This Monday (6/27) is the feast of St. Cyril of Alexandria, who succeeded his uncle as bishop of that Egyptian city, and served there from 412 A.D. until his death 32 years later. St. Cyril lived during a period called the Patristic Age, which historians generally understand to have spanned the late 1st century through the mid-8th century. This was the era immediately following the years in which the Apostles led the Church, and during which their successors, the bishops, oversaw the spread of the Christian Faith. These bishops were pastors who were the primary teachers of the faith to their people. Many gave their lives as martyrs, especially during the times of imperial persecution. We refer to these generations of bishops as the Church Fathers, and much of our Catholic understanding of who Christ is and His relationship to God the Father and God the Holy Spirit comes from their hard work in resolving various theological controversies that arose at this time. They understood the importance of Tradition as the authentic handing down and development of Catholic doctrine, and they often suffered much for things we now take for granted.
The issue that most consumed the thought of St. Cyril and his work as a bishop was the unity of Christ. By the time he became a bishop, the Church already had come to formulate the true teaching about the Most Holy Trinity that they had received from the Apostles, confessing Christ Jesus to be no less divine than God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. The Church also confessed the true humanity of Jesus. The doctrines of the Trinity and the true divinity and humanity of Christ Jesus had been settled. But in the 5th century there were some prominent leaders in the Church who seemed to be introducing division into Christ. The most important of these leaders was a man named Nestorius, who was the bishop of Constantinople, which was the seat of the Empire and a place of great influence. In his preaching, Nestorius would only refer to the Blessed Mother as “Mother of Christ,” and never by her more common title “Mother of God.” This was a deliberate choice of Nestorius, who was keen on emphasizing the importance of Christ’s humanity. But his intentional refusal to call her “Mother of God” would have the effect of dividing Christ into two personalities – Christ the man, who is the son of Mary, and Christ the God who is son of the Father. Cyril argued that one cannot divorce Our Lord’s divinity from His humanity. He has two distinct and different natures, but they are inseparable in the one Person of Jesus. Therefore, we cannot say that Mary is just the mother of Jesus in His humanity and not His divinity, because that would mean there is division in Him. If she is truly the Mother of Jesus, and Jesus is God, then we can truly call her the Mother of God. The controversy between Cyril and Nestorius was intense, but in the end the Council of Ephesus in 431 declared Cyril’s position to be authentic and true to the Apostolic Tradition and Church teaching.
These controversies were extremely important to people in the early Church, and should be to us as well, because they concern the very identity of Christ. If our salvation depends on Jesus, we will want to make sure we have a true understanding of who He is. The unity of His human and divine natures means that God has come close to us. In Christ, God has taken our human nature for Himself and shares His divine nature with us. In Christ, we discover what it means to be human, and the awesome destiny for which we are made – a truth which has consequences for the way we approach life in the world.