Saint of the Day: St. Cyril of Jerusalem

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. Today we commemorate St. Cyril, whose account is found in Volume 1 of the series.)

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem

The checkered career of Patriarch Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century is an involved and complex study of a man of God caught in a web of intrigue of great magnitude. In fact, he is to be admired if only for managing to keep his balance on the tightrope he was forced to walk in the whirlwinds of controversy that would have toppled a lesser man. It is to his everlasting credit that, in spite of falling in and out of favor in the political and religious ambivalence that prevailed during his tenure, he was able to inspire and administer with an authority that never lessened, even when assailed from within the ranks of his own Christian faith.

Born in Jerusalem in 315, Cyril rose through the ranks to become patriarch in his native city. He succeeded Patriarch Maximos after firmly establishing himself as an illustrious theologian capable of assuming the spiritual leadership of any region of the civilized world, but particularly qualified to lead in the Holy City. He earned this honor through association with a society into which he was born and by dint of a thorough knowledge of church and state matters. The respect he won over the years came to be the envy of certain religious figures, particularly Metropolitan Akakios of Caesaria, who considered himself to be equal, if not superior, in his see to that of Cyril.

Using the artifice and guile usually attached to political, ambitious men, the wily Akakios (a close friend and confidant of Emperor Constantios, son of Constantine the Great) set in motion a program calculated to discredit the patriarch. Using the controversial Arianism as a weapon, he convinced the witless monarch that Cyril was a menace to stability in the Church, and thus brought about the exile of the patriarch, who never gave ground in his stand against Arianism. Cyril spent the next several years in banishment, but not disgrace, in Tarsus (the city which had given to Christianity the mighty St. Paul). He put his time to good use writing on theological subjects, thanks largely to the hospitality of the local Bishop Silvanus who saw to the needs of the patriarch-made-pariah.

In a gesture never quite understood, the successor to Constantios, the infamous Julian the Apostate, restored Cyril to his patriarchal throne in a sweeping edict that reversed the Arian direction of his predecessor. It was probably a matter of expediency, because Julian acquired the name of “Apostate” by reverting to paganism; he even went so far as to order the conversion of the Temple of Jerusalem back to the practice of idolatry. The conversion never came about because an earthquake severely damaged the structure and an even more disastrous fire reduced it to rubble. But the indestructible Cyril managed to survive the wave of persecution set in motion by Julian.

It was presumed that, with the death of Julian, the new emperor Valens would secure the Patriarchate; but the royal whim dictated otherwise, and Cyril was again victimized and sent into exile. He returned, with the succession of Emperor Theodosios, to resume his tenure as patriarch, which was highlighted by the miraculous appearance of the cross of Jesus emblazoned against the sky. This occurrence is marked by a feast day on May 7, the first of which was proclaimed by Cyril, who recorded the event as follows:

“On the nones of May, about the third hour, a great luminous cross appeared in the heavens just over Golgotha, reaching as far as the holy Mount of Olives and was seen not by one or two persons, but clearly and evidently by the whole city. This was not, as might be thought, a fancy-bred and transient appearance; it continued for several hours together, visible to our eyes and brighter than the sun. The whole city, penetrated alike with awe and with joy at the portent, ran immediately to the church, all with one voice giving praise to our Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God.”

What ensued was anticlimactic, but in the course of his tenure there were other momentous occasions for Cyril. One was the great Second Ecumenical Synod of 381, where he sat in council with men such as St. Gregory to form the Nicene Creed and set forth other guidelines for Christian worship. His illustrious service ended with his death at the age of seventy in the year 386.

Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia

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