Cyril has a great distinction – he is considered a saint in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The reasons for his deep respect are not so much caught up in his life or death but rather in his ability to contemplate and write about theology while never forgetting about the love of God.
Cyril lived 300 years after Jesus, and in Church history this was a very contentious time*. He was born around 315 in Caesarea** to a Syrio/Palestinian Christian family, and he spent lots of time in the church. He loved the church so much he decided to become a deacon. Eventually he became a priest and then a bishop.
Soon afterwards there was a great food shortage in Jerusalem. He sold some very fancy and historic church vestments and extra chalices and sensors to be able to feed the people of Jerusalem. This did not sit well with some of the other bishops. They already had a problem with Cyril – his theology. They accused him of stealing from the church and brought him to trial. Cyril said that he was too busy to show up. (He was.) The tried him anyway, and he was forced into retirement in Spain.
The bishops worked hard to get rid of Cyril. They were really frustrated by him and his refusal to believe in a heresy in which they believed. The formal title for this heresy is Arianism. The priest, Arius, in Alexandria Egypt came up with the heresy, and like all good lies, it has a grain of truth.
Here is how the heresy goes: Jesus didn’t always exist. He was born of Mary, therefore he was created. Therefore he is not equal with God. He even had a couple of verses that if you squint hard and take them out of context could be used to support the idea. The whole trinity theology was thrown out the window by him. One theologian Athanasia wrote an entire creed just to debunk it. It is in the back of the prayer book as one of the three creeds we recognize. (Even today, we still have a few pastors who dance along the line between trinitarian belief and heresy.***)
The Council of Nicea had met the year Cyril was born to deal with this heresy among others. That is why the careful wording about Jesus when we say the Nicene Creed. The heresy was thoroughly trounced by theologians like Cyril, however politically it gained lots of power – Roman Emperors and chiefs of the Goths, Vandals and Lombards (the Germanic barbarians who would lay waste to Rome later) were all professing Arians. The politicians told the theologians to be nice to the heretics. Finally the Bishops and theologians held another Council in Constantinople in 381 declaring that they would not live with the heresy. It eventually died as the church leadership remained steadfast to the doctrine of the trinity.
While Cyril was in early retirement, he didn’t stop thinking about the best way to train people so they wouldn’t fall for heresies. He had a plan, and he was prepared. When he finally was allowed to return as Bishop in Jerusalem again, he instituted the Catechetical Lectures. Many, many people would come to Jerusalem during Lent every year. They were preparing to enter into the communion of saints through Confirmation. Cyril taught 23 lectures about the mysteries of faith to these people from all over North Africa, the Near East, Russia, and Europe. He told people that God loved them and that the Holy Spirit “comes with a tenderness of a true friend to save, to heal, to counsel, to strengthen, and to console.” He knew that the facts about the faith were important but can not be allowed to trump the great love of God to us.
*This is the same time as St. Nicholas and his famous punching out of Arius in front of the Emperor during the Council of Nicea.
** This city was built by the Greeks when they conquered Israel and was dedicated to the Greek god of pleasure – Pan. Herod (yes, that Herod) made all kinds of improvements to it right around the time Jesus was born. By the time Jesus was traveling around it was a melting pot of lots of cultures. We are told Jesus went near the city. This journey brought us the conversation culminating in Peter’s great confession – “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Later we are told that a foreigner, a female, a smelly filthy woman who more than likely had a fistula touched Jesus’ robe knowing that just that little touch would heal her – and it did.
*** Today it is called Binitarianism (Bi = 2) or a variation is Modalism. Denominations and PsudoChristian churches that are Arian: Oneness Pentecostalism (T.D. Jakes), some Churches of God, and all variations of Mormonism.