Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited their adherents. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through His own blood. Therefore let us go forth to Him outside the camp, and bear the abuse He endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. Through Him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge His name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
Hebrews 13: 7-16 (Epistle from Feast of Sts. Athanasios and Cyril)
Have you ever wondered why the Church chooses the passage it chooses on certain feastdays? We know that the Epistles of St. Paul and the Gospels were written in some cases centuries before the saints we are remembering even lived. The teachings of Christ as well as the Epistles offer lessons that are timeless. They relate to people who live at all times in human history. And we also know that we relate to these Scripture passages. If you think about it carefully and study the Bible carefully, you can probably match at least one Gospel passage that your life personifies. That’s because the Bible offers something for everyone, and something in the Bible matches every human life.
Saints Athanasios and Cyril are commemorated together on January 18. Yet, they did not know each other. Saint Athanasios lived from 296-373. Saint Cyril was born in 376 and died in 444. They are commemorated together because their contributions to the theology of the Church in many ways kept the Church together in a time of great heresy.
The fourth century is considered by many to be the Golden Century or greatest era of Orthodoxy. In the fourth century, Christianity became legal, the First and Second Ecumenical Councils convened, the Creed was written, the Bible was codified, and many famous saints like St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Nicholas, St. Spyridon and St. Athanasios were alive.
After the first century, when Christianity was established, the fourth century was the second most critical century for the Church. Why? Because when the Church came out from underground in 313 through the Edict of Milan, it had to be “re-established.” Saint Paul and the other Apostles went around planting churches in the middle of the first century. The Church, however, was persecuted and remained largely underground. Because vast distances separated the church communities and because communication was dangerous and difficult, in the various church communities, different practices and different beliefs were developing, some of which were in conflict with the teachings of Christ and the Apostles. When the church emerged from hiding, there was more chaos than joy.
There were heretical teachings, such as Arianism, which questioned the divinity of Christ. There were “camps” of people who sided for and against Arius. There were Bishops who supported and opposed. The Emperor Constantine convened the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea in 325 to sort out heresy and true theology. At this Council, a young man named Athanasios emerged as one of the leaders. He fought vigorously to defend true Orthodoxy and put down the heresy of Arianism. Because of his efforts, and the efforts of others, the Nicene Creed was written, a statement that clearly articulates the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Saint Athanasius defended the decisions of this Council for the rest of his life. Though he was the Patriarch of Alexandria for fifty-seven years, Athanasios was exiled five separate times for a total of seventeen years. He never backed down from what he believed to be the truth of Jesus Christ. Saint Athanasios is also credited with writing a treatise called “On the Incarnation” as well as many other books. He died peacefully in 373.
Saint Cyril was born three years after St. Athanasios died. In 429, there was a new heresy in the Church, this one promulgated by Patriarch Nestorius. Saint Cyril tried to get Nestorius to repent and recant his teachings. When this did not work, Saint Cyril took courage and led the opposition to Nestorius. He presided over the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus in 431. He succeeded in defeating the heresy of Nestorius. He died peacefully in 444, having also served as Patriarch of Alexandria.
There are three things that relate to the lives of Sts. Athanasios and Cyril that can be taken from the Epistle lesson today. First, we read in Hebrews 13:7: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life and imitate their faith.” We need to remember the contribution of Sts. Athanasios and Cyril. We need to remember the tenets of our faith in a world that is still trying to water them down and change them. We need to remember that Sts. Athanasios and Cyril were willing to stand up to their opposition, even if it meant exile and hardship.
Saint Paul continues with a second lesson in Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Indeed Christ is the same. Society changes. Morality shifts. But Christ and His standard of righteousness remains the same no matter how much the world may change.
Finally, Saint Paul warns us in Hebrews 13:9: “Do not be led astray by diverse and strange teachings.” Saints Athanasios and Cyril worked hard to keep their flock on course for Christ, to not be led astray by these heresies. In contemporary times, we see many heresies, many “strange teachings” that contradict what we read in the Bible. It is up to us to have conviction for what we believe and courage to stand up for it. Even if it means exile from our friends, our jobs, etc.
Having shone with deeds of Orthodoxy and extinguished all impious doctrines, you have rightly won the trophies and victory. Since you enriched all the world with correct belief, greatly adorning the Church with your words and deeds, you therefore have worthily found Christ God, who by your prayers grants to all the great mercy. (Apolytkion of Sts. Athanasius & Cyril, Trans. By Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Stay faithful to the teaching of Christ—today, tomorrow, and always!
Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website!
Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
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