Friday, June 27, 2008

Feast of Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop

Today is the Feast of Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria. I'll be honest from the start: I do not like Cyril of Alexandria. I think he was an arrogant jerk, but a genius when it came to explaining Trinitarian theology. Also, this is not going to be a scholarly article; it's a blog post, and full of Padre Mickey's opinions. You have been warned.

Cyril was of an Alexandrian family, and his uncle, Theophilus, was Partriarch of Alexandria. Cyril accompanied Uncle Theo to Constantinople for the Synod of the Oak, at which St. John Chrysostom was deposed as Partriarch of Constantinople, in a sham Synod run by Alexandrians in their constant battle against the theology of Antioch. While both groups agreed that Christ had two natures, the Alexandrians tended to emphasize the divinity of Christ, while the Antiocheans emphasized Christ's humanity. Both groups showed their Christian Love by making life miserable for each other's clergy. Alexandria had considered themselves Second to Rome in importance, and were very unhappy when Constantinople was named equal to Rome, and they tended to make a big stink anytime someone from Antioch became Partriarch of Constantinople (John Chrysostom's fate being a good example).


Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria


Theophilus died on October 15, 412, and Cyril was consecrated Patriarch on Oct. 18. He immediately went to war (and I MEAN war!) against the Novatians, the Neoplatonists, and the prefect Orestes. He ran the Jews out of Alexandria, and, while not personally responsible for the death of Hypatia, his followers were very much involved (Hypatia was a well-respected neo-Platonist teacher and philosopher. A mob, led by a lector named Peter, pulled her from her carriage, dragged her to a church and tore her flesh with potsherds until she died). In those days not everyone was inclined towards civil, scholarly debate; monks would come from the hills equipped with fuller's clubs to help drive home the theological point of their favorite bishop, and this was not limited to Alexandria, although the Alexandrians were ready to riot at the drop of a hat. The Prefect of Egypt, Orestes, was unhappy with Cyril and the expulsion of the Jews from Alexandria and expressed this fact. 500 monks from Nitria came to Alexandria to defend Cyril. One monk, Ammonius, threw a rock at Orestes which hit him in the head and left a wound. Orestes had Ammonius tortured to death, and Cyril treated his remains as the relics of a martyr. Rioting Alexandrians killed the prefect Callistus in the year 422. Cyril had a lot of power and he loved to wield it.

In the 428 Nestorius, an Antiochean priest known for his preaching, was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople by the emperor Theodosius II. On the way to Constantinople Nestorius visited with bishop Theodore, who advised Nestorius to be careful, be moderate, and respect the opinions of others. Unfortunately, Nestorius ignored this advice. At his consecration in April, 428, he shouted "Give me, O Emperor, the earth purged from heretics, and I will give you heaven!" He immediately went after the Arians, closing their only chapel and running them out of the city. However, it wasn't long before Nestorius himself was accused of heresy.

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople


The people in Constantinople used a title for the Blessed Virgin which was popular in that city: Theotokus, or "God-bearer." This was not a title that was used in Antioch, but there were also people in Constantinople who questioned the use of the title. Nestorius decided to mediate the dispute and said things which wouldn't have raised an eyebrow back in Antioch, but really set-off his enemies, especially the Patriarch of Alexandria when he heard about it. Nestorius said, When I came here, I found a dispute among the members of the church, some of whom were calling the Blessed Virgin Mother of God (Theotokus), while others were calling her Mother of man. Gathering both parties together, I suggested that she should be called Mother of Christ (Kristotokus), a term which represented both God and man, as it is used in the gospels. This was just the opening Cyril was looking for; he was still angry that Constantinople was considered equal to Rome, and he didn't like Antioch. On Easter Sunday, 429, he publicly denounced Nestorius for heresy. He ignored the actual words of Nestorius and accused him of denying the deity of Christ. Nestorius' reaction was arrogant and he made some sloppy answers to Cyril's accusations, which was not a good idea as Cyril was a master at organizing support and destroying his enemies. Anathemas flew between Alexandria and Antioch, and finally the Third Ecumenical Council was called to meet at Ephesus in the year 431. It took a long time to travel in those days and not everyone arrived on time. The Patriarch of Antioch (a supporter of Nestorius) and his bishops were late, and instead of asking the Council to wait for their arrival, Cyril, who had brought fifty of his own bishops to the Council, opened the Council anyway. The imperial commissioner and about seventy other bishops protested this display of arrogance but were ignored. This was the most violent Ecumenical Council. Nestorius refused to attend, for fear of his life and guards were placed around the house in which he was staying to protect him. In the Bazaar of Heraclides described the atmosphere of the Council of Ephesus: They acted . . . as if it was a war they were conducting, and the followers of the Egyptian (Cyril) . . . went about in the city girt and armed with clubs . . . with the yells of barbarians, snorting fiercely . . . raging with extravagant arrogance against those whom they knew to be opposed to their doings, carrying bells about the city and lighting fires . . . They blocked up the streets so that everyone was obliged to flee and hide, while they acted as masters of the situation, lying about, drunk and besotted and shouting obscenities . . . Since John of Antioch and his bishops had yet to arrive, Cyril pushed through a vote and, 200 to 0, Nestorius was excommunicated. John and his bishops arrived too late; he declared the result illegal and held a counter-council which voted to excommunicate Cyril. These events threatened to tear apart of the unity of the Byzanine empire, so Theodosius II decided to accept the deposition of both patriarchs as a means of defusing the situation. Cyril and Nestorius were both arrested and imprisoned. Cyril bribed his way back into power with a gift to the grand chamberlain, the emperor's adviser; the gift consisted of fourteen oriental rugs, eight couches, six tablecloths, four tapestries, four ivory benches, six leather benches, and six ostriches. This "gift" put the Patriarchate of Alexandria some $3,000,000.00 in debt. Nestorius, who could be just as much of a jerk as Cyril, accepted the verdict of the emperor and went into exile, quietly protesting the injustice he experienced.

Cyril is not considered a saint because of the way he dealt with those with whom he disagreed; he was sainted because of abilities as a theologian. He was able to take the teachings of Athanasius, the Cappadocians, combined with classical Greek teachings on the Trinity, and create a systematic form of the Alexandrian theological tradition. While his writing style isn't exactly elegant, it is, according to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church: precise in exposition, accurate in thought, and skilled in reasoning. I've been reading Cyril's On The Unity Of Christ, translated by John Anthony McGuckin, and, while I can't stand Cyril the person, I love reading Cyril the theologian.

I've been thinking lately about the similarities between Nestorius' situation and Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's situation. Nestorius' comment regarding Kristotokus wouldn't have raised an eyebrow back in Antioch, and Bishop Katarine's comment "We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box" certainly wouldn't raise eyebrows in the dioceses of Nevada or Oregon or California or at CDSP, but her enemies, much like Cyril, were simply waiting for a phrase they could use against her. Cyril took Nestorius' comments and twisted them and used them against him, just as the folks in the Network and GAFCON use Katharine's words against her. But we can make sure that the truth is up there for all to see right away, unlike poor Nestorius, whose words weren't really studied until long after his death.

So, I don't like Cyril, but I think he is another example of the fact that God uses whomsoever God wants to use to bring about the Reign of God. Cyril wasn't the first bishop to behave in a less than Christian manner, and he won't be the last to do so, God is willing to use a jerk like me to help bring about God's reign. All we can do is be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit and answer "yes" to God's call.

2 comments:

FranIAm said...

Padre, I think you already know how much I love your saint posts. I think I know a reasonable amount about these people and then I come here and my head is spinning.

In a good way.

Your work on Cyril is no exception. I actually knew a lot about his life, but you did illuminate some new things.

Then your insights about Nestorius and KJS are really interesting and on target from what I know.

I always did like what he had to say about 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."

Especially since B16 would like us poor Cat-licks to get on our knees and stick our tongues out.

Jane R said...

I love this, Padre Mickey -- and all the more because you really engage Cyril. He was a nasty character and a great theologian, and them boys sure did fight a lot, didn't they? History is consoling. We think we have problems, and then we go read about the 4th and 5th centuries (or any of the others) and feel much better!

Interesting KJS / Nestorius comparison, too.

Thanks!

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