On Thursday we remembered St Cyril who lived in the fourth century AD. It was a time when there were many different opinions about God, especially as theologians tried to understand the Trinity. The Council of Nicea was held to clarify if Jesus truly was with God from the beginning or whether he was simply the highest of all created beings. This council gave us the Nicene Creed which is recited often in Anglican and other churches as a summary of the Christian faith. In the midst of all the differences, St Cyril was an orthodox voice and taught the faith to many, although he too had his struggles as he thought about Jesus and just who he is.
Learn more from the reflection from Thursday which follows. The readings were Psalm 106:19-23, Exodus 32:7-14, John 5:31-end.
It’s very easy to condemn the people of Israel for their shallowness. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had rescued them from a life of misery in Egypt and had led them in a miraculous fashion. He had given them a great leader in Moses but as soon as he had been gone up the mountain for some time they seemed to forget God. They pooled their resources, got Aaron to cast a golden calf for them and then worshipped it, crediting it with bringing them out of Egypt.
I have some sympathy for the people, not that I think they were right in what they did. They had come from a country where the gods were depicted for all to see. It was easy to bow down and worship something that could be seen. For 400 years this is what the people of Israel had been surrounded by. It was ‘normal’ worship. The God who had rescued them was not represented by any image at all. Moses talked to him, there were rumblings that might have been his voice, he had guided them with fire and smoke pillars, but he had no form. This kind of deity was different from every other one of the peoples all around. I can understand that, when they had lost their link to God, Moses, they felt lost and needed a tangible god to worship. It’s very hard to wrap your mind around the reality of God when your senses don’t give you the kind of evidence for his existence that you are used to for other personalities.
The problem of believing in and worshipping the one true God didn’t go away when the people of Israel moved on from their more primitive stage. Throughout their history we hear of the worship of other gods alongside God. Then God sent something very easy to detect with the senses; he sent Jesus, a living, breathing, human being in whom the fullness of God dwelt. Better than any statue or image, this was a walking, talking God who interacted with the people. He taught them, he healed them, he loved them. Still many of the people couldn’t see God in Jesus. Jesus pointed out that Moses, the one who had helped them in their relationship with God all those years ago, had pointed to Jesus but they did not believe him. Understanding God, even God in human form, was very difficult for the human mind.
Today we remember St Cyril of Jerusalem. In his time the human mind was still struggling to comprehend God. As Jesus said people searched the scriptures looking for eternal life but they all seemed to come up with different answers.
Cyril was born around 313-315 AD, probably in Jerusalem. He was ordained as a deacon around 335 AD by Bishop Marius of Jerusalem and priest by Bishop Maximus around 343 AD. Shortly after becoming priest, Maximus gave Cyril the responsibility for preaching to the people and for preparing those who wished to be baptised. As a result of this there still exist his 23 Catechetical Lectures from the year 347 or 348 which he addressed to those preparing for baptism. The fact that he was given such a responsible role suggests that Maximus had great faith in Cyril’s orthodox teaching. The tone of the Lectures also reveals a person who is warm and pastoral towards those in his charge.
There were many different ideas around in that period, particularly about the person of Jesus. The Council of Nicea had met in 335 to answer the beliefs of the Arians. They believed that Jesus was the highest of created beings but was not of one substance with God, that he was not divine. Other beliefs around included Patripassianism which denied that there were three persons in the Trinity but asserted that God the Father was incarnate and died to redeem mankind. Another heresy was that of Sabellius who said the Trinity has only one divine essence which manifests itself in different forms as God. Cyril himself struggled with the idea that Jesus was of one substance with the Father, finally accepting it at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD.
By the end of 350 AD Cyril was Bishop of Jerusalem. He was responsible for the Christians who lived there permanently but also for an ever increasing number of pilgrims who began to take advantage of the end of persecution to visit the holy sites in the area. At the beginning of Cyril’s time as bishop there was a miraculous event described in a contemporary letter: “On the nones (or 7th) of May, about the third hour, (or nine in the morning,) a vast luminous body, in the form of a cross, appeared in the heavens, just over the holy Golgotha, reaching as far as the holy mount of Olivet, (that is, almost two English miles in length,) seen not by one or two persons, but clearly and evidently by the whole city. This was not, as may be thought, a momentary transient phenomenon: for it continued several hours together visible to our eyes, and brighter than the sun; the light of which would have eclipsed it, had not this been stronger. The whole city, struck with a reverential fear, tempered with joy, ran immediately to the church, young and old, Christians and heathens, citizens and strangers, all with one voice giving praise to our Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, the worker of miracles; finding by experience the truth of the Christian doctrine, to which the heavens bear witness.”
Cyril’s time as bishop was far from peaceful. There was so much wrangling over different interpretations of the Trinity that it led to many difficulties. In 358 a council which was influenced by Acacius of Caesarea, deposed Cyril and forced him to retire to Tarsus. The charge against Cyril was that he sold church property to give to the poor but it is more likely that Acacius, his superior who held the Arian view, wanted him out of the way as Cyril was teaching the Nicene view. A year later another council deposed Acacius but this was reversed in 360 and Cyril once again had to leave Jerusalem for a year. On Emperor Julian’s accession Cyril was able to return once more until 367 when a new emperor, Valens, who took the Arian view, came into power. In 375 AD Emperor Gratian made it possible for Cyril to return to Jerusalem and there he stayed until his death in 386 AD. In case there was any doubt about Cyril’s right to be Bishop of Jerusalem it was confirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381.
As you can see, this period was a very difficult one to live in. Different views were fighting for supremacy and the definition of orthodox belief varied according to who was in power. Things settled down after the Council of Constantinople and the orthodox view from then on was that Jesus is divine and that the Son and the Father are equal.
We owe quite a debt to Cyril. His Lectures give a very good picture of how new converts were instructed at that time. There is also plenty of material on the liturgical practices of the time. Here is what Cyril had to say about receiving communion: “Approaching do not come with thy palms stretched flat nor with fingers separated. But making thy left hand a seat for thy right, and hollowing thy palm, receive the Body of Christ, responding Amen. And having with care hallowed thine eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, take it, vigilant lest thou drop any of it. For shouldst thou lose any of it, it is as though thou wast deprived of a member of thy own body.” “Then after Communion of the Body of Christ, approach the Chalice of His Blood, not extending thy hands, but bending low, and with adoration and reverence saying Amen, sanctify thyself by receiving also the Blood of Christ. And while thy lips are yet wet, touch them with thy hands, and sanctify thy eyes and thy forehead and thy other senses”.
Cyril also made innovations in how Holy Week and Easter were celebrated and it is on these foundations that our current practice is based. As we approach the end of Lent we are therefore approaching a time of celebration which has been shaped partially by Cyril all those years ago in Jerusalem.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor