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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Harvey

Saint John Chrysostom and the Sacraments

September 13th is the Memorial of Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407). He was born in Antioch and his rhetorical mastery earned him the name “chrysostom” which means “golden mouthed.” This Doctor of the Church was the Archbishop of Constantinople (modern day Turkey). His courageous stance against sin resulted in his exile and it was in exile that he died.

In the opening section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, several Church Fathers are proposed to us as models for catechesis: “Periods of renewal in the Church are also intense moments of catechesis. In the great era of the Fathers of the Church, saintly bishops devoted an important part of their ministry to catechesis. St. Cyril of Jerusalem and St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, and many other Fathers wrote catechetical works that remain models for us” (CCC 8). Clearly, Chrysostom remains a significant figure for Christians today.

While Chrysostom’s influence is found throughout the catechism, one of his most beautiful quotes is found in CCC 2365 concerning the Sacrament of Matrimony. He suggests young husbands say to their wives,

I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us. . . . I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.

Those four Church Fathers mentioned in the catechism are also known as the Mystagogical Fathers. The Mystagogical Fathers were pastors, often bishops, that gifted the Church beautiful sermons and catechetical presentations meant to assist new converts in their journey into the Catholic Church. Their mystagogical sermons and presentations were meant to guide converts into the mysteries of the sacraments, into the mysteries of Christ. The early Church understood that the mysteries of Christ’s life and saving work are experienced in a transformative way through the sacramental life of the Church, and in a unique way the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist).

The process of helping a person encounter Christ in the sacraments is called “mystagogy.” Those involved in RCIA will recognize the Easter season as a time of mystagogy. According to the catechism, “Liturgical catechesis aims to initiate people into the mystery of Christ (It is ‘mystagogy.’) by proceeding from the visible to the invisible, from the sign to the thing signified, from the "sacraments" to the "mysteries” (CCC 1075). It is not enough to have memorized the prayers from the Mass and sacraments. We must also understand the meaning of those prayers, the meaning of liturgical vestments and their colors, the meaning of the gestures and actions, and the meaning of all we perceive in the Sacred Liturgy.

What may be a surprise to contemporary Catholics is that the Mystagogical Fathers sometimes provided such sermons or presentations on the sacraments after the reception of the sacraments. Why? So that a person catechized in the other elements of faith might stand in awe and wonder before God in the sacraments and be mystagogically guided by the sacramental experience and the Holy Spirit to encounter the living God. Then the catechesis would unpack that experience in the weeks following. Chrysostom provided some of his mystagogical preaching before and after the reception of the Sacraments of Initiation (all three sacraments were received together). One emphasis found in his works is the relationship between life and sacraments. “But I see that our discourse now constrains us to something more necessary to say what baptism is, and for what reason it enters into our life, and what good things it conveys to us.” His catechesis on baptism that follows could almost be confused with a moral theology text because he rightly perceived that sacraments are not only eternal life but relate to everyday life now.

To commemorate this great saint and also allow his voice to be known during this time of Eucharistic revival, I leave you with Chrysostom’s words concerning the Eucharist and Jesus’ words in John 6.

Those men then at that time reaped no fruit from what was said, but we have enjoyed the benefit in the very realities. Wherefore it is necessary to understand the marvel of the Mysteries, what it is, why it was given, and what is the profit of the action. We become one Body, and “members of His flesh and of His bones.” Let the initiated follow what I say. In order then that we may become this not by love only, but in very deed, let us be blended into that flesh. This is effected by the food which He has freely given us, desiring to show the love which He has for us. On this account He has mixed up Himself with us; He has kneaded up His body with ours, that we might be a certain One Thing, like a body joined to a head. For this belongs to them who love strongly...Christ has done, to lead us to a closer friendship, and to show His love for us; He has given to those who desire Him not only to see Him, but even to touch, and eat Him, and fix their teeth in His flesh, and to embrace Him, and satisfy all their love. Let us then return from that table like lions breathing fire, having become terrible to the devil; thinking on our Head, and on the love which He has shown for us. -Homily 46 on the Gospel of John
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