Cyril of Jerusalem and His Teaching on the Christian Sacraments

Written by on December 2nd, 2013. Subject: Theology. Filed in Patristics, about Cyril of Jerusalem Christian Sacraments

|||Cyril, and F. L. Cross. St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Lectures on the Christian Sacraments. Crestwood, N.Y. St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986.|||

Cyril of Jerusalem Already is there on you the savor of blessedness, O ye who are soon to be enlightened: already are you gathering spiritual flowers, to weave heavenly crowns withal: already hath the fragrance of the Holy Ghost refreshed you: already are you at the entrance-hall of the King’s house: may you be brought into it by the King! For now the blossoms of the trees have budded; may but the fruit likewise be perfected! Thus far, your names have been given in, and the roll-call made for service; there are the torches of the bridal train, and the longings after heavenly citizenship, and a good purpose, and a hope attendant; for he cannot lie who hath said, “To them that love God, all things work together for Good.” p. 40.

It is generally supposed that St. Cyril was born in Jerusalem around the year 315 A.D. Most of what we know about him comes from the writings of his immediate successors Epiphanius, Jerome, and Rufinus as well as later 5th century historians such as Socrates and Sozomen.1 He is most famous for his lectures on the Christian sacraments which he gave while still a presbyter in the middle of the 4th century. It is interesting to note that Jerome accused Cyril of sympathizing with Arian propaganda to secure his Bishopric, although this is often dismissed as envy at the rising power of the see of Jerusalem, and its influence on the Roman rite.2 However he gained the see, St. Cyril endured a series of exiles and reconciliations that ended with his participation in the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. that condemned several Arian heresies, including the Pneumatomachian and the Apollinarians. It can safely be assumed that whatever his previous sympathies toward the teachings of Arius, in the end he openly assented to the teachings of Nicea and to St. Cyril of Alexandria’s defense of Homoöusian, for subsequent synodal letters seem to venerate him.3 It is even widely held that our present form of our Nicene Creed was a revision of the Jerusalem Creed drawn up by St. Cyril to confirm his orthodoxy.4

Even having lived in a turbulent time St. Cyril weathered the storm of theological and doctrinal controversy that consumed the church, and instead focused on the simpler pastoral problems. His Catechetical Lectures (of which twenty-four survive), which were meant for the unbaptized and soon to be baptized, were elementary but not simplified. The Genius of the lectures is that they taught the basic truths of the sacraments while leaving much room for advanced technical clarification, since such doctrinal “clarification” could often confuse and not illuminate the catechumen.

Along with the Procatechesis, which served as an exhortation of preparation, we will discuss five of the more important lectures that explain the baptismal and eucharistic rites, that have since been called the Mystagogical Catecheses. Historically these are important because they allow us to reconstruct how these rites were performed in the 4th century, but more importantly they provide a custom that the modern equivalent can point to for authority.

The Procatechesis: An Introduction

The Procatechesis begins with a general welcome, “already hath the fragrance of the Holy Ghost refreshed you… may you be brought into it [heaven] by the king!”5, but then warns everyone not to attend out of mere curiosity, “let there be no Simon among you, no hypocrisy, no idle curiosity about the matter.” He hopes that those catechumen who come before him to receive the teachings of the church do so seriously, and to “beware lest with the name of believer [they] have the purpose of an unbeliever”, which is to say that he warns them that they must now submit to the church, and not stand against her. An interesting tangent is that St. Cyril seems to follow St. Cyprian’s teaching on the invalidation of the baptism of heretics and schismatics, saying, “none but heretics are re-baptized, since their former baptism was not baptism”. This conflict was not so much over the doctrine of baptism, but the definition of the unity of the church, stemming from Tertullian’s claim that heretics did not worship the same God and therefore did not have a true baptism. This problem, of course, is later resolved by St. Augustine who argues that since Christ is the principle agent, it is through him and not the “heretic” that the baptism derives its power.6 But this is said in passing to emphasize the need to be baptized only once. The catechumen is instructed so that he might be prepared through a right purpose and the edification of the catechesis to properly understand the mystagogy of the sacraments; this includes what is expected of the believer as well as the difficulties he will face in coming to the church (and also the rewards). He references Galatians 3:13 and the amour of God, explaining that we must “war the Lord’s warfare, overcome the powers that oppose thee, and escape defeat from every heretical attempt.”7

Beyond general preparation, the Procatechesis outlines the proper approach to theology, an explanation of the power of baptism, and the responsibilities of being a Christian. St. Cyril is quick to explain that theology is for those who are versed in the teachings of the church, “for we deliver to thee a mystery” and further, “keep the mystery for Him who pays thee.”8 This is not an advocation for a mystery religion, or some kind of gnosticism, but the general warning to those who, through pride, attempt to teach unbelievers or strangers lest they are made delirious “for not understanding what he has heard… and scoffs at it.”9 For only fools attempt to explain what they do not understand, and the true believer, being instructed in the mysteries of the sacraments, are soon to “reach the height of what is taught.”10 Cyril then explains the power of baptism; that being “the garment of light” for the believer it is the “death of sin”.11 He encourages us to don the gospel of peace (Eph. 6:15) and to “have fellowship in the holy mysteries”.12 Finally he explains our responsibilities as Christians, encouraging us to be receptive to the faith and to “prepare our hearts”.13 He emphasizes the grace of forgiveness and he assures us of eternal blessing in Christ to whom we are to give the glory for ever and ever.

The Sacrament of Baptism

Moving onward St. Cyril discusses the rites that are to be performed before Baptism. This involves an explanation and a history of the passover feast which began when God commanded his people to paint the blood of a lamb over their door-post so that their first born would not die, and how the Israelites were saved when they fled across the parted Red Sea. He rightly draws the analogy between the passover lamb and the lamb of God, Christ, “the blood of a lamb was the spell against the destroyer.”14 He explains to us the significance of facing West while denouncing Satan, as the West symbolizes “the region of sensible darkness.”15 For, when we renounce Satan we are also to renounce all his works, which is sin, and all his pomp which is all the vanity of a sinful life. It is interesting to note his list of what is considered vain and sinful: horse-racing, shows, hunting, etc. But perhaps he meant something more time-specific and not those things in general. After Satan is rejected St. Cyril explains that they are to profess what was most likely the Nicene Creed, affirming the Trinity and the one true baptism. He is careful to warn us of the potential dangers along the wayside as we progress in our Christian life; he cites the warning of 1 peter 5:8 where the devil “as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

The discussion on Baptism itself lays out the ceremony to be performed as well as its significance and its effect. He explains that the process of baptism requires you to take off your garment, to be anointed with exorcised oil, then, being led to the baptismal pool, confess your belief in the Christian trinity, where you are then dipped three times into the water. For each of these actions he explains their significance; for removing our garments symbolizes our removal of our old life, and its shame; the anointing of oil signifies the participation in the “fatness of Christ”16, which “not only burns and cleanses away the traces of sins, but also chases away all the invisible powers of the evil one”17; we confess and are dipped three times just as Christ was three-days buried. He then spends some time comparing the baptism of John to the power of baptism through Christ, which has the power not only to remit sins, but to convey the Holy Spirit and stands as the counterpoint to Christ’s suffering.18 We are asked to remember Romans 3 which tells us that we are baptized in the likeness of Christ’s death so that we may also be in the likeness of his resurrection.

The Sacrament of Unction

He then speaks of Unction which is given to us after baptism as a sign of our being partakers and fellows of Christ. He tells the story of Christ’s baptism in the waters of the Jordan, and how after being baptized the “Holy Ghost in substance lighted on him”19. He reaffirms this through Acts 10:38 which says that Jesus was anointed by the Holy Ghost by God. He tells us that we should not believe that this is mere ointment, and compares the process to that of the Eucharist, saying “For as the Bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Ghost, is mere bread no longer, but the Body of Christ, so also this holy ointment is no more simple ointment”20 and further, “it is symbolically applied to they forehead and thy other senses and while thy body is anointed with visible ointment, thy soul is sanctified by the Holy and life-giving Spirit.”21 Here Cyril also references the importance of unction and the anointing of oil in the Old Testament. He remembers the story of Aaron and how he was anointed “from the emblematical Chrism”.22 While anointment was a figure or a symbol of God’s favor upon Israel in the Old Testament, we are now anointed in truth since we are “truly anointed by the Holy Ghost.”23

The Sacrament of the Eucharist

St. Cyril affirms the traditional view of the Eucharist as the body and blood of Christ. He affirms through scripture the importance of the Eucharist citing 2 Corinthians (we become partakers of the divine nature) and 2 Peter (except ye eat My flesh and drink My blood ye have no life in you). He also points out many Old Testament situations which draw a parallel to the new rite, particularly Ecclesiastes 9:7 which says, “Come hither, eat thy read with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; and let thy head lack no ointment, and let thy garments be always white, for God now accepteth thy works”. For as he says we are to be fully persuaded that “what seems bread is not bread, though bread by taste, but the Body of Christ; and that what seems wine is not wine, though the taste will have it so, but the Blood of Christ.”24 He finishes with a blessing and the claim to glory through the Eucharistic rite, that we may “behold as in a glass the glory of the Lord.”25

Finally St. Cyril outlines the Eucharistic rite that should be performed. He explains in detail the function of the Eucharist in the liturgy as well as the significance of each part. This lecture is particularly important because it outlines in detail how the sacrament would be performed in the fourth century. He explains that the Celebrant is to wash his hands as symbol to be pure, and not because of any bodily defilement, and this is to be a symbol that we ought to be pure and blameless in our actions, and therefore a symbol “of immunity from sin”.26 From this there is performed the kiss of peace. This kiss is not to be mistaken for camaraderie, but “blends souls one with another”. As such the kiss is “a sign that our souls are mingled together, and have banished all remembrance of wrongs,”27 for as he says citing Matthew 5:23, should we remember that we have wronged our brother, we are to leave the altar and go reconcile with him, and only afterwards are we to return. This is followed by the lifting of our hearts, where we are to remove from our minds all worldly cares and endeavor to turn our attention to the Lord. Doing this we then we give thanks to the Lord, then having given thanks, and sanctified by the spiritual hymns, we call upon the Lord to sanctify and change the Eucharist. Afterwards, as St. Cyril explains, we commemorate and pray for the departed and finish with the Paternoster, which Cyril breaks down and explains in detail. We are to say, “Our Father, which art in heaven” for we know that God has “bestowed so great a participation of grace, as that they should even call him Father”28, “hallowed be thy name” for the name of God “is in its own nature holy, whether we say so or not.”29 He explains that we are praying so that through us God’s name may be glorified and hallowed and not “blasphemed [as] among the Gentiles.”30 Continuing we say, “Thy kingdom come”, for we are to be clean and not “let sin reign in [our] mortal body.”31 Then we say, “Thy will be done as in Heaven so in Earth” as an earnest prayer for the Lord to use us as instruments of his will here on earth “as [His] will is done by the angels”32 in Heaven. We are then to pray for our spiritual nourishment saying, “give us this day our super-substantial bread”. He encourages us to pray this everyday, for this day means each day, as Paul says in Hebrews 3:13 (But exhort one another daily). After this we are to ask forgiveness of our sins as we forgive our debtors, for we have many sins, offensive both in words and in thoughts. St. Cyril explains that while we have many things “worthy of condemnation” we also “enter into a covenant with God… entreating him to pardon our sins, as we also forgive our neighbors their debts.”33 We are then to recognize and give thanks for our deliverance from temptation, praying, “and lead us not into temptation”. St. Cyril explains that what is meant is not the removal of all temptation, but that we should not be engulfed and fall under temptation. We are told that God “has proved us” through our resistance of temptation. He references Psalm 66 to show that even though we may seem overwhelmed by afflictions and temptations, nevertheless through this God “boughtest us out into a wealthy place.”34 Finally, we are to say, “but deliver us from evil.” St. Cyril teaches us we are to pray to be delivered from the evil one, who stands ready to tempt us, and to bind us with sin.

After this we are told how to receive the Eucharist, “not with [our] wrists extended, or [our] fingers open” but to “make [our] left hand as if a throne for the right, which is on the eve of receiving the king.”35 Then, having hollowed our hands and our eyes we are to partake of the Eucharist “of which is more precious than gold and precious stones.”36 When taking of the cup we are again to hollow ourselves, and turning our thoughts heavenward, we are to give thanks unto God for being “accounted worthy of so great mysteries.”37 He then leaves us with the admonition to keep the sacraments “unspotted” and to keep ourselves “free from offence.”38

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B. R. Mullikin is the founder of NetCrit. He also is an Editor for The Lost Country, and has many other literary and academic projects.

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  1. Chapman, J. (1908). St. Cyril of Jerusalem. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 

  2. Namely, (1) the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple; (2) the Palm Sunday Procession; and (3) the Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday. (F.L Cross cites A. Baumstark) 

  3. p. xxi. 

  4. p. xxiv. 

  5. p. 40. 

  6. Chapman, J. (1908). St. Cyprian of Carthage. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 

  7. p. 46. 

  8. p. 47. 

  9. ibid 

  10. p. 48. 

  11. p. 50. 

  12. p. 51. 

  13. ibid 

  14. p. 54. 

  15. ibid 

  16. p. 60. 

  17. ibid 

  18. p. 62. 

  19. p. 64. 

  20. p. 65. 

  21. ibid 

  22. p. 66. 

  23. ibid 

  24. p. 71. 

  25. ibid 

  26. p. 72. 

  27. ibid 

  28. p. 75. 

  29. ibid 

  30. Romans 2:24 

  31. Romans 6:12 

  32. p. 76. 

  33. p. 77. 

  34. p. 78. 

  35. p. 79. 

  36. ibid 

  37. ibid 

  38. p. 80.