Tuesday, November 11, 2008

What Would St. John Chrysostom Do? Some Thoughts on Attending the Columbus International Festival

This past weekend I attended the Columbus International Festival. It was a rather dull event, brimming with cheap feel good liberal slogans and advertisements for the United Nations. Not the sort of event that I would have bothered to go to on my own, but I was there a volunteer chaperone for the Columbus branch of Yachad.

I did have one interested encounter, though, with a woman manning a booth for the St. John Chrysostom Byzantine Catholic Church. The fact that someone would put up a booth under the name of St. John Chrysostom at an event like this, with its emphasis on peace, love, tolerance and implicit ecumenism, struck me as a little odd. For all of you who are not familiar with St. John Chrysostom, he was a fourth century Church father, and without question one of the most important Christian thinkers to have lived between the time of the New Testament and St. Augustine. To students of Jewish-Christians relations, Chrysostom is a central example of early Christian anti-Semitism. His Adversus Judaeos Homilies make for very interesting reading. Some choice examples:

The festivals of the pitiful and miserable Jews are soon to march upon us one after the other and in quick succession: the feast of Trumpets, the feast of Tabernacles, the fasts. There are many in our ranks who say they think as we do. Yet some of these are going to watch the festivals and others will join the Jews in keeping their feasts and observing their fasts. I wish to drive this perverse custom from the Church right now. My homilies against the Anomians can be put off to another time, and the postponement would cause no harm. But now that the Jewish festivals are close by and at the very door, if I should fail to cure those who are sick with the Judaizing disease. I am afraid that, because of their ill-suited association and deep ignorance, some Christians may partake in the Jews' transgressions; once they have done so, I fear my homilies on these transgressions will be in vain. For if they hear no word from me today, they will then join the Jews in their fasts; once they have committed this sin it will be useless for me to apply the remedy. …

But do not be surprised that I called the Jews pitiable. They really are pitiable and miserable. When so many blessings from heaven came into their hands, they thrust them aside and were at great pains to reject them. The morning Sun of Justice arose for them, but they thrust aside its rays and still sit in darkness. We, who were nurtured by darkness, drew the light to ourselves and were freed from the gloom of their error. They were the branches of that holy root, but those branches were broken. We had no share in the root, but we did reap the fruit of godliness. From their childhood they read the prophets, but they crucified him whom the prophets had foretold. We did not hear the divine prophecies but we did worship him of whom they prophesied. And so they are pitiful because they rejected the blessings which were sent to them, while others seized hold of these blessing and drew them to themselves. Although those Jews had been called to the adoption of sons, they fell to kinship with dogs; we who were dogs received the strength, through God's grace, to put aside the irrational nature which was ours and to rise to the honor of sons.

Not that I hold this against Chrysostom. I am not inclined to moralize about his “intolerance” nor would I ever attempt to lecture Christians about him or tell them that they cannot venerate him as a saint and a great thinker; Jews say plenty of nasty things about Christians and I have no intention of throwing stones in a glass house. As far as I am concerned, Christians have no need to be apologetic about Chrysostom. He was a great thinker and orator, who lived in his own time and place and had his opinions. This is still no reason, though, to bring him to a celebration of different cultures and religions. So I went ever to the woman manning the booth and asked her if she thought that Chrysostom would have approved of this event. She tried to dodge the issue but I kept on pressing the matter. Finally she responded that he probably would not have thought that such an event could be possible.

I am sure that Chrysostom would have wanted to attend this event. He would have stood around at his booth talking to the people passing by: “Hi there. You are going straight to Hell. You are going to Hell and you and you over there in the back, Satan is putting on the flames just for you.” Unfortunately the woman manning the booth was not acting in this spirit. She was being really nice; she was not threatening anyone or raising any fire and brimstone. I think I would have liked having Chrysostom there. We could have ecumenically hated the event together.

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