Cyprian was martyred on 14 September 258. (September 14 is Holy Cross Day, so he is usually commemorated on a nearby open day – in USA RC that is today.)
Cyprian was born around 200 AD in North Africa. He was a prominent trial lawyer and teacher of rhetoric. Around 246 he became a Christian, and in 248 was chosen Bishop of Carthage. Early in the year 250 the Emperor Decius began strong measures against Christians. The first demand was that the bishops and officers of the church sacrifice to the emperor. The proconsul traveled to check the order was being carried out. Five commissioners for each town administered the edict. When the proconsul reached Carthage he discovered that Bishop Cyprian had fled and gone into hiding.
The church was very divided about how to react to the persecution. Some Christians stood firm in civil disobedience – refusing to sacrifice. Others gave in, submitting in word or in deed to the order of sacrifice and receiving a certificate called a “libellus”. We still have some of these certificates.
Those who did not like or approve of Cyprian said that his secret fleeing from Carthage showed he was a coward and unfaithful. Cyprian replied that he thought fleeing in this case was God’s will for him and that he could lead the church from his hiding place.
Persecution was extremely severe in Carthage, and many Christians gave in and sacrificed to the emperor. These were called lapsi. When the persecution died down the church now had a new problem: how to deal with the lapsi – those who had given in and sacrificed – when these lapsi now wanted to come and be members of the church again.
One Christian leader, called Novatus, allowed these lapsi who had sacrificed back into the church without any disciplining whatsoever. Another Christian leader called Novatian did the opposite. He would not allow them back into the church community at all.
Cyprian held to a middle way – but you can see the Christian community was deeply divided again. Cyprian allowed the lapsi back into the Christian community, the church, after a suitable period of probation and penance, depending on the gravity of the denial. The story of the divisions gets even more complicated – but you get the basic idea.
Later there were other Christian divisions. Jesus didn’t leave behind a rule book and each time that new issues arose Christians weren’t really sure – they disagreed about what the appropriate response should be. The next big issue for Cyprian was whether the baptism in heretical groups was valid or not. Should people from those heretical groups be rebaptised or not.
During the reign of the Emperor Valerian, Carthage suffered a severe plague epidemic. Cyprian organized a program of medical relief and nursing of the sick, available to all residents. But the majority of Carthage’s citizens were convinced that the epidemic was the result of the wrath of the gods at the spread of Christianity. So another persecution against Christians arose. This time Cyprian did not flee. He was arrested, tried, and finally beheaded on 14 September 258.
Cyprian was an extensive writer. We still have many of his writings. In his book called On the Unity of the Catholic Church Cyprian stresses the importance of visible, concrete unity among Christians. He argued for a position that the fullness of the church – what he and others called the catholic church, the universal church – is present in the people gathered around their local bishop. That position has stayed the approach to church of the Eastern Orthodox church and of the Anglican Church. The fullness of the church, the church catholic, is present in the people led by the bishop.
We live in divided times. Churches are divided one from another – within denominations there is division. There is disagreement between Christians. Some would have us attempt to agree on every last detail before we can see ourselves as a community – a common unity. Listing off a catalogue of agreed beliefs rather than unity in God. The opposite is those who say that none of our beliefs matter at all. Can we find a middle way? Can we learn to respect difference, learn from difference AND at the same time hold to our primary convictions. Being too rigid we will snap under pressure, being too loose and supple we will be no support.
This is not only true within Christianity – but also beyond it. We live in a multi-faith, multi-cultural community and world. The date, September 11, is itself a reminder that the need to respectfully listen to each other is one of the world’s greatest needs – as is the need to be sure of our own convictions. Reflecting on the times of Cyprian still, IMO, has much to teach us.
Almighty God, who gave to your servant Cyprian boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
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