St. John Chrysostom, That We Must Not Anathematize Either the Living or the Dead

UPDATE 9/5/2017: The attribution of this homily to St. John Chrysostom is more questioned by scholars than I initially thought. If it is indeed not by Chrysostom, a good guess for author is St. Flavian I of Antioch. I have written about this here.

St. John Chrysostom preached the following little-known homily in Antioch, when there was a schism between Nicene Christians, some supporting the bishop Meletius, others supporting Paulinus. Both St. Athanasius and St. Basil worked to reconcile the two groups, but to little avail, as the split outlived both. Two of Meletius’s priests, who supported Apollinaris (of heresy fame), broke off in the 360s. In the following homily St. John attempts to suppress the heated rivalry between the partisans of the two groups. I have translated it (roughly) from the French translation here. A phrase here and there may be mistranslated, but overall it is certainly correct. It can be found in PG 48:943. Enjoy his words and, if need be, take them to heart.

1. Recently I have treated and developed, in a long discourse, the question of divine incomprehensibility; I proved by scripture, just as by natural reasoning, that comprehension of the divinity remains inaccessible even to the heavenly powers, that is, those beings who, detached from all matter, enjoy the beatific life. And yet we, who pass our lives in an idle stupor, who throw ourselves into all sorts of iniquity, we claim to attain to that which remains profoundly unknown even to spiritual beings! And in so great an enterprise, we take for our sole point of support the discernment of our personal judgment and the useless renown that our listeners give us; without determining by reflection the measure of our natural powers, without following Scripture or the Fathers, but carried away by the fantasy of our opinion, like by an overwhelming torrent, we fall into a capital crime. Let us see now! After we discuss the anathema so far as it is helpful for you, after we show you the gravity of an evil which you look upon as a trifle, it will be necessary for us to put a stop to the tongues which do not wish to cease, for us to unveil to all the hidden sickness which a good number of those among us carry in their souls without realizing it and without doing anything to heal it – we have fallen in a state so miserable that, reduced to the final end of evil, we do not know how to conquer the most shameful of passions, so that the words of the Prophet are fulfilled in us: “He applied no remedy to our wound, it was neither bandaged nor soothed with oil” (cf. Isa. 1:6).

How should I begin to speak of this evil? Will I begin with the prescriptions and commandments of our Lord, or rather with your ignorance and dimness? And, when I open my mouth, will I not be mocked as crazy? Will I not be welcomed by boos, when I start talking on this subject, so sad and worthy of tears? What to do? I am suffering; I feel my heart wretch, my innards are torn at seeing such stupidity! We leave behind us the Jewish obstinacy and the pagan impiety. I see men who have neither reason formed by the study of the holy Scriptures, nor even the first inkling of this sacred knowledge; madmen, idlers, people “who do not know what they say nor what they speak” (1 Tim. 1:7); I see them lacking all courage except to dogmatize wrongly and to cry anathema against those whom they do not know; causing the enemies of the faith to rail against us, too, because, they say, we take no care to wisely order our life and to instruct ourselves in the practice of good works.

2. Alas! All this is unbearable! The just and the prophets wanted to see what we see and did not see it; wanted to hear what we have heard and did not hear it (Matt. 13:17)! And we make a game out of all this. Take seriously the Gospel which we have preached to you, out of fear of perishing eternally. If the covenant spoken of by the angels will remain forever inviolable, and if every transgression and disobedience results in deserved retribution, how will we escape vengeance in neglecting the immense graces of salvation which have been offered to us? Tell me, what is the goal of the Gospel of grace? Why did God become man? Is it so that we learn to nibble at and devour each other? No; love is demanded to the extent that Christianity is more perfect than the legal prescriptions of the Old Covenant. One says: “You will love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). The other tells us to die for our neighbor. Listen to Jesus Christ’s own words: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, had been the neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The other answered, ‘The one who showed mercy to him.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.'” (Luke 10:30-37). Lord! So astounding! It is not the priest, it is not the Levite, whom Jesus calls the neighbor; but the man who repudiated the law of the Jews, the Samaritan, the foreigner, the blasphemer of the law, this is the only one who was called neighbor; because in him was found mercy. This is what the Son of God taught; it is also what he showed by his works in coming to the earth; he died not only for his own, for his friends, but even for his enemies, for tyrants, for impostors, for those who hated him and crucified him, for those whom he knew to be such before the creation of the world; he made them, though he knew in advance what they would one day become, subordinating his foreknowledge to his goodness; for them he spilled his blood, for them he accepted a cruel death. “The bread,” he said, “is my flesh which I give for the life of the world” (John 6:52). And Saint Paul says in the Epistle to the Romans: “When we were yet enemies of God, we had been reconciled to him by the death of the Son” (Rom. 5:10); again he says in the Epistle to the Hebrews that Christ “tasted death for all creatures” (Heb. 2:9).

If Christ made such an act of mercy, and if the Church imitates this every day in sending to God daily supplications for all men, how do you dare speak anathemas? What is this anathema with passes from your lips? Examine what you say, appreciate your words, and recognize the force of them! You find in the holy Scriptures that it is said of Jericho: “You will deliver the entire city in anathema to the Lord your God” (Jos. 6:17). Among us has prevailed until now the custom of saying: someone, in committing such an action, has risked anathema in such a manner. Is this truly anathema? Being delivered in anathema to God is used most often for the better. But what is the anathema which you proclaim? It signifies that you wish such-and-such to be delivered to the demons, to never have any part in salvation, to becoming estranged from Christ.

3. Who are you, then? What power and what authority do you have? Is the Son of God suddenly going to bow to your orders to effect the separation of his sheep, to put some to his right and reject others to his left? Why do you usurp this eminent dignity which is only enjoyed by the apostles and those who by an exact perfection became their true successors, full of grace and virtue? They observe with care the gospel’s precept, only rejecting the heretics from the heart of the Church in the manner that they would tear out their own right eye; they show pity and gentleness, as if they had cut off their own gangrenous limb. Christ calls this tearing out the right eye, to indicate the kind commiseration that must be shown by those who have the responsibility of removing heretics from the Church. In this, as in everything else, the apostolic men behaved with prudence; they rejected heresy in refuting it, but they did not inflict on any heretic the punishment of anathema. The Apostle only employs this expression in two places; and it seems he only did this under the pressure of necessity, and moreover, he does not apply it to any person in particular when he wrote to the Corinthians: “If someone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, may he be anathema” (1 Cor. 16:22), and to the Galatians: “If someone preaches a Gospel different from the one you have received from me, may he be anathema” (Gal. 1:3).

What then! What none of those men, though they had the right, dared to do, you dare to do. You dare to act in opposition to the merits of the death of the Lord, you dare to predict the sentence of the Master! Do you know what a holy man once said, who, before us received the heritage of the apostles and was judged worthy of martyrdom? To make felt the gravity of this word of anathema, he used the following comparison: just as, he says, a man who usurps the royal purple earns death for him and his accomplices, so is it with those who, abusing the sentence of the Master, claim to render a man anathema to the Church; they make themselves perish, because they infringe on the rights reserved to the Son of God alone. Do you then think this is some small matter, to give such a sentence before the set time, before the arrival of the true Judge? The anathema separates one completely from Christ. But what do these audacious people say to excuse themselves from this evil? He is a heretic, they write, the devil lives in him; he proclaims evils against God; by the caresses and wretched artifices of his speech he leads many to the abyss of perdition; it is why the Fathers had barred him from the Church, him and above all his teacher who made a schism in a part of the Church. This is how they speak, either of Paulinus, or of Apollinaris. In insisting upon the schism of each, they rather easily manage to avoid the mark of innovation and to show how error took hold and worsens in the secret depths of a rash and preconceived opinion. “Teach,” says Saint Paul, “with modesty those who resist the truth, in the hope that God may one day give them a spirit of penitence so that they know the truth, and that they may escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:25-26). Throw forth a net of love. “Do not throw the lame to the ground, but rather heal him” (Heb. 12:13). Prove that you desire, by a sentiment of generosity, to make common to all the good which you have. Throw out the gentle bait of a sympathetic pity; and then, having sounded the hidden depths of their error, remove from the chasm of perdition the unfortunate one drowning in false opinions. Correct as opposed to the apostolic tradition what prejudice or ignorance passes as true. And, if the unfortunate one who had adopted the error welcomes your teaching, “he will surely live; you will have saved his soul” (Ezek. 3:21).

If he refuses, if he resists and persists, content yourself with having covered your responsibility of rendering witness to the truth with kindness and patience; from then on the sovereign Judge will no longer demand from you the soul of your brother. No hatred! No aversion! No persecution! Show a frank and true charity: there is there a gain which you will not lose; for even if you obtain no other good result, know that it is a great profit and magnificent gain to practice love and teach the doctrine of Christ. “It is in this that all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Remove charity, and neither knowledge of the mysteries of God, nor faith, nor the gift of prophecies, nor poverty, nor martyrdom will be of any use to you. The Apostle has declared this in these terms: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:1-7).

4. My beloved, none of you have shown for Jesus Christ a love like that of this holy soul: never has a human being proclaimed words like those which have come from the heart of Saint Paul, from that heart full of love. He wrote: “I accomplish in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col. 1:24); “I wish myself to become anathema and cut off from Jesus Christ for the salvation of my brethren” (Rom. 9:3); “Who suffers among you without my suffering?” (2 Cor. 11:29). Very well then! Despite this ardent love of God, he never preaches injury, violent speeches, or anathemas. Otherwise, he would never have succeeded in giving as tribute to his God so many converted cities and nations. Humiliated, mistreated, slapped, derided, he never ceased to accomplish his work in comforting, in exhorting, in begging. It is by sly ways that he held captive the attention of the Athenians: he saw them all enmeshed in idolatry, however he does not attack them by insulting words: “you are atheists and impious!” He did not say to them: “Everything is God for you except God himself; you deny only him, the Master and Creator of the Universe!” What does he say to them? “As I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). O marvel! O tenderness of a fatherly heart! He says that these Greeks practice a pious cult, though they be idolatrous and impious! Why? Because they undertook the work of their worship as if they had true piety, because they believed themselves to be rendering honor to God, having persuaded themselves of this. Be like Saint Paul, I beseech you, and may I be like him towards you!

If God, who foresees the future decisions of every man and who knows in advance what will be the lot of each one of us, has disposed everything to give the final perfection to his gifts and his glory; if God created nothing for the wicked, and if he nonetheless judged it fitting to have them participate in his generous gifts; if God ordains that all of us be his imitators, why do you oppose this divine disposition, you who take part in the assemblies of the Church and to the accomplishment of the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ? Are you unaware that Christ did not break the bruised reed, nor extinguish the burning wick (Isa. 42:3)? What does this mean? It means that Jesus Christ did not spurn Judas and those who imitated him in his apostasy before each one, freely moved, was delivered entirely to the impostor and to evil. Do we not make public supplications for the ignorance of the people? Are we not obliged to pray for our enemies, for those who hurt us and persecute us? Right now I am fulfilling a duty of my ministry in exhorting you; the laying on of hands is not a source of pride, it gives no right to despotism: we have all received the same Spirit, we who are called to the title of adopted sons: those to whom the Father has given power, have it only to serve their brothers according to their power. It is why, faithful to the obligations of my responsibility, I pray you and beg you to renounce this ghastly habit of anathematizing. He whom you claim to anathematize is either living or dead; if he is living, you commit an inhuman act in rebuffing one who, still able to be converted, can return from evil to good; if he is dead, you have done worse. How? After death, it is for God alone to decide whether he stand or fall; it belongs no longer to human powers. It is perilous to carry a judgment on the secrets that are reserved to the Judge of the ages: it is he who weighs the extent of knowledge and the quality of faith. How can we know the terms in which each will accuse himself, or the defense that each will present that day when God will judge all human mysteries? The judgments of the Lord are inscrutable and his ways remain unknown. “Who has known the thought of the Lord, or instruct the Lord as his counselor?” (Isa. 40:13). Maybe none of you, my friends, have considered that he was judged worthy of baptism, none have thought that the judgment must take place one day. What am I saying, ‘judgment’? Inflamed even to frenzy for the things of this earthly life, we are unaware of even our own death and our depart from this world. Renounce, then, I beseech you, this evil habit. For I tell you this in front of God and his holy angels, and I call them as witnesses that you are preparing for yourself on the day of judgment an awful misfortunate and intolerable flames. If, in the parable of the foolish virgins, the universal Master, who watches all works, spurned them far from his house because of their lack of charity – those same virgins that live in purity of the faith and in chastity of mores – would it be possible that we, who drag our lives through all licentiousness, who prove ourselves heartless concerning our brothers, would it be possible for us to be found worthy of eternal salvation? Do not listen to my words with an indifferent ear, I pray you. Saying anathema to heretical dogmas, enemies of our traditions, and refuting impious doctrines is a duty; but sparing them personally, and praying for their salvation, is a duty still. Can we, led by the love of God and neighbor, faithful observers of the precepts of the Lord, hurry together to the day of the resurrection, of the meeting of the heavenly spouse and offer him a crowd of souls that we saved by our commiseration, by the grace and goodness of the Son of God, to whom, with his Father and the Holy Spirit, belongs perfect glory, now and ever and unto the ages of ages? Amen.

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