Listers, the sacraments are an essential element to the birth, growth, and transformation of every Catholic believer. We are in some way affected by each of these sacraments every day of our lives. We are reborn in baptism, we are overshadowed by the Holy Spirit at confirmation, we are fed by our Lord in the Eucharist, we are made into one flesh by marriage, we are given the sacraments by Christ through the hands of our priests, we are made well by the chrism, and we are forgiven in confession. In St. John Chyrsostom’s day, the theology of the sacraments were not so clearly defined as they are now, but these sacraments even then existed more or less in the lives of the early Christians.
Let us now look at how St. John Chrysostom described these essential elements of the Christian life. The following quotes are how Chyrsostom perceived those spiritual things given to us through material means:
1. Baptism / Confirmation¹
“For Christ has given nothing sensible, but though in things sensible yet all to be perceived by the mind. So also in baptism, the gift is bestowed by a sensible thing, that is, by water; but that which is done is perceived by the mind, the birth, I mean, and the renewal. For if you had been incorporeal, He would have delivered you the incorporeal gifts bare; but because the soul has been locked up in a body, He delivers you the things that the mind perceives, in things sensible.” —Homily 82 from Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew
How shall we receive this with so great insolence? Let us not, I pray you, let us not slay ourselves by our irreverence, but with all awfulness and purity draw near to It; and when you see It set before you, say thou to yourself, Because of this Body am I no longer earth and ashes, no longer a prisoner, but free: because of this I hope for heaven, and to receive the good things therein, immortal life, the portion of angels, converse with Christ; this Body, nailed and scourged, was more than death could stand against; this Body the very sun saw sacrificed, and turned aside his beams; for this both the veil was rent in that moment, and rocks were burst asunder, and all the earth was shaken. This is even that Body, the blood-stained, the pierced, and that out of which gushed the saving fountains, the one of blood, the other of water, for all the world […] This Body has He given to us both to hold and to eat; a thing appropriate to intense love. For those whom we kiss vehemently, we oft-times even bite with our teeth. Wherefore also Job, indicating the love of his servants towards him, said, that they ofttimes, out of their great affection towards him, said, Oh! That we were filled with his flesh! Job 31:31 Even so Christ has given to us to be filled with His flesh, drawing us on to greater love. — Homily 24 On First Corinthians
3. Holy Orders
Observe how he avoids all that is superfluous: he does not tell in what way it was done, but that they were ordained (ἐ χειροτονήθησαν) with prayer: for this is the meaning of χειροτονία, (i.e. putting forth the hand,) or ordination: the hand of the man is laid upon (the person,) but the whole work is of God, and it is His hand which touches the head of the one ordained, if he be duly ordained. —Homily 14 in Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles
For they who inhabit the earth and make their abode there are entrusted with the administration of things which are in Heaven, and have received an authority which God has not given to angels or archangels. For it has not been said to them, Whatsoever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven. They who rule on earth have indeed authority to bind, but only the body: whereas this binding lays hold of the soul and penetrates the heavens; and what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants. For indeed what is it but all manner of heavenly authority which He has given them when He says, Whose sins ye remit they are remitted, and whose sins ye retain they are retained? What authority could be greater than this? The Father has committed all judgment to the Son? But I see it all put into the hands of these men by the Son. —On the Priesthood 3:5
Have ye not read, that He which made them at the beginning, made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they two shall be one flesh? So that they are no more two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder. Matthew 19:4-6
See a teacher’s wisdom. I mean, that being asked, Is it lawful? He did not at once say, It is not lawful, lest they should be disturbed and put in disorder, but before the decision by His argument He rendered this manifest, showing that it is itself too the commandment of His Father, and that not in opposition to Moses did He enjoin these things, but in full agreement with him.
But mark Him arguing strongly not from the creation only, but also from His command. For He said not, that He made one man and one woman only, but that He also gave this command that the one man should be joined to the one woman. But if it had been His will that he should put this one away, and bring in another, when He had made one man, He would have formed many women.
But now both by the manner of the creation, and by the manner of lawgiving, He showed that one man must dwell with one woman continually, and never break off from her. —Homily 62 in the Homilies of the Gospel of St. Matthew
St. John Chrysostom, Pray for us!
¹In the early Church Baptism and Confirmation took place at the same event. The catechumen was baptized and then when they came out of the water, they would be anointed with the oil.
²Confession was totally different back in Chyrsostom’s time. It was a public event. It was not behind closed doors, but before the public.