The Home as a Little Church:
The Vision of St. John Chrysostom
A talk delivered by Dr. David C. Ford,
Associate Professor at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary,
at the parish of St. John Chrysostom Orthodox Church,
House Springs, Missouri, September 29, 2007,
on the occasion of the 1600th Anniversary of St John’s repose.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—and by the prayers of St. John Chrysostom—Amen.It always amazes me that this profound understanding of the almost ontological oneness of husband and wife comes from a man who was never married! And since John’s father died when John was very young, he didn’t even have the visible example of his parents to inspire him. How did he know so much about marriage? Certainly he took St. Paul’s words in Ephesians 5 very seriously about comparing marital unity and love to Christ’s unity with His Body, the Church, and His love for Her. To recall verse 23 in this passage: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the Head of the Church.” Hence each married couple is called to be profoundly united, at least in some degree approaching the ineffable oneness of Christ and His Church. To continue with this quotation:
Your Eminence [Metropolitan Laurus], Your Grace [Bishop Peter], Reverend Fathers, Esteemed Matushki, Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
First of all, I bring to all of you warm greetings and fraternal love in Christ from Metropolitan Herman, Bishop Tikhon (the OCA bishop of Eastern Pennsylvania), and all the Seminary and Monastery community at St. Tikhon’s. We thank God for the reconciliation between the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia and the Moscow Patriarchate, and we look forward to more and more times of interaction and fellowship together. May our jurisdictions become ever more closely united in Christ day by day. And if any of you are ever in northeastern Pennsylvania, please consider coming to visit us at St. Tikhon’s!
Vladika Peter, we’re looking forward very much to your visit to St. Tikhon’s coming up in a few days. You all may not know that Vladika Peter will be speaking in the annual Fall public lecture series at St. Tikhon’s this coming Tuesday evening.
It’s a great honor and privilege for me to be in your midst during this beautiful three-day celebration in honor of our beloved St. John Chrysostom, and to have the opportunity to bring forth some of his wonderful wisdom concerning marriage and family life. So I’d like to publicly thank Fr. Christopher for inviting me to come and give a talk at this Symposium.
As I’m sure nearly every Orthodox Christian realizes, St. John Chrysostom is one of our most revered and beloved Saints. He was a man small in stature, but mighty in faith in God, in love for his people, in eloquence in preaching the Gospel, and in pastoral wisdom in interpreting the Holy Scriptures. He was a great encourager: over and over again he poured out his heart in his sermons, as he ceaselessly urged his flock to overcome earthly distractions and strive to live in virtue and godliness. As you all well know, he deeply loved the Holy Scriptures, and he mined them for every nugget of practical wisdom he could find that would help his flock to really live Christ’s teachings day by day. And in the end, as we know, he literally gave his life for the Truth of the Gospel.
I think just about anyone who begins reading the writings of St. John Chrysostom quickly feels his intense love for his people, and his profound desire for them to make spiritual progress. Once he cried out in the midst of a sermon, “for I vehemently set my heart upon your salvation” (Homily XLIII on I Corinthians; Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. XII, p. 260; my emphasis). Do you think he still, even now, has his heart vehemently set on our salvation? I think it could be said that these words summarize his whole life as a priest in Antioch, and then as Archbishop of Constantinople. He is so beloved in our Church, I’m quite sure, in large part because of his tremendous love for his flock. As we sang last night in the Akathist Hymn for him, “Rejoice, for thou didst win the hearts of thy flock, which was full of love for thee!”
While I was in graduate school, I had the great privilege of doing my doctoral dissertation on St. John Chrysostom—specifically, on his views on women—and for a whole year and a half the main thing I did, day after day, was read his writings. So, Fr. George Larin, I can very much relate to your desire to read all his writings while you were in Seminary. I read everything I could find by him available in English translation at that time (the middle ’80s), plus some things in French. What a joy that was! And how helpful this was to me spiritually, as so often I felt he was speaking directly to me. I might add, this rich background in Chrysostom’s writings has helped me immensely in my teaching at St. Tikhon’s through the years! But that time of deep immersion in his writings was over twenty years ago now, so I must admit, it’s all certainly not as fresh in my mind as it once was!
One of the most important dimensions of St. John Chrysostom’s exalted vision of the Christian life is his emphasis on Christ-filled marriage and family life. May I ask: how many of you are aware of his emphasis on marriage, and his very high view of Christian marriage? He believed that it is the calling of every Christian married couple to make their home a little church, and he preached with all his heart to inspire the married people in his flock, to fill them with this vision, this ideal, this goal, and to instruct them in how to bring this vision to pass in their own homes.
Let’s look now at some of the most important characteristics of the home as a little church that can be found in St. John Chrysostom’s preaching and writing. I believe six such characteristics stand out:
The first characteristic of the home as a little fhurch
First, we see a great emphasis on the need, indeed the requirement, that husbands love their wives with Christ-like, self-sacrificial love. As St. Paul says to the Ephesians, “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her” (Eph. 5:25; my emphasis). In a very memorable passage, Chrysostom speaks of the ceaseless, nurturing, forgiving, protecting love of Christ for His Church using in significant measure the imagery of a good husband’s love for his wife:
“For Christ espoused His Church as a wife, He loves her as a daughter, He provides for her as a handmaid, He guards her as a virgin, He fences her around like a garden, and cherishes her like a part of His own body. As a head He provides for her, as a root He causes her to grow, as a shepherd He feeds her, as a bridegroom He weds her, as a propitiation He pardons her, as a sheep He is sacrificed, as a bridegroom He preserves her in her beauty, as a husband He provides for her support.” (On Eutropius, II; PG 52.410D-411A; NPNF 1, IX, pp. 262-263; quoted in Women and Men in the Early Church: The Full Views of St. John Chrysostom, by David C. Ford, S. Canaan, PA, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1996, p. 68.)
It’s difficult to imagine any wife not responding with great love and gratitude to such solicitous, self-sacrificing love from her husband—would you not agree?
St. John speaks of the ineffable unity of husband and wife in the context of such Christ-like love:
“The other party thereafter is yourself; when you love…the lover and the beloved should no longer be two persons divided, but in a manner one single person, something which can never happen except from love (ἀγάπη).” (Homily XXXIII on I Corinthians; PG 61.280A; NPNF 1, XII, p. 197; Women and Men, p. 65; my emphasis.)
Emphasizing on another occasion the great unity and love which should be knitting husband and wife together, Chrysostom states,
“Let husbands heed this, let wives heed it: wives, so as to give evidence of such great affection for their husbands, and to put nothing ahead of their welfare; and husbands, that they might show their wives great regard and do everything as though having one soul and being one body.”
“This, after all, is true wedlock, when such harmony operates between them, when there is such close relationship, when they are bound together in such love. You see, just as a body would never be at odds with itself nor a soul at odds with itself, so husband and wife should not be at odds, but united.” (Homily 45 on Gen. 9; Fathers of the Church, vol. 82, Robert C. Hill, trans., p. 474; Women and Men, p. 55.)
He has such a high vision of Christian marriage that he asserts that marital love is “a thing that no possession can equal; for nothing, nothing whatever, is more precious than to be thus loved by a wife and to love her.” (Homily XLIX on Acts; NPNF 1, XI, p. 296; Women and Men, p. 65; my emphasis.) Did you know he said things like this? Isn’t it comforting, if you’re married, to hear a Church Father speaking like this? It is true that of all the Church Fathers, he spoke the most— and the most positively—about marriage.
St. John was often very practical in his advice. For instance, he exhorts the husbands of his flock:
“Never call her merely by her name, but with terms of endearment, with honor, and with much love (ἀγάπη).” (Homily XX on Ephesians; PG 62.148C; NPNF 1, XIII, p. 151; Catharine Roth, ed. and trans., St. John Chrysostom: On Marriage and Family Life [Crestwood, N. Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986], p. 63; Women and Men, p. 170, note 8.)
“Whenever you give your wife advice, always begin by telling her how much you love her…. Tell her that you love her more than your own life, because this present life is nothing, and that your only hope is that the two of you pass through this life in such a way that in the world to come you will be united in perfect love.” (Homily XX on Ephesians; PG 62.146D; NPNF 1, XIII, pp. 150-151; Women and Men, p. 170; my emphasis.)
Here we see St. John Chrysostom’s great overarching perspective—that all of this life is the training ground for eternal life. And we also see expressed here the traditional Orthodox understanding that marriage is meant to last forever—which is an essential part of the Orthodox understanding of and vision for Christian marriage. As the celebrant prays in the marriage service when the crowns are removed: “Receive their crowns into Thy Kingdom, preserving them spotless, blameless, and without reproach, unto ages of ages.” And we also sang (in the Akathist) last night about St. John’s parents, Secundus and Anthusa, “joining chorus with our heavenly Mistress and the Saints today.”
In another unforgettable passage, the great pastor speaks again to husbands, as he comments on the verses from Ephesians 5 which are the epistle reading for the Orthodox marriage service:
“You have seen the measure of obedience [from v. 22]: ‘Wives, be in subjection unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord’; so hear also the measure of love [from v. 25]: ‘Husbands, love your wives just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for Her.’ Do you want to have your wife be obedient to you, as the Church is to Christ? Then take yourself the same provident care for her as Christ takes for the Church. Yes, even if it becomes necessary for you to give your life for her, yes, and to be cut into pieces ten thousand times, yes, and to endure and undergo any suffering whatever, do not refuse it…. In the same way, then, as He brought to Himself her who turned her back on Him [here St. John is referring to His people Israel, who so often strayed from Him in Old Testament times], who hated, and spurned, and disdained Him—not by menaces, or by violence, or by terror, or by anything else of this kind, but by His unwearied affection, so also you must act toward your wife.” (Homily XX on Ephesians; PG 62.137A; NPNF 1, XIII, p. 144; Women and Men, pp. 172-173; my emphasis.)
I used to think that this talk about being willing to be cut in pieces ten thousand times was mostly just another example of Chrysostom’s exaggeration in his preaching rhetoric. But, as probably all of us who are married can attest, isn’t it true that our spouses do sometimes say and do things that hurt us deeply—that can indeed cut us to the heart? Yet Chrysostom says we are to endure such things with love and patience—with “unwearied affection.” Of course, this does not mean that we are not to tell our spouses when they hurt us, since they may not realize how their words and actions are affecting us. But it does mean that we must not hold any hidden resentment against our spouses, and that we must forgive them, no matter what they may do to us.
The second characteristic of the home as a little church
This is a pattern of order and discipline in the family, with the husband as the servant-head of the family, and his wife as second-in-command, and their children in obedience under them:
“Seek the things of God, and those of man will follow with great ease. Instruct (ρύθμιζε: from this word we get our word ‘rhythm’) your wife, and your whole household will be well-disciplined…. If we regulate our households in this way, we will also be fit to oversee the Church, for indeed the household is a little Church. Therefore, it is possible for us to surpass all others [this would include monastics] by becoming good husbands and wives.” (Homily XX on Ephesians; PG 62.143A; Roth, p. 57; Women and Men, p. 83; my emphasis.)
And Chrysostom gives guidance as to how to regulate properly own family:
“True rulers are those who rule over themselves. For there are these four things— soul, family, city, world—which form a regular progression. Therefore, he who is to superintend a family, and order it well, must first bring his own soul into order (ρυθμίζειν); … He who is able to regulate his own soul, and makes the soul to rule and the body to be subject, this man will be able to regulate a family also.” (Homily LII on Acts; PG 60.366A; NPNF 1, XI, p. 313; Women and Men, p. 170; my emphasis.)
Chrysostom also emphasizes that a husband’s headship in his family must be nothing despotic. Rather, it must be centered in self-sacrificing servanthood, flowing from abounding love:
“Do not, therefore [he tells husbands], because your wife is subject to you, act like a despot. Likewise, because your husband loves you [he tells the wives], do not be puffed up. Let neither the husband’s love elate the wife, nor the wife’s subjection puff up the husband. For this reason He has subjected her to you, that she may be loved the more.” (Homily X on Colossians; PG 62.366C; NPNF 1, XIII, p. 304; Women and Men, p. 172; my emphasis.)
The third characteristic of the home as a little church
This is: the careful, attentive, heartfelt instruction and training of the children given by the parents. Chrysostom strongly exhorts parents to train their children carefully and diligently in the ways of the Lord. Not to teach them virtue, not to call them to account for their actions, is, as he says, “to trample upon the noble nature of the soul” (Homily III on Philemon; NPNF 1, XIII, p. 557; my emphasis). Concerning those who may become leaders in the Church, he asks, “For he who does not instruct his own children, how should he be the teacher of others?” (Homily II on Titus; NPNF 1, XIII, pp. 524-525.)
For Chrysostom, the Christian training of a child begins with the very name he or she is given by the parents:
“Let none of us hasten to call his child after his forebears—his father or mother or grandfather or great-grandfather, but rather after the righteous—martyrs, bishops, apostles. Let this be an incentive to the children. Let one be called Peter, another John; and let another bear the name of one of the other saints.”
As we know, this is a strong Orthodox tradition to this day— to give the new child the name of a saint, and thus to make sure he or she has a patron saint. Chrysostom believes that this will bring great benefit not only to the children, but also to the parents. As he goes on to say:
“So let the names of the saints enter our homes through the naming of our children, to train not only the child but the father, when he reflects that he is the father of John or Elijah or James. For, if the name be given with forethought…, and we emphasize our kinship with the righteous rather than [or, at least, more than] with our forebears, this too will greatly help us and our children.” (An Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children, in M. L. W. Laistner, Christianity and Pagan Culture [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1951], pp. 107-109; modified translation; my emphasis.)
In this same remarkable essay, St. John tells parents, “thou art raising a philosopher, an athlete, a citizen of Heaven” (p. 102), and he speaks of parents shaping their children into “wondrous statues for God”:
“To each of you fathers and mothers I say, just as we see artists fashioning their paintings and statues with great precision, so we must care for these wondrous statues of ours. Painters, when they have set the canvas on the easel, paint on it day by day to accomplish their purpose. Sculptors, too, working in marble, proceed in a similar manner; they remove what is superfluous and add what is lacking. Even so you must proceed. Like the creators of statues, give all your leisure to fashioning these wondrous statues for God.” (On Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children; Laistner, p. 96; my emphasis.)
Chrysostom goes on in this essay to compare the soul of a child to a city, in which dwell both good and bad citizens (i.e., good and bad thoughts, dispositions, and habits). He exhorts parents, “Regard yourself as a king ruling over a city which is the soul of your son [or daughter].” And referring to the necessity for the parents to set firm boundaries and guidelines for their children concerning what kind of behavior is proper and what is unacceptable, he says,
“Draw up laws for this city and its citizens, laws that inspire fear and are strong, and uphold them if they are being transgressed; for it is useless to draw up laws, if their enforcement does not follow. Draw up laws, and pay close attention, for our legislation is for the world, and today we are founding a city.” (Ibid., pp. 97-98; modified translation.)
Then he addresses in quite some detail the five gates of this city (the child’s soul): the tongue, hearing, sight, sense of smell, and the sense of touch. All of these must be carefully guarded lest unwelcome intruders make their way into the child’s mind and heart. If in his day Chrysostom had to strongly warn parents to carefully supervise what things their children were seeing and hearing in the world around them, how much more is this necessary in our own age of radio, TV, movies, MTV, and the internet?
If children are given such diligent care and attention in child-raising, St. John is quite confident that they will turn out well:
“For it is not possible, indeed it is not, that one should turn out badly who is brought up with so much care, and has received great attention. Sins are not so prevalent, so deeply rooted, by nature as to overcome so much previous care.” (Homily II on Titus; NPNF 1, XIII, pp. 524-525.)
The fourth characteristic of the home as a little church
The four characteristic is regular Scripture study, spiritual discussions, and prayer. Concerning the reading of the Holy Scriptures, in one notable passage Chrysostom suggests that families need this more than monastics do:
“The solitaries do not need the consolation and the help of the Holy Scriptures as much as do those who are in the midst of the whirl of a distracting existence … [By the way, is this not a pretty good description of how most of us live?] The hermits sit far from the struggle; therefore they are not often wounded. But you [speaking to his urban-dwelling parishioners] stand always in the front rank of battle.” (Homily III on Lazarus; PG 48.992C; Women and Men, p. 88; my emphasis.)
So he advises:
“Hearken, I entreat you, all who are involved with the things of this life, and procure books that will be medicines for the soul. … Get at least from the New Testament the Acts and the Gospels to be your constant teachers.” (Homily IX on Colossians, PG 62.361D; NPNF 1, XIII, pp. 300-301; Women and Men, p. 88, n. 46; my emphasis.)
We may notice here how this passage implies that copies of at least these portions of the New Testament must have been quite readily available to the average parishioners of Chrysostom’s day, at least in the big cities.
Specifically concerning instructing children, he exhorts, “Let us make them from the earliest age apply themselves to the reading of the Scriptures.” (Homily XXI on Ephesians; NPNF 1, XIII, p. 154; Women and Men, p. 88, n. 46; my emphasis). He urges fathers to teach their children the Psalms, including memorizing certain ones, and then to lead them to study the hymns of the Church:
“Teach him to sing those psalms which are so full of the love of wisdom … When in these you have led him on from childhood, little by little you will lead him forward even to higher things. The Psalms contain all things, but the hymns have nothing human. When he has been instructed out of the Psalms, he will then understand that the hymns are even more divine.” (Homily IX on Colossians; NPNF 1, XIII, p. 301; modified translation.)
The Scripture text for this homily is Colossians 3:16-17, which includes the words “teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Don’t these striking words about the hymns make you wonder which hymns he was referring to? Perhaps mostly they were the hymns from his own Divine Liturgy, such as the Cherubic Hymn.
St. John goes on in this homily to give a whole list of things to be learned from particular verses from the Psalms. And in his An Address on Vainglory and the Right Way for Parents to Bring Up Their Children, he takes five pages to explain in detail how parents should relate Bible stories to their children, and how to reinforce them so that the children get them virtually memorized. As examples, he uses the story of Cain and Abel, and also the story of Jacob and Esau; and he even gives the specific paraphrasing that the parents should use! (Laistner, pp. 102-107.)
We can easily see St. John Chrysostom’s fervent love for the Holy Scriptures shining through all his preaching. On one occasion he cries out:
“If we order our lives in this way and diligently study the Scriptures, we will find the lessons to guide us in everything we need!. (Homily 20 on Ephesians; Roth, p. 64.)
Concerning fostering spiritual discussions in the home, Chrysostom recommends that the father at the family dinner table repeat, and promote discussion about, the instruction given at the Church:
“When you go home from here, lay out with your meal a spiritual meal as well. The father of the family might repeat something of what was said here; his wife could then hear it, the children too could learn something, and even the servants might be instructed. In short, that the household might become a church, so that the devil is driven off and that evil spirit, the enemy of our salvation, takes to flight; the grace of the Holy Spirit would rest there instead, and all peace and harmony would surround the inhabitants.” (Homily 2 on Genesis 13; Fathers of the Church, vol. 74, Robert C. Hill, trans., p. 37; my emphasis.)
Notice how this passage implies that the father is attending church by himself. We know that Chrysostom often preached every day, such as during Great Lent, either in the morning before people went to work, or in the evenings on their way home from work.
Chrysostom also says on this point:
“Let us guide the conversation to the kingdom of heaven and to those men of old, pagan or Christian, who were illustrious for their self-restraint.” (On Vainglory; Laistner, p. 118; my emphasis.)
Notice how he freely recognizes (in the spirit of Philippians 4:8) that pagan men (or women) of old can be good examples for Christians too, if they lived virtuously.
Concerning prayer in the Christian home, Chrysostom exclaims:
“Here indeed my discourse is for both men and women. Bend your knees, send forth groans, beseech your Master to be merciful. He is more moved by prayers in the night, when you make the time for rest a time for grieving [for your sins]… Do this, you men, and not the women only. Let the house be a Church, consisting of men and women. For do not think that because you are the only man, or because your wife is the only woman there, that this is any hindrance. ‘For where two,’ He says, ‘are gathered in My Name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Matt. 18:20). Where Christ is in the midst, there is a great multitude. Where Christ is, angels also must be there, and archangels and the other heavenly powers. So then you are not alone, seeing you have Him Who is Lord of all. Hear again the prophet also saying, ‘Better is one who does the will of the Lord, than ten thousand transgressors’ (cf. Eccles. 16:3).… Nothing is stronger than one man who lives according to the law of God. If you have children, wake them up also, and let your house altogether become a Church through the night.”
Does this sound rather extreme? St. John’s ideal was that the home would really become like a monastery. Once he even said he wished the whole city would become like a monastery. (Homily XXVI on Romans; PG 60.644A; NPNF 1, XI, p. 533; Women and Men, pp. 44-45.) But now, to continue with this quotation, we will hear him speak with his pastoral heart, and his compassionate understanding of the practical realities of life:
“But if they are young, and cannot endure the watching, let them stay for the first or second prayer, and then send them to rest. Only stir up yourself; establish yourself in the habit. Nothing is better than the storehouse which receives such prayers as these… Believe me, there is no fire as effectual to burn off rust as night prayer to remove the rust of our sins… [Pray] in your closet, or in your bedroom; bend your knees, and entreat the Lord.” (Homily XXVI on Acts; NPNF 1, XI, pp. 172-173; modified translation; my emphasis.)
While in this passage he has in mind the ideal of midnight vigils, in a later sermon in this same series (on the Acts of the Apostles), he says, with pastoral moderation and compassion:
“I have both before discoursed to you on this, and now repeat it: let us arouse ourselves during the night. And if you do not say many prayers, say one with real attentiveness, and it is enough—I ask no more; and if not at midnight, at any rate at the first light of dawn.” (Homily XXXVI on Acts; NPNF 1, XI, p. 227; modified translation.)
In a similar vein he says elsewhere:
“Thus I would have you always [to be in prayer]; and if not always, at least very often; and if not very often, at least now and then, at least in the morning, at least in the evening prayers.” (Homily XXII on Hebrews; NPNF 1, XIV, p. 468.)
And concerning the power of prayer, he assures his people:
“Let every man and woman among us, whether meeting together at church, or remaining at home, call upon God with much earnestness, and He will doubtless accede to these petitions.” (Homily III on the Statues; NPNF 1, IX, p. 356; my emphasis).
Not only should the children be included in daily family prayers, but they should also be taught to pray regularly on their own:
“Let the boy be trained to pray with much contrition and to keep vigils as much as he is able, and let the stamp of a saintly man be impressed on the boy in every way.” (On Vainglory; Laistner, p. 119.)
And wives also, if they are able to stay at home during the day (which St. John would certainly strongly urge in our day and age, if this is at all possible) can, in his opinion, use the quiet of the home to foster much spiritual growth for themselves and their families:
“But the woman who sits in her house as in some school of true wisdom, and collects her thoughts within herself, will be enabled to devote herself to prayers, and readings, and other heavenly wisdom.” (Homily LXI on St. John; PG 59.340C; NPNF 1, XIV, p. 225; Women and Men, p. 187; my emphasis.)
Do you ladies think this is possible? Is it at least more possible than your husband making his workplace a “school of true wisdom”?
The fifth characteristic of the home as a little church.
In a Christian home, the husband and wife will be encouraging and inspiring each other and the children to godliness and virtue through mutual exhortation and through the example of their lives. As Chrysostom says, “Let wives exhort their husbands, and let husbands admonish their wives” (Homily XLVII on St. John; NPNF 1, XIV, p. 172; Women and Men, p. 175). In this spirit, he advises, “Pray together at home and go to Church. When you come back home, let each ask the other the meaning of the readings and the prayers” (Homily XX on Ephesians; Roth, p. 61; Women and Men, p. 175; my emphasis). Notice in these quotations the complete equality of the husband and wife in these matters, and the reciprocity between them that Chrysostom expects.
St. John even suggests that there should be a kind of ‘rivalry’ between the husband and wife in their spiritual endeavors:
“But at home also, let the husband hear of these things [exhortations to virtue] from the wife, and the wife from the husband. Let there be a kind of rivalry among all in endeavoring to gain precedence in the fulfillment of this law. And let the one who is ahead, and has amended his conduct, reproach the one who is still loitering behind.” (Homily V Concerning the Statues; PG 49.80A; NPNF 1, IX, p. 379; Women and Men, p. 175; my emphasis.)
On another occasion, he speaks in a similar way specifically concerning attendance at Church:
“Let them incite and urge one another to the assembly here—the father his son, the son his father, the husbands their wives, and the wives their husbands. [Dr. Ford: “Again we see the reciprocity between and equality of the husband and wife in Chrysostom’s thought.”] (To Those Who Had Not Attended the Assembly. 3; NPNF 1, IX, p. 225; Women and Men, p. 175, n. 25.)
While, as we have seen, Chrysostom was at times very specific in giving advice concerning raising children, still, for him the best way to ensure that one’s children will thoroughly imbibe godly ways is through the day by day example of the parents. For the children, whether they always seem to or not, surely will be closely watching how their parents are living:
“If we seek the things that are perfect, the secondary things will follow. The Lord says, ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you’ (Matt. 6:33). What sort of person do you think the children of such parents will be?… For generally the children acquire the character of their parents, they are formed in the mold of their parents’ temperament, they love the same things their parents love, they talk in the same fashion, and they work for the same ends.” (Homily 20 on Ephesians; Roth, pp. 63-64; my emphasis.)
“The father, if he disciplines himself also, will be far better in teaching the boy [or, of course, the daughter] these precepts; for, if for no other reason, he will improve himself so as not to spoil the example he sets.” (On Vainglory; Laistner, p. 115; my emphasis.)
The sixth characteristic of the home as a little church.
The sixth characteristic we can glean from Chrysostom’s preaching and writing is regular, generous almsgiving. Almsgiving, as you probably know, is one of Chrysostom’s favorite themes. He often emphasizes, in the spirit of the 25th chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew (“When I was hungry, you gave Me food . . .”), that when we give to the poor we are giving directly to Christ Himself, which brings us great spiritual rewards:
“Many are our debts—not of money, but of sins. Let us then lend Christ our riches, that we may receive pardon of our sins, for He is the One who will judge us. Let us not neglect Him here when He is hungry, that He may ever feed us there. Here let us clothe Him, that He leave us not bare of the safety which is from Him…. If we go to Him in prison, He will free us from our bonds; if we take Him in when He is a stranger, He will not suffer us to be strangers to the Kingdom of Heaven, but will give us a portion in the City which is above; if we visit Him when He is sick, He will quickly deliver us from our infirmities.” (Homily XXV on St. John; NPNF 1, XIV, p. 89; modified translation.)
On another occasion he asked very piercingly:
“When after all this I do not vouchsafe to Him so much as a loaf of bread in His hunger, with what kind of eyes shall I ever again behold Him?” (Homily XXIII on St. Matthew; NPNF 1, X, p. 165.)
Chrysostom is convinced that, as he says, “You will not do so much good to the poor as to yourself, when you benefit them” (Homily LXXVII on St. John; NPNF 1, XIV, p. 286; modified translation). As he also says, “Do you not know that God enacted almsgiving not so much for the sake of the poor as for the sake of the persons themselves who bestow their goods to the poor?” (Homily XXI on I Corinthians; NPNF 1, XII, p. 124; modified translation).
For Chrysostom, giving to the poor is the greatest way to “Lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal (Matt. 6:20).” As he exhorts:
“Let us then transfer our wealth, and remove it thither [i.e., to Heaven]. We shall not need for such a transfer donkeys, or camels, or carriages, or ships (God has relieved us even of this difficulty), but we only need the poor, the lame, the crippled, the infirm [to whom to give our wealth]. These are the ones who are entrusted with this transfer, they convey our riches to Heaven, they introduce the masters of such wealth as this to the inheritance of everlasting good things.” (Homily XVI on St. John; NPNF 1, XIV, p. 58; modified translation; my emphasis.)
So it is completely in character for Chrysostom to advise families:
“Make your house a church, your little alms-box a treasury. Become a guardian of sacred wealth, a self-ordained steward of the poor. Your benevolence gives you this priesthood.” (Homily XLIII on I Corinthians; PG 61.368D-369A; NPNF 1, XII, p. 259; Women and Men, p. 173; my emphasis.)
As he also says,
“Consider to whom you are giving drink, and tremble. Consider, you have become a priest of Christ, giving with your own hand, not [Christ’s] flesh but bread, and not [His] blood, but a cup of cold water.” (Homily XLVI on St. Matthew; NPNF 1, X, pp. 286-287; my emphasis)..
And in a very remarkable passage, he even says that giving alms is offering a sacrifice on an altar more awesome that the altar in the church:
“This altar [in the church] is but a stone by nature, but it becomes holy because it receives Christ’s Body; but that one [i.e. the poor man] is holy because it is itself Christ’s Body. So that this beside which you, the layman, stand, is more awesome than that.” (Homily XX on II Corinthians; NPNF 1, XII, p. 374; Women and Men, p. 214; my emphasis.)
Hence we see that almsgiving, understood to be a form of priesthood for the laity, is for Chrysostom a defining characteristic of the home as a little church. A priest I know told me recently that every time he does a house-blessing, he urges the husband to think of himself as the priest of his household. As Chrysostom says elsewhere, referring to an alms box in one’s home:
“But if you have this little coffer, you have a defense against the devil, you give wings to your prayer, you make your house holy.” (Homily XLIII on I Corinthians; NPNF 1, XII, p. 262; my emphasis.)
And again, after commending Zacchaeus, who, in receiving Christ into his home, said he would give half of his goods to the poor, St. John says:
“In this way let us too adorn our homes, that Christ may enter in unto us also. These are the fair curtains, these are made in Heaven, they are woven there. And where these are, there also is the King of Heaven.” (Homily LXXXIII on St. Matthew; NPNF 1, X, p. 500; modified translation; my emphasis.)
In light of all these benefits of almsgiving, Chrysostom, using some imagery from sailing, urges husbands not to let their almsgiving be restricted out of too much concern for the material welfare of their families:
“When we do works of mercy, we have need of intentness, lest by any means, thought for our household, and care for children, and anxiety about wife, and fear of poverty entering in, should slacken our sail. For if we put it on the stretch on all sides by the hope of the things to come, it receives well the energy (ἐνέργεια) of the Holy Spirit.” (Homily XXXIX on Hebrews; NPNF 1, XIV, p. 521; my emphasis).
And finally on this very important theme, Chrysostom addresses some strong words to those parents who restrict their almsgiving out of concern for leaving their children a large inheritance:
“‘But a circle of little ones is round about me,’ one will say, ‘and I am desirous of leaving them with a good fortune.’ Why then do we make them paupers? For if you leave them everything, you are still committing your goods to a trust which may deceive you. But if you leave God their joint-heir and guardian [i.e., by giving your goods to the poor on behalf of your children], you have left them countless treasures. For as when we avenge ourselves God does not assist us, but when we leave it to Him, more than we expect comes about, so in the case of our goods. If we guard them ourselves, God will withdraw His protecting care over them, but if we cast everything upon Him, He will place both them and our children in all safety…
If then you would leave your children much wealth, leave them in God’s care. For He Who, without your having done anything, gave you a soul, and formed a body for you, and granted you life, when He sees you displaying such munificence and distributing your goods to Himself [i.e., through giving to the poor] as well as to your children, surely He will open to them every kind of riches. For if Elijah, after having been nourished with a little meal, since he saw that the widow honored him more than her children, made threshing-floors and oil-presses to appear in her little hut, consider what loving care the Lord of Elijah will display! Let us, then, not consider how to leave our children rich, but how to leave them virtuous.” (Homily VII on Romans; NPNF 1, XI, p. 384; modified translation; my emphasis.)
Chrysostom even says boldly, “Give this loan to your children: leave God a Debtor to them.” (Homily LXVI on St. Matthew; NPNF 1, X, p. 409.) For the Lord, as he says, “does not promise to give a hundred percent on the loan, as is customary with us, but a hundred times the amount lent. Nor does He stop at that: this reward comes to us in this present life, and we gain life everlasting in the hereafter.” (Homily 3 on Genesis.20; Fathers of the Church, vol. 74, p. 49; modified translation; my emphasis.)
With all this in mind, Chrysostom confidently instructs the widows of his flock:
“Transfer your wealth, therefore, to heaven, and you will find the burden of widowhood to be tolerable. ‘But,’ you say, ‘what if I have children to succeed to their father’s inheritance?’ Instruct them also to despise riches. Transfer your own possessions, reserving for them just a sufficient amount. Teach them also to be superior to riches… If therefore, you cut off this one thing [in yourself]—the desire to accumulate wealth [and store it for your children]—and if you supply to the needy out of your substance, God will hold over you His protecting Hand. And if you are expressing a real concern for your children’s welfare and are not concealing covetousness under this pretext, He Who searches the heart knows how to secure their riches, even He Who ordained for you to bring up children. For it is not possible, indeed it is not, that a house established by almsgiving should suffer any calamity. If it should be unfortunate for a time, in the end it will prosper.” (Homily VII on II Timothy; NPNF 1, XIII, pp. 503-504; my emphasis.)
So then, this is St. John Chrysostom’s glorious, magnificent vision of marriage and family life— of the home as a little church. Such a godly home is characterized, as we’ve seen, by first, the husband loving his wife with Christ-like, self-sacrificial love; second, a clear pattern of order, with the husband as servant-head, the wife as second-in-command, and then the children; third, the parents giving the children careful, attentive instruction in godliness and virtue, both by word and by example; fourth, by regular Scripture reading, spiritual discussions, and prayer—even prayer in the night, besides morning and evening prayers together as a family; fifth, the husband and wife exhorting and spurring each other to grow in the spiritual life; and sixth, regular, generous almsgiving: giving to the poor as if to Christ Himself.
May we all be granted the desire and the grace to fulfill this vision in our own lives. Surely our All-Gracious LORD will give the strength and patience necessary to those who earnestly ask Him for His help in fulfilling this profoundly beautiful vision of making the home a little church, and hence, by the prayers of St. John Chrysostom, of making our little earthly domain a radiant embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen!