Cyril lived in the early to mid fifth century, dying in AD 444. He was the nephew of Theophilus, the patriarch of Alexandria, and later assumed that office in Alexandria.
Like many of the church fathers, historical circumstances thrust Cyril into a role that would subsequently define him as a Doctor of the Church. He ascended to the patriarchate of Alexandria in 412 and a decade later inserted himself fully into the Nestorian controversy. Nestorius was the Patriarch of Constantinople, and, before the controversy to which his name would be forever attached, he was quite well-respected, both in Constantinople and elsewhere.
The Nestorian heresy centered around particular understandings of Christology, particularly the way in which the divine nature and the human nature of Jesus were understood to relate to each other, particularly in regards to the hypostasis or person of the Word. (For more information on the terminology of person, see one of my more recent posts.) Nestorius seems to have leaned in the direction of the Antiochene school (being himself from Antioch) which understood the Incarnation to involve the assumption of a man by the Word.[1. Nestorius and Nesorianism, The Catholic Encyclopedia, http://newadvent.org] In this assumption, however, was not a unity but rather a junction. Thus, there was not understood (or, at the very least, the terminology employed did not really speak of such) to be a true hypostatic or personal union between the divine nature and human nature. Part of the difficulty, to be sure, was that prosopon still had not attained the theological precision that it later attained, in which person stood for the subject of all a nature’s acts. Added to this was even more imprecise language employed by some Antiochene theologians, such as junction (synapheia) rather than unity (enosis).
Nestorius, in contrast to some of his less than precise Antiochene counterparts, insisted on a personal unity between the two natures. In fact, had he not written to Rome for advice and support against some Arian and Apollianian opponents in Constantinople, he may have never fallen into the conflict which further ensured. In writing to Pope Celestine I, he denounced his opponents as well as the use of the term Theotokos (God-Bearer) in reference to the Virgin Mary. He was willing to use it as understood of Mary being the mother of simply the human nature of Jesus. Nestorius’ reasoning followed an axiom: “No one can bring forth a son older than herself.”[2. Nestorius and Nesorianism, The Catholic Encyclopedia, http://newadvent.org] In an interesting historical twist, the letters were given by Celestine I to the deacon Leo, who would later become Leo the Great and write and the Tome to Flavian which essentially codified the understanding of Christ as two natures united in one person. At the time, however, Leo gave these letters to John Cassian, who wrote a series of books against Nestorius.
This was where Cyril came in. While Nestorius was in communication with Pope Celestine I and finding reason to defend himself, Cyril, being by nature a rather tempermental man, brought his intellect and position fully to bear upon the situation. He began to personally communicate with Nestorius, and eventually sent all their correspondence to Rome along with a series of five books he had written against Nestorius. Celestine I at this point essentially dragged his feet- he issued a general condemnation of Nestorius’ views and approved of Cyril’s, but both were fairly vague and didn’t really offer any specifics. The Council of Ephesus was convened in 431 to finally deal with issue. In it Cyril’s 12 anathemas against Nestorius were generally (although perhaps not particularly) accepted and Nestorianism was condemned. It is unclear as to whether Nestorius actually was a Nestorian or merely used language that would lead one to that position logically or perhaps a mixture of the two. His intent was to safeguard the unity of person in Jesus, but the way he went about explaining it logically led to error.
On Cyril’s part, the concept of the Theotokos became a term indispensible for understanding the nature of the union between the divine and human natures in Christ. For Cyril, to reject understanding Mary as the Mother of God (God-Bearer) is to essentially split Jesus into two different persons. For if Mary was only the mother of Jesus’ human nature but not also considered his mother in regards to the Person of Jesus, that would entail that the human nature of Jesus is not actually united to the Person of the Word and the divine nature, but only exists side by side, so to speak. However, human nature cannot exist abstractly, so for it to be existent or actualized in Jesus would require that it be a Person, which, if Mary is not the Mother of the one Person of Jesus, would entail that there are actually two persons in Jesus rather than one. Thus, to call Mary the Theotokos is to say that she was the mother of Jesus in whom the divine and human natures are perfectly united. As the Council of Ephesus would explain:
And since the holy Virgin brought forth corporally God made one with flesh according to nature, for this reason we also call her Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word had the beginning of its existence from the flesh.
The understanding and declaration of Mary as Theotokos rests upon the understanding of the communicatio idiomatum– the communication of idioms. That is, since in Jesus is the union of two natures in one subject or person, what is predicated concretely of one nature can be predicated concretely (at least generally) of the other, not absolutely, of course, but rather as it relates to and presupposes the hypostatic union. For example, since Jesus is both God and man, and both are concrete predicates, one could say that ‘God died on the cross.’ Within this statement is the understanding that God, as man (as united to the human nature in Jesus), died on the cross, not that the divine nature itself died.
Notwithstanding the Nestorian controversy, Cyril was a prolific author, and penned numerous commentaries, letters and theological works. This selection comes from his commentary on the Lord’s prayer, in which he contemplates why Christians should pray ‘Your Kingdom Come.’
Before the worlds ever came to be, God is the King of them all. His dominion is eternal, and his power is without measure- so why would those who cry out to God as ‘Father’ ask that “Your Kingdom come?”
This plea from the saints lends words to a desire, the hope that the Savior of us all- Christ himself- will come again. But this is not simply a hope, for he will come again. When he does, it will no longer be in humility as a baby as it was for his first advent; rather, from the heavens he will descend in glory as the Judge of the world. His magnificence will show him for who he really is, and there will be no choice but to declare that he is God, shining in the radiance of divinity, accompanied by the countless throngs of angels as his entourage. For he has said: “The Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father, with his holy angels…”
His court is impartial, his judgment seat fills all who consider it with terror and awe. That day will be a time of pleading, but even more so the hour of justice. The end of the wicked is at hand, the fiery destruction of their ways is laid bare before them. In the face of such a terrible reality, whose heart would not melt in despair?
But those who love God pray all the harder for the complete reign of the Savior to come. They have worked with all their might and have a conscience that does not condemn them. They can gladly and without fear look forward to a reward for their love and service. When Christmas is near, you do not fear its approach but rather count down the days, waiting with a mix of anxiousness and excitement for the day to finally arrive. In the same way, those who belong to God have full confidence and hope that in the presence of the holy Judge they will stand in his radiance, reflecting his brightness. There is no fear of a bad verdict here, but rather the promise of those words: “Come, you blessed of the Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world.” All of their lives they trusted that God’s promise was true, as now all things are made new in the consummation of all things.
Christ will come from heaven again to reign, and they will see him; they will shine like the stars in the kingdom of the Father, their glory will diminish the sun. That is why we pray “Your kingdom come.” We pray full of the trust that our courage will be remembered and that we will be brought into Christ’s kingdom, the fulfillment of our faith and hope.