Commemoration of Cyril of Alexandria, Pastor and Confessor
The Lord be with you
Today is the Commemoration of Cyril of Alexandria, Pastor and Confessor, on the LC-MS calendar. He was born sometime around the year 376 and died in 444. Most liturgical calendars that recognize him (and that is most of them) do so for his theological skill. To be honest, I am surprised that the word “pastor” is in the name chosen for this day by our Commission on Worship. Perhaps it is their way of recognizing that Cyril was the pope/patriarch/archbishop of Alexandria. Be that as it may, he made his mark as a theologian and not for his “pastoral skills.”
Cyril’s uncle, Theophilus, was the “pope” of Alexandria. It was his uncle who ordained Cyril, who quickly gained fame for his theological skill. When Theophilus died in 412, Cyril was selected to follow him, though many supported the archdeacon Timothy. This was when the leadership of the church in Alexandria was at its peek of power and influence, making the post desirable for many reasons. In response to Cyril’s election a riot between the followers of Timothy and Cyril broke out in the streets.
In his exuberance for the orthodox faith, Cyril employed heavy-handed tactics against his opponents, especially in the early days of holding his position. (I told you he wasn’t really remembered for his pastoral skills). For this many modern scholars take him to task, though his methods were not atypical for his time. Many modern scholars also blame him for the actions of his supports, even when they acted without his support or knowledge.
What Cyril is specially remembered for is his stance for the orthodox faith in the face of the challenge from the new false-teachings of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, as well as his leadership at the Third Ecumenical Council. Nestorius taught that the phrase “theotokos” (Greek, meaning “birth giver of God,” translated into Latin as mater Dei, meaning “mother of God”) should not be applied to Mary, the mother of Jesus. He maintained that the “union” of the Divine and Human in Jesus was “moral” and not real. The historic understanding of the Church, as found expressed in places like John 1:1, 14 and John 10:30, is that Jesus is both completely human and completely divine, in one being, “begotten of His Father before all worlds … of one substance with the Father … and was incarnate [en-fleshed] by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man.” Because of this miraculous union, Paul could correctly write that “they … crucified the Lord of Glory” (2 Corinthians 2:8). Therefore the term theotokos was in keeping with the Christian Faith. Of course, a scholar like Cyril was able to cite earlier Church Fathers, like Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and others, in supporting his point that Nestorius was teaching a novel view of Jesus.
It seems like a shame that Cyril had such a confrontational nature. Many speculate that his nature prolonged the troubles. It is true that, while councils decided that Cyril was right, the issues continued to trouble the Church for decades after his death. However, such speculation is something like being a Monday morning armchair quarterback. You may decide some other play should have been called and then your team would have won the game. But you really don’t know. The opposing team may have played just as well against your play calling. While Cyril was heavy-handed, so were the opponents. The Jews he expelled from Alexandria were responsible for riots and mob violence that killed many Christians. The Governor of Alexandria (an opponent of Cyril) also arrested and executed Christians. Nestorius called his own council which deposed and excommunicated Cyril, accusing him of false doctrine.
Cyril’s legacy for us, and the reason we honor him today, deals with his theology and not with his heavy-handed policies. Throughout his career, he defended a number of orthodox doctrines. The writings of Cyril on the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ reveal him to be one of the most able theologians of his time. Cyril’s Christology influenced subsequent Church councils and was a primary source for Lutheran confessional writings. Because the controversies of his day were basically Christological, his writings also contain some excellent passages concerning the Real Presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper and Mary’s place in the Incarnation.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, Your servant Cyril steadfastly proclaimed Your Son, Jesus Christ, to be one person, fully God and fully man. By Your infinite mercy, keep us constant in faith and worship of Your Son, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Other appropriate prayers:
• For a deeper understanding of the incarnation
• For theologians
• For bishops and pastors who must deal with difficult situations
Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert