St Cyril of Alexandria: Is God's Life Operative in Your Flesh?

Feast of James the Apostle & Brother of St John the Theologian

Cyril_Alexandria_Square.jpgAND THE WORD became flesh” (Jn. 1.14a). With this verse the Evangelist enters explicitly upon his discourse on the Incarnation. For he explains clearly that the Only-begotten one both became and was called a son of man. For the statement that the Word became flesh means that and nothing else: it is like saying that the Word became a human being, but even more starkly.

Now man is a rational but at the same time a composite animal, made up, that is to say, of soul and this perishable and earthly flesh. When he was created by God and brought into being, since he did not possess incorruptibility and immortality of his own nature (these attributes belong essentially only to God), he was sealed with the spirit of life, thus acquiring a relationship with the divine good that transcends nature. For Scripture says, “he breathed upon his face the breath of life, and the man became a living soul” (Gen. 2.7 LXX). But when he was punished for his transgression, he rightly heard the words, “You are earth and to earth you shall return” (Gen. 3.19 LXX) and was stripped of the grace. The breath of life, that is, the Spirit who says “I am the life”, departed from the earthly flesh and the living being succumbed to death through the flesh alone, since the soul was preserved in its immortality, with the result that it was to the flesh alone that the words “You are earth and to earth you shall return” were addressed.

It was therefore necessary that that which was most endangered in us should be the more urgently restored and by interacting again with that which has life by nature should be recalled to immortality. It was necessary for the affected part to obtain a release from evil. It was necessary, then, for the phrase “You are earth and to earth you shall return” to be relaxed through having the fallen body united in an ineffable manner with the Word that endows all things with life. And it was necessary that when the flesh had become his own flesh it should partake of his own immortality. Considering that fire has the power to transfer to wood the physical quality of the energy naturally present within it and all but transform into itself whatever it comes to be in by participation, it would be quite absurd if we did not take it for granted that the Word of God who transcends all things could make his own proper good, which is life, operative in the flesh. That, in my opinion, is the most probable reason why the holy Evangelist, indicating the whole living being by the part affected, says that the Word of God became flesh. It is so that we might see side by side the wound together with the physician, that which had sunk towards death together with him who raised it up towards life, that which had been overcome by corruption together with him who drove out corruption, that which had been mastered by death together with him who was superior to death, that which was bereft of life together with him who is the provider of life. He does not say that the Word came into flesh; he says that he became flesh in order to exclude any idea of a relative indwelling, as in the case of the prophets and the other saints. He really did become flesh, that is to say, a human being, as I have just explained.

That is why the Word is God by nature both in the flesh and with the flesh, since he has it as his own property, yet is conceived of as something separate from it, and is worshipped in it and with it, in accordance with the saying of the prophet Isaiah: “Men of stature shall come over to you and be your slaves; they shall follow you bound in chains and bow down to you; they will make supplication to you, saying: ‘God is with you only, and there is no other, no god besides him’” (Is. 45.14). Observe how they say that God is in him, without separating the Word from the flesh. Moreover, they maintain that there is no God besides him, uniting with the Word that which he wore, as his own particular property, that is to say, the temple he took from the Virgin. For Christ is one from both.

—St Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John

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