Saint Cyril I

The Pillar of the Faith (444 A.D.)


In the year 412, after the departure of Abba Theophilus, his nephew, Abba Cyril the First, the 24th Pope of the See of Saint Mark, succeeded him. He received various descriptive titles of honor such as ``the Daring Lion,'' ``the Burnished Lamp,'' ``the Second Athanasius,'' and more specifically ``the Pillar of the Faith.'' He was 36 years old when he was unanimously elected to take the helm of his Church. Throughout his life he made it a rule never to advance any doctrine which he had not learnt from the ancient fathers.

His Enthronement

As a lad, Cyril was sent to the monastery of Saint Macari, where he assimilated the wisdom of the desert Fathers. After having acquired all the education the desert could give, he returned to Alexandria where he was ordained a priest and then a Pope.

He began to exert his authority by causing the churches of the Novatians to be closed and their sacred vessels to be seized. He next drove out the Jews, who were numerous and who had enjoyed privileges in the city since the time of Alexander the Great. Their generally seditious attitude and the several acts of violence committed by them decided him to take this step, which incensed Orestes the governor, although it was approved by the Emperor. During this period, Hypatia, a pagan woman of noble character, was the most influential teacher of philosophy at that time in Alexandria, and her reputation was so great that disciples flocked to her from all parts. Among these was the great Bishop Synesius, who submitted his works to her criticism. She was much respected by the governor, who used to consult her even on matters of civil administration. Acting upon a suspicion that Hypatia had incensed the governor against their bishop, the crowd in 417 attacked her in the streets, pulled her out of her chariot, and killed her.

His Christian Zeal

As soon as he was consecrated Pope of Alexandria, he dedicated all his power to defend the Church against the apostasies of Emperor Julian and the rise of the Nestorian heresy. Abba Cyril directly set himself to refute them in terms that were clear, strong and convincing.

In the year 428 Nestorius, a priest-monk of Antioch, was made archbishop of Constantinople; and he there taught with some of his clergy that there were two distinct persons in Christ. According to the Nestorian concept, Christ was two separate persons, the one divine and beyond the reach of human frailty, and the other human and susceptible to all the fragility of the flesh. The divine Christ could neither suffer or die, and therefore, on the Cross it was the human Christ alone who suffered and died apart from the divine Christ. Nestorius had spoken out against calling the blessed Virgin Mary the ``Theotokos'' or ``Mother-of-God.''

Abba Cyril strongly contested these views expounding the Orthodox doctrine of the indivisible union of the divine and human natures of Christ, and arguing that if Jesus Christ is God, it follows that his mother is the ``Mother-of-God'' who bore Him forever. This is what the Apostles taught us and the doctrine of our Fathers. And just as the human mother, has no share in creating the soul of her child, yet is considered the mother of the whole person, and not merely the mother of his physical nature; so it is with Mary who is the Mother of Christ in His entirety.

Saint Cyril wrote letters to Nestorius urging him to stop promoting an idea which is equivalent to blasphemy, but the later obstinately refused to be convinced that he had fallen into a heretic way of thinking. A situation developed that was somewhat similar to that which had developed between Saint Athanasius and Arius. Saint Cyril was as full of faith and fiery zeal in his tenacious stand against Nestorius as Saint Athanasius had been against Arius. Just as Saint Athanasius had saved the Faith concerning the Logos in the Nicene Creed, so did Saint Cyril in defending the Theotokos maintaining the Orthodox Doctrine concerning the incarnation of the Logos in the Introduction to the Creed which he wrote in this regard.

Saint Cyril sent Nestorius a mild expostulation, but was answered with haughtiness and contempt. He also sent a number of letters to the Heads of other Churches (Antioch, Jerusalem, Rome and Aleppo), and to the imperial family. He received several replies lauding his efforts and siding with him. Saint Cyril also wrote another letter to Nestorius with an exposition of the Nicene Creed and a second part, an affirmation of the true faith, followed by 12 anathemas. Nestorius, however, showed himself more obstinate than ever, refused to sign, and exerted every effort to antagonize Emperor Theodosius against Saint Cyril.

Calling a General Council in Ephesus

The people of Constantinople themselves urged the Emperor to call a Council of all the bishops to deal with this subject. This occasioned the summoning of the third general Council which was held at Ephesus in June 431, attended by 200 bishops who elected Saint Cyril to preside over them on the authority of his own dignity. The attitudes of the Emperor and of Nestorius towards him had not been changed; they called him ``the proud pharaoh.'' Nestorius was present in the town, but refused to appear; so after his sermons had been read and other evidence received against him, his doctrines were condemned, and a sentence of excommunication and deposition was pronounced by the 200 who proved themselves to be indeed the worthy successors of the Nicene Fathers. The people of Ephesus who had gradually gathered outside the Church, and on hearing the verdict of the Council, they shouted for joy, lit torches, brought their incense-burners, and formed a long procession for the bishops escorting them to their abodes.

Six days later there arrived at Ephesus Archbishop John of Antioch, with several of his bishops who had not been able to reach Ephesus in time. They were in favor of Nestorius, although they did not share his errors, of which indeed they deemed him innocent. Instead of associating themselves with the council, they assembled by themselves and presumed to depose Saint Cyril, accusing him in turn of heresy. Both sides appealed to the Emperor, by whose order Saint Cyril and Nestorius were both arrested and kept in confinement and the verdict of the Council annulled. When three legates arrived from the Roman Church, the matter took another turn. After a careful consideration of what had been done, the legates condemned Nestorius, approved Saint Cyril's conduct, and declared the sentence pronounced against him void.

With the obstinacy of the Emperor in this regard, anger and consternation seized the people of Ephesus who supported the Ephesian Council. At their head was the hermit Dalmatius who had never gone out of his cell for 48 years, and whom Emperor Theodosius venerated highly. Dalmatius broke his habit and lead the people to the imperial palace chanting the psalms in the streets. The Emperor afterwards was completely changed and vindicated Saint Cyril with honor and ratified the sentence passed on Nestorius and ordered his exile. Though the bishops of the Antiochene province continued their schism for a while, they made peace with Saint Cyril in 433, when they condemned Nestorius and gave a clear and orthodox declaration of their own faith.

His Great Devotion

We have to thank Saint Cyril for the firm and uncompromising stand he took with regard to the dogma of the Incarnation - an attitude which led to the clear statements of the great council over which he presided. We ought indeed to be grateful that we, in our generation, are left in no doubt as to what we should believe with regard to that holy mystery upon which we base our faith as Christians. He was declared a doctor of the Universal Church in 1882.

The great devotion of this Saint to the Blessed Sacrament is manifest from the frequency with which he emphasizes the effects it produces upon those who receive it worthily. Indeed, he says that by Holy Communion we are made concorporeal with Christ. And it must surely be difficult for those who profess to hold the same faith as that defined in the first six general councils to shut their eyes to the vigour and conviction with which Saint Cyril before the year 431 affirmed his eucharistic doctrine. In a letter to Nestorius, which received the general and formal assent of the fathers at Ephesus, he had written:

    ``Proclaiming the death according to the flesh of the only begotten Son of God, that is, Jesus Christ, and confessing His resurrection from the dead and ascent into Heaven, we celebrate the bloodless sacrifice in our churches; and thus approach the mystic blessings, and are sanctified by partaking of the holy flesh and the precious blood of Christ the Savior of us all. And we receive it, not as common flesh (God forbid), nor as the flesh of a man sanctified and associated with the Word according to the unity of merit, or as having a divine indwelling, but as a really the life-giving and very flesh of the Word Himself.''

His Later Works

One of the noblest legacies bequeathed by Saint Cyril to the Church is the Liturgy which bears his name. According to tradition, it had been given orally by Saint Mark himself, but Saint Cyril completed it and wrote it. This Liturgy overflows with deep spiritual insight and reverberates the inmost yearnings towards God. It is an ancient custom in the Coptic Church to chant it during Lent and during the month of Koyahk.

His ceaseless activity took heavy toll of his health. Worn out by labors rather than by years, he entered into the joy of his Lord after steering the Church through storm and calm for 31 years.

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