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Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume I: January. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.

January 28

On the Writings of St. Cyril of Alexandria

THE OLD Latin translations of the works of this father were extremely faulty, before the edition of Paris, by John Aubert, in 1638, in six tomes, folio, bound in seven, which yet might he improved. Baluze and Lupus have published some letters of this holy doctor, which had escaped Aubert and Labbe. If elegance, choice of thoughts, and beauty of style be wanting in his writings, these defects are compensated by the justness and precision with which he expresses the great truths of religion, especially in clearing the terms concerning the mystery of the Incarnation. Hence his controversial works are the most valuable part of his writings. His books against Nestorius, those against Julian, and that called The Treasure, are the most finished and important.  1
  His treatise on Adoration in Spirit and Truth, with which he begins his commentary on the Bible, contains in seventeen books an exposition of several passages of the Pentateuch, or five books of Moses, (though not in order,) in moral and allegorical interpretations.  2
  In the thirteen books entitled Glaphyrs, i. e. profound or elegant, the longer passages of the same books are explained allegorically of Christ and his church.  3
  In his commentaries on Isaiah, and the twelve lesser prophets, he gives both the literal and allegorical sense.  4
  On the Gospel of St. John, we have ten books entire, and fragments of the seventh and eighth. In the old editions, the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth books, which were entirely wanting, were patched up by Clictou from the writings of other fathers; which, for want of reading the preface, have been quoted by some as St. Cyril’s. In this great work, the saint gives not only the literal and spiritual senses of the sacred text, but likewise refutes the reigning heresies of that age, especially those against the consubstantiality of the Son, as the Eunomians. He also answers all the objections of the Manichees. He is very clear in establishing in the holy sacrament of the altar the reality of Christ’s body contained in it, and the holy sacrifice, teaching that “the holy body of Christ gives life to us when received, and preserves us in it, being the very body of life itself, according to nature, and containing all the virtue of the Word united to it, and being endued with all his efficacy by whom all things receive life, and are preserved.” (L. 4. in Joan. p. 324.) That we shall, by tasting it, “have life in us, being united together with his body as it is with the Word dwelling in it.” (Ibid. p. 361.) That “as death had devoured all human nature, he who is life, being in us by his flesh, might overcome that tyrant.” (Ibid. p. 272.) “Christ, by his flesh, hides in us life and a seed of immortality, which destroys in us all corruption,” (Ibid. p. 363.) and “heals our diseases, assuaging the law of the flesh raging in our members.” (Ibid. p. 365.)  5
  In the tenth book he is most diffusive and clear on this sacrament, extolling its miraculous institution, the most exalted of all God’s mysteries, above our comprehension, and the wonderful manner by which we are united and made one with him; not by affection, but by natural participation; which he calls “a mixture, an incorporation, a blending together; for as wax melted and mingled with another piece of melted wax, makes one; so by partaking of his precious body and blood, he is united in us, and we in him,” &c. (L. 10. in Joan. p. 862, 863. item. p. 364, 365.) See the longer and clearer texts of this doctrine in this book itself, and in the controversial writers upon that subject. Also in his works Against Nestorius, whom he confutes from the blessed eucharist, proving Christ’s humanity to be the humanity of the divine Person. “This,” says he, “I cannot but add in this place, namely, that when we preach the death of the only begotten son of God, that is, of Jesus Christ, and his resurrection from the dead, and confess his ascension into heaven, we celebrate the unbloody sacrifice in the church, and do by this means approach the mystical benedictions, and are sanctified, being made partakers of the sacred flesh and precious blood of Christ, the Saviour of us all. And we do not receive it as common flesh, ([Greek]) God forbid; nor as the flesh of a man who is sanctified and joined to the Word by an unity of dignity, or as having a divine habitation; but we receive it, as it is truly, the life-giving and proper flesh of the Word.” (Ep. ad Nestorium, de Excommun. p. 72. t. 5. par. 2. and in Deelaratione undecimi Anathematismi, t. 6. p. 156.) In this latter place he speaks of it also as a true sacrifice: “We perform in the churches the holy and life-giving and unbloody sacrifice, believing the body which is placed, and the precious blood to be made the very body and blood of the Word, which gives life to all things, &c. He proves that it is only to be offered in Catholic churches, in the one only house of Christ.” (L. adv. Anthropomorph, t. 6. p. 380.) He heard that some imagined that the mystical benediction is lost if the eucharist is kept to another day: but says, “they are mad; for Christ is not altered, nor his body changed.” (T. 6. p. 365. ep. ad. Calosyrium.) In his fourth book on St. John, (t. 4. p. 358.) he as expressly confutes the Jewish doubt about the possibility of the holy sacrament, as if he had the modern Sacramentarians in view.  6
  To refute the whole system of Arianism, he wrote the book which he called The Treasure, which he divided into thirty-five titles or sections. He answers in it all the objections of those heretics, and establishes from scripture the divinity of the Son of God; and from title thirty-three, that of the Holy Ghost.  7
  His book On the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity, consists of seven dialogues, and was composed at the request of Nemesm and Hermias. This work was also written to prove the consubstantiality of Christ but is more obscure than the former. The holy doctor added two other Dialogues, the eighth and ninth, On the Incarnation, against the errors of Nestorius, then only known by report at Alexandria. He afterwards subjoined Scholia to answer certain objections: likewise a short Book On the Incarnation, in which he proves the holy Virgin to be, as she is called, the Mother of God; as Jesus Christ is at the same time both the Son of God, and the Son of man. By his skirmishes with the Arians he was prepared to oppose and crush the extravagancies of Nestorius, broached at that time against the same adorable mystery of the Incarnation, of which God raised our holy doctor the champion in his church; for by his writings he both stifled the heresy of Nestorius in the cradle, and furnished posterity with arms against that of Eutyches, says Basil of Seleucia. (T. 4. Conc. p. 925.)  8
  Saint Cyril composed at Ephesus his three treatises On the Right Faith, against Nestorius. The first is addressed to the emperor Theodosius. It contains an enumeration of the heresies against the Incarnation, namely of Cerinthus, Photinus, Apollinaris, and Nestorius, with a refutation of each, especially the last. The second is inscribed to the princesses Pulcheria, Arcadia, and Marina, the emperor’s sisters, all virgins consecrated to God. This contains the proofs of the Catholic faith against Nestorius. The third is a confutation of the heretics’ objections against it.  9
  His five books against Nestorius, are the neatest and best penned of his polemic writings. They contain a refutation of the blasphemous homilies of that heresiarch, who yet is never named in them; by which circumstance they seem to have been written before his condemnation.  10
  St. Cyril sent to Nestorius twelve Anathematisms against his errors. This work was read in the council of Ephesus, and is entirely orthodox; yet some censured it as favouring Apollinarism, or as denying the distinction of two natures in Christ, the divine and human, after the Incarnation; and the Eutychians afterwards strained them in favour of their heresy. John, patriarch of Antioch, prepossessed against St. Cyril, pretended for some time to discover that error in them; and persuaded Andrew, bishop of Samosata, and the great Theodoret of Cyr, to write against them. St. Cyril gave in his clear Explication of them to the council of Ephesus, at its desire, extant, p. 145.  11
  He also wrote, soon after that synod, two Apologies of the Anathematisms; one against Andrew of Samosata, and other Oriental prelates, who through mistake were offended at them: and the other against Theodoret of Cyr. And lastly, an Apologetic for them to the emperor Theodosius, to remove some sinister suspicions which his enemies had endeavoured to give that prince against his sentiments in that work.  12
  The Anthropomorphite heretics felt likewise the effects of St. Cyril’s zeal. These were certain ignorant monks of Egypt, who having been taught by the elders, in order to help their gross minds in the continual practice of the presence of God, to represent him to themselves under a corporeal human figure, by which they at length really believed him to be not a pure spirit, but corporeal, like a man; because man was created to his image. Theophilus immediately condemned, and the whole church exploded this monstrous absurdity. St. Cyril wrote a letter to confute it to Calosyrius, bishop of Arsinoe, showing that man is framed according to the Divine image, not in his body, for God being the most pure Spirit can have no sensible figure, but in being endued with reason, and capable of virtue. In the same letter he rejects a second error of other ignorant monks, who imagined that the blessed Eucharist lost its consecration if kept to the following day. He reprehends other anchorets, who upon a pretence of continual prayer, did not work at certain hours of the day, making it a cloak of gluttony and laziness. The saint has left us another book against the Anthropomorphites, in which he proves that man is made to God’s image, by bearing the resemblance of his sanctity, by grace and virtue. So he says the angels are likewise made to his likeness. He answers in this book twenty-seven dogmatical questions put to him by the same monks.  13
  He wrote in the years 437 and 438, two Dogmatical Letters (p. 51 and 52.) against certain propositions of Theodorus of Mopsuestia, the fore-runner of Nestorius, though he had died in the communion of the church.  14
  The book on the Trinity cannot be St. Cyril’s; for it refutes the Monotholite heresy, not known before the year 620.  15
  Julian the Apostate, whilst he was preparing for the Persian war, had, with the assistance of Maximus, and his other impious philosophers, published three books against the holy Gospels, which were very prejudicial to weak minds; though nothing was advanced in them that had not been said by Celsus, and fully answered by Origen in his books against that philosopher, and by Eusebius in his Evangelical Preparation. St. Cyril, out of zeal, composed ten books against Julian, which he dedicated to the emperor Theodosius; and also sent to John of Antioch, to show the sincerity of his reconciliation. In this work he has preserved us Julian’s words, omitting only his frequent repetitions and puerilities. Nor have we any thing else of that work of the Apostate, but what is preserved here by St. Cyril. He begins by warning the emperor against bad company, by which Julian fell into such extravagant impieties.  16
  In the first book he justifies Moses’s history of the world, and proves with great erudition from profane history that its events are posterior, and the heathen sages and historians younger, than that divine lawgiver, from whom they all borrowed many things. In the second he compares the sacred history of the creation, which Julian had pretended to ridicule, with the puerilities and absurdities of Pythagoras, Thales, Plato, &c. of whom Julian was an admirer to a degree of folly. In the third, he vindicates the history of the Serpent, and of Adam’s fall; and retorts the ridiculous Theogony of Hesiod, &c. In the fourth he shows that God governs all things by himself, not by inferior deities, as Julian pretended, the absurdity of which he sets forth: demonstrating likewise that things are ruled by a wise free providence; not by destiny or necessity, which even Porphyry and the wiser heathens had justly exploded, though the Apostate adopted that monstrous doctrine. He justifies against his cavils the history of the Tower of Babel: and in his fifth book, on the Ten Commandments; showing in the same, that God is not subject to jealousy, anger, or other passions: though he has an infinite horror of sin. Julian objected, that we also adore God the Son, consequently have two gods. St. Cyril answered that he is the same God with the Father. In the sixth book he reports the shameful vices of Socrates, Plato, and their other heroes of paganism, in opposition to the true virtues of the prophets and saints. Julian reproached Christ that he did not appear great in the world, and only cured the poor, and delivered demoniacs in villages; he reprehended Christians for refusing to adore the noble ensign, the gift of Jupiter or Mars: yet, says he, you adore the wood of the cross, make its sign on your forehead, and engrave it on the porches of your houses. ([Greek]. L. 6. adv. Jul. t. 6. p. 194.) To which St. Cyril answers, (p. 195.) We glory in this sign of the precious cross, since Christ triumphed on it; and it is to us the admonition of all virtue. This father says in another place, (in Isaiam, t. 4. p. 294.) “The faithful arm and intrench themselves with the sign of the cross, overthrowing and breaking by it the power, and every assault of the devils: for the cross is to us an impregnable rampart. In this sixth book he produces the open acknowledgment of Julian that the heathenish oracles had all ceased; but this he ascribed to old age and length of time. St. Cyril shows the extravagance of this supposition, and that the true reason was, because the power of the devil had been restrained by the coming of Christ. He mentions the same in his Commentary on Isaiah, (t. 2. p. 596.) In the seventh book he proves, that the great men in the true religion far surpassed in virtue all the heroes of paganism. In the eighth and ninth, he shows that Christ was foretold by the ancient prophets, and that the Old and New Law are in substance the same. In the tenth he proves, that not only St. John, but all the Evangelists, teach Christ to be truly God. Julian objects, (p. 333. 335. 339. & 350.) that we also adore the martyrs and their sepulchres: “Why do you prostrate yourselves at the sepulchres?—which is to be believed your Apostles did after the death of their Master, and taught you this art of magic.” (p. 339.) The saint answers, We make an infinite difference between God and the martyrs: which he had before told him, (l. 6. p. 201. & 203.) where he writes, “We neither call the martyrs gods, nor adore them with divine worship; but with affection and honour reverence them: we pay them the highest honours, because they contemned their life for the truth,” &c.  17
  We have in the second part of the fifth tome several Homilies and Letters of this saint. It was ordained by the council of Nice that the bishop of Alexandria, in which city chiefly flourished the sciences of mathematics and astronomy, should at the end of every year examine carefully on what day the next Easter was to be kept. They, by custom, acquainted by a circular letter other bishops near them, and in particular the bishop of Rome, that he might notify it to all the prelates of the West. St. Cyril was very exact in this duty. Possevin says he saw his paschal discourses in the Vatican library, for every year of his episcopacy, namely thirty-one from the year 414. We have but twenty-nine printed: those for 443 and 444 being wanting. He spoke them to his own flock, as well as sent them to other bishops; and marks in each the beginning of Lent, the Monday and Saturday in Holy Week, and Easter-day, counting Lent exactly of forty days. In these paschal homilies he exceedingly recommends the advantages of fasting; which he shows (Hom. 1.) to be the “source of all virtues, the image of an angelical life, the extinction of lust, and the preparation of a soul to heavenly communications.” He says, “If it seem at first bitter and laborious, its fruits and reward infinitely compensate the pains; for more should seem nothing for the purchase of virtue: even in temporal things nothing valuable can be obtained without labour and cost. If we are afraid of fasting here, we shall fall into eternal flames hereafter; an evil infinitely worse, and quite intolerable.” In the following homilies he extols the absolute necessity of this mortification, to crucify in us the old man, and punish past irregularities; but shows it must be accompanied with alms and other good works. In his latter paschal discourses and others extant, he explains the mystery of the Incarnation against Nestorianism and other heresies. The ninth homily is On the Mystical Supper, or Holy Banquet of the Communion and Sacrifice, in which “the tremendous mystery is performed, and the Lamb of God sacrificed: (p. 271.) in which (p. 272.) the Eternal Wisdom distributes his body as bread, and his saving blood as wine: the Maker gives himself to the work of his own hands. Life bestows itself to be eaten and drank by men,” &c. At this divine table he cries out, (p. 376.) “I am filled with dread when I behold it. I am transported out of myself with astonishment when I consider it,” &c. He proves against Nestorianism, (p. 318.) that there is but one Person in Christ, because in this holy sacrament is received his true body and blood: not the Divinity alone, which nobody could receive, nor a pure man’s body, which could not give life; but a man made the Word of God—who is Christ the Son of the living God, one of the adorable Trinity. He remains the priest and the victim: he who offers, and he who is offered. ([Greek]. p. 378.) In the tenth homily he pronounces an encomium of the blessed Mary mother of God, This was delivered at Ephesus in an assembly of bishops during the council; for he apostrophizes that city and St. John the Evangelist its protector. In it he calls the pope “the most holy Celestine, the father and archbishop of the whole world, and the patriarch of the great city, Rome.” (Ib. Encom. in St. Mariam. part 2. p. 384.) He more clearly extols the supreme prerogative of the church of Rome founded on the faith of Peter; which church is perpetual, impregnable to hell, and confirmed beyond the danger of falling, (Dial. 4. de Trinit. p. 507, 508.) His eleventh homily is On the presentation, or as the Greeks call it [Greek]. The meeting of the Lord in the Temple, and The Purification of our Lady, in which he speaks of the lamps or candles used on that festival. He has a pathetic Sermon on the Pains of Hell: he paints the terrors of the last Judgment in a manner which cannot fail to make a strong impression upon all who read it. (Or de Exitu animi, et de secundo Adventu.)  18
  The epistles which we have from his pen all relate to the public affairs of the church, and principally those of Nestorius. His second letter to that heresiarch, and his letter to the Orientals, were adopted by the general councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, and are a rule of the Catholic faith. His sixteenth letter is placed amongst the canons of the Greek church. In it he recommends to the bishops of Libya and Pentapolis, the strictest scrutiny of the capacity and manners of those who are admitted to Holy Orders; and the greatest solicitude and watchfulness that no one die without baptism, if only a catechumen, and the Holy Eucharist or Viaticum. See Beveridge.  19