Lectures on the Sacraments (Cyril of Jerusalem)


This book presented to me a hermeneutical and aesthetic challenge. I began reading it due to my interest in liturgy and sacramental theology. I finished it realizing how much of the Enlightenment air I breathe.

Part of the difficulty in reading this work is that St Cyril simply does not think like we do. He sees pictures and symbols and has no problems making connections. This can make the work frustrating to the reader.

These six lectures deal with the symbolism behind eastern Patristic sacramental thinking. It is not so much a theology of the sacraments but a demonstration of the sacramental life of his church.

In preparing for baptism and the Eucharist, the catechumen will face the West, publically renounce Satan and his works, have her head and lips anointed with oil, etc.

St Cyril then gives exegetical reasoning behind these actions. While we will not find his reasoning persuasive, it is interesting that he appeals to Scripture for his arguments.

A few interesting highlights: St Cyril notes that the gates of Paradise are opened to the initiate following baptism. He places paradisal living within the current lifetime. Also, for those who participate in covenant renewal services, much of our liturgy has ancient roots in the 4th century (e.g., “Life up your hearts…we lift them to the Lord.”).

Basil on the Holy Spirit

The Neo-Aetian challenge on prepositions:

Basil said ‘Glory be to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit’ (instead of the usual formula: ‘Glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit’).  Did Basil’s use of different prepositions suggest different natures?

The Hellenistic mindset, especially in its hardened Arian form, said that a given style of language indicates a specific metaphysical reality.  As Basil used different prepositions, he must have meant different natures.  Therefore,

Of whom = Creator

Through whom = Demiurge (think the god of Freemasony)

In whom = Holy Spirit in Place and Time.

Basil has several lines of response:

a) The different prepositions indicate not different natures, but Economy and Theology.  Basil also says that the Aetian construction derives from heathen (read: Hellenistic) sources (III.6).

b) second refutation:  The different prepositions indicate distinct hypostases.   Therefore, hypostasis doesn’t mean what later writers would call nature.  Again, he has broken with Hellenism.   Further, by distinguishing the hypostases, yet maintaining the co-equality, Basil has negated the Hellenic principle that distinction = opposition or declension of nature.

c) third refutation: St Paul applies different prepositions to the same hypostasis (p.7).

Key point:  Different names represent different energies, not different natures (8.17). Names do not define the essence, but reveal it.  Persons who exhibit common operations (energies) share the same essence.

Simplicity of essence.  For Basil it functions like homoousion.  It is a theological symbol, not a philosophical construct.

The numbers used in the Trinity are qualitative, not quantitative.  We do not “count” in God, since that implies addition and partition (18.44).  “We do not count by way of addition” (45).  What does Basil mean by “monarchy?”  We speak of a king, and a king’s image, but not two kings. We do not divide the glory.  “Honor paid to the image passes to the prototype.”

Positive Description of the Spirit

He distributes his energy according to the proportion of faith (9.22). His essence is simple, yet he is impassively divided.  Psalm 33.6: “The Lord gives the order, the Word creates, and the Spirit confirms” (16.38).

Nonfallen angels receive a grace from the Holy Spirit that confirms the perfection of their essence (16.38).

The Spirit’s operations were present before the ages: “What were his operations before that creation whereof we can conceive” (19.49). Therefore, God’s energies are eternal.

Hard Sayings of Basil

“We were regenerate through the grace given to us in baptism” (10.26).

St Basil: On Social Justice

The book is a collection of homilies St Basil wrote during the famine that hit Cappadocia.  The book exhibits his sheer rhetorical power.  One almost wept with pity in his homily on those who lend at interest.  One problem, though:  The book is titled “On Social Justice,” which connotes blue-haired Antifa warriors on Tumblr.  And the editor never really defines justice except pointing to a term St Basil used a lot:  epanison.  Normally translated “distribution,” it actually means “restore the balance.”  I suppose that’s as good a definition as any.

To the Rich

What is the use of wealth?  “When wealth is scattered as the Lord intends, it naturally returns; but when it is gathered, it naturally dispurses” (Basil 44).

I will tear down my barns

Main idea: sow righteousness (63). “Do not make common need a means of private gain.” “If you want storehouses, you have them in the stomachs of the poor” (68).  “You are guilty of injustice to as many as you could have aided but did not” (70).

In Time of Famine and Drought

Main idea: Our needs are not provided for (per the drought) because we do not share with others (76).

Lessons for today

One of the difficulties in applying this is the contrast between Basil’s time and ours. The editor glowingly says “These could have been written yesterday.”  Well, only superficially.  Here is why I think that.  There was no middle class during Basil’s time.  The agrarian world was the norm and if there were drought and famine, it was a crisis. Things have changed somewhat to mitigate those disasters.

Secondly, his powerful prose targets the rich–those who l live like the Kardashians.  It doesn’t target the plumber today who is struggling to pay his bills. Yes, he is absolutely right that those who squander their wealth on crap deserve scorn and we shouldn’t live beyond what is necessary.  Ah, but 1600 years later how does one determine what is necessary?  I think there are answers, to be sure, but they are far more difficult.

But fear not:  this is a process. This is where the hard questions of ethics begin, not end.  For starters, just don’t spend money like a thot and you will be okay. Basil always gives brilliant psychological insights on the tentacles of wealth.  Sanctification is a process.