Wednesday, June 27, 2007

St. Cyril of Alexandria

Today is the feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria.

At Blessed Sacrament Parish in La Crosse, Father Olsen gave a wonderful homily at the 7:30 Mass this morning about St. Cyril's defense of Mary being the Mother God God (theotokos), and the conflict he had with Nestorius over this point. Especially important, he noted, is that the schismatic church Nestorius founded, the Assyrian Church of the East, was finally reconciled with Rome by Pope John Paul II.

Here's a column I wrote last year on St. Cyril and the Council of Ephesus:

The deeper one delves into the history of the Church, the more he marvels at the imperfect instruments with which God works. Such was the case with St. Cyril, bishop of Alexandria, a man on fire with love for the truth, but also a man of fiery temperament. St. Cyril’s emotional constitution is known to us more than a millennium later because the bishop found himself fighting for the faith against the errors of a man equal in temperament, Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople.

The conflict between these two men began as something personal. Cyril’s uncle, Theophilus, had been the previous bishop of Alexandria. In 402, Theophilus had convoked the “Synod of the Oak,” where he unjustly condemned the great St. John Chrysostom, who was bishop of Constantinople at that time. The saint was afterwards cleared by Rome, and after his death was venerated as a saint in Constantinople – where Nestorius was now bishop. Cyril succeeded his uncle as bishop of Alexandria, but still refused to enter Chrysostom’s name on the city’s diptychs (registry of saints).

One almost wonders if God perhaps cultivated this personal rivalry to make sure Cyril disliked Nestorius enough to oppose him when he began to preach against the Virgin Mary’s traditional title Theotokos. The Greek word means “God-bearer”, and implies that Christ – whom Mary bore in her womb – was God-made-flesh, and that Mary therefore was the Mother of God. How could Mary be the Mother of God, asked Nestorius – how could God himself take Mary’s flesh? Nestorius concluded in a letter to Cyril, “The body therefore is only the temple of the deity of the Son.”

It was something more than personal rivalry that made Cyril condemn Nestorius’ position. The Doctor of the Church preached against Nestorius in his famous Easter homily of 429: “For this in fact we shall hold… that not as naked divinity would the Word of God the Father be born of the holy Virgin, who took of the office of bearing in flesh the one united to flesh, but one actually united to a human nature… And we call Mary the Mother of God, she who carnally brought forth him who appeared in the flesh for our sake, God himself.” And later he wrote to Nestorius, “We confess the Word to have been made one with the flesh hypostatically, and we adore one Son and Lord, Jesus Christ.”

Obstinate as his rival in Alexandria, Nestorius ignored Cyril and sent his writings to Pope St. Celestine in an attempt to clear his name. Little did he imagine that the Holy Father would give Cyril a commission to try him for heresy. When Nestorius refused to sign the 12 theological propositions sent by his bitter rival, Emperor Theodosius II intervened, convoking a General Council in the city of Ephesus, over which legates of Pope Celestine were to preside.

The Council was to begin on the 7th of June, 431, but the papal legates and many of Nestorius’ supporters had not yet arrived. Even so, Cyril opened the Council, which condemned Nestorius, teaching that Christ had both human and divine natures, but was one person. In due time, both the legates and the bishops arrived. Nestorius’ supporters refused to join their brother bishops, and held their own Council, predictably condemning Cyril. The legates of Pope Celestine, however, chose to join the Council already in session, where they confirmed Nestorius’ condemnation. When Emperor Theodosius heard of the controversy, he had both Cyril and Nestorius arrested and held in custody while theological conferences were held in Chalcedon. In the end, Nestorius was condemned, while Cyril made peace with Nestorius’ greatest supporter, John of Antioch, and returned to Alexandria.

Nestorius and Cyril had much more in common than they would have admitted. Both were brilliant theologians, both men of harsh temper and obstinate will. The difference between them is that one held fast to the orthodox faith while the other didn’t. At first glance, one may wonder why God would allow men of such temperament as Cyril to represent his Church in such a prominent fashion. Then again, we might be Nestorians instead of Catholics today without the fiery constitution of St. Cyril of Alexandria.

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