Who was St. Cyprian of Carthage?

There are several names that refer to early Christian Saints – John, Augustine, Clement, Theodore, Gregory, Basil, to name a few – so we generally have to give them suffixes to their names in order to distinguish them. Today’s commemoration in the calendar is one such example: St. Cyprian, from Carthage.

In many ways, Cyprian is the Augustine before Augustine. He was a Berber, a Roman African, born to a wealthy Pagan family, and he converted to Christianity at age 35. After his conversion he was ordained quickly, becoming the Bishop of Carthage roughly four years later. This was, perhaps understandably, a little controversial, but his actions in the ministry soon proved his sanctity-in-Christ. A wave of government oppression of the Church, called the Decian Persecution, swept through in the early 250’s, and Cyprian saw a lot of his flock cave in to the Roman demands to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods. Cyprian himself rode out much of that persecution in exile, believing it God’s will that he survive to shepherd his flock from a temporary distance, and be present to pick up the pieces when it was over, much like how the Apostles fled Jerusalem after the death of St. James, and how many Christians fled Jerusalem during the Roman-Jewish War culminating in the sack of 70 AD.

Needless to say, there was a controversy waiting for Cyprian when the dust settled: what do you do with the lapsi – the lapsed, who burned sacrifices to other gods? Cyprian’s initial demand was that they undergo public penance before being readmitted to Holy Communion, but a number of his earlier opponents thought this was too strict, and many priests took it upon themselves to invite people back under much more liberal conditions. As this controversy was brought to a local council, another party cropped up: a stricter group who argued that the lapsed could not repent and rejoin the church at all! The council stood with Cyprian, in between the too-liberal Novatus of Carthage and the too-strict Novatian of Rome.

As a pastoral and liturgical aside, this is insightful for us today, because we, too, see many lapsed Christians coming in and out of our churches these days. Do we admit them to Holy Communion without question? Or should we, as St. Cyprian ruled, call for public repentance of their wanderings from the Gospel before reinstating their place at the Holy Table? This is worth considering carefully, and we have resources in our Prayer Book to help us.

  • The Ash Wednesday exhortation explicitly mentions the ancient practice of public repentance.
  • The Exhortation in the Communion service warns us against unworthy reception of the Sacrament.
  • The Confirmation liturgy includes a variant for “Reaffirmation”, particularly for those who were previously confirmed, fell away, and have since returned.

It may well be that we have become too lax in our ministration of the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and need to re-learn, from the likes of St. Cyprian, what good Eucharistic discipline looks like.

This wrestling with the implications of the Gospel for those who fall away under persecution would return for St. Augustine of Hippo and the Donatists nearly 150 years later, though then it would be about the purported need for re-ordination, rather than readmission to Holy Communion. Cyprian was like an early Augustine in other ways too: his Latin writings were influential and beloved, his handling of controversy and good accord with other bishops was laudable. And they both saw disaster at the end of their lives. For Augustine, of course, it was the news of the sack of Rome and the arrival of barbarians at the gate of his own city. For Cyprian it was another round of government persecution, leading to his execution on 14 September 258.

The date of his commemoration isn’t so straight-forward, because 14 September has been taken by Holy Cross Day, forcing the Church calendar to shift St. Cyprian of Carthage to another day. Most Anglican calendars place him on an adjacent day – the 13th or 15th. The Roman Church has another observance (Our Lady of Sorrows) on the 15th, so they celebrate Cyprian on the 16th, and some other traditions follow suit.

Why Holy Cross Day in September?

Happy Holy Cross Day! Is that what we’re supposed to say? I mean, yeah, the Cross is where Jesus died a horrible painful death, that’s not super-happy is it… wait a minute, how is Holy Cross Day any different from Good Friday? Why do we have an extra Good Friday in September?

Perhaps we need a little history to make sense of this. To borrow from Wikipedia,

According to Christian tradition, the True Cross was discovered in 326 by Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, during a pilgrimage she made to Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was then built at the site of the discovery, by order of Helena and Constantine. The church was dedicated nine years later, with a portion of the cross.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feast_of_the_Cross

September 14th, then, is the day that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was consecrated. Although, in the West, this day also commemorates St. Helena’s discovery of the Cross beforehand, as well as the restoration of the relics to Jerusalem in the 7th century after a brief Sasanid Persian invasion.

For Anglicans and Lutherans, however, who generally prefer their liturgy reformed around the primacy of Scripture, this feast has been focused less on the tradition of the True Cross (which may or may not be entirely historically accurate) and more on the significance of the Cross itself. There is, after all, quite a history of devotion (or veneration veneratio, which is of a lesser degree than worship latria) to the Cross and its relics; the Cross is the instrument by which Christ redeemed the world. He didn’t “just die”, he was nailed to a real physical piece of wood. Some have found this an opportunity to meditate upon the inclusion of nature itself in the Gospel, such as in the great Old English poem Dream of the Rood. Similarly, when the author of the Wisdom of Solomon was reflecting back on Noah’s ark, he also foreshadowed the Cross when he wrote:

It is your will that works of your wisdom should not be without effect;
therefore men trust their lives even to the smallest piece of wood,
and passing through the billows on a raft they come safely to land.
For even in the beginning, when arrogant giants were perishing,
the hope of the world took refuge on a raft,
and guided by your hand left to the world the seed of a new generation.
For blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes.

Wisdom 14:5-7

And so, in harmony both with this ancient spirituality and a renewed focus on the Scriptures, we have Holy Cross Day in our calendar. It is like a repeat of Good Friday, but instead of looking at the pain and suffering of Christ, as such, we are looking at the glorious work of God in the world. Instead of a day of fasting, mourning, and penitence, this is a feast day. We celebrate with awe the wonder of the Gospel, and the tactile reality of the Cross, a “tree” as St. Peter once described it, literally grounds this remarkable theological event in natural reality.

With that in mind, let’s conclude with a brief comparison of the Scripture readings for Good Friday and Holy Cross Day.

Good Friday, in the Holy Day lectionary, gives us:

  • Genesis 22:1-18 or Isaiah 52:13-53:12, which are a typology and prophecy, respectively, of Jesus’ death
  • Psalm 22:1-11(12-21) or 40:1-16 or 69:1-22, which are songs of suffering and lament
  • Hebrews 10:1-25, which deals with the high priestly sacrifice of Jesus
  • John 19:1-37, which is the Passion of the Christ

Holy Cross Day, however, gives us these readings at the Communion service:

  • Isaiah 45:21-25, which is a universal call to turn to Christ for salvation
  • Psalm 98, one of the joyful celebrations of God’s salvation and praiseworthiness
  • Philippians 2:5-11, an exhortation to imitate Christ in his humility even unto death on the Cross
  • John 12:31-36a, where Christ speaks of his glorification and drawing all men unto himself when he is lifted up on the Cross

So you can see that Holy Cross Day has a focus on glory and celebration that Good Friday lacks. They share a call to “behold”, to gaze upon the crucified one, and the Cross itself as his instrument, and they also share a call to follow Christ – Philippians 2:5-11 in particular is also the Epistle for Palm Sunday, which falls into the same pattern as these. But ultimately this is not a day to mourn the death of Christ but a day to celebrate the victory of Christ. The crucifixion, after all, is a deeply rich event, worthy of observance in many different ways from many different angles. Good Friday is particularly concerned with his suffering and our sins that drove him there; Holy Cross Day is particularly concerned with the triumphal glory and power of God displayed in that same death.

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the Cross
that he might draw the whole world to himself:
Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption,
may have grace to take up our cross and follow him;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting Amen.

Anticipating the next day’s feast

We just celebrated St. Mary Magdalene a couple days ago, and this Saint-filled end of the month is about to bring us to one of the twelve apostles, St. James.

Last year we looked at St. James Day with a nod to the Collect of the Day and a couple of the Scripture readings associated with this day.  That’s worth a quick re-read in preparation for tomorrow’s holiday.

For today, though, I’d like to remind you of a tradition that has been a subtle part of Prayer Book practice, though not always explicit: the “Eve of” a holy day.  You may be familiar with the Easter Vigil, or Christmas Eve.  You may also be familiar with the fact that many (most?) Roman churches have a Saturday evening Mass in addition to Sunday morning.  All of these are examples of “liturgical time” starting a day on the evening before, rather than on the morning of.  This is part of the Church’s Hebrew legacy, wherein every “day” begins at sundown – though in Christian liturgy we only tend to do this for Sundays and other feast days.

The 2019 Prayer Book, explaining the calendar on page 687, makes this much explicit:

Following ancient Jewish tradition, the celebrations of any Sunday begins at sundown on the Saturday that precedes it.  Therefore at Evening Prayer on Saturdays (other than Holy Days), the Collect appointed for the ensuing Sunday is used.

It does not go on to say that we are to apply this principle to the other Holy Days.  But such an extension of the rule is not forbidden, and some Prayer Books in the past have operated that way, so it is a traditional option that we are free to make use of.

In short, applying these rules, here are the Collects of the Day for the Daily Office this weekend:

  • Friday Evening: Collect for Saint James Day or Proper 11
  • Saturday Morning: Collect for Saint James Day
  • Saturday Evening: Collect for Saint James Day
  • Sunday Morning: Collect for Proper 12

A Saint-filled couple weeks have begun

In the back of my mind, there are three times of year that stand out as being particularly saturated with significant Saints’ Days: Christmas, mid-November, and late July.  I haven’t studied the sanctoral calendar closely to see how accurate these impressions are, but I think it’s worth pointing it out now that we’re in one of those periods of time.

Consider this.  Three major feast days are just ahead:

  1. St. Mary Magdalene (22 July)
  2. St. James (25 July)
  3. The Transfiguration (6 August)

Among the Optional Commemorations there are four coming up that this Customary particularly highlights as feasts to be kept:

  1. St. Gregory of Nyssa (19 July)
  2. The Parents of the Virgin Mary (26 July)
  3. Sts. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha of Bethany (29 July)
  4. St. Joseph of Arimathea (1 August)

There are also some classical Saints’ days worth considering:

  1. St. Macrina (18 July)
  2. St. Margaret of Antioch (20 July)
  3. St. Thomas a Kempis (24 July)

And a few more recent folks remembered in our calendar:

  1. William White (17 July)
  2. William Reed Huntington (27 July)
  3. William Wilberforce (30 July)

Huh, maybe I should’ve named this post “Williamtide”, haha.

Let us also consider jotting down a new name into our calendars, remembering another faithful servant who ran his course well:

  • 17 July: J. I. Packer, Priest and Teacher of the Faith, 2020

May their memories ever be a blessing to us all.

Video Introduction to the season after Trinity

Now that it’s Trinitytide, let’s talk about what this season is all about!  A lot of people like to divide the calendar into two halves: “the story of Jesus” for the first half and “the story of the Church” for the second half (Trinitytide), but that isn’t really how the season after Trinity Sunday works, either in the traditional calendar & lectionary or in the modern.  Allow me to explain, in video form…

For further reading on the traditional calendar: https://leorningcniht.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/explaining-the-season-after-trinity-sunday/

Subject Index:

  • 00:00 Introducing this season
  • 01:33 Major Theme: Discipleship
  • 03:16 Historical/Traditional Trinitytide
  • 07:41 Modern Trinitytide in the 2019 Prayer Book
  • 14:04 a concluding prayer

The June Major Feasts

Most months of the year have about three major feast days; June is right on the average with that number: Saint Barnabas on the 11th, The Nativity of Saint John the Baptist on the 24th, and Saints Peter and Paul on the 29th.

Being in the first half of the month, Saint Barnabas’ Day often lands close to Trinity Sunday or Pentecost.  While this can sometimes cause a little trouble with displacing the Ember Days or transferring Barnabas away from those highest of Sundays, it also makes a lot of sense to celebrate him in proximity to the Day of Pentecost.  The reason is simple: the book of Acts is associated with the season of Eastertide as well as the Day of Pentecost, so there’s a biblical-chronological sense to getting to the story of Barnabas on the heels of Pentecost.

The Nativity (birth) of St. John the Baptist, meanwhile, is in June for historical reasons; it’s linked with the dates for the Annunciation to Mary and the birth of Christ.  You can read more about that here!

Saints Peter and Paul were both martyred in Rome.  It happened at different times, possibly in different years, although both within a few years of one another in the mid-to-late-60’s.  Their martyrdoms have traditionally been observed together on the same date, June 29th.

Among the Optional Commemorations there are a few that the Saint Aelfric Customary would highlight as Minor Feasts:

  • 1 June: St. Justin Martyr, one of the first major apologists
  • 14 June: St. Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian Fathers, great theologians
  • 22 June: St. Alban, the first martyr in Britain
  • 27 June: St. Cyril of Alexandria, a key leader at the Council of Ephesus
  • 28 June: St. Irenaeus, a major 2nd century Christian writer

3-Step Spirituality in Ezekiel 3

Yes, yes, this is a liturgy blog, not a Bible Study blog, but I’m a pastor, not just a priest, so some crossover is going to be inevitable from time to time.

But, to encourage you to watch this anyway, I actually do use the liturgy as an illustration for the biblical point I was exploring.  If you sometimes struggle to teach your congregation about the liturgy, this may be an example of one way of employing it in your preaching.

Introduction to Ascensiontide & Pentecost

Time for another video!  The quarantine lifestyle has thrown a lot of my previous plans off track so this is a bit later than I would have liked, but at least it’s ready before the Day of Pentecost.  Here is a video introduction, especially for those new to the Prayer Book tradition, to the mini-season of Ascensiontide and the great holy day of Pentecost.

Subject Index:

  • 00:00 Name & Meaning
  • 04:18 Major Themes
  • 08:20 Outline in traditional Prayer Books
  • 11:55 Outline in the 2019 Prayer Book
  • 16:35 Other liturgical features in the 2019 Prayer Book
  • 19:37 Closing Prayer: for the Sunday after the Ascension

For further reading:

Saint Augustine of Canterbury Day

May 26th is the commemoration of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, who is an immensely significant figure for Anglicans.  He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was the leader of a mission to re-evangelize the British Isles after the Anglo-Saxon invasion had pushed the old Celtic churches somewhat to the margins.  Sometimes today we romanticize Celtic Christianity, but it needs to be remembered that their unique traditions and style of spirituality did wane over time, and the land later to be known as England was not truly “won for Christ” for the long haul until Augustine’s second wave of evangelists beginning at the end of the 6th century.

St. Augustine had been sent by Pope Gregory the Great, and entrusted with the difficult task not only of evangelizing the warlike Saxon kings but also reconciling his new churches with the old Celtic ones.  It would be over 60 years later, at the Synod of Whitby, that the Anglo-Saxon Church finally settled a peaceful accord between the Augustinian churches and the Celtic churches.  In this sense, Augustine represents a sort of “catholicizing” influence on the English church, pulling local traditions more into alignment with the rest of the Church across the world.  I wrote about this last year, too.

By the way, much of what we know about Augustine and his mission, we owe to the Venerable Bede.  So it’s kind of fitting that their feast days are next to each other in this order!

The Venerable Bede

If you have an interest in medieval English history, Christianity in Anglo-Saxon England, or the now-ubiquitously-popular concept of “Celtic Christianity”, there is one giant of literature that you have to get to know: the Venerable Bede.  His body resides in Durham Cathedral and you can read a bit about him on their website if you like.  As that page notes, Bede’s “most famous work is The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the first ever written history of England.  Completed in 731, it is a key source for understanding early British history, details about St Cuthbert’s life and the arrival of Christianity.”

It is from his writings that we have the oldest-preserved poem in English, Cædmon’s Hymn (which I had to memorize in Anglo-Saxon and translate for an exam in college), and from his students we have another gem of a poem that he recited on his deathbed:

Before the journey that awaits us all,
No man becomes so wise that he has not need
to think out, before his going hence,
What judgment will be given to soul
after his death: of evil or of good.

He died 1,285 years ago tomorrow, but his commemoration day is today.  The reason for that is tomorrow is the commemoration of another saint, August of Canterbury, whose feast is traditionally of a higher “rank” than Bede’s.  Although the Prayer Book tradition only acknowledges two ranks of saints days (the red-letter days appointed with Collects and Lessons, versus the black-letter days listed in the calendar and left as optional commemorations) we still follow the old precedent of celebrating Augustine on May 26th and moving Bede up a day… and besides, it’s easiest to have just one saint per day.

But let’s go back to that poem.

It is, first of all, a reflection upon death and judgment.  It is not simply a momento mori (remembrance of death) like became popular in medieval piety over the centuries, but a remembrance of judgement and eternity.  No one should grow presumptuous (or worse, lethargic) about the state of one’s soul.  Before we die, we all must contemplate eternity, we all most think on our sinfulness and on God’s grace.  Bede does not say we should live in fear, as some accuse medieval Romanism of preaching, nor does he swing in the direction of easy-peasy pop-evangelicalism that focuses on God’s loving-kindness and tends to forget about our sinfulness.  He does not swerve in either direction, but stays simply in the middle: one must be mindful of judgment.

This poem navigates the balance between different sorts of biblical texts, such as:

  • Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matthew 10:28).
  • Judgement begins at the household of God (1 Peter 4:17).
  • They will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand (John 10:28).

I wish I knew more about Bede himself.  Hopefully I’ll make some time to his Ecclesiastical History in the coming year or two.  For now, though, this should be a good spiritual introduction to Bede’s sort of sober spirituality.