27 June 2007

St. Cyril of Alexandria

Today (27 June) is the commemoration of St. Cyril, the great fifth-century bishop of Alexandria who defended the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ and the unity of His Person. He’s one of my favorite early church fathers. I relished the chance to chat about him on "Issues, etc." this afternoon, and then to remember him with thanksgiving at Evening Prayer.

One of my most treasured possessions is a chasuble that was custom-ordered for me and given to me as a gift by some very dear friends, I think it was seven years ago, featuring St. Cyril in iconographic form on both the front and the back. St. Cyril was a most excellent choice, not only because he is such a favorite father of mine, but because his office and vocation as a faithful pastor and teacher of the Church, and his ardent defense and confession of orthodox Christology, make that chasuble an ideal vestment for many of the "white" festival days. I always wear it for the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord, when we celebrate the manifestation of God in the flesh of Christ, in whom all the fullness of the Deity dwells bodily. I wore it again this past Sunday for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, as I do each year for the Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, because those men also were called and ordained to preach and administer Christ in His Gospel-Word and Sacraments.

St. Cyril was first and foremost a biblical theologian. Most of the writings that we have from him are commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, including a magisterial work on the Gospel According to St. John. It was from those Holy Scriptures that he learned to know Christ Jesus as the incarnate Son of God, our Savior. Along with that, he learned from the teaching and example of the earlier church fathers, especially his predecessor, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, to confess the Person and work of Christ as the heart and center of the entire Christian faith, as the foundation of the Church. For such fathers, among whom St. Cyril is now prominently numbered, Christological debates were not esoteric arguments or trivial pursuits, but an essential contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. Theological battles are not immune to the contentiousness of sinful old Adam, yet they are necessary to the health and vitality of the Church. Not simply for the sake of getting things right (thought that is not a bad thing), but for the sake of the Gospel. Right doctrine is not an obstacle to evangelism; it is that which is necessarily believed, taught and confessed for the life and salvation of the world.

Probably St. Cyril’s most significant contribution to the life of the Church was his opposition to the heretic, Nestorius, when that false teacher had been made the Patriarch of Constantinople. Where Nestorius divided the two natures in Christ to such an extent that he advocated a distinction between the Son of God and the man, Jesus, as though there were two sons and two persons, St. Cyril rightly insisted that there is but one Person, one and the same Lord Jesus Christ, who is true God from all eternity, begotten of the Father, and also true Man, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nestorius insisted that St. Mary could not properly be called "the Mother of God," but only "the Mother of Christ," and in so doing he attacked the most fundamental article of Christian doctrine. Lutherans speak of the doctrine of justification as the article upon which the Church stands or falls, and that is well said; but justification depends upon the Person and work of Christ, upon who He is and what He does. If He is not true God, who is conceived and born of St. Mary, then we have no real Savior, we are not justified, and we remain in our sin, under the Law, condemned to death and damnation.

If Jesus Christ were a separate man, a person distinct from (but somehow conjoined to) the Son of God, then such a man would be no more than a good example of a righteousness of works. Yet, that is not the Gospel or the Christian faith. The Lord Jesus Christ is God, who has become our Savior. He is very God of very God, who is truly conceived and born of St. Mary, so that she is rightly called and truly is "the Mother of God." So also, He is very God of very God, who suffers under Pontius Pilate, is crucified, dead and buried. It is God Himself who dies for us, who redeems us with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. No creature in heaven or on earth could do this for us, but only Christ, who is both God and Man. It is this same incarnate God, crucified and risen, who also feeds us with Himself, which is to say, with the life-giving Body and Blood of God, whereby He cleanses and forgives us of all sin. It is this sweet Gospel that St. Cyril defended and confessed against the dangerous false teaching of Nestorius.

One often reads that St. Cyril was politically motivated, that he was more concerned about power and position than theology, and that he was heavy handed and mean spirited in his dealings with opponents. I don’t know to what extent these accusations may be true; I tend to read them with cautious skepticism, especially because many of the people who describe St. Cyril in these ways appear to have sympathies for Nestorius. Maybe I should be glad that I didn’t have to deal with St. Cyril and his personality, but in the end it doesn’t matter. Whatever his motivations, he spoke the truth with clarity, and he confessed the Lord Jesus Christ in a way that made a difference then and continues to serve the Church to this day.

One of my closest friends and colleagues once commented that, sure, some of our "confessional/conservative" brethren can be difficult to get along with. Truth be told, a few of them are real jerks (to say it politely). Nevertheless, these men are generally correct in what they have to say, both in their critique of what is wrong, and in their confession of the orthodox faith. Even more to the point, in their preaching and teaching, and even in their sometimes abrasive conversation, they speak Jesus to us. Thus, not only for the sake of Christian love, but especially for Jesus' sake, I bear with my contentious brothers. More than that, I thank God for such men. Warts and all, they may very well be the faithful pastors and teachers whom the Lord has raised up to guard and protect His flock against modern-day Nestorians, who would blaspheme the Name of Christ among us (from this preserve us, heavenly Father!). If I'm going to be facing an army of Persians, I'd just as soon be in the company of Spartans than gentlemen.

So, I'm giving thanks to God today for His servant, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and praying that He would enable me to be likewise so forthright, so clear and consistent, and so doggedly persisent in confessing Christ Jesus, my Savior and my God. It seems most appropriate, as well, to sing with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven; therefore, "O higher than the cherubim, more glorious than the seraphim, lead their praises: 'Alleluia!' Thou bearer of the eternal Word, most gracious, magnify the Lord: 'Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!'"

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