June 24, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Wisdom of the saints: St. Cyril of Alexandria

John F. FinkFrankly, St. Cyril of Alexandria, whose feast is on June 27, is not the best model for a saint. He was involved in the deposition of another saint, John Chrysostom, as patriarch of Constantinople, and he became patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, in 412 only after riots between his supporters and those of a rival. Once installed, he drove the Jews out of the city.

However, he is a Doctor of the Church, so declared by Pope Leo XIII, mainly because of his teachings about the Trinity and the Incarnation. He presided over the Council of Ephesus in 431. That was the council that condemned Nestorianism, which taught that there are two distinct persons in Christ, the divine and the human, and Mary was not the mother of God but only of the man Christ.

On the contrary, the council said, Christ was only one person with both a divine and human nature. Therefore, Mary could legitimately be called “Theotokos,” or “God-bearer,” the mother of the one person who is truly God and truly human.

In one of his writings about this, St. Cyril said, “That anyone could doubt the right of the holy Virgin to be called the Mother of God fills me with astonishment. Surely she must be the Mother of God if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, and she gave birth to him! Our Lord’s disciples may not have used those exact words, but they delivered to us the belief those words enshrine, and this also has been taught us by the holy fathers.”

One of those “holy fathers” that Cyril liked to quote was St. Athanasius, also a patriarch of Alexandria. Athanasius was the subject of this column in the May 6 issue. Cyril wrote that Athanasius referred to Mary as “Mother of God” several times. Athanasius, Cyril wrote, “is a man we can trust, one who deserves our complete confidence, for he taught nothing contrary to the sacred books.”

Indeed, Cyril wrote, the sacred books themselves—the Scriptures—were “written to make a twofold declaration concerning our Savior; namely, that he is and has always been God, since he is the Word, Radiance and Wisdom of the Father; and that for our sake in these latter days he took flesh from the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and became man.”

Christ was united to a human body endowed with a rational soul, he said, so he could be seen as a man like ourselves.

The Church teaches, therefore, Cyril wrote, “that there are in Emmanuel two entities, divinity and humanity. Yet our Lord Jesus Christ is nonetheless one, the one true Son, both God and man; not a deified man on the same footing as those who share the divine nature by grace, but true God who for our sake appeared in human form.”

He finished this particular writing by quoting St. Paul: “When the fullness of time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law and to enable us to be adopted as sons” (Gal 4:3-5). †

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