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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

Ancient Wisdom for a Present Pandemic

Published Wednesday, March 18, 2020 By Joshua Schendel

In the late 4th century, some few hoodlum citizens of Antioch became outraged by a new set of heavy taxes levied against them by the emperor Theodosius I (347–395) (yes, the one famed for his brutal dealings with Thessalonica and St. Ambrose’s subsequent refusal to welcome him to the Eucharist until he publicly repented). These hoodlums—St. Chrysostom (c. 349 – 407), then a priest in Antioch, refers to them as “blasphemers” (II.10) and “strangers and adventurers, men who act with no deliberate plan, but with every sort of audacity and lawlessness (III.3)—took to the streets, mobbing their way to the city’s statues of Theodosius and his then deceased wife, Flacilla, which they toppled and dragged back through the streets in protest. Theodosius was so infuriated that he issued a threat that he would avenge the mob by sacking the entire city. The city then had to wait in desperate anticipation of its impending destruction.

Into this situation, Chrysostom delivered a series of homilies—twenty-one in all. Homilies two through eight were delivered to the people during the time just after the sedition and before the emperor began trials. Chrysostom writes about the state of terror among the people: “Lately our city was shaken, but now the very souls of the inhabitants totter! Then the foundations of the houses shook, but now the very foundations of every heart quiver; and we all see death daily before our eyes!” (II.3)

The coronavirus pandemic of our own time is a very different situation, to be sure. And yet there is a similarity. The people in Antioch were living with a constant and very pressing fear of impending calamity. So are many of us. Unsure whether it will come, certainly not sure when; but feeling that it is just over the horizon: perhaps the next grocery run, the next child’s sneeze.

Near the beginning of Homily VII Chrysostom remarks: “For as, if we had said nothing in reference to the present calamity, one might have condemned us for cruelty, and a want of humanity; so, were we always discoursing of this, we might justly be condemned for pusillanimity” (VII.2). I think that we would do well to heed these words and strike for this balance. The internet is ablaze with coronavirus news and info. I want to be careful to avoid throwing fuel on the fire. Christians of all people ought not be pusillanimous. As Chrysostom wished to address his anxious audience just enough to encourage them, but not so much as to encloud the whole of their vision, as if no reality existed beyond the building storm, so let me attempt the same by noting just a few themes in these homilies. These are not the only themes in the homilies, not even the primary ones. They are, though, ones that speak particularly wisely to our own situation, even as they did in late 4th century Antioch.

Love wisely

The public reading for the day of Chrysostom’s first homily was 1 Timothy 5:23: “…use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (ESV). Not exactly relevant to the situation. But Chrysostom posed a very insightful question, which drew out refreshing water from the text’s deep wells. Why, he asks, does Paul exhort Timothy to “take refuge in the healing virtue of wine drinking?” This is especially puzzling when the apostles had “raised the dead, cast out devils, and conquered death with abundant ease.” Could they not “even restore the body of one sick man?” (I.7) Why tell Timothy to resort to a common and very ordinary medical practice of that day?

Chrysostom’s answer is somewhat complex, intermingled, as a question of this sort must be, with issues of suffering and healing. But part of his answer was that God’s power is often declared all the more through weak means, through ordinary means (I.4). As humans we often want the extraordinary. Big bold miracles. Surely that is where God’s glory is revealed. Chrysostom reminds us that God’s glory is also revealed in his ‘ordinary’ working through the created order.

As Christians, we most certainly ought not be cavalier about this coronavirus pandemic. It is very serious and ought to be taken so. It is possible, though, that rather than cavalier, Christians might see this as a chance to put the Lord God to the test. “Wouldn’t it be a great apologetic if all Christian churches still gathered in number and no one member contracted the virus?” we may be tempted to think. “Wouldn’t it show the world our faith if Christians carried on as if coronavirus were not a threat? Wouldn’t that redound to God’s glory?”

Better to heed Chrysostom’s advice: Christians ought love their neighbor wisely by observing the proper precautions. This is not anti-supernatural. It is precisely the recognition of God’s use of ordinary means to manifest his power. Take wine, Timothy, for your stomach.

Give Liberally

With trepidation palpable in the air of Antioch, Chrysostom took up the lectionary and read 1 Tim. 6:17: “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” Again, the reading would seem stretched, at best, to speak to their situation. And yet again, Chrysostom drew out a really important point for the times. He encourages them to follow God’s example and give liberally:

“He hath given thee money, not that thou mayest shut it up for thy destruction, but that thou mayest pour it forth for thy salvation. For this reason also He hath made the possession of riches uncertain and unstable, that by this means he might slack the intensity of thy madness concerning it” (II.20).

In times of great uncertainty, Chrysostom knew, those who have tend to hoard. He goes so far as to say that God allows such disasters to befall, in part, to remind those with wealth that wealth is inherently unstable. When this instability is felt, the natural reaction is to clutch. But, Chrysostom notes, Paul instructs Christians in a supernatural reaction, the way of hope and love.

The instability of our wealth causes us to look to him who is immutably rich. This is our hope. When once we cast our gaze above, we see that the one who possesses all riches lovingly gives. This is our example.

In the face of empty grocery shelves, disrupted employment, and a falling stock market, we will be tested. Do we clutch? Or will we heed Chrysostom’s advice: “Wherefore let us not consider riches to be a great good; for the great good is, not to possess money, but to possess the fear of God and all manner of piety” (II.21). Living piously, living coram Deo, means giving liberally, not in spite of the times but precisely because of them.

Pray devotedly

Times like these call not so much for frenzied news and information overload, but for supplication, even with loud cries: “what shall I say, or what shall I speak of? The present season is one for tears, and not for words; for lamentation, not for discourse; for prayer, not for preaching.” (II.1)

We ought, then, Chrysostom instructed, to follow the example of Esther, who entreated the Lord in the midst of impending disaster: “For when the Persian king gave orders that all the Jews should be utterly destroyed, and there was no one who was able to stand in the way of his wrath,—this woman having divested herself of the splendid robe, and clothed herself with sackcloth and being besprinkled with ashes, supplicated the merciful God to go in with her to the king…” (III.6). And the Lord heard her prayers.

And so, in times like this, “Let us not despair of our safety, but let us pray, let us make invocation; let us supplicate; let us go on embassy to the King that is above with many tears!” (III.7) This is not to say that our prayers ought to be marked with fearful desperation or fanatic despair. For the Christian, as John Webster would say, there is lamentation but not tragedy. Christ has risen. We petition with tears, but always in hope.

Live Thankfully

The hope of the Christian is that God reigns. Chrysostom makes much of this theme in Homily VII, wherein he expounds upon the goodness of God as made manifest in his governance of the world, even in times like these! When “famines, and droughts” or “any other unexpected events of this kind happen,” many will declare “that these things are unworthy of the Providence of God” (VII.5). But the Christian understands that God wisely ordains whatsoever comes to pass so as to accomplish his purposes. We don’t always know what those are; but we know that he is good (VII.8).

Thus, Christians can live thankfully even during the most difficult of times:

“Let us then give thanks to God even for these things, that we have reaped so much fruit from the tribulation; that we have received so great an advantage from the trial. If there were no trial, there would be no crown; if there were no wrestlings, there would be no prize; if there were no lists marked out, there would be no honours; if there were no tribulation, there would be no rest; if there were no winter, there would be no summer…if…we expect the ear of corn to spring and flourish, there must be much rain, much gathering of the clouds, and much frost; and the time of sowing is also a rainy season.” (IV.1)

The beauty of these remarks amply justifies Chrysostom’s reputation for rhetoric. But he needs to be carefully understood. He is not advocating a yin yang philosophy. Rather, he is expounding on the teachings of Jesus, who said that without death there is no life. Chrysostom’s point, in other words, is not metaphysical. He is not philosophizing about a necessary interdependence of a dual-natured reality. Rather, his is an observation of the way of things in this world. And they are that way because God deemed it good that they should be.

God has designed that the trial precede the crown, that the wrestling precede the prize, that the death of the seed precede the fruit. God has promised that the tribulation precedes rest. “Thus tribulation is not perpetual, but there will be also repose; only in our tribulation, let us give thanks to God always” (IV.6).

We are currently in a period of tribulation. The extent of it, the degree of severity, the length of time of this ordeal remains to be seen. But we have a hope of repose. And, in the midst of the trial, we have reason to live thankfully, for God is at one and the same time directing it to “burn up our sins” and to make “more illustrious and distinguished” our virtue (IV.4). Let us give thanks to God, then, for he is good. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.

Chrysostom concluded his eighth sermon, delivered just prior to Theodosius’ setting up trials for the city’s sedition, with the following words:

“Thinking, therefore, upon all these things, and departing hence with much anxiety about them, exhort ye one another, that the things spoken of during so many days may be kept with all watchfulness in your minds, so that whilst we are silent, ye instructing, edifying, exhorting one another, may exhibit great improvement; and having fulfilled all the other precepts, may enjoy eternal crowns; which God grant we may all obtain, through the grace and lovingkindness of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom and with whom be glory, to the Father, together with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen” (VIII.7).

Joshua Schendel is the executive editor of Modern Reformation.

  • Joshua Schendel

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