Exegetical Sermon 144 on the Passion

by St. Cyril of Alexandria

Our father among the saints Cyril of Alexandria was the Pope of Alexandria at the time Alexandria was at its height in influence and power within the Roman Empire. Cyril wrote extensively and was a leading protagonist in the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. He was a central figure in the Council of Ephesus in 431 which led to the deposition of Nestorius as Archbishop of Constantinople. His reputation within the Orthodox Christian world has led to his acquiring the title “Seal of all the Fathers.”

SERMON CXLIV

Luke 22:31-34. Simeon, Simeon, behold Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you that your faith fail not: and do you also hereafter when converted strengthen your brethren. And he said to Him, Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death. But He said, I tell you, Peter, that the cock shall not crow to-day until you have thrice denied that You know Me.

The prophet Isaiah bids those who embrace a life of piety towards Christ to go to the proclamations of the Gospel, saying,

“You who thirst, go to the waters.”

But these waters are not the material waters of earth, but rather are divine and spiritual, poured forth for us by Christ Himself. For He is the river of peace, and the torrent of pleasure, and the fountain of life. And so we have heard Himself plainly saying,

“Whosoever thirsts, let him come to Me and drink.”

Come therefore, that here also we may delight ourselves in the sacred and divine streams which now from Him: for what says He to Peter?

“Simeon, Simeon, behold Satan has asked for you to sift you like wheat: but I have prayed for you that your faith fail not.”

Now it is, I think, both necessary and profitable for us to know what the occasion was which led our Saviour’s words to this point. The blessed disciples then had been disputing with one another,

“which of them was the great one:”

but the Saviour of all, as the means whereby they obtained whatsoever was useful and necessary for their good, delivered them from the guilt of ambition, by putting away from them the striving after objects such as this, and persuading them to escape from the lust of preeminence, as from a pitfall of the devil. For He said,

“he who is great among you, let him be as the youngest, and he who governs as he that serves.”

And He further taught them that the season of honour is not so much this present time as that which is to be at the coming of His kingdom. For there they shall receive the rewards of  their fidelity, and be partakers of His eternal glory, and wear a crown of surpassing honour, eating at His table, and sitting also upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

But lo! He also offers them a third assistance, as we read in the lessons before us. For He teaches us, that we must think humbly of ourselves, as being nothing, both as regards the nature of man and the readiness of our mind to fall away into sin, and as strengthened and being what we are only through Him and of Him. If therefore it is from Him that we borrow both our salvation, and our seeming to be something in virtue and piety, what reason have we for proud thoughts? For all we have is from Him, and of ourselves we have nothing.

“For what have you that you did not receive? But if you also received it, why do you glory, as though you did not receive it?”

So spoke the very wise Paul: and further, the blessed David also at one time says,

“In God we shall make strength:”

and at another again,

“Our God is our house of refuge and our strength.”

And the prophet Jeremiah also has somewhere said,

“O Lord, my strength and my house of refuge, and my help in the days of trouble.”

And the blessed Paul also may be brought forward, who says with great clearness,

“I can do all things through Christ, Who strengthens me.”

Yes, Christ Himself also somewhere says to us,

“Without Me you can do nothing.11

Let us then glory not in ourselves, but rather in His gifts. And if this be the state of any one’s mind, what place can the desire of being set above other men find in him, when thus we are all both partakers of the same one grace, and also have the same Lord of hosts as the Giver both of our existence and of our ability to do well. To humble therefore our tendency to superciliousness, and to repress ambitious feelings, Christ shows that even he who seemed to be great is nothing and infirm. He therefore passes by the other disciples, and turns to him who is the foremost, and set at the head of the company, and says;

“that Satan has many times desired to sift you as wheat:”

that is, to search and try you, and expose you to intolerable blows.

For it is Satan’s wont to attack men of more than ordinary excellence, and, like some fierce and arrogant barbarian, he challenges to single combat those of chief repute in the ways of piety. So he challenged Job, but was defeated  by his patience, and the boaster fell, being vanquished by the endurance of that triumphant hero. But human nature he makes his prey, for it is infirm, and easy to be overcome: while he is harsh and pitiless and unappeasable in heart. For, as the sacred Scripture says of him,

“His heart is hard as a stone: and he stands like an anvil that cannot be beaten out .”

Yet he is placed under the feet of the saints by Christ’s might: for He has said,

“Behold, I have given you to tread on serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.”

“Satan therefore, He says, has desired to sift you like wheat: but I have offered supplication in your behalf, that your faith fail not.”

See again, He humbles Himself to us, and speaks according to the limits of man’s estate, and yet He is God by nature, even though He became flesh. For though He is the power of the Father, by Whom all things are preserved, and from Whom they obtain the ability to continue in well-being, He yet says that He offers supplication as a man. For it was necessary, yes necessary, for Him Who, for the dispensation’s sake, became like to us, to use also our words, when the occasion called Him thereto in accordance with what the dispensation itself required.

“I have supplicated therefore, He says, that your faith fail not.”

Now by this then He shows, that if he had been yielded up to Satan to be tempted, he would have proved altogether unfaithful: since, even when not so yielded up, he proved weak from human feebleness, being unable to bear the fear of death. For he denied Christ, when a young girl troubled him in the high priest’s palace by saying,

“And you also are one of His disciples.”

The Saviour then forewarned him what would have been the result had he been yielded up to Satan’s temptation: but at the same time He offers him the word of consolation, and says,

“And do you also hereafter, when converted, strengthen your brethren:”

that is, be the support, and instructor and teacher of those who draw near to Me by faith. And moreover, admire the beautiful skill of the passage, and the surpassing greatness of the divine gentleness!

For, lest his impending fall should lead the disciple to desperation, as though he would be expelled from the glories of the apostleship, and  his former following (of Christ) lose its reward, because of his proving unable to bear the fear of death, and denying Him, at once Christ fills him with good hope, and grants him the confident assurance that he shall be counted worthy of the promised blessings, and gather the fruits of steadfastness. For He says,

“And do you also, when converted, strengthen your brethren.”

O what great and incomparable kindness!

The disciple had not yet sickened with the malady of faithlessness, and already he has received the medicine of forgiveness: not yet had the sin been committed, and he receives pardon: not yet had he fallen, and the saving hand is held out: not yet had he faltered, and he is confirmed: for

“do you, He says, when converted, strengthen your brethren.”

So to speak belongs to One Who pardons, and restores him again to apostolic powers.

But Peter, in the ardour of his zeal, made profession of steadfastness and endurance to the last extremity, saying that he would manfully resist the terrors of death, and count nothing of bonds; but in so doing he erred from what was right.

For he ought not, when the Saviour told him that he would prove weak to have contradicted Him, loudly protesting the contrary; for the Truth could not lie: but rather he ought to have asked strength of Him, that either he might not suffer this, or be rescued immediately from harm.

But, as I have already said, being fervent in spirit, and warm in his love towards Christ, and of unrestrainable zeal in rightly performing those duties which become a disciple in his attendance upon his Master, he declares that he will endure to the last extremity: but he was rebuked for foolishly speaking against what was foreknown, and for his unreasonable haste in contradicting the Saviour’s words. For this reason He says,

“Verily I tell you, that the cock shall not crow to-night, until you have thrice denied Me.”

And this proved true. Let us not therefore think highly of ourselves, even if we see ourselves greatly distinguished for our virtues: rather let us offer up the praises of our thanksgivings to Christ Who redeems us, and Who also it is that grants us even the desire to be able to act rightly: by Whom and with Whom to God the Father be praise and dominion, with the Holy Spirit, for over and ever, Amen.

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About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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