Saint Cyril of Alexandria was the Patriarch of Alexandria during the early part of the 5th century and a key figure in the Christological controversies of his time. His debate with the heretic Nestorius was the impetus for the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD where the Church officially adopted the long held understanding that Mary is Theotokos, “Mother of God.” Because of Saint Cyril’s steadfast defense of orthodoxy, he is called a Pillar of Faith and a Doctor of the Church.
In his defense of Christianity, Cyril was known to be somewhat brusque, often employing sarcasm and an acerbic style. For Cyril, this may have seemed necessary to combat a dangerous heresy. He also wrote with precision, making use of almost technical language to speak precisely about Christ. Yet his commitment to an orthodox understanding of Christ’s nature also led him to write poetically and lovingly of the Virgin Mary.
Cyril became Patriarch of Alexandria in 412 AD when the city was the capital of Egypt under Roman rule and a huge center of learning and culture. The city’s population was a mix of pagans, Christians, and Jews who often came into conflict with each other as well as the Roman authorities. Alexandria was not so much a melting pot as it was a bubbling cauldron of opposing groups that often boiled over into rioting and violence.
As Patriarch, Cyril became entangled in some of these conflicts but to what extent is debatable. Some modern scholars have gone so far as to paint him as a violent fundamentalist, guilty of the murder of the pagan scholar, Hypatia. This portrait is questionable at best. However, as leader of the Christians in Alexandria, Cyril surely bears some responsibility for the actions of his flock.
Despite the shocking nature of the sectarian violence in Alexandria, it is not the conflicts with the pagans or Jews that Saint Cyril is primarily remembered today. Instead, it was during his confrontation with Nestorius that Cyril rose to prominence. This conflict began when Nestorius became Patriarch of Constantinople. A priest in the area preached against the term Theotokos, arguing that Mary could not be the Mother of God. The Blessed Virgin had long been called by that title but it was not yet Church doctrine. Nestorius affirmed this priest and argued that Mary was merely the mother of Christ’s human nature, not his divine nature.
To some, even today, this argument may seem like bickering over semantics. But St. Cyril saw, keenly, that what we say about Mary is crucial for how we understand her son, Jesus. If Mary were the mother of Jesus’ physical body but somehow not the mother of God, then this would mean Christ was divided into two separate natures, one human and one divine. And while Jesus is both fully divine and fully man, he is not divided. The human and divine natures of Jesus are unified in a single, undivided person. We say this not just because we value technical accuracy but because the truth of this mystery has an incredible impact on how we understand Jesus, his incarnation, ministry, and power to redeem humanity. This is why, in a letter to Nestorius, Saint Cyril writes, “for our sake and for our salvation, he assumed his human nature into the unity of his Person and was born of a woman; this is why it is said that he was born according to the flesh.”(Cyril of Alexandria, Letter II to Nestorius) In other words, our very salvation depends on two natures united into one person, Jesus Christ.
The Church has always held to the truth of the unity of Christ’s human and divine natures. But Saint Cyril gave an invaluable apology of this truth and expressed it with clarity, shedding light on its implications for how we ought to understand Christ’s mother, the Theotokos, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Cyril understood that if what we say about Christ is true — that from the moment of his incarnation he was fully man and yet remained fully God — than Mary ought to be venerated the one who gave flesh to and bore the King of the Universe. So Saint Cyril proclaims boldly that Mary is Theotokos as well as “Virgin-Mother, lightbearer, uncorrupt vessel.” He praises her saying, “Hail, Mary, you are the most precious creature in the whole world; hail, Mary, uncorrupt dove; hail, Mary, inextinguishable lamp; for from you was born the Sun of Justice.” (Gambero, Mary and the Fathers of the Church, p. 243) If Christ was merely a man or was not divine from the moment of incarnation, then Mary would not deserve such praise. The same is true if Christ were divine but not human since Mary’s role would be a strange illusion. But, if we hold to the orthodox belief that Jesus was both fully divine and fully man, then the praise is not only allowable but inevitable
Despite the rightness of Saint Cyril’s praise for Mary, it’s strange to see such tender words coming from his mouth. Cyril did not hesitate to call Nestorius “wretched” and “blasphemous” and he was often quite stern and severe with other bishops who strayed from an orthodox faith. Yet this disposition softens greatly when he turns his words to the Virgin Mary. In Ephesus, during a homily in which he strongly criticized Nestorius, Cyril joyfully proclaimed of Mary, “But who among men is capable of celebrating Mary most glorious? The virginal womb: such a great wonder! This miracle has me enraptured.” (Cyril of Alexandria, Homily IV at Ephesus preached against Nestorius) In this same homily, Cyril trumpets:
“Hail, you who held the Uncontainable One in your holy and virginal womb! Through you, the Holy Trinity is glorified; the precious Cross is celebrated and adored throughout the world; heaven exults, the angels and archangels rejoice, the demons are put to flight, the devil, the tempter, falls from heaven, the fallen creation is brought back to paradise, all creatures trapped in idolatry come to know of the truth.”
Such effusive praise is not mere sentimentality or poetic hyperbole. Saint Cyril, Doctor of the Church, always reasoned and wrote with surgical precision and careful accuracy. And so his devotion to Mary was the result of his understanding of who Christ is and, in turn, what his mother must be. Cyril saw the beauty of this mystery and couldn’t help but be moved. His writing is a testament not just to orthodoxy but also to Mary’s ability to soften even the roughest exteriors. Fortunately for all of us, Saint Cyril’s devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, theologically sound and orthodox, became official Church doctrine at the Council of Ephesus. Father Luigi Gambero , describing the development of our understanding of Mary in his book Mary and the Fathers of the Church, writes, “Cyril’s preaching and his attitude, redolent with admiration, greatly contributed to the growth of Marian devotion.” (Gambero, p. 239) Because of Saint Cyril’s keen insights and steadfast devotion to the truth, we are able to name Mary “Mother of God” without reservation.
May Mary soften our hearts just as she did to Saint Cyril of Alexandria.