If Cyril of Jerusalem were among us today, he might merely challenge us to take our Lenten devotions a little deeper.
In the Spring of 347, Cyril of Jerusalem delivered a series of teachings to the catechumens of Jerusalem. In the introduction to these lectures, Cyril told his auditors, “This charge I give you, before Jesus the Bridegroom of souls come in….A long notice is allowed you; you have forty days for repentance…” 1 Seated in the magnificent, newly completed Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Cyril delivered an impassioned plea for genuine repentance, conversion, and the acceptance of an entirely new way of life. “Even Simon Magus once came to the Laver: he was baptized, but was not enlightened; and though he dipped his body in water, he enlightened not his heart with the Spirit: his body went down and came up, but his soul was not buried with Christ, nor raised with Him” 2, Cyril warned the catechumens.
It must have been a powerful moment for Cyril’s hearers. Seated in the very place where Christ spent three days in the tomb, then rose from the dead, Cyril’s powerful rhetoric must have touched them to the core. And, indeed, his words still have the same power to this very day, for in reading them anew, I am reminded how feeble my own Lenten preparations are, and am stirred to genuine conversion.
In the prologue to Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures, the modern reader can find the true essence, the spirit, if you will, of the early Church’s understanding of the purpose of Lent. The first thing one notes, then, is that, in Cyril’s understanding, Lent was for believers: those who were already baptized, and those who were in the final days of their preparation for Baptism. We read at the end of the prologue: “These Catechetical Lectures, for those who are to be enlightened, you may lend to candidates for Baptism, and to believers who are already baptized, to read, but give not at all, neither to Catechumens, nor to any others who are not Christians…” 3 Basic faith in Christ is a prerequisite for authentic Lenten observance. The disciplines of Lent make no sense, and can bear no genuine fruit, without belief.
Secondly, we see that, for Cyril, even though he envisions hard spiritual work on the part of the believer during Lent, he knows that ultimately the work of salvation, the process of perfection in our souls, belongs to God: “God, who knows your hearts, and observes who is sincere, and who is a hypocrite, is able both to guard the sincere, and to give faith to the hypocrite: for even to the unbeliever, if only he give his heart, God is able to give faith.” 4 Cyril was perfectly convinced that God can transform our stumbling, insincere efforts into genuine conversion and faith. Cyril put the matter thusly: “Possibly, too, you have come on another pretext. It is possible that a man is wishing to pay court to a woman, and came hither on that account. The remark applies in like manner to women also in their turn. A slave also perhaps wishes to please his master, and a friend his friend. I accept this bait for the hook, and welcome you, though you came with an evil purpose, yet as one to be saved by a good hope.” 5
A third theme, perhaps the most important of all, emerges from a close reading of Cyril’s prologue. Cyril understood that, for a Christian, initial conversion and baptism are only the beginning. Constant vigilance, constant repentance, is necessary for a Christian life to come safely into harbor: “Great is the Baptism that lies before you …. But there is a serpent by the wayside watching those who pass by: beware lest he bite you with unbelief.” 6 Seen in this light, the prayer, fasting and almsgiving of Lent take on their true meaning. They exist to prepare the believer, by voluntary acts of self-renunciation, to resist the temptations that come our way in daily life. A person who can voluntarily eat simple foods during Lent in order to give more to the poor will be better able to resist the temptations of greed and selfishness that the world presents to us.
It was in this context that Cyril invited his baptismal candidates to begin their forty days of renunciation: “If the fashion of your soul is avarice, put on another fashion, and come in. Put off your former fashion, cloke it not up. Put off, I pray you, fornication and uncleanness, and put on the brightest robe of chastity. This charge I give you, before Jesus the Bridegroom of souls, come in and see their fashions. A long notice is allowed you; you have forty days for repentance: you have full opportunity, both to put off and wash, and, to put on and enter.” 7
The practical content of Cyril’s catechesis reveals itself through a close reading of lectures 1 and 2, which deal with the themes of repentance and forgiveness. In the first lecture, after reading Is 1:16: “Wash yourself, and make yourself clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes…,” Cyril recommends that his hearers confess their sins and forgive those who have sinned against them: “The present is the season of confession: confess what you have done in word or in deed….If you have anything against any man, forgive it: you come here to receive forgiveness of sins, and you also must forgive him that has sinned against you.” 8 In the second lecture, Cyril buttressed this teaching by speaking of the benefits the soul experiences when it is freed from the burden of unforgiven sins: “Sin then is, as we have said, a fearful evil, but not incurable; fearful for him who clings to it, but easy of cure for him who, by repentance, puts it from him. For suppose that a man is holding fire in his hand; as long as he holds fast the live coal, he is sure to be burned; but should he put away the coal, he would have cast away the flame also with it.” 9
It seems clear, from reading these passages, that there is a definite difference between the way Cyril and his contemporaries viewed Lent, and the way we view it today. Perhaps, there is much we could learn from Cyril. Perhaps our vision is too small. We tend to nibble at the edges of our vices. We are content if we are able to go forty days without eating chocolate, or using our favorite minor swear word. Cyril would never have been content with such small results (worthy though they may be), and he would never have allowed his congregation to be satisfied, either.
For Cyril, the forty days of preparation for Baptism were to initiate the deep, life-changing repentance that leads to a new creation. At the heart of Cyril’s baptismal catechesis, was the idea that, those who rise from the waters of baptism, have died to their old way of life, now emerging as a new creation. In his third lecture, he told his candidates: “Having gone down dead in sins, you come up quickened in righteousness. For if you have been united with the likeness of the Saviour’s death (Rom 6:5 ), you shall also be deemed worthy of His Resurrection.” 10 But the sacrament, Cyril makes clear, is not like the magical rituals of the pagans. Without hard work on the part of the recipient, the grace could be received in vain: “this is no light matter, no ordinary and indiscriminate union according to the flesh, but the all-searching Spirit’s election according to faith.” 11 This being the case, the forty days of preparation, for Cyril, were essential, and the prayer, fasting and almsgiving of Lent were necessary to prepare the soul for the proper reception of the immense gift of Baptism.
Cyril regarded almsgiving as the clearest visible sign of true repentance: “What then must you do? And what are the fruits of repentance? Let him that has two coats give to him that has none (Lk3:11)…and he that has meat, let him do likewise. Would you enjoy the grace of the Holy Spirit, yet, judge the poor not worthy of bodily food?” 12 Almsgiving is, for Cyril, a clear sign that the candidate has repented of his former greed, selfishness, and callousness to the poor, and begun to see the poor as human beings, worthy of respect, love, and assistance.
But, beyond this, for Cyril, the giving of material goods serves the same purpose as fasting; we are detached from the lesser goods that keep us from a full appreciation of the majesty, awe, and infinite love of God, and reminded that we will never be truly satisfied until we dine on the rich food and fine wine of God’s eschatological banquet. Cyril hinted at this toward the ends of his baptismal catechesis. He told the candidates that, upon their baptism: “Angels shall dance around you, and say, ‘Who is this that comes up in white array, leaning upon her beloved?‘… And God grant that all of you, when you have finished the course of the fast, may remember what I say, and bringing forth fruit in good works, may stand blameless beside the spiritual Bridegroom…” 13 And thus, in the midst of his seeming severity, we see the pastoral heart of Cyril, who loved his flock so much that he longed to see them bathed in the light of their savior.
What can catechists and preachers learn from Cyril today? If Cyril were among us today, what would he tell us? Perhaps, he would merely challenge us to take our Lenten devotions a little deeper. Cyril was no stranger to the challenges of presenting the Gospel in an affluent society. The Church was experiencing an influx of new converts, many of whom were sincere. But many, too, were simply looking for political or economic advantage, or were perhaps attempting to please a future spouse. Cyril took all comers, and challenged them to the deep and to lasting conversion to which Christ calls us all—the kind of conversion that issues forth in abundant fruits of the Holy Spirit. Can we do no less today?