John Chrysostom


If we keep vigil in church, David comes first, last and central. If early in the morning we want songs and hymns, first, last and central is David again. If we are occupied with the funeral solemnities of those who have fallen asleep, or if virgins sit at home and spin, David is first, last and central. O amazing wonder! Many who have made little progress in literature know the Psalter by heart. Nor is it only in cities and churches that David is famous; in the village market, in the desert, and in uninhabitable land, he excites the praise of God. In monasteries, among those holy choirs of angelic armies, David is first, last and central. In the convents of virgins, where are the communities of those who imitate Mary; in the deserts where there are men crucified to the world, who live their life in heaven with God, David is first, last and central. All other men at night are overcome by sleep. David alone is active, and gathering the servants of God into seraphic bands, he turns earth into heaven, and converts men into angels.

Saint John Chrysostom, quoted by Father Lazarus Moore, Orthodox Psalter

A few months ago I discovered Father Lazarus Moore’s translation of the Psalter, which is available online here. (It’s available in Word somewhere too, but I can’t find it now). Apart from being a highly recommended translation of the Septuagint Psalter (the esteemed Esteban Vázquez praises it here as “at once laconic and lyrical”), it also has an introductory essay on the Psalms that is one of the best things I remember reading on them. In it Father Lazarus discusses not only the nature, content, and theology of the Psalms, but also their use and impact as the prayer book of the Church. Here are some rather pithy snippets that suggest the riches to be found in this article and the themes it raises:

The songs of Israel find their full meaning only in the New Adam. …

The eternal Spirit transforms history into theology. …

We need to learn afresh the Christian use of the Psalter. …

The Church never merely studied the Psalms. …

Orthodox theology as a unity of knowledge is a means to an end that transcends all knowledge. The end is union with God. The Psalms sum up the whole salvation history and theology of the Old Covenant. The lights and shadows of the total panorama are all here. …

The meaning of the events lies in man’s meeting with God. …

The light that judges us, transfigures and saves us. …

The Psalms are the Bible in miniature. By a kind of divine tom-tom they drum into our consciousness the truth that we meet God in the world of persons, things and events. Here and now we are to pass through the visible and transient to the invisible and true. Yet the initiative always rests with God. …

The Psalms were the utterances of both David and Christ. …

A striking and mysterious figure looms larger and larger, and gradually takes shape, as we read and re-read the Psalms. He is the Son of God, appointed King on Zion to rule the nations (Ps. 2). … different facets of the same face and person are sprinkled throughout the Psalter, and we need them all to get the full portrait. …

We are at the same time in the wilderness and in the Promised Land. …

The Psalms teach us to enlarge our hearts or consciousness to embrace all mankind. …

…the cross is the key to the Psalms, as it is the key to the Kingdom. …

The Psalter is the expression of the heart of the true man. It is the prophetic portrait of the mind and heart of the coming Saviour. …

One of the images that struck me most in this essay was the comparison of the Psalms to “a kind of divine tom-tom.” I suspect that many of us were brought up expecting religious texts to be clear-cut and to easily and immediately reveal their meaning. I have heard many people saying that that they dislike the Psalms because they are dark or violent or do not express what they are feeling. The Church’s discipline of praying the Psalter – the whole Psalter and not only the bits that we pick and choose – confronts us with a range human realities and does not allow us to escape into our own subjective preferences at any given moment. But it also hold before us a reality that cannot be reduced to any one set meaning; it presents a range of voices and many layers, which, over the years, yield their meaning to us. But this is no simply cerebral meaning – praying the Psalms is a also a physical act, an act that involves our whole person and in which we immerse ourselves, allowing ourselves to be shaped and ultimately transformed by them. As Father Lazarus writes:

People talk of haunted houses. The Psalter is a house of prayer haunted by the Spirit of Christ Who inspired the Psalms. Used aright, they cannot fail to lift us above and beyond ourselves. They confront us with God and we find ourselves haunted by His presence and gradually brought face to face with Him. They bring our hearts and minds into the presence of the living God. They fill our minds with His truth in order to unite us with His love. The saints and fathers of the Church, like the patriarchs and prophets of Israel, were haunted by the living reality of the Redeemer revealed to the world in the Psalter. He is the Word of God hidden in these ‘words of God’. As you persevere in praying the Psalms, you will be drenched with the Holy Spirit as the trees are drenched with the rain (Ps. 103:16), you will be rapt in God and penetrated from time to time with vivid intuitions of His action, your mind and heart will be purified.

Postscript: I had been thinking about this text for some time. But yesterday I happened to listen to a lecture by James K.A. Smith entitled Redeeming Ritual: Penance Takes Practice and realized that it was quite applicable to the praying of the Psalter. While what he says shouldn’t be anything new for Orthodox Christians, he does articulate well what we may take for granted and which I suspect goes rather against the grain for some Protestants, or at least for some of the rather glib things many people say about ritual.

It is possible to sing praises to the Lord without ceasing. ‘The soul is a consummate musician, an instrumentalist. The instrument is the body, which serves as lute, harp and lyre… Desiring to teach you that you should sing praise to Him and glorify Him always. God joined together instrument and player [that is, the body and the soul] in a permanent union.’ (1)

In the Orthodox Church, we do not use musical instruments in worship. Every believer is a musical instrument made by God, and at the same time a musician. If the musician (the soul) keeps the instrument (the body) pure and uses it properly, the two together raise to the Creator a hymn of praise that is pleasing to God. For the hymn that is sacred ‘is born of the soul’s piety, nourished by a good conscience, and accepted in heaven by God.’ (2)

(1) St John Chrysostom, Homily on Holy Week and on Psalm 145, 3, PG 55.522.
(2) St John Chrysostom, Homily on being ordained Priest, 1, PG 48.694.

Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers, (Cell of St John the Theologian, Koutloumousiou Monastery), 139-140.

I was given this book when I became Orthodox, but have only recently got to reading through it seriously, as part of my preparation for a (very basic) series that I am doing on the Liturgy in Evangelion. But I was struck by these words, which are largely quotations from Saint John Chrysostom. In recent months, I have come across some discussions on Christian worship which have left me wondering about the criteria that people use for determining what is and is not appropriate in worship, or even whether there can be any criteria for what constitutes Christian worship. For many Christians worship seems to have simply become about entertainment or about “what works for me.”

I am raising this not to criticise others or to condemn all use of musical instruments – although I am very pleased that the tradition of the Church is as it is! – but rather to point out that, in the tradition of the Church, worship is not something subjective but is, among other things, a pedagogical activity that leads us to God and therefore has a real and objective content. Moreover, while this content has a clear textual and intellectual content – “The Church choir is the school of theology” in the words of Archimandrite Cyprian Kern – it also has a less immediately identifiable but no less real spiritual content which does its work on us through the bodily acts of singing and hearing, together with a host of other physical and sensory “texts”.

Being more or less musically illiterate, I dare not say anything much about music! But it has become increasingly apparent to me that, in large part, the point of Christian worship is to lead us into silence. Prayer consists of quietening the mind and the heart so that they can be purified in order to see, encounter and receive God. And the sacred music of the Church (and possibly also of other traditions) has been developed over centuries and in an era when people had a far better understanding of the relationship between the body and soul that we would appear to have today.

 

The first Adam, progenitor of the human race, was unable to fulfil the vocation laid before him: to achieve deification and bring to God the visible world by means of spiritual and moral perfection. Having broken the commandment and fallen away from the sweetness of Paradise, he had closed the way to deification. Yet everything that the first man left undone was accomplished in his stead by God Incarnate, the Word-become-flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ. He trod that path to us which we were meant to tread towards him. And if this would have been the way of humanity’s ascent, for God it was the way of humble condescension, of self-emptying (kenosis).

St Paul calls Christ the ‘second Adam’. Contrasting him with the first, he says: ‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven’ (I Cor. 15:47). This parallelism was developed by St John Chrysostom, who referred to Adam as the prototype of Christ:

Adam is the image of Christ … as the man for those who came from him, even though they did not eat of the tree, became the cause of death, then Christ for those who were born of him, although they have done no good, became the bearer of righteousness, which he gave to all of us through the Cross.

Gregory the Theologian makes a detailed comparison between Christ’s sufferings and Adam’s fall:

For each of our debts we are given to in a special way … The tree of the Cross has been given for the tree we tasted of; for our hand stretched out greedily, we have been given arms courageously extended; for our hands following their own inclination, we have been given hands nailed to the Cross; for the hand that has driven out Adam, we have been given arms uniting the ends of the earth into one. For our fall we have been given his raising up on a Cross; for our tasting of the forbidden fruit, we have been given his tasting of bile; for our death, his death; for our return to the earth, his burial.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church, 79-80.

Imitate God! If He willeth that all men should be saved, there is reason why one should pray for all, if He hath willed that all should be saved, be thou willing also; and if thou wishest it, pray for it, for wishes lead to prayers. Observe how from every quarter He urges this upon the soul, to pray for the Heathen, showing how great advantage springs from it; “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life”; and what is much more than this, that it is pleasing to God, and thus men become like Him, in that they will the same that He does. This is enough to shame a very brute. Fear not therefore to pray for the Gentiles, for God Himself wills it; but fear only to pray against any, for that He wills not. And if you pray for the Heathens, you ought of course to pray for Heretics also, for we are to pray for all men, and not to persecute. And this is good also for another reason, as we are partakers of the same nature, and God commands and accepts benevolence and affection towards one another.

But if the Lord Himself wills to give, you say, what need of my prayer? It is of great benefit both to them and to thyself. It draws them to love, and it inclines thee to humanity. It has the power of attracting others to the faith; (for many men have fallen away from God, from contentiousness towards one another;) and this is what he now calls the salvation of God, “who will have all men to be saved”; without this all other is nothing great, a mere nominal salvation, and only in words. “And to come to the knowledge of the truth.” The truth: what truth? Faith in Him. And indeed he had previously said, “Charge some that they teach no other doctrine.” But that no one may consider such as enemies, and on that account raise troubles against them; he says that “He willeth that all men should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth”; and having said this, he adds, “For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men.”

Saint John Chrysostom, Homily VII on 1 Timothy ii. 2–4.

“To eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” Let us learn then what are the things that defile the person. Let us learn them and flee from them. For even in the church we still see such a custom prevailing among many that gives great attention to what we are wearing and whether we have our hands washed. But as to presenting a clean soul to God, they make no account. I say wash to what degree is fitting, but above all wash with virtues and not with water only. No one is forbidding the washing of the hands or mouth, but the real filth of the mouth is evil speaking, blasphemy, reviling, angry words, filthy talking, inordinate laughter and immature jesting. If you are not conscious of yourself doing these things or of being defiled with this filth, then draw near with confidence. But if you have often done these things and received these stains, why do you think that washing your tongue with water is going to change anything? You labour in vain to wash it out externally, while you are still inwardly carrying such deadly and hurtful filth.

Saint John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 51. 4-5, in  Manlio Simonetti (ed). Matthew 14-28 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture) 26.

Let us also then touch the hem of His garment, or rather, if we be willing, we have Him entire. For indeed His body is set before us now, not His garment only, but even His body; not for us to touch it only, but also to eat, and be filled. Let us now then draw near with faith, every one that hath an infirmity. For if they that touched the hem of His garment drew from Him so much virtue, how much more they that possess Him entire? Now to draw near with faith is not only to receive the offering, but also with a pure heart to touch it; to be so minded, as approaching Christ Himself. For what, if thou hear no voice? Yet thou seest Him laid out; or rather thou dost also hear His voice, while He is speaking by the evangelists.

Believe, therefore, that even now it is that supper, at which He Himself sat down. For this is in no respect different from that. For neither doth man make this and Himself the other; but both this and that is His own work. When therefore thou seest the priest delivering it unto thee, account not that it is the priest that doeth so, but that it is Christ’s hand that is stretched out.

Even as when he baptizes, not he doth baptize thee, but it is God that possesses thy head with invisible power, and neither angel nor archangel nor any other dare draw nigh and touch thee; even so now also. For when God begets, the gift is His only. Seest thou not those who adopt to themselves sons here, how they commit not the act to slaves, but are themselves present at the judgment-seat? Even so neither hath God committed His gift to angels, but Himself is present, commanding and saying, “Call no man Father on earth;” not that thou shouldest dishonor them that gave thee birth, but that thou shouldest prefer to all those Him that made thee, and enrolled thee amongst His own children. For He that hath given the greater, that is, hath set Himself before thee, much more will He not think scorn to distribute unto thee of His body. Let us hear therefore, both priests and subjects, what we have had vouchsafed to us; let us hear and tremble. Of His own holy flesh He hath granted us our fill; He hath set before us Himself sacrificed.

What excuse shall we have then, when feeding on such food, we commit such sins? when eating a lamb, we become wolves? when feeding on a sheep, we spoil by violence like the lions?

For this mystery He directs to be always clear, not from violence only, but even from bare enmity. Yea, for this mystery is a mystery of peace; it allows us not to cling to wealth. For if He spared not Himself for us, what must we deserve, sparing our wealth, and being lavish of a soul, in behalf of which He spared not Himself?

Now upon the Jews God every year bound in their feasts a memorial of His peculiar favors to them: but for thee, every day, as I may say, through these mysteries.

Be not therefore ashamed of the cross: for these are our venerable things, these our mysteries; with this gift do we adorn ourselves, with this we are beautified.

And if I say, He stretched out the heaven, He spread out the earth and the sea, He sent prophets and angels, I say nothing in comparison. For the sum of His benefits is this, that “He spared not His own Son,” in order to save His alienated servants.

Let no Judas then approach this table, no Simon; nay, for both these perished through covetousness. Let us flee then from this gulf; neither let us account it enough for our salvation, if after we have stripped widows and orphans, we offer for this table a gold and jewelled cup. Nay, if thou desire to honor the sacrifice, offer thy soul, for which also it was slain; cause that to become golden; but if that remain worse than lead or potter’s clay, while the vessel is of gold, what is the profit?

Let not this therefore be our aim, to offer golden vessels only, but to do so from honest earnings likewise. For these are of the sort that is more precious even than gold, these that are without injuriousness. For the church is not a gold foundry nor a workshop for silver, but an assembly of angels. Wherefore it is souls which we require, since in fact God accepts these for the souls’ sake.

That table at that time was not of silver nor that cup of gold, out of which Christ gave His disciples His own blood; but precious was everything there, and awful, for that they were full of the Spirit.

Wouldest thou do honor to Christ’s body? Neglect Him not when naked; do not while here thou honorest Him with silken garments, neglect Him perishing without of cold and nakedness. For He that said, “This is my body,” and by His word confirmed the fact, “This same said, “Ye saw me an hungered, and fed me not;” and, “Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.” For This indeed needs not coverings, but a pure soul; but that requires much attention.

Let us learn therefore to be strict in life, and to honor Christ as He Himself desires. For to Him who is honored that honor is most pleasing, which it is His own will to have, not that which we account best. Since Peter too thought to honor Him by forbidding Him to wash his feet, but his doing so was not an honor, but the contrary.

Even so do thou honor Him with this honor, which He ordained, spending thy wealth on poor people. Since God hath no need at all of golden vessels, but of golden souls.

And these things I say, not forbidding such offerings to be provided; but requiring you, together with them, and before them, to give alms. For He accepts indeed the former, but much more the latter. For in the one the offerer alone is profited, but in the other the receiver also. Here the act seems to be a ground even of ostentation; but there all is mercifulness, and love to man.

For what is the profit, when His table indeed is full of golden cups, but He perishes with hunger? First fill Him, being an hungered, and then abundantly deck out His table also. Dost thou make Him a cup of gold, while thou givest Him not a cup of cold water? And what is the profit? Dost thou furnish His table with cloths bespangled with gold, while to Himself thou affordest not even the necessary covering? And what good comes of it? For tell me, should you see one at a loss for necessary food, and omit appeasing his hunger, while you first overlaid his table with silver; would he indeed thank thee, and not rather be indignant? What, again, if seeing one wrapped in rags, and stiff with cold, thou shouldest neglect giving him a garment, and build golden columns, saying, “thou wert doing it to his honor,” would he not say that thou wert mocking, and account it an insult, and that the most extreme?

Let this then be thy thought with regard to Christ also, when He is going about a wanderer, and a stranger, needing a roof to cover Him; and thou, neglecting to receive Him, deckest out a pavement, and walls, and capitals of columns, and hangest up silver chains by means of lamps but Himself bound in prison thou wilt not even look upon.

And these things I say, not forbidding munificence in these matters, but admonishing you to do those other works together with these, or rather even before these. Because for not having done these no one was ever blamed, but for those, hell is threatened, and unquenchable fire, and the punishment with evil spirits. Do not therefore while adorning His house overlook thy brother in distress, for he is more properly a temple than the other.

And whereas these thy stores will be subject to alienations both by unbelieving kings, and tyrants, and robbers; whatever thou mayest do for thy brother, being hungry, and a stranger, and naked, not even the devil will be able to despoil, but it will be laid up in an inviolable treasure.

Saint John Chrysostom, Homily L, Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew

With the devil alone we have nothing in common, but with all humanity we have many things in common. All partake of the same nature with us. They inhabit the same earth. They are nourished with the same food. They have the same Lord. They have received the same laws. They are invited to the same blessings with ourselves. Let us not then say that we have nothing in common with them.

John Chrysostom, Concerning the Statues I.32, quoted in Thomas C. Oden & Christopher A. Hall (ed), Mark, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 2005) 79.

But why in the form of a dove? The dove is a gentle and pure creature. Since then the Spirit too, is “a Spirit of gentleness,” he appears in the form of a dove, reminding us of Noah, to whom, when once a common disaster had overtaken the whole world and humanity was in danger of perishing, the dove appeared as a sign of deliverance from the tempest, and bearing an olive branch, published the good tidings of a serene presence over the whole world. All these things were given as a type of things to come. … In this case the dove also appeared, not bearing an olive branch, but pointing to our Deliverer from all evils, bringing hope filled with grace. For this dove does not simply lead one family out of an ark, but the whole world toward heaven at her appearing. And instead of a branch of peace from an olive tree, she conveys the possibility of adoption for all the world’s offspring in common.

John Chrysostom, The Gospel of St. Matthew, Homily 12.3quoted in Thomas C. Oden & Christopher A. Hall (ed), Mark, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Intervarsity Press, 2005) 13.

… now that grace was appearing, it would be fitting that many tokens of that exalted citizenship be expressed. It is like the sun not yet arisen, but from afar more than half the world is already illuminated by its light. So did Christ, when about to rise from that womb – even before his birth – cast light upon all the world. In this way, even before her birth pains, prophets danced for joy and women foretold what was to come. And John, even before his birth, leaped in the womb.

John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 4.4 in Manlio Simonetti (ed), Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Ia, (InterVarsity Press, 2001) 14-15.

Do not speculate beyond the text. Do not require of it something more than what it simply says. Do not ask, “But precisely how was it that the Spirit accomplished this in a virgin?” For even when nature is at work, it is impossible fully to explain the manner of the formation of the person. How then, when the Spirit is accomplishing miracles, shall we be able to express their precise causes? Lest you should weary the writer or disturb him by continually probing beyond what he says, he has indicated what it was that produced the miracle. He then withdraws from further comment. “I know nothing more,” he in effect says, “but that what was done was the work of the Holy Spirit.”

Shame on those who attempt to pry into the miracle of generation from on high! For this birth can by no means be explained, yet it has witnesses beyond number and has been proclaimed from ancient times as a real birth handled with human hands. What kind of extreme madness afflicts those who busy themselves by curiously prying into the unutterable generation? For neither Gabriel nor Matthew was able to say anything more, but only that the generation was from the Spirit. For we remain ignorant of many things, even while learning of them. So how could the infinite One reside in a womb? How could he that contains all be carried as yet unborn by a woman? How could the Virgin bear and continue to be a virgin? Explain to me how the Spirit designed the temple of his body.

John Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 4.3 in Manlio Simonetti (ed), Matthew 1-13, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament Ia, (InterVarsity Press, 2001) 12-13.

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