Born around 347 in the ancient city that lies in ruins near present-day Antakaya, Turkey, he might have been called John of Antioch were it not for his celebrated theological thinking, writing, and especially, preaching. Known today as St. John Chrysostom—“Golden mouthed” is how his Greek appellation translates to English—he has long been honored as both a Father and Doctor of the Church.
John was educated at the finest schools Antioch had to offer, and, after a period as a deacon, was ordained a priest in 386. His reputation as a theologian soon caught fire, his deep explications of the gospels of Matthew and John, among other evangelistic efforts, landing him on the ancient radar of St. Jerome. In writings that date to the year 392, Jerome took note of John’s graces as an interpreter of gospel meaning and a powerful voice in the pulpit. Antioch could not hold him—in 398 he was named Bishop of Constantinople.
John was appalled by what he found in late 4th-century Constantinople, a city sunk in widespread moral rot, her Catholic culture in desperate need of reform. Wherever the new bishop was likely to aim his bow, he’d have found a worthwhile target, from the louche court of the emperor Theodosius to clergy who were known to have committed heinous crimes (including murder) to laity who had abandoned the churches for hippodromes and theatres.
Once, on Good Friday—historical events suggest it must have been around the year 400—John delivered an explosive sermon that still lands uncomfortably on the mark 1600-plus years later. “Is this,” he wondered, “the city of the Apostles? Is this the city that received so great a teacher?” (He’s referring to St. Andrew, who evangelized Constantinople when it was called Byzantium.) “On Good Friday, when your Lord was being crucified on behalf of the world … as a prisoner of the devil you were dragged off to” the racetrack. That’s right. The racetrack, then as now, was perceived as a shady and worthless destination:
Can this be tolerated? Can this be accepted? After hearing lengthy series of speeches and so much teaching, some people have left us, and deserted us for the spectacle of horse racing. They have become so frenzied that they fill the whole city with their shouting and disorderly racket, creating huge laughter or rather lamentation. Chrysostom, Against the circuses and the theatre /Contra ludos et theatra (2012) (tertullian.org)
Horse racing, and, it can be safely assumed, betting on the same, was a popular feature of the “circuses” of antiquity. Remember that ancestor of harness racing, the harrowing contest of chariots, depicted in Ben-Hur? In any event, the newly consecrated bishop of Constantinople was no fan of what he called “a circuit of wild beasts,” and breathed fire on his listeners, who, “running from defilement to defilement . . . simply put down your business and left it as it was, and sat watching other people’s victories, frittering away such a day idly and in vain and for a base purpose.”
Evidently, the handicapping Constantinopolitans in the congregation, perhaps during a service earlier that day, had gotten squirmy. The bishop did tend to uncork a stemwinder, that’s well-documented, but perhaps a report filtered back from the track that a horse they liked had skipped away from field and won easily. Horror of horseplaying horrors, they’d left money on the table. That might’ve been their only winner! Maybe they’d smoked out a mortal lock of a daily double and were anxious to get their money down. We can’t be certain. What we can assume is that the railbirds sloped away from church on that Good Friday, and over to the racecourse to be reunited with kindred spirits, far from earshot of old Golden Mouth’s recriminations.
In defense of human frailty and my ancient horseplaying brethren, I offer a lukewarm rationalization: Although skulking off, guiltily I suspect, the punters weren’t ditching Mass. There is no Mass on Good Friday. And the siren song of the oval is seductive indeed. I know it by heart. The natural desire is to leap past the sacrifice of Good Friday and get right to the Resurrection, deluding ourselves into believing there could be rebirth without the Cross. In that respect, the faithful of the ancient world weren’t much different from us. They wanted it all, but didn’t want to give up anything. How utterly contemporary.
What John Chrysostom is saying, if I’m hearing him right, is this: “The real action, you degenerates, with your cheap gamblers’ hearts, was on Calvary, not at the track. You couldn’t take a break for one day—one day—to venerate the self-giving at the center of all Christian belief? Cashing in our Lord, suspiciously like another actor critical to the story, for a few drachmas?” The bishop despaired of the state of their souls.
St. John Chrysostom’s accusations have hurtled across the centuries to singe my own conscience. I scoured my handicapping journal to see just what I was up to on Good Friday last year and was relieved to discover that I recorded no wagers. Coming down on the side of the great Doctor of the Church, I won’t play this Good Friday. Allowing thoroughbred racing to settle into its proper place in my life is an ongoing struggle, and giving it up, on the days that I do, doesn’t count much as a Lenten sacrifice. But I feel deeply obligated to recognize the most important aspects and influences of my life, and that’s what I’ll do.
If this all sounds impossibly strict and burdensome, it’s not. For our non-Catholic and non-believing friends, no proselytizing, no scolding. No matter what we believe, no matter what values we hold dear, some things are more important than others, and the ability to discern one from another—and the willingness to act accordingly—is key to the well-lived life. I’d like to think that St. John Chrysostom and the horseplayers of antiquity would agree.