A HOMILY FOR THE FEAST OF SAINTS ATHANASIUS AND CYRIL, ARCHBISHOPS OF ALEXANDRIA
About the Life and Conduct of the Saints
Brothers and sisters!
On the eighteenth day of January by the ecclesiastical calendar, which is January thirty-first by the civil reckoning, our Holy Church celebrates the two greatest archbishops of Alexandria, Athanasius and Cyril. Although each of these saints has his own separate feast day, the present commemoration was established to double the glorification of their exceptional sanctity and so that the faithful would ever bear in mind their invaluable services to the Church.
The first of these holy men, Athanasius the Great, was born at the end of the third century in Alexandria, where he received his education. He devoted himself to the study of Sacred Scripture and came to know all of its books as well “as another might know a single one.” On account of his love for the Bible, he also pored over the teaching of the Fathers who preceded him, especially those who wrote expository works explaining the Scriptures. At the same time, he lived a strictly ascetical life. Knowing this, Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria, ordained him to the diaconate. It was while he was still in the rank of deacon that Saint Athanasius accompanied Bishop Alexander to the First Oecumenical Council at Nicaea. There he played the most active role in the debates with the heretic Arius, who denied Christ’s divinity.
A few years after returning from Nicaea, Bishop Alexander reposed. The general consensus was that Athanasius should be his successor. During the episcopal election, the people were crying, “This is a true Christian! This indeed is a pious man! This is a struggler -- someone worthy of the episcopacy!” For a long time Saint Athanasius refused to accept consecration, considering himself unfit to hold the helm of the Church at a time when the ark of salvation was being tossed about by the evil winds of heresy; nevertheless, he finally submitted to the demand of the faithful and was made Bishop of Alexandria. This was in the year 328, when he was just thirty years old.
Saint Athanasius proved to be the most inflexible, unyielding opponent of the Arians. He warred against them without respite until the end of his life, ever bearing aloft the invincible banner of Orthodoxy. All who valued the Orthodox faith looked to him as their guide and confirmed their beliefs against the standard of his teaching. Indeed, even some whose faith was dubious sought him out for approval. Athanasius continually attacked the false opinions of the heretics and gave constant support to the defenders of Orthodoxy. At the same time, he showed extreme condescension towards the many who found themselves in the camp of the heretics as a result of the deceitful wiles and threats of the latter. Both by his exhortations and his writings, he warred against the errors of the day, seeking to restore peace to the Church not by lawless compromise, but by undying fidelity to the truth.
During the course of this struggle, Saint Athanasius was exposed to numerous dangers and suffered continuous persecution at the hands of the Arians. He was many times banished from Alexandria, and hid himself in Gaul, in Italy, and among the hermits of the deserts of Egypt. His unbending firmness, heroic bravery, and flaming zeal for the faith enabled him to endure every trial and bear every sorrow and suffering with the utmost patience and without deviation from the purpose to which he had dedicated his life and for which he was always ready to permit his blood to be spilt. Time and again he dealt mighty blows to the heretics, accomplishing this chiefly with the use of spiritual weapons, although he did not hesitate to seek the assistance of the secular authorities in his fight against the miscreants. Nevertheless, he insisted, “Not by the sword or the bow shall the truth prevail, but by persuasion.” Battling throughout his days with the false preconceptions, opinions, and passions of people of every station in life, Saint Athanasius acquired a rare insight into human nature and remarkable ability to penetrate the hidden recesses of human thoughts and intentions. As a result, the saint was able to deal successfully with those not entirely hardened in error, and he repeatedly displayed the tact necessary to turn them from falsehood to the truth. He understood exactly when it was necessary to demand, and when to request humbly; when to stand and fight, and when to avoid danger. He was strict in dealing with obstinate heretics and all those intent on stirring up trouble for the Holy Church, but his relations with his faithful flock were the warmest, and he showed himself to be a wise and good guide in every circumstance.
“Pleasant of speech, angelic in appearance,” the great Athanasius was the embodiment of all the loftiest characteristics to be found in a man. He was one of the greatest of the Fathers, plainly given to the Church by the hand of God Himself as the pillar and support of Orthodoxy during a time of severe trial. According to the testimony of Saint Gregory the Theologian, in Saint Athanasius “every virtue was to found. His life was an example for all bishops, and the dogmas he taught were a rule of faith for the Orthodox.” For this reason the devout praise him in the divine services as “the golden trumpet of theology,” “the defender of the faith,” “a pillar of light,” and “the confirmation of the Church.”
Saint Athanasius left behind many treatises which represent an ageless expression of Orthodox truth. Certain of his works are refutations of heresy, others explain the sacred Scriptures, while still others are devoted to moral theology. He is especially renowned for his amazing Life of Saint Anthony the Great, which served as a model for all later monastic hagiography. Saint Athanasius reposed in the year 373 at the age of about seventy-five or seventy-six.
Cyril, the second of the saints commemorated today, was born in Alexandria toward the end of the fourth century and struggled for five years in monastic labors in the desert of Nitria. Then his uncle Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, summoned him back to the city and ordained him deacon. Because of Cyril’s incredible knowledge of the Scriptures, which he had memorized almost in their entirety, Theophilus frequently entrusted him with the task of preaching the word of God. In the year 412, after Theophilus’ death, Cyril, who was held in the highest respect by the faithful for his virtuous life, was appointed to succeed his uncle. Much maligned to this day by the enemies of the faith for his sternness toward the foes of Christ -- the Jews, pagans, and heretics -- Cyril was always guided in his actions by one principle alone: to preserve and confirm his flock in the faith and piety. His fiery zeal for the purity of Christian teaching and his unbending firmness in defense of Orthodoxy found its most important expression in the struggle against the heretic Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople. Nestorius taught that Christ was two separate individuals -- a man and a God -- coexisting under a single appearance. He also taught that the Virgin Mary was not to be called Theotokos, but only Christotokos -- she who bore Christ -- since, according to his blasphemous opinion, it was impossible for her to have given birth to God, as she was human.
Saint Cyril was typical of the great hierarchs who were at once pastors, theologians, and administrators, and who piloted the Church during the golden age of the Fathers, the fourth and fifth centuries. Emerging from a period of persecution and illicit existence into the exhilarating freedom given her by Saint Constantine, the Church found herself fending off internal foes who, abusing this freedom and distorting the Scriptures and the Holy Tradition of which they are a part, sowed dissension and confusion more pernicious than persecution by the heathen. Against these attempts to distort divine revelation, giants such as Saint Cyril brought to bear their vast spiritual strength and incredible erudition. Saint Cyril was one of the foremost hoplites in the front rank of the phalanx of holy bishops who constituted Orthodoxy’s chief defense during this period.
In the year 431, the Third Oecumenical Council convened in Ephesus and condemned Nestorius’ heresy. It was Saint Cyril who presided over this council. Thirteen years later, on the 27th of June, 444, Saint Cyril reposed, but he is not forgotten by the Orthodox, who honor him with accolades few others have received: “Seal of the Fathers,” “Doctor of the Church,” “Defender of the true faith,” and “Apostolic man.” Ever zealous for the faith of the apostles, Saint Cyril was a great lover of the Scriptures and a diligent shepherd. Since his translation to heaven, sixteen centuries have passed, but the significance of his contribution to Christian theology has not waned.
Today, alas, the Church of Alexandria is no longer a bastion of Orthodoxy, but of renovationism and the pan-heresy of Ecumenism. Its last primate, Parthenius, declared Mohammed to be a prophet of God and stated that “When I speak against Islam or Buddhism, then I am not found in agreement with God.” This Patriarchate has been in a state of partial, but official, intercommunion with the Coptic Church for several decades now. What a fall from the pure confession of the two holy hierarchs of Alexandria we celebrate today! But may God overlook our sins; and by the holy prayers of Saints Athanasius and Cyril, may He once again raise up worthy shepherds to guide this ancient and renowned Church. Amen.