Wednesday, July 8th, 2009
Cyril of Alexandria (378-444) was Archbishop of Alexandria in Egypt. He is known primarily having the heretical teaching of Nestorius condemned. While one might assume this would endear Cyril to the Christendom, he has endured something of a mixed reception.
You see, this Archbishop wasn’t merely a man of bushy eyebrows, waffling words, and impenetrable theology. An early move once in office was to close down the churches of the Novationist sect. Soon he had also expelled a large number of the Jewish population in response to their slaughter of Christians (lured onto the streets with the story that their church was on fire). A feud between Christian factions resulted in the murder of Hypatia, a neo-Platonist philosopher. She had been dragged from her carriage and slashed to death with pieces of broken pots. Alexandria was apparently used to violence, street riots and murder mysteries, and in Cyril the city had what Edward Gibbon called an ‘episcopal warrior’ to lead the church. Gibbon wasn’t paying a compliment.
Cyril: usually left the halo at home
Cyril led an army of devoted monks who dealt with theological opponents by throwing rocks at them and wielding clubs. This method of debate appears to have been commonplace in the fourth century. Certainly the 431 Council of Ephesus at which Cyril’s Christology was upheld against Nestorius has to rank as the most aggressive Council on record. One eyewitness said,
‘the followers of [Cyril]… went about in the city girt and armed with clubs… with the yells of barbarians, snorting fiercely… 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.’
The evil Nestorius stayed away, fearing for his life- probably correctly, as he was unanimously excommunicated. However Nestorius’ supporters arrived late and disputed the vote, so both Nestorius and Cyril were deposed. Cyril apparently bribed his way back into office with fourteen oriental rugs, eight couches, six tablecloths, four tapestries, four ivory benches, six leather benches, and six ostriches.
While something of a loose canon, Saint Cyril demonstrates for us that saintliness and sainthood aren’t necessarily related- and that the Lord will choose to use even the most unlikely people to defend his gospel. Cyril’s mission was to preserve the mind-expanding truth that ‘God walked the streets of Nazareth’, and we certainly owe him for making sure we never forget it.