The Saturnalia and St. John Chrysostom: A New Year’s Message

The problem with devoting oneself to essentially idolatrous events like the Saturnalia (and its modern equivalents) is that they promise a lasting joy they cannot possibly deliver.

On the 2nd of January in the year 388, St. John Chrysostom began the first of seven homilies on the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31).  Much like in our own day, when the New Year’s celebration is an excuse for too much drinking and drunkenness, so too in the ancient world, the 1st of January would have fallen at the end of their biggest and most popular festival, the Saturnalia.  The hedonistic poet Catullus described it as “the best of days”; the Stoic philosopher Seneca complained that during this week “the whole mob let itself go in pleasures.” Pliny the Younger reports that he would simply retreat to his room until it was over.

A Byzantine mosaic of John Chrysostom from the Hagia Sophia. [Wikipedia]

Much as we celebrate the Solemnity of Mary on January 1st, so too in Chrysostom’s day, there were church services on the 1st of January, which was likely as much of an annoyance to them as getting up to attend Mass on New Year’s Day is to many of us. His homily on January 2nd began by looking back to the services of the day before.

Yesterday, on the festival of Satan [sic], you celebrated a spiritual feast, receiving with all favor the word we addressed to you; spending a great portion of the day in thus drinking in that rapture which is full of sobriety, and rejoicing in company with St Paul. In this way you gained a twofold benefit, since you were both separate from the disorderly throng of feasters, and rejoiced in a spiritual and decorous manner. You also partook of that cup, not overflowing with unmixed wine, but filled with spiritual instruction. While others were following the festive companies of the evil one, you, by your presence in this place, prepared yourselves as instruments of spiritual music, and surrendered your souls to the Divine Spirit that He might influence them, and breathe His own grace into your hearts. Thus you gave forth a melody of perfect harmony, pleasing not only to men but also to the heavenly powers. Let us, therefore, today, take up arms against inebriety, and expose the folly of a drunken and dissolute life.

Calling it “the festival of Satan” was a play on words.  It was literally the festival of Saturn, not Satan.  And yet, in what would undoubtedly have seemed to many Romans to be mostly innocent revelries occasioned by a customary New Year’s ritual, St. John discerned tendencies less often noticed and much less innocent. 

As in our own day, many people would have been out drinking and going to lavish parties. But not everyone.  Who could afford then (and who can afford now) to take time off from work and pay for lavish partying?  Not the poor.  Recall that Chrysostom was about to begin a series of homilies on Lazarus and the rich man, a person whose identity is so constricted he is known to us only by his possessions.  

I am amazed how many people assume that a “bohemian” lifestyle is a rejection of the “bourgeois” class, when in fact a “bohemian” lifestyle can only maintain itself by maintaining ready access to a “bourgeois” bank account.  How much of the money spent on “partying” among the bohemian-bourgeois class would have given more joy to all concerned had it been spent lifting up the poor?  How many people going to their lavish parties were, in their own way, “stepping over” the Lazarus on their own doorsteps?  (“Rich, me?” you ask.  “Far from it.”  Do you eat?  Do you take a warm shower?  Have a cell phone?  Face it, you’re rich — richer in most ways than the man who stepped over Lazarus in his doorstep.)  

Chrysostom’s snarky comment about “the festival of Satan” wasn’t merely a Catholic bishop complaining about an alternative religion.  It was a plea to recognize that the real danger of “idolatry” is that it is always an idolatry of oneself.  Romans of Chrysostom’s day “worshipped” Saturn not because they wanted Saturn to make them better people — more just, more loving citizens — but because they thought Saturn would give them what they desired:  more money, more power, more pleasure.  

The problem with devoting oneself to essentially idolatrous events like the Saturnalia (and its modern equivalents) is that they promise a lasting joy they cannot possibly deliver.  Such pleasures are as fleeting and ephemeral as the money that slips through one’s fingers largely unnoticed.

The “celebration of life” one enjoys at Easter or at the birth of a new child is one thing; it is very different from the partying so many people do today that seems more focused on forgetting one’s life than embracing or affirming it. On this topic, I recommend Josef Pieper’s two books: Leisure, the Basis of Culture and In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity.  Pieper notes the difference between the joyless “partying” that so often characterizes the made-up festivals we’ve created in the modern world (President’s Day, Labor Day, New Year’s Day: anything where the day’s most distinctive quality is that it is the occasion for a “sale”) and the joy one experiences on a real holiday — a “holy day” — when, in a memorial of the divine act of creation, one’s life and the existence of all of reality is celebrated as “good, very good.” 

While other Romans were out “partying” or sleeping off the consequences, Chrysostom’s congregation (and others throughout the world and over the centuries) had been celebrating Mass.  What were their neighbors celebrating?  The end of yet another year filled with wars, famine, murder, and death? Being another year older and another year closer to senility and death?  Do people at such festivals drink and dance to celebrate life, or do they drink and dance to forget — forget their troubles (for a while); forget the dreary meaninglessness of their work; forget that the money and possessions they thought would bring them happiness hasn’t; forget the inevitability of one’s bodily decay and death?  

“But at my back I always hear / Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” wrote Andrew Marvell “to his coy mistress.”  But he was no Socrates admonishing his friends that true “lovers of wisdom” should not fear death; they should spend their lives preparing for death. No, his was an attempt to get a woman of perhaps tepid virtue to despair and give in to his sexual advances.  “If in a few years you’ll just be old and then dead, you might as well grab whatever pleasure you can now.”  Is this a message of hope?  Or of despair?  Was he appealing, as Socrates did, to that in us which is divine?  Or was he appealing to her basest fears to manipulate her for his own pleasure?  What do contemporary young men mean when they ask young women:  “Do you party?”  If you’re not clear this usually means “sex,” just ask any college-age woman.  And then ask yourself, is there anything not sold to teens and young adults by appealing to the ethos of “partying,” either in its literal or sexual-metaphorical sense?

In contrast to our current tendency to “celebrate” the New Year simply because it is a new year and not because we have sense of its meaning or purpose (“Out with the old; thank heaven it’s over; in with the new; let’s hope it’s better than the last one”), just as we now have famous people who are not famous for some accomplishment, but are notable merely for being famous — people so celebrated we even call them “celebrities” — consider what it would mean to rejoice in the New Year as a celebration of life and of existence itself; not overlooking or ignoring its grimmer aspects (hatred, sin, decay, death), but embracing them as part of a larger whole which is, in ways we cannot fully know, “good, very good.”  Consider in this light what it would mean to celebrate the New Year as a festival of creation and of our re-creation by God through Christ?  What that would mean, of course, is that at the heart of our festivity would be the ultimate celebration of the feast of our creation and re-creation:  the sacrifice of the Mass.

Let’s listen again now to Chrysostom’s words.  On the first day of the New Year, his congregation was at Mass celebrating, not a physical feast, but a “spiritual feast,” where instead of getting drunk, they, “full of sobriety,” drunk-in not wine, but the wisdom of the Scriptural readings. Instead of getting drunk on “unmixed wine” (wine unmixed with water, to cut its potency, a practice the poet Catullus famously condemns in one of his poems), they were drinking from another cup:  the Word of God in the Scriptures and present in the Eucharist (where the wine, as you may recall, is mixed with water).  While others were out playing loud music in the public square disturbing more contemplative souls like Seneca and Pliny, Chrysostom’s congregants were making themselves “instruments of spiritual music.”  While others were out “tooting their own horns” (so to speak), Chrysostom’s congregants were perfecting themselves as an instrument of the Lord’s grace, so the breath of God, the Holy Spirit, might blow through them beautifully with his own sacred music.  It is, after all, says St. Paul, by the gift (gratia in Latin, or “grace”) of the Holy Spirit by which “charity is spread abroad in our hearts.”  When men are inspired by this Spirit, they do not become a disorderly and riotous mob, in which all the minds of the individuals are given over to the crowd; rather they become a “symphony” of different voices, all working together in “perfect harmony,” pleasing to both God and man, as instruments of God’s love. 

Chrysostom did what a great homilist is supposed to: he took the text of the Scriptures and brought them right down to the doorstep of the faithful.  His wasn’t an abstract appeal to “be nice” and “think about the poor.”  He slapped them square in the face (no matter how late they’d been out the night before) with a real call to personal holiness by which they might then transform the cultural idolatry of money, power, and pleasure that dominated his age, as it also dominates ours.  When we read his words, we should reflect on the ways in which our culture is not so different from his — from the culture of late antique Rome, an empire in decline with obvious moral problems that too many people were intent on ignoring in the forgetfulness of false festivity.

Chrysostom was the Amos and Isaiah of his time, “proclaiming God’s justice to a corrupt generation.”  Read these homilies, and you’ll learn what great preaching is.  Moreover you’ll see why he was called “Chrysostom”: “golden mouth.”   

And maybe, just maybe, you might be slightly more grateful that the Church asks us to get up on New Year’s Day and go to Mass to celebrate something other than the dissipation of our money and our selves in one of modernity’s many false “festivals” of despair.

About Dr. Randall B. Smith 20 Articles

Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-2012 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.