Power Made Perfect: St. Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Matthew 8:18-22

The gospel reading begins with an image of people crowding around Jesus. Then and now, people are drawn to Christ. Some he inspires, others he mystifies.

Among those he inspired was the scribe who said, Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go (Matthew 8:19). We may not realize what a bold, shocking statement this was. In those days, scribes didn’t follow; they led. They spent years studying Scripture and were seen as authorities on it. But when this man saw and heard Jesus, he must have sensed a different kind of authority; as Matthew said earlier, Jesus taught as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matthew 7:29). The scribe had once dedicated his life to studying the written Word of God; now, he could actually see the living Word of God standing right in front of him.

Not everyone is gifted with such vision. Some people are mystified by Jesus. Ironically, these are sometimes the people closest to him, those to whom he has given authority. Somehow, they have gotten lost in the depths of his infinitude. Such a one was Nestorius, a bishop of Constantinople in the 5th century. He looked at Jesus and saw two persons; one human, one divine. When asked if Mary could be called the Mother of God, Nestorius replied no; Mary was the mother only of the human Christ, distinct from the Second Person of the Trinity. She should not be called the Mother of God.

It didn’t take long for this opinion to reverberate around the Middle East and it certainly caught the attention of Cyril, bishop of Alexandria. Although little is known directly about Cyril’s personality, his letters and actions portray him as a deeply a passionate man, determined to protect the faith from heresy. When his sometimes fiery correspondence with Nestorius failed to resolve the issue, Cyril escalated it to Rome. The pope agreed with Cyril, but Nestorius appealed to the Emperor, who supported him. A Church council was called, set for St. Mary’s church in Ephesus, scheduled to begin on Pentecost, June 7, 431.

Cyril and a large contingent of bishops, including Nestorius, arrived to find that many others, mostly supporters of Nestorius, were delayed. After waiting for two weeks, Cyril grew impatient. Over the written protest of many bishops, he decided to begin the Council with those in attendance. When the Emperor’s delegate, who supported Nestorius, fired back that he couldn’t do that, Cyril ordered him to read aloud the Emperor’s opening statement and then had the man thrown out. Cyril assumed presidency of the assembly and began the Council.

Nestorius knew that he had no chance without more support and refused to attend, despite three invitations from Cyril. Once more, Cyril had enough; he ordered his own position and that of Nestorius read aloud to the bishops and into the record. Cyril’s position was accepted, that of Nestorius was condemned. What’s more, the bishops removed him as bishop of Constantinople. All other business was quickly concluded and the Council was closed. The people in the streets met the bishops rejoicing. Thanks to Cyril, Mary could indeed be called the Mother of God.

Shortly thereafter, the supporters of Nestorius arrived. Furious and insulted at being left out, they convoked their own Council, deposed Cyril and condemned his associates. Tempers flared, the Emperor got involved, and both Cyril and Nestorius wound up in prison. Ultimately, they were released and the Council held by Cyril received papal approval. Cyril remained bishop of Alexandria and went on to write eloquently of the Blessed Mother; defeated, Nestorius returned to a monastery in Antioch.

monument-1249995_640Although he was as willing to follow Jesus as the scribe in the gospel, Cyril did not lose his personality in the process. By all accounts, he was imposing, impetuous, impatient, perhaps even infuriating. He wasn’t always the perfect picture of sanctity or the epitome of virtue. Very few saints are. Sinners and saints fight the same battles, share the same temptations, and struggle with the same demons. They differ only in their response to them. The sinner looks to himself or to the world for strength; the saint looks to Christ alone. This is what Cyril knew and what St. Paul meant when he told the Corinthians: Christ said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. (2 Corinthians 12:9).

St. Cyril of Alexandria, pray for us.

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