(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 2 of the series.)
From time to time heresies (deviations from Orthodox theological thinking) arose which threatened to distort the truth of Christianity. At times these heresies attracted considerable followings which often led not only to great difficulties within the Church but disorders in society in general. These threats, however, were blunted and turned aside by men of stature who, through the maze of various theological speculations, were able to see clearly and enunciate the true Christian doctrine.
One such person in the fifth century was Cyril of Alexandria, who met the challenge and hurled it back. Thus he not only preserved intact the Church of Christ, but added to its strength and expanded its sphere of influence. Cyril not only drove off the forces of evil that encircled Christendom, but he was also successful in bringing an end to the internal conflicts within the Church.
An Alexandrian Greek, Cyril was an Egyptian national leader as well as a theologian. Born in 375, he had a talent for combining politics with religion which was helpful to him, but would also cause some disagreement among his biographers as to his true character. He was, above all, an able and influential theologian while at the same time a shrewd politician. His involvement in politics brought down on him much criticism by those who opposed his views. However, this was not enough to prevent his being honored as a Doctor of the Church.
Succeeding his uncle Theophilos to the see of Alexandria in 412, his episcopate was at odds with the prefect Orestes. While Cyril closed the churches of the Novatians, a schismatic sect, Hypatia, a friend of the prefect Orestes, had been killed in a riot for which some held Cyril responsible. Consequently, Orestes’ hostility was intensified. To bring about peace, Cyril became reconciled with the civil authority but remained the leading citizen of Egypt.
Turning to religious matters exclusively, he wrote commentaries on selected passages of the Pentateuch, Isaiah, the minor prophets, and on the Gospels of John and Luke.
The stage was set for conflict within the Church when Nestorios of Antioch became patriarch of Constantinople in 428. In an affront to Orthodoxy, he refused to call the Virgin Mary Theotokos (which literally means “God-bearer”) or “Mother of God,” but instead insisted on calling her Christotokos, that is “Mother of Christ” and by exten-sion the mother of the “man” and not of the “God-man.” Objecting to this departure from accepted Christian tradition, Cyril wrote a series of treatises which recognized the fullness of Christ’s humanity by insisting that the term “Mother of God” signified the union of Christ’s divine and human natures, made one at the Incarnation. This brought about an exchange of anathemas between Cyril and Nestorios that culminated in the convoking of a synod to settle the dispute.
The synod was convened by Emperor Theodosios II and was attended by Cyril and other Fathers of the Church who condemned Nestorios. Cyril in turn was condemned by John of Antioch, a spokesman for Nestorios. Ultimately, the synod, which had been convened in Ephesus in 431, supported Cyril and banished Nestorios. True peace for the Church was not restored until 433, when Cyril accepted a revised statement on the two natures.
In answer to the apostasy of the emperor, Cyril wrote the brilliant literary work, Against the Galileans, in which he exposed the fallacy of Julian’s pronouncements. The prominence of Alexandria in church affairs declined in the late years of Cyril’s life; this leadership was transferred to the imperial city of Constantinople. During his lifetime, Cyril’s achievements kept Alexandria in the forefront of religious activity and influence.
Treading on the tightrope of the strand woven by church and state in the fourth century interweaving of religion and politics, St. Cyril had to be a mental gymnast in order to maintain his balance, let alone excel to the extent that he did. His combined spiritual and temporal career was a virtual high-wire act with enemies at either end shaking their utmost to have him come crashing down to oblivion. The intellectually nimble Cyril prevailed, however, concentrating more on the work of Jesus Christ so that he ultimately has come down to us as one of the greatest defenders of the faith.
Ranking among the greatest of the Church Fathers, Cyril died in 444.
Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikipedia.