Orthodox America

  Saint Cyprian of Carthage Inspiration of Martyrs

In the baptism of water is received the remission of sins, in the baptism of blood the crown of virtues. Exhortation to Martyrdom, A.D. 252 or 257

The ancient city of Carthage was advantageously situated on the northern coast of Africa, where it thrusts out toward Sicily, and was the commercial queen of the western Mediterranean before it was destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C.  By the year A.D. 200, when Saint Cyprian was born, it had recovered its status as a world metropolis and numbered among its citizens a sizeable Christian population.

Thascius Cyprianus came from a prominent pagan family. He excelled as an orator and, when still quite young, launched into a profitable career as a teacher of philosophy and rhetoric.  He could well afford to indulge in all manner of worldly pleasures, but these gave him no lasting satisfaction and, through the writings of Tertullian, he became persuaded of the Christian faith.  He doubted, however, that he could be "born again" and loosed from his habitual pagan ways, so he postponed baptism until the priest Caecilius assured him of the efficacy of God's grace.  When Cyprian was finally baptized, at the age of about 46, God granted him to experience the power of the Holy Spirit and he felt himself to be a new man. He gave away his possessions and so impressed people by his genuine conversion and virtuous way of life, that just two years later they clamored to have him made bishop.

During the reign of Emperor Philip "the Arabian" (244-249), the Church in Carthage enjoyed relative peace. Unfortunately, this allowed the Christians to become quite lax in the practice of their faith.  They fell back into pagan ways: quarrelling, participating in pagan forms of amusement, dressing up in the latest fashions and, in general, setting their affections on things of the earth rather than on the things above-like so many Christians today.  The new bishop reminded his flock of their high calling as followers of Jesus Christ, and exhorted them to behave accordingly.  He carefully examined candidates for ordination and demanded that they undergo a thorough preparation. But it was not possible to amend the situation overnight, and when, a year later, Decius became emperor and unleashed a new wave of persecution, many of these lax Christians abjured their faith.

In this short time, Cyprian had already won respect as an able and wise leader of the Church, so that when Pope Fabian of Rome was martyred, his clergy turned to Cyprian for advice.  Together with the Carthaginians, they persuaded him to go into hiding in order to preserve himself for further service to the Church.  He remained in close contact with his flock, exhorting them in letters to turn to prayer as their only sure weapon, and entreating the priests to look out for the weak and to use whatever possessions he had left to help the poorer Christians resist the temptation of material advantage to join the pagans.  In general, the persecution showed the danger of attachment to material possessions as many Christians, without any particular coercion, sacrificed to the idols in order to spare their lives and their property.  This grieved the saint, but he was also concerned for the confessors, that their exploit not lead them into pride. "Now more than ever they must fear being caught in the devil's nets, for he would fain attack the strong, desiring to avenge himself on those who brought him defeat [by their confession]."

Once the persecution abated, the question arose as to how the lapsed were to be received back into the Church.  Some priests were so lenient as to accept the apostates back without repentance, and without any penance. Cyprian criticized such light-minded treatment, while cautioning against undue severity at the other extreme, as represented by the priest Novatian in Rome.  The puritanical Novatian espoused the old doctrine of Montanism, claiming that the lapsed could never be reinstated.  He persuaded so many of this heretical view as to cause a schism which agitated the Church for several centuries.  Responding to this and other divisions which certain malcontents introduced into his flock, Cyprian wrote a treatise, "On the Unity of the Church," containing his now famous dictum, "He cannot have God as father, who has not the Church as his mother."

When, after the death of Decius in 251, Cyprian returned to Carthage, he tried to reestablish peace and unity in the Church.  He convoked several councils where many troubling issues were resolved, including the subject of infant baptism.

Just as peace seemed to have settled upon the Church in Carthage, another misfortune struck: a plague broke out, daily carrying away several thousand victims. So great was the fear of contagion, that the infected were abandoned and the dead left unburied.  St. Cyprian assembled the Christians and reminded them that the Lord commanded us to love our neighbor and to repay evil with good; he recalled the example of Jesus Christ, Who, while hanging on the Cross, prayed for His enemies.  His words so inspired the Christians that they took upon themselves to care for the sick and the dead.  Rich and poor, clergy and laity-all took part in this virtuous work: some looked after the sick, some helped financially, some took suffering people into their homes; confessors, who not long before had been tortured by the pagans and still bore the marks on their bodies, daily exposed themselves to danger in order to help their enemies. Such examples of self-sacrifice and love for one's neighbor amazed the pagans, and many of them were converted.  St. Cyprian shared in this labor, strengthening his flock with his example and his eloquent words.  In his treatise, "On Mortality," written at this time, he tried to direct their minds to the future, eternal life, pointing out the brevity and vanity of earthly life and the eternal glory promised to Christians.

"The Kingdom of God is drawing nigh, my beloved brethren," he wrote.  "The reward of life, the eternal joy of salvation, perpetual gladness, the lost paradise-this is what we shall inherit when this earthly life passes away. A heavenly, eternal glory will replace vain, worldly pleasures.  Is this any time to be despondent or fearful?  What room is there here for anxiety and solicitude?  Who, in the midst of these things is trembling and sad, except he who is without hope and faith?"

"Even if this mortality conferred nothing else, it has done this benefit to Christians and to God's servants, that we begin gladly to desire martyrdom as we learn not to fear death.  These are the trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown."

". . . with a sound mind, with a firm faith, with a robust virtue, let us be prepared for the whole will of God: laying aside the fear of death, let us think on the immortality which follows. By this let us show ourselves to be what we believe, that we do not grieve over the departure of those dear to us, and that when the day of our summons shall arrive, we come without delay and without resistance to the Lord when He Himself calls us.  And this, as it ought always to be done by God's servants, much more ought to be done now-now that the world is collapsing and is oppressed with the tempests of mischievous ills; in order that we who see that terrible things have begun, and know that still more terrible things are imminent, may regard it as a great advantage to depart from it as quickly as possible." "We should ever and anon reflect that we have renounced the world, and are in the meantime living here as guests and strangers.  Let us greet the day which assigns each of us to his own home, which snatches us hence, and sets us free from the snares of the world, and restores us to paradise and the kingdom."

In 252, the emperor Gallus renewed the persecution of Christians.  This time Cyprian decided not to leave.  Anticipating a recurrence of earlier cruelties, he tried to prepare the Christians to stand fast. His exhortations to martyrdom contain admonitions and reassurances similar to those in his treatise, "On Mortality," while holding up the further reward of the martyr's crown:

"[Martyrdom] is a baptism greater in grace, more lofty in power, more precious in honor-a baptism wherein angels baptize-a baptism in which God and His Christ exult-a baptism after which no one sins any more-a baptism which completes the increase of our faith-a baptism which, as we withdraw from the world, immediately associates us with God."

Gallus's successor, the emperor Valerian, was at first sympathetic to the Christians, and for several years the Church enjoyed relative tranquility. It was during this time that St. Cyprian wrote a number of treatises which reflect his timeless and practical pastoral concerns: "On the Advantage of Patience," "On Works and Alms," "On Jealousy and Envy," and "On Virginity." But a member of Valerian's court, the evilly ambitious Macrian, persuaded the emperor that the Christians were dangerous rivals and that their loyalty to the Church threatened the unity of the empire.  The resulting persecution was directed primarily at the leaders of the Church, and in 257 Saint Cyprian was exiled to Curibis.  There he had a vision, indicating that a year later he would be martyred.  And indeed, just a year later Cyprian was brought to trial.  From the recorded court proceedings, it is evident that he impressed all by his wonderful scorn of suffering. When the proconsul announced the death sentence, many of his flock, who had risked their lives to come for a final blessing, cried out, "Let us die with him!" Cyprian was beheaded on September 14, 258, becoming the first hieromartyr of the Church of Carthage. The Christians reverently buried his holy remains, which, in the reign of Charlemagne, were taken to France. We tend to think that the lives of martyrs, while inspiring, are not particularly relevant to us. In fact, martyrdom is the very essence of the Christian life.  Whether or not we think the coming of Antichrist and the persecution of Christians is imminent, we would do well to heed the exhortations of Saint Cyprian and practice the martyrs' marvellous and soul-saving detachment from this world that we too might bravely welcome death and with confidence cry out with the Seer of Mysteries, "Come, Lord Jesus!"

Sources: Izbranniye Zhitiya Sviatikh by A. N. Bakhmeteva, Moscow 1872;History of the Church by Eusebius; " Life of St. Cyprian" by Pontius the Deacon, and writings of St. Cyprian in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, Hendrickson, 1994.

Switch to: 

Subscribe (and order back issues) to Orthodox America
Order Books from Orthodox America

If you note problems with this site, please contact the Webmaster
1998-2006 by Nikodemos Orthodox Publication Society