The church of Alexandria was known as the lighthouse of Orthodoxy because of her two great theologian patriarchs, St Athanasius and St Cyril.
Cyril, born about A.D. 360, was placed under the protection of his uncle, Theophilus, who gave him a thorough sacred and secular education. Theophilus became Patriarch of Alexandria in 385 and Cyril was ordained into the clergy. He accompanied his uncle to Constantinople for the infamous Synod of Oak in 403, which unjustly convicted St John Chrysostom of heresy. Cyril, when he became Patriarch of Alexandria on his uncle’s death in 412, for a time refused to include St John’s name in the diptychs out of devotion to his uncle’s memory but was reconciled by a vision in which the Mother of God appeared accompanied by the saint.
As Patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril attempted to see that justice was done but had to contend with an unruly population, where Christian, Jewish and pagan mobs were all too often in conflict. Especially disgraceful was the murder of the pagan philosopher Hypatia by a party of fanatical monks.
In 428, the Emperor Theodosius II summoned the priest and preacher Nestorius from Antioch to become Patriarch of Constantinople. Nestorius claimed to be a champion of orthodoxy but asserted a more extreme form of the Antiochene tendency to distinguish the divine and human natures of Christ to the point where their unity could no longer be confessed. As a corollary of this, he asserted that the Virgin Mary was the mother only of the human nature of Jesus, not of the divine nature, and so was not the literal Theotokos but only figuratively.
When he learned of this, Cyril declared in his Paschal Homily of 429 that the Virgin had given birth through the Holy Spirit to the Son of God in the flesh and so was in fact, not by mere courtesy, the Theotokos. He wrote to the emperor and to Pope Celestine of Rome. In 430, a council in Rome condemned Nestorius’s errors.
But Nestorius made use of his influence with the emperor to persecute those he opposed. He persuaded Theodosius to summon a council at Ephesus at Pentecost in 431 to try St Cyril, whom he accused of the Apollinarian heresy, a version of monarchianism. However, instead of finding Cyril guilty of heresy, the assembled fathers of the 3rd Œcumenical Council found Nestorius guilty and reaffirmed the title of Theotokos. Nestorius was deposed and exiled to Libya, where he died around the year 452.
St Cyril devoted the years until his falling asleep in 444 to healing the divisions in the church, striving to reconcile the bishops who followed the Antiochene tradition to the orthodox confession of the two natures and one person in Christ, a confession that would be confirmed finally by the 4th Œcumenical Council at Chalcedon in 451.
Today is the feast of St Nicephorus, Patriarch of Constantinople and Confessor. He was born in Constantinople around A.D. 758 during the iconoclast controversy. His father was a high government official who was exiled for his orthodoxy on the veneration of icons. Nicephorus received a good education, both Christian and secular, and became a secretary to the Emperor Constantine, still a child, and his mother the regent Empress Irene. He was imperial representative at the 7th Œcumenical Council at Nicæa in 787.
When that Council restored the veneration of icons, Nicephorus, considering his task in the world to have been accomplished, retired to a monastery that he had founded at Agathou on the Bosphorus.
St Tarasius, the Patriarch of Constantinople who had guided the Church through the 7th Œcumenical Council, was so impressed by Nicephorus’s piety, learning and strength of character, that he recommended him as his successor even though Nicephorus was still a layman. The clergy of Constantinople responded with enthusiasm and Nicephorus was enthroned on Great and Holy Pascha, 12 April 806, after being ordained successively to each of the clerical orders.
When the Emperor Leo the Armenian reignited the iconoclast persecution in 814, St Nicephorus protested. Despite his eloquent defence of the veneration of icons, he was exiled to the monastery at Agathou, then to the even more remote monastery of St Theodore. He continued to write in defence of the veneration of icons until his death on 2 June 829, keeping up the spirits of the orthodox.
When the Empress Theodora restored the veneration of icons in 843, as a witness to the Triumph of Orthodoxy the saint’s relics were brought back to Constantinople with great pomp and placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles.
Occasional comments by a convert to Orthodoxy.