The Comfort of Repentance: A Brief Introduction to the Life of Saint Cyprian

On September 20th, we remembered the life of Saint Cyprian, whose feast day is commemorated on September 16th

The year 250 AD was a dark moment for Christians living under the Emperor Decius. He declared that Christians must sacrifice to pagan gods, and demanded that they sign a statement affirming this worship, or face execution. Many Christians were killed, but many committed idolatry to ensure their own safety. When Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, exhorted his Christian brethren to formally repent of this public sin, many refused, and thus Cyprian had to shepherd a flock both persecuted and heretical. Pastoral duties have not gotten easier since the time of Saint Cyprian, whether the challenge is simply getting Christians to come to air-conditioned worship in the relative safety of the western world, or the devastating persecution happening in the Middle East. Saint Cyprian is a reminder that the challenges we face now are the same ones the Church has always faced, and by the grace of God has always overcome.

Cyprian was well prepared for his duties as priest and bishop of Carthage. Before converting to Christianity, he was trained in law and oratory and taught rhetoric, and after his baptism at the age of 35 he immediately gave a significant portion of his wealth away. Until Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome, Cyprian was known as the most eloquent and practical of the church fathers, using his training in rhetoric and scripture to craft beautiful homilies and epistles targeted to address the real concerns of his flock.

Almost a decade after the persecution lead by Emperor Decius, Emperor Valerian led a new, even more bloodthirsty persecution, and Cyprian was ordered to cease leading worship and performing his priestly duties. He refused, and for his crimes of celebrating Holy Communion, worshiping with and ministering to his Christian brothers and sisters, he was executed. When the Roman official pronounced his death sentence, Saint Cyprian replied only, “Thanks be to God.”

Saint Cyprian reminds us of the urgent need to earnestly repent of our sins for our spiritual health, and of the mystical union of Christ’s church as the refuge where we seek God’s grace. I close with words that he wrote to his friend Donatus:

“When I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night, I used to regard it as extremely difficult and demanding to do what God’s mercy was suggesting to me… I myself was held in bonds by the innumerable errors of my previous life, from which I did not believe I could possibly be delivered….

“But after that, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of my former life was washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, was infused into my reconciled heart… a second birth restored me to a new man. Then, in a wondrous manner every doubt began to fade…. I clearly understood that what had first lived within me, enslaved by the vices of the flesh, was earthly and that what, instead, the Holy Spirit had wrought within me was divine and heavenly.”

By Anthony G. Cirilla

Seeking in Faith: A Brief Introduction to Saint Augustine

Saint Augustine’s feast day is observed on August 28th in western Christianity. This brief introduction was read in part at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church on August 30th, as a reminder of the church father’s exemplary intellectual contributions to the literature of our faith. We share this synopsis with woeful recognition of the difficulty of summarizing the life and works of such an inspiring example of Christian intellectualism, but with the hope that it will encourage reading of some of Augustine’s key works.

Augustine converted to Christianity from Roman paganism (specifically Manicheanism), and was a bishop in North Africa. He founded a monastery and composed for it a monastic rule of life, and wrote about 93 books and 400 sermons. Augustine was a forefather of the medieval scholasticism that culminated in figures such as Thomas Aquinas and a profound influence on Protestant Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. He has therefore relevance to all Christian believers, and is an edifying figure for Anglicans in particular to study because of our “via media” perspective of the catholicity of the Christian faith. The widespread impact of Augustine on the Christian tradition in general, and upon Anglicanism in specific, can hardly be overstated. Among well-known Anglican writers who admired Augustine are C.S. Lewis, George Berkeley, T.S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, and William Wordsworth.

Throughout his life, Augustine rigorously dedicated his intellectual abilities to seek in Scripture, tradition, and reason the meaning of Christ’s Incarnation for human history. He once wrote, “We are presently seeking in faith what we shall then share joyfully in vision.” Concerning the first commandment to love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind, Augustine sets a powerful example for the Christian life of the mind, but has much to edify the heart and soul as well.Four books from Augustine’s extensive writings can be especially fruitful for the modern Christian, each summarized briefly here.

First, Augustine’s intensely personal Confessions provides an amazing autobiographical look into the life of this church father. We are given a window into the heartfelt struggles Augustine experienced with sin, including stealing, adultery and fornication. All Christians can benefit from recognizing that one of the best known figures of our faith struggled as earnestly as we do, and can profit as well from the way Augustine shows his readers that reading and interpreting Scripture should become a part of each Christian’s biography. C.S. Lewis’s own autobiography, Surprised by Joy, is an example of the influence of the model for Christian testimony provided by this work.

The sequel to the Confessions is The City of God, a long book in which Augustine powerfully presents the uniqueness, rationality, and soundness of the Scriptural portrayal of God, as opposed to pagan ideas about Him. It also deals with topics such as the proper affiliation between a Christian church and secular state, the relationship between predestination and free will, and the perennial problem of why an all-powerful, all good, all-loving God allows evil, or, simply, why bad things happen to good people. Anglican apologetic writings, such as Berkeley’s Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, have been greatly influenced by this grand example of theological discourse.

Third, in On Christian Education Augustine discusses the importance of church tradition in arriving at reliable interpretation of Scripture and the rigorous programs of education necessary to become a teacher of God’s truth. Augustine’s faith that the final authority of the Bible is compatible with regard for the life of the mind, and the traditions of the Church Militant, provides an excellent resource for Anglicanism. Augustine’s discussion in the final section of this book, that eloquence should match the subject of discourse, can help Christians who value liturgical worship to understand and to articulate the value we see in the reverential language found, for example, in The Book of Common Prayer.

Finally, Augustine’s treatise “On the Trinity,” remains today one of the greatest explanations of the biblical revelation of the Triune God ever written. It has provided a model and touchstone for many expositions of the doctrine, including Dorothy Sayers’ essay, “Idea, Energy, Power,” in The Mind of the Maker.

Augustine’s restless seeking for God in Scripture, reason, and tradition, in worship, and in his life makes him an example for our own pursuit of God through the powers of the mind that the Lord gave to all of us. In prayer and in exhortation, Augustine wrote in The Confessions, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

By Anthony G. Cirilla, October 29th, 2015

A Meditation on Our Communion with the Angels

This meditation was written to acknowledge the feast day of the blessed Archangel, Michael, recognized on September 29th in the Anglican liturgical calendar, and was read at St. Stephen’s Anglican Church on October 11th, 2015.

Angels are mentioned throughout the Old and New Testament, often as hosts or unnamed representatives of the Lord. The Greek word angelos means messenger, and this is the role we see given to Gabriel, who foretells the birth of Christ (Luke 1:26-38) and John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25), and gives guidance to Daniel (Daniel 8:16). Angels are created beings, made before man, with incorporeal, spiritual bodies. Much of the angelic life is only hinted at in scripture, and although belief in them is required of the Christian, it is also wise not to place excessive emphasis on them in our thoughts, which may lead to superstition and idolatry. Their presence is a comfort and encouragement to us in our Christian walk: Psalm 91:11 tells us, “For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways,” and again we read in the epistle to the Hebrews, “Are they not all ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation?” This role of protector is seen in the archangel Michael, who is not placed simply in the role of messenger, but as a warrior, who fights against a demon in order to help a messenger angel reach Daniel, and who leads the assault against the Dragon in the Book of Revelation. Angels, like saints, are servants of the Lord, and therefore it is fitting that in our liturgy, as we stand to profess that heaven and earth are full of God’s glory, we acknowledge that we worship our Creator in communion “with Angels and Archangels, and with all the company of heaven.”

Of course, we know of fallen angels, the demons, of whom Saint Peter says in his second epistle, “God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell.” The leader of these is Satan the Devil, who appears three times in the Old Testament, once lying about God’s nature in the Book of Genesis, once accusing Job of being incapable of true love for God, and once accusing Joshua the high priest of being an unsuitable intercessor in the book of Zechariah. This provides a negative or distorted view of what angels do: They eternally testify to the glory of God, they witness to God’s love for us and assist in our service to Him in ways unseen, and they vindicate Christ as our High Priest and Redeemer.

Christ was tempted by Satan in the three ways he tempted man in the Old Testament: with food at the expense of true worship, with physical safety at the expense of an honest relationship with the Lord, and with worldly power at the expense of his rightful place as Son of God and Savior of Mankind. Satan thus not only tempted Christ with the full means he has to tempt man, but also demonstrated in his treatment of Christ his total fall from his angelic duties. So it is fitting that after our Lord’s trial, the angels came to minister to him.

Angels are fellow witnesses of Christ’s glory, secret helpers in our commitment to Christian service, and warriors who hold demonic forces at bay. Although they cannot provide the Redemption of Our Savior, Jesus Christ, they do provide sinless models of believers in the Lord: like Gabriel, we are to testify the divinity of Christ and announce that he did come into the world. But like Michael, whose feast day was this past week, we must remain steadfast and resilient in the face of adversity. With the recent shooting in Oregon that targeted Christians for execution, and with persecution on the rise in the world at large, we can take comfort in knowing that God equips us with the same power of the Holy Spirit that he used to create his righteous warrior and servant, Michael the Archangel.

By Anthony G. Cirilla, Oct. 3rd, 2015