All Christians have heard of St. John the Baptist, but not all have heard of another powerful preacher named John: St. John Chrysostom, the holy but controversial archbishop or patriarch of Constantinople at the beginning of the fifth century. John was a very eloquent preacher, and in fact the name Chrysostom is a nickname meaning “golden mouth.” John was born about the year 345, and after being baptized as a young man, he went off to the wilderness and lived as a hermit for some years. Then he was ordained a priest and served in the city of Antioch for a dozen years, where he gained his reputation as a brilliant speaker. In 398, against his will, he was elected patriarch of Constantinople, the capital of the Empire in the East.
John Chrysostom was very frail, for his severe fasting as a monk had caused him lifelong stomach problems. However, in word and deed he was quite powerful. John was a very popular preacher—so much so that he had to beg people not to interrupt his sermons with applause; he was a scholar who could present Scripture in a simple and practical way. In fact, he used to say that common people, because of the bustle and turmoil of daily life, need to study the Bible even more than do monks and nuns and hermits who live apart from the world.
John is best known, however, for the enemies he made. He was a committed reformer, scandalized by the corruption and deceit he found in the imperial court; even worse, he believed, were those bishops and clergy who were caught up in worldly values at the expense of their spiritual duties. John used his authority to make changes; he called upon the clergy to live much simpler lifestyles, and to set an example, he drastically reduced the expenses involved in maintaining his position as patriarch. Even more importantly, John used his preaching to attack social evils and to denounce wrongdoers—especially the wealthy and powerful. As a result, many people conspired against him, including the empress, whom he had allegedly denounced as a Jezebel; she talked her husband the emperor into having John exiled. Soon after John was forced to leave Constantinople, however, the city was rocked by an earthquake, and the superstitious empress begged her husband to have the holy bishop recalled. John returned to the capital, but managed to get himself into trouble once again by his uncompromising preaching, and within a year his enemies once more had him removed—this time for good. John spent three hard years in exile, but his enemies still feared him, so they arranged to have him sent even farther away—but on the journey there, John died of exhaustion (Emphasis, Dec. 1992, p. 50).
There are many parallels between John the Baptist and John Chrysostom. Both lived simply and austerely; both proclaimed their message powerfully, even when it was unpopular; and both paid a heavy price. St. John Chrysostom died in exile as an enemy of the empress and emperor; St. John the Baptist was hated by Queen Herodias and beheaded by her husband Herod Antipas.
Following Jesus Christ can be dangerous; His message of good news is not always welcome in the world. For this reason we have to know what we’re getting ourselves into—and we have to remind ourselves that only by following Jesus can we receive everlasting life. To take Christ’s words seriously will cost a quite a price. To ignore His words will cost us even more.
The Scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Advent contain a message of urgency, for they tell us that God is just and stern toward the evildoers; however, they also contain a message of hope, for they remind us that God is merciful toward those who repent. The prophet Isaiah describes Jesus as a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and as one Who will possess every spirit of wisdom, justice, and peace. However, Isaiah also says that the coming Messiah “shall strike the ruthless with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked.” John the Baptist echoes this double message, for he too warns people of God’s coming judgment, a time when worthless chaff—a symbol for unrepentant sinners—will burn in unquenchable fire. However, John was willing to baptize even hardened sinners if they truly repented of their sins; speaking in the name of the Lord, he offered hope to all who turned back to God.
The choice we face is clear: to live as followers of Jesus, or to go along with the ways of the world—and no matter how we choose, there will be a price to be paid. If, for instance, we show Christian concern for others, we may be ridiculed or taken advantage of—but if we harden our hearts to the needs of those around us, we’ll slowly become less loving and less capable of true happiness. If we stand up for our Christian beliefs and values, we’ll probably be attacked and accused of trying to impose our morality on society—but if we sit back and do nothing, we too will be morally guilty in God’s eyes for our country’s sinfulness. If we take the time for personal prayer and for attending Mass, we’ll have less time for the things we enjoy—but if we give up our time with God, everything else will lose its value. If we forgive our enemies, we risk being considered weak or stupid—but if we refuse to forgive, we’ll lose any chance at ever receiving God’s mercy. If we center our lives around Christ and live in a way that shows our commitment to Him, we’ll seem strange and out of place in the eyes of many people—but if we abandon our faith, we’ll also lose our souls.
There is always a price to be paid. The world is often devious, and tries to hide or disguise the hidden costs of going along with its false values, but Jesus is completely honest about what it takes to follow Him. St. John the Baptist and St. John Chrysostom both helped prepare the way of the Lord, and they themselves travelled this path with fidelity and courage. As we continue in this Advent season, let us pray that we will have the courage to do the same.