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.