St. Cyprian’s Feast day is today, September 13th.
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.”
The Collect for the Feast day of St. Cyprian
ALMIGHTY God, who didst give thy servant Cyprian boldness to confess the Name of our Saviour Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we likewise may ever be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for his sake; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.