To be a saint doesn’t mean you’re perfect, Pope Francis says in his exhortation “Gaudete et exsultate“, on holiness in today’s world. That’s good to remember when we consider St.Cyril of Alexandria, the 4th century bishop of Alexandria and doctor of the church, whose feast is today, June 26th.
If you read his online biography in Wikipedia–where many today look for information about saints – you’ll find that he was deeply involved in the messy partisan politics of his time, when Christians, Jews and pagans fought and schemed to control the city that was then probably the most important city in the Roman empire. Some called him a “proud Pharaoh;” “ a monster” out to destroy the church, an impulsive, scheming bishop in a riotous city. The Wikipedia biography mainly sees him that way.
He was a saint, other biographies say. Why a saint? Well, Cyril was absorbed in understanding and defending the Incarnation of the Word of God. How did the Word of God come among us? Who was Jesus Christ? Pursuing that mystery defined Cyril during life. It was at the heart of things for him, and the voluminous collection of sermons, letters, commentaries and controversial essays he left bears out that interest.
He thought and wrote extensively about this mystery. The way he came to express it was used at the Council of Ephesus (431) and became the way we also express it in our prayers. Mary was the Mother of God. The One born of her was not simply another human being. Her Son was true God, who would be truly human and eventually die on the Cross. God “so loved the world” that he came among us as Mary’s Son.
What we see as “the totality” of Cyril’s life, his “life’s jouney”, the “overall meaning of his person”, to use the pope’s words, is not his involvement in the violent politics of his day. Yes, that was there. But his abiding quest was to know Jesus Christ.
“‘The Word was made flesh’ [John 1:14], can mean nothing else but that he became flesh and blood like ours; he made our body his own and came forth man from a woman, not casting off his existence as God, or his generation of God the Father, but in taking to himself flesh remaining what he was.
“This is the correct faith proclaimed everywhere. The holy teachers taught this and so they called the holy Virgin, the Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word or his divinity began from the holy Virgin, but because that holy body with a rational soul, to which the Word, personally united, was born of her according to the flesh.”
— St. Cyril of Alexandria, First Letter to Nestorius
“When poisonous pride swells up in you, turn to the Eucharist; and that Bread, which is your God humbling and disguising himself, will teach you humility. When the fever of selfish greed rages in you, feed on this Bread; and you will learn generosity. When you feel the itch of intemperance, nourish yourself with the Flesh and Blood of Christ, who practiced heroic self-control during His earthly life, and you will become temperate. When you are lazy and sluggish about spiritual things, strengthen yourself with this heavenly Food; and you will grow fervent. Lastly, when you feel scorched by the fever of impurity, go to the banquet of the Angels; and the spotless Flesh of Christ will make you pure and chaste.”