Feast Day: June 27th | Patron of Alexandria, Called the Doctor of the Incarnation, Pillar of Faith, and Seal of the All the Fathers | Often pictured in the vestments of a bishop, with a book, pen, or scroll, and alongside the Blessed Virgin holding the Child Jesus.
If one were to run into a bishop called the “Pillar of Faith” and “Doctor of the Incarnation”, I suspect you would expect to meet a paragon of virtue, someone absolutely radiating the love of God. Thanks be to God, when you meet St. Cyril in heaven, he certainly will be shining with the glory of God, but that wasn’t always the case during his life here below.
Born most likely in Alexandria, Egypt, in the 370s, he received a good education and followed his maternal uncle into becoming patriarch (bishop) of that city in 412. These were the years after the great persecution of the Church had ceased and the great debates over the dogmas of our faith began. Especially in the debates over how to describe Christ, the cities of Alexandria and Antioch quickly became bitter rivals, and a similar contest on the political level existed between Alexandria and Constantinople. Saints-in-the-making certainly aren’t exempt from the mess of their society, but Cyril wasn’t even all that grace-ful in engaging it.
He was educated and erudite, essential qualities of a bishop during these tumultuous theological years. As patriarch, he wrote many letters to other theological schools, in particular to the monk, Nestorius, patriarch over in Constantinople, debating the nuances of Christology. Eventually he appealed to the Pope and presided over the ecumenical council of Ephesus in 431 that would uphold Christ’s true identity (and Mary’s), defining Our Lord, as having two natures [prosopon], divine and human, united in one divine person [hypostasis], and Mary, as truly the Mother-of-God [theo-tokos]. I use these Greek terms, as Cyril did, not to show off his command of those sorts of things, but to recognize that these are the terms that Cyril labored to standardize for the Church’s pronunciation and defense of the Gospel, and they remain essential to our faith down to this day.
But … Cyril was also impulsive and violent. He participated in the synod that deposed St. John Chrysostom … He didn’t hesitate to close churches with Novatian heretics (they required those who had abandoned the faith to be re-baptized) … He expelled the Jewish community from Alexandria in retaliation for their attacks on Christians … and, he was brutal in his theological take-down of Nestorius. Now, Nestorius, held that Jesus was a divine person and human person, joined by a moral bond (so Mary was just the mother of his human personhood [christotokos], not the mother of God [theotokos]). This was not just mincing unimportant Greek words, if we get Jesus wrong, we loose our relationship with our Heavenly Father, and Cyril knew it. But, that doesn’t negate his theologically unleashing on the monk from Constantinople. So, it was a messy time, and on plenty of occasions Cyril did act with moderation and patience towards others, and fervently in defense of the Truth. (I should make mention of the Patriarch John of Antioch, who convened a rival council across town in Ephesus to uphold his buddy Nestorius, but whom Cyril worked hard to reconcile with and bring the entire Antiochian school back into union with the larger Church afterwards.)
What do we do with this? We have theological brilliance, but also theological brashness. We have episcopal competence, along with episcopal carelessness. Our answer must be Christ’s: to extend mercy where it is needed, and praise where it is warranted. Cyril was a “good and faithful servant” in many crucial ways through his defense of Christ’s identity, and in all those ways that he fell short of sanctity, he turned his sins over to his Savior, Whom he knew had not just come close to us, but truly become one of us to bring our human nature within the Love of God.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin was going to put here a favorite line from St. Cyril, but in researching for this column came across a new favorite quotation, and one that shows where Cyril went when he wasn’t the saint he was called to be: “If the poison of pride is swelling up in you, turn to the Eucharist; and that Bread, Which is your God humbling and disguising Himself, will teach you humility. If the fever of selfish greed rages in you, feed on this Bread; and you will learn generosity. If the cold wind of coveting withers you, hasten to the Bread of Angels; and charity will come to blossom in your heart. If you feel the itch of intemperance, nourish yourself with the Flesh and Blood of Christ, Who practiced heroic self-control during His earthly life; and you will become temperate. If you are lazy and sluggish about spiritual things, strengthen yourself with this heavenly Food; and you will grow fervent. Lastly, if you feel scorched by the fever of impurity, go to the banquet of the Angels; and the spotless Flesh of Christ will make you pure and chaste.”