Thursday, September 13, 2012
Feast of Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr of Carthage
Thascius Cyprianus was born in the year 200 in the city of Carthage in North Africa, in the country we now call Tunisia. Carthage is located on the coast and was a major metropolis and port, and had a sizable Christian population when Cyprian was born. He was born to a prominent Pagan family and he had all the advantages of the well-born; he attended the best schools, he went on to University and was a master Orator. He had a good career as a teacher of philosophy and rhetoric. He also lived a rather hedonistic lifestyle but he gained no satisfaction from his wealth and pleasures. He began to study the writings of Tertullian, an early Father of the Church and fellow North African. Tertullian's writings convinced Cyprian of the truth of Christianity. However, he didn't think that he was strong enough to live a Christian life; he was worried that he would fall off the path, and he was worried that once baptism washed away his sins he would be condemned if he sinned after baptism, so like many people in those days he was holding off baptism until absolutely necessary. But when God decides to call someone, it can be difficult to avoid God's will, and circumstances will make it inevitable that one will finally have to make that decision to follow God's way or one's own way. In Cyprian's case, he took on a roommate, a priest named Caecilius. Caecilius was a very old priest and a very good influence on Cyprian, and he convinced Cyprian of God's grace so that Cyprian became a catechumen; he decided to be baptized after all. Just before he died, Caecilus asked Cyprian to take care of his wife and children. While studying to be baptized, Cyprian decided to observe chastity and poverty and he sold all his property, even his gardens at Carthage, and then he gave the money to the poor. He was baptized at the Easter Vigil on April 18, 246. People were so impressed by the change in his life as a result of his conversion that two years later, when the bishop died, they were clamoring to make Cyprian the new bishop of Carthage. At first he declined, but the people continued to press for him, so ha accepted the office and was quickly passed through the orders of deacon and priest. There were five priests who objected to his election and they remained his enemies throughout his episcopate.
Cyprian was elected to the episcopacy during a time of peace; there had been no persecutions for a while, and many Christians had become rather lax in their faith. Some had fallen back into Pagan ways, many were participating in the local amusements such as attending the horse races and gambling. Cyprian, however, exhorted his flock to remember their high calling, and reminded them to live Christ-like lives. He examined all candidates for Holy Orders carefully and demanded that they all be thoroughly prepared for their offices. He wanted to build strong Christians but the situation would not be remedied over night, and a year later when the Decian persecution broke out many of the weaker Christians, both lay and ordained, renounced the faith. The bishop of Rome, Pope Fabian, was martyred and the Christians of Carthage did not want their beloved bishop to meet the same fate so they urged him to go into hiding. While in hiding he continued to serve his flock by writing letters, encouraging them to turn to prayer as their weapon, urging his priests to give strength to the weak. He also sold his possessions to help the poor. And while he was worried about the weaker Christians who renounced their faith out of fear of execution, he was also worried about the Confessors, those who confessed Christ and were tortured but not martyred, because he was worried that they may suffer from spiritual pride. He wrote: Now more than ever they must fear being caught in the devil's nets, for he would fain attack the strong, desiring to avenge himself on those who brought him defeat by their confession. Once the persecution ended, the Church had to deal with the problem of lapsed Christians who wanted to return to the faith. Some priests were accepting anyone who wanted to return without reservation, but Cyprian believed that that attitude was too lenient. He wanted to reaccept them, but only after suitable penance. He also warned against being too severe, as was the priest Novatian, who claimed that any who recanted could never be readmitted to the altar rail. Novatian and his followers continued to divide the Church for a long time, and Donatist controversy continued even into the time of St. Augustine. Upon the death of Decius in 251, Cyprian returned to Carthage. He worked at reuniting the Church and held many councils. Just as peace was returning to the Church in Carthage, a terrible plague broke out, threatening the community. Many pagans claimed the plague was a punishment from the gods because the Christians had led so many to give up the worship of the local gods. People were so terrified of the plague that they left the dead in the streets and refused to care for the sick. Cyprian assembled the Christians and reminded them that the Lord commanded us to love our neighbor and to repay evil with good; he recalled the example of Jesus the Christ, who, while hanging on the cross, prayed for his enemies. His words so inspired the Christians that they took upon themselves to care for the sick and the dead. Rich and poor, laity and clergy, all took part in this virtuous work: some looked after the sick, some helped financially, and some took suffering people into their homes. The Confessors, who not long before had been tortured by the government and still bore the marks on their bodies, daily exposed themselves to danger in order to help their enemies. Such examples of self-sacrifice and love for one's neighbor amazed the pagans and many were converted.
In that same year (251) the Emperor Callus renewed persecution of the Christians. Cyprian expected the same terrible events to happen as last time so he worked to strengthen the Christians so that they would stand fast. In his treatise "On Morality" he wrote: [Martyrdom] is a baptism greater in grace, more lofty ini power, more precious in honor--a baptism wherein angels baptize--a baptism in which God and His Christ exult--a baptism after which no one sins anymore--a baptism which completes the increase of our faith--a baptism which, as we withdraw from the world, immediately associates us with God. This time he decided to stay in Carthage. After Gallus died, Valerian became Emperor. At first he was sympathetic to the Christians and left them alone. There were several years of peace, and Cyprian wrote several treatises on pastoral concerns: On the Advantage of Patience; On Works and Alms; On Jealousy and Envy; and On Virginity. But the peace was not to last; a member of the court, Macrian, convinced Valerian that the Christians were dangerous rivals and their loyalty to the Church threatened the Empire. The Valerian Persecution was directed towards the clergy and many deacons, priests and even the Bishop of Rome were martyred. In the year 257, Bishop Cyprian was exiled to Curibis. While he was there he had a vision that he would be executed in a year. The next year, 258, he heard of the execution of the Bishop of Rome, Pope Sixtus, who was executed with four of his deacons in the catacombs, and later his deacon Laurence was put on the gridiron. Cyprian was returned to Carthage. Great numbers of his people, on hearing that he was seized, went from Carthage to the place where he was held prisoner, and they watched all night outside of the house in fear that their bishop might be executed or carried off into exile without their knowledge. The next morning, Cyprian was led to the place of judgment, which was a little way from the governor's palace. He was warm from the walk under a burning sun, and, as he was waiting for the governor's arrival, a soldier of the guard who had once been a Christian kindly offered him a change of clothes. "Why," said the bishop, "should we trouble ourselves to remedy evils which will probably come to an end today?" The governor arrived and took his seat and required Cyprian to sacrifice to the gods. He refused and the governor said, "You really should consider your safety." Cyprian responded, "In so righteous a cause there is no need of consideration." The governor sentenced him to execution by beheading and Cyprian exclaimed, "Praise be to God!" A cry arose from the Christians who were watching the trial: "Let us go and be beheaded with him!" Cyprian was then led by soldiers to the place of execution. Many of the Christians climbed up into the trees which surrounded the area so that they might see their bishop's martyrdom. After praying, he took off his upper clothing, gave some money to the executioner, and then tied a blindfold over his own eyes. Two of his friends then bound his hands and the Christians placed cloths and handkerchiefs around him so that they could catch some of his blood. An in this way, St. Cyprian, on September 14, 258, became the first African bishop to win the crown of martyrdom. Valerian's attempts to stop the message of the gospel were in vain. The Church had been purified and strengthened by the persecution under Decius, so that there were now very few who fell away for fear of death. The faith was spread by the banished bishops, and as Tertullian, the writer whose works brought Cyprian to the faith state, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." Cyprian's faithful witness helped the Church grow in North Africa and throughout the Roman world. Just about fifty years later, the Emperor Constantine would have a vision before his battle at the Milvian Bridge, and his victory would lead to his issuing of the Edict of Toleration which ended the persecutions and soon the faith for which Cyprian died would become the faith of the Empire.
Almighty God, who gave to your servant Cyprian boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.