that hearing the Word in the Spirit will cause the carnal to be trampled down and a spiritual life realised—are here related directly to the Eucharistic mystery. It is to the end of drawing near to God at the altar that this ‘trampling down of the flesh’ is sought. It is by the Holy Spirit, whom St John notes in his homilies is the One to whose presence the person is opened by hearing and reflecting on the inscribed Word, that this transformation is wrought; and it is wrought to bring one to the altar, to celebrate the mystery of liturgical communion. The central prayers at the anaphora encapsulate this vision. The narrative of Christ’s words at the mystical supper in Jerusalem (‘Take, eat…’) follows a summation of the divine economy from its outset (‘Thou it was who didst bring us from nothing into being…’). The inscribed Word of the Gospels is brought into the very heart of the Liturgy; and its place there is explicitly ascetical. The Word is recalled in order to provoke and promote Eucharistic action. This action is realised in one of the chief moments of the divine service: the elevation of the gifts that immediately follows. This is accompanied by the priest’s proclamation:
Remembering, therefore, this saving commandment and all those things that have come to pass for us: the Cross, the tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming, offering Thee Thine own of Thine own, on behalf of all and for all, We praise thee…
The recollection (‘remembering, therefore…’), the Word heard, leads to action: the Word elevated, the Word received. This lies at heart of St John’s whole approach, which is fundamentally pastoral. Hearing the Word, preaching the Word—everything leads ultimately to the receiving of the Word in the Eucharist, in which the Good Pastor, the Lord Himself, heals the broken sinner and restores him to life. The pastoral dimension of St John’s preaching resides in this Eucharistic focus, and the Eucharist thereby becomes the fruit of the homily that effectively unites the faithful in the common receipt of the one Christ.
Theology and message
St John received the distinction ‘Golden-mouthed’ not simply for the eloquence of his homilies, but because, for the saint, the homily was an integrated aspect of the ascetical project of the Christian Church, grounded and centred in the Eucharist. What was ‘golden’ in his words was an ability, through this focus, to make the ‘inscribed Word’ lead poignantly to a change of life that brought about communion, in the Spirit, with the embodied Word— the incarnate Christ met in the Eucharistic chalice. So his words, his homilies, would be called ‘divine’, inasmuch as their fruit was divine union.
This was a characteristic for which he was appreciated in his own day. When he reposed in the town of Comana, his successor at Constantinople, Proclus, spoke of him in an impassioned eulogy:
Oh, hierarch whose memory is like a fragrant breeze! Oh, namesake of grace, whose deeds were truly divine! Oh, golden mouth declaring the word of God! Oh, tongue which spoke of mysteries loftier than the heavens! Oh, teacher proclaiming the Gospel more loudly than thunder! Verily like unto John the Forerunner, the preacher of repentance, was this John. One was a herald, the other a trumpet. One was unshakable, the other invincible.
The ancient Church knew how to speak well of the departed. But while modern commentators may not always turn to St John’s works for precisely these reasons, it is perhaps the same liturgical grounding of his theology of the homily, which evoked such praise in the ancient world, that makes him so relevant still to the modern. The sermon remains a cornerstone of Christian worship, both in the context of the Divine Liturgy in which St John himself knew and practiced it, and in a host of other Christian contexts that have emerged since. And so long as the task of the priestly office remains, as he put it, ‘to sow every day’ the Word of God, the emphasis of St John in the ascetical spirit of the homily remains a potent example of its integration in the fullness of Eucharistic Christian life.
It is perhaps fitting to end with an example of this practice ‘in action’. In his Homily 24 on 1 Corinthians, St John addresses the text of chapter 10, verses 13-23 of St Paul’s famous epistle. The Apostle speaks there of the goodness of God in providing for the defeat of temptations, together with the union and unity that comes in communion with Christ. The worship of idols, the sacrifices ‘of the devils’, as St Paul calls them, ought have no stock amongst the Christians; and while eating of food offered to idols may be possible, not all things are profitable. Christ has given His own body, out of intense love—this ought to be sufficient.
St John thrusts his address of St Paul’s words into the context of the future Kingdom:
And why speak I of the world to come? Since here this mystery makes earth become, for you, a heaven. Open only for once the gates of heaven and look in; nay, rather not of heaven, but of the heaven of heavens; then you will behold what I have been speaking of. For what is there most precious of all, this will I show you lying upon the earth. For as in royal palaces, that which is most glorious of all is not the walls, nor golden roofs, but the person of the king sitting on the throne; so likewise in heaven it is the Body of the King. And this you are now permitted to see upon earth. For it is not angels, nor archangels, nor heavens and heavens of heavens that I show you, but the very Lord and owner of these. Do you perceive how that which is more precious than all things, is seen by you on earth? And not seen only, but also touched? And not only touched, but likewise eaten—and after receiving it you go home? Make your soul clean then, prepare your mind for the reception of these mysteries.
St Paul’s comments on temptations, on idols, on power, on demons—all point, for St John, to the Eucharistic Body and the future Kingdom. The ‘inscribed Word’, here found in the epistles as it is in the Gospels proper, is disclosed in the Spirit as pointing towards that fuller communion. The immediate ascetical aims of the Word—to move from ‘carnal’ to ‘spiritual’ hearing and living—feed into the larger ascetical goal of true communion with the risen Christ. And so St John is direct: the end of the homily is the deeper entrance into that Eucharistic motion.
‘Make your soul clean, then; prepare your mind for the reception of these mysteries.’
There is, indeed, something ‘golden’ in this approach to Word and homily. Modern homilists have something perhaps to learn. The sermon which studies the text, which offers a moral or even a spiritual lesson, nonetheless falls short of its task if it does not, in the end, point to the chalice. This is the true power of the inscribed Word. Christ draws creation to Himself. The spiritual work of the homily is to rouse the stirrings of the Spirit in the hearer, as St John is so famed for having done; and then the Word of the Father is united to man, in the sermon as in the chalice.
As an apothegm of St John goes:
I hear no one boast that he has a knowledge of the scriptures, but rather that he owns a bible written in golden characters. And tell me then, of what profit is this? The holy scriptures were not given to us that we should enclose them in books, but that we should engrave them upon our hearts.
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.