CHURCH FATHERS (32) – Saint Cyril of Alexandria

– Anastasios

We don’t have much information about the life of Cyril of Alexandria (378-444), until the moment he became Patriarch of Alexandria.  The previous Bishop was his uncle and he was his successor in the year 412. He was an opponent of the great John Chrysostom, but later he would repent of this and would recognize the orthodoxy of the great Bishop. He was also greatly concerned with the heresy of Nestorius who did not recognize one Person in Christ and hence did not believe Mary to be Mother of God, but only mother of the man Jesus.

He was a prolific writer. Among his books we have Apology against Julian, many writings against Nestorius, exegetic comments as the one on the Gospel of John, Letters. He was called “athlete of faith” (Photius). He was certainly a man of great talent and erudition, who was able to fight for Christian orthodoxy in a time when the faith was under great threat. An article about him in the Catholic News Agency is said: “During the fourth century, the Greek Church had already held two ecumenical councils to confirm Christ’s eternal preexistence as God prior to his incarnation as a man. From this perennial belief, it followed logically that Mary was the mother of God. Veneration of Mary as “Theotokos” confirmed the doctrine of the incarnation, and Christ’s status as equal to the God the Father. Nestorius insisted that he, too, held these doctrines. But to Cyril, and many others, his refusal to acknowledge Mary as the Mother of God seemed to reveal a heretical view of Christ which would split him into two united but distinct persons: one fully human and born of Mary, the other fully divine and not subject to birth or death. Cyril responded to this heretical tendency first through a series of letters to Nestorius (which are still in existence and studied today), then through an appeal to the Pope, and finally through the summoning of an ecumenical council in 431. Cyril presided over this council, stating that he was “filling the place of the most holy and blessed Archbishop of the Roman Church,” Pope Celestine, who had authorized it. The council was a tumultuous affair. Patriarch John of Antioch, a friend of Nestorius, came to the city and convened a rival council which sought to condemn and depose Cyril. Tension between the advocates of Cyril and Nestorius erupted into physical violence at times, and both parties sought to convince the emperor in Constantinople to back their position. During the council, which ran from June 22 to July 31 of the year 431, Cyril brilliantly defended the orthodox belief in Christ as a single eternally divine person who also became incarnate as a man. The council condemned Nestorius, who was deposed as patriarch and later suffered exile. Cyril, however, reconciled with John and many of the other Antiochian theologians who once supported Nestorius.”

As mentioned, his Commentary on John was of his most important and studied works. Let us see a passage about the beginning of this Gospel: “in the beginning was the Word”: “Than the beginning is there nothing older, if it have, retained to itself, the definition of the beginning (for a beginning of beginning there cannot be); or it will wholly depart from being in truth a beginning, if something else be imagined before it and arise before it. Otherwise, if anything can precede what is truly beginning, our language respecting it will go off to infinity, another beginning ever cropping up before, and making second the one under investigation. There will then be no beginning of beginning, according to exact and true reasoning, but the account of it will recede unto the long-extended and incomprehensive. And since its ever-backward flight has no terminus, and reaches up to the limit of the ages, the Son will be found to have been not made in time, but rather invisibly existing with the Father: for in the beginning was He. But if He was in the beginning, what mind, tell me, can over-leap the force of the  ‘was’? When will the ‘was’ stay as at its terminus, seeing that it ever runs before the pursuing reasoning, and springs forward before the conception that follows it? Astonishment-stricken whereat the Prophet Isaiah says, Who shall declare His generation? for His Life is lifted from the earth. For verily lifted from the earth is the tale of the generation of the Only-Begotten, that is, it is above all understanding of those who are on the earth and above all reason, so as to be in short inexplicable. But if it is above our mind and speech, how will He be originated, seeing that our understanding is not powerless to clearly define both as to time and manner things originate?”

We can really feel the subtlety of the reasoning by Cyril that so continued:

“It is not possible to take beginning, understood in any way of time, of the Only-Begotten, seeing that He is before all time and hath His Being before the ages, and, yet more, the Divine Nature, shuns the limit of a terminus. For It will be ever the same, according to what is sung in the Psalms, But Thou art the Same and Thy years shall have no end. From what beginning then measured in respect of time and dimension will the Son proceed, Who endureth not to hasten to any terminus, in that He is God by Nature, and therefore crieth, I am the Life? For no beginning will ever be conceived of by itself that does not look to its own end, since beginning is so called in reference to end, end again in reference to beginning. But the beginning we are pointing to in this instance is that relating to time and dimension. Hence, since the Son is elder than the ages themselves, He will be free of any generation in time; and He ever was in the Father as in a Source, according to that which He Himself said, I came forth from the Father and am come. The Father then being considered as the Source, the Word was in Him, being His Wisdom and Power and Express Image and Radiance and Likeness.”

The Church remembers this saint on June 27.

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