Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi: A Reflection on the Sacramental Theology of Cyril of Jerusalem

cyril J This post was originally submitted on 16 December 2014 as my final paper for my Patristic Theology class at Yale Divinity School taught by Dr. Christopher Beeley during the Fall Semester 2014. This paper is based on a close reading of the text. In this class we did not cover Cyril of Jerusalem so I set out to, in a way, reclaim Cyril’s place among the patristic theologians.  While not perfect it did receive an HP+ (one point shy of an H-).  Instead of footnotes, this post has end notes and also includes my bibliography.  I welcome and encourage comments on the post! 

Lex orandi, lex credendi means the “law of prayer is the law of belief” or, as it is commonly translated, “as we pray, so we believe.” While this phrase was not in use during the time of Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, the principle behind it outlines perfectly Cyril’s teaching on the Sacraments. Before a catechumen could learn about the Sacraments, they had to be baptized. What they prayed and what they experienced led to what they believed about Christ, the Trinity and the nature of the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. In his Mystagogical Catecheses, Cyril addresses five key teachings on the sacraments for the newly baptized: “on the Rites before Baptism,” “on the Rites of Baptism,” “on the Holy Chrism,” “on the Eucharistic Food,” and “on the Eucharistic Rite.” It was only after receiving the Sacrament of Baptism that the catechumens were instructed on what they experienced and why it mattered.

In this text, Cyril never expressed his explicit Christology or his Trinitarian theology. Cyril, it seems, had no real use for the Christological debates of his day. F. L. Cross posits that, “Cyril’s bent of mind was too practical to be really interested in such questions.”[1] While he never expressed a Christology, his theological point of view is expressed in his interpretation of the Sacraments. In each of the five lectures of the Mystagogical Catecheses Cyril describes what is happening and how it relates to the new life in Christ of the Baptized. Through his practical lectures on the Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, Cyril is presenting a Sacramental theology that gives witness to his understanding of Christianity, the person of Christ, and the Triune Godhead – although he does not use these words.

Before looking at the five lectures of the Mystagogical Catecheses, it is worth noting that the authorship of these lectures has been, and continues to be, debated. F. L. Cross, in his introduction to Lectures on the Christian Sacraments discusses the problem with the authorship of these texts, particularly with the Mystagogical Catecheses. Cross describes three main points in this debate regarding authorship. First, he references seventeenth century questions on the basic validity of Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures. Were these lectures real or were they a later creation that was only attributed to Cyril to support a particular sacramental understanding? This critique was written off as mere Protestant disdain for Cyril’s high sacramental theology. Second, Cross sites W. J. Swaans’s serious argument regarding conflation of the traditional author with the real author by noting the speculation that these lectures were actually written by Cyril’s successor, John. Swaans also cites the external references to these texts, which do not occur until the sixth-seventh century when Eustratius in Life of Eutychius refers to the text as Cyrilline. Finally, Cross looks to cross-referenced material that demonstrates stylistic differences in the first eighteen lectures of the Catecheses versus the final five composing the Mystagogical Catecheses. However, there are other passages that clearly reference a singular author such as Cyril’s outline of what the catechumens will hear during Easter Week and then said lectures are indeed covered. F. L. Cross does state at the end of this section that the case for these critiques that support multiple authors has not, as of his time, been proved.[2] E.J. Yarnold, SJ in his essay “Baptismal Catechesis” found in the 1992 publication The Study of Liturgy writes strongly about the doubt in Cyril’s authorship. After referencing many different scholars and theories Yarnold comes to a similar conclusion as Cross, the “attributions are too inconsistent to prove anything.”[3]

Clearly there is great debate regarding the authorship of this text. However, there is no conclusive evidence supporting a conclusion one-way or the other. It seems that the exact authorship of this text, while important for the historical significance, is irrelevant to the theological significance of the text. What is important about this text, in addition to understandings of language and the development of the liturgical calendar, is the historical record of the rituals of Baptism and Eucharist in the fourth century as well as the practical sacramental theology that emerged and has been maintained from these lectures. This paper will assume Cyril’s authorship for the purpose of clarity and simplicity.

The first of the five lectures comprising the Mystagogical Catecheses is titled “on the Rites before baptism.” From the very beginning of these Easter Week lectures (the Mystagogical Catecheses are a series of lectures given to the newly baptized immediately follow Easter – when they were baptized), Cyril recognizes that these individuals are different having been baptized, “especially as ye have been made fit to receive the more sacred Mysteries, having been counted worthy of divine and life-giving Baptism” (Mystagogical Catechesis 1.1). From the very first section of the first Mystagogical Catechesis, Cyril articulates that something is different in these new Christians. This is the foundation for his sacramental theology, as everything else he argues is based on the reality that something very specific happens to a person once baptized. Baptism is believed to be a once in a lifetime experience that can never be repeated, except if a person becomes a heretic: “none but heretics are re-baptized, since their former baptism was not baptism” (Procatechesis 1.7).

In baptism, “thou renouncest Satan, utterly breaking all covenant with him” (Mystagogical Catechesis 1.9), and, “thou hast put off the old man [Satan]” (Mystagogical Catechesis 1.10). Throughout this first Mystagogical Catechesis, and throughout the second and third lectures as well, Cyril proclaims that once a person is baptized they cannot go back to the old way of life or else things will be even worse for them for, “thou shalt find the tyrant more bitter” (Mystagogical Catechesis 1.8). This hints to Cyril’s acceptance of re-baptism for heretics, because no person who is truly baptized would ever abandon the faith or betray the Church.

The Rites before Baptism represent this drastic change in life with a physical turning around. In this rite of preparation, the catechumens face west to renounce Satan, “since the West is the region of sensible darkness, and he [Satan] being darkness, has his dominion also in darkness, ye therefore, looking with a symbolic meaning towards the West, renounce that dark and gloomy potentate” (Mystagogical Catechesis 1.4). In order to renounce Satan, he must be faced directly, at least in the symbolical sense. At the end of the preparatory rite, the catechumens turn around and face east. East is the direction of light and is associated with God, “when therefore thou renouncest Satan . . . there is opened to thee the paradise of God, which He planted towards the east” (Mystagogical Catechesis 1.8). This physical metanoia, this turning from west to east, represents the change in life that is anticipated after baptism. Again, after experiencing this metanioa, no person would ever turn again towards Satan or become a heretic – potentially one in the same action. In baptism, not only is there metanoia, there is also an ontological change in a person as they become Christ. This will be explained further in the discussion on the third Mystagogical Catechesis “on the Holy Chrism.”

The foundation of Cyril’s theology, as expressed through the Sacraments, begins with this foundation. The catechumen must be intentional, honestly desire to be forgiven of sins, share in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and be committed to changing their ways and being transformed.

“On the Rites of Baptism” is the second lecture the newly baptized would hear during Easter Week. In this lecture, Cyril walks step-by-step through the baptismal liturgy that the catechumens experienced just a few days prior. Each action in the liturgy is carried out thoughtfully and intentionally, containing theological underpinnings that root them in the context of the ritual as a whole and the theology behind the sacrament.

The baptismal rite contains three actions: the stripping of the candidates for baptism, the anointing of their naked bodies, and the actual act of baptism with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“As soon, therefore, as ye entered in, ye put off your garment; and this was an image of putting off the old man [Satan] with his deeds” (Mystagogical Catechesis 2.2). This stripping was a symbolic representation of two things: the stripping away of sin and the old way of life, and its connection to the crucifixion. Cyril cites Colossians 3:9 for the imagery of taking off garments, “seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds” (KJV). This, as is true with the entirety of these catechetical lectures, roots Cyril’s teaching in Holy Scripture. As to the imagery of the crucifixion, Cyril writes, “having stripped yourselves . . . in this also imitating Christ, who hung naked on the Cross, and by His nakedness spoiled principalities and powers, and openly triumphed over them on the tree” (Mystagogical Catechesis 2.2). The illusion to the crucifixion is a profound statement to the power of baptism and the resulting call of Christian life and ministry. The call of the Christian, as Cyril attests to later in the Mystagogical Catecheses, is to work toward the vanquishing of the enemy and to stand against the wiles of the devil[4], and this call is established in baptism. It is embodied when the baptized share in the spoiling of principalities and powers.

Once stripped, the catechumens had the entirety of their bodies “from the very hairs of [their] head[s], to [their] feet” (Mystagogical Catechesis 2.3) anointed with exorcized oil. By this action they were “made partakers of the good olive-tree, Jesus Christ” (Mystagogical Catechesis 2.3). It is through the anointing that the catechumens are grafted into the person of Christ, and protected from the powers of evil that will target the new Christians more strongly than ever before.

Finally, the catechumens are baptized with water using the Trinitarian formula. Each catechumen was required to make a profession of faith – they had to affirm that they believed in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In that very moment, the newly baptized both dies and is born as Cyril writes, “and that Water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother” (Mystagogical Catechesis 2.4).

According to Cyril, the Sacrament of Baptism not only washes away the stain of sin and cleanses those receiving the sacrament but it also “conveys the gift of the Holy Ghost, so also it is the counterpart of Christ’s sufferings” (Mystagogical Catechesis 2.6). Cyril has a strong emphasis on the workings of the Holy Spirit in the reception of the sacraments. This reference to the conveying of the gift of the Holy Spirit is the first example of his emphasis on the entire Godhead, not just Christ, at work in the Sacraments. This is a way in which Cyril steps forward with a Trinitarian theology of the sacraments that distinguishes him from his contemporaries.

In the arguments against the Donatists, Augustine writes about the power of Christ in the sacraments not the power of the priest. The moral and sinful nature of the priest, as Augustine argued, is irrelevant to the validity of the sacrament. The sacrament is valid no matter who administers it because of the power of Christ. In like manner, Cyril of Alexandria uses the sacrament of the Eucharist to demonstrate the divinity and physicality of the incarnation. In both examples, there is a clear emphasis on Christ as the sole power in the sacramental action. Cyril of Jerusalem recognizes that Christ does not act alone, but the entirety of the Triune Godhead is at work in sacramental acts. This is another touchstone of Cyril’s theology emerging from the practical instruction of the Sacraments.

Cyril spent an entire lecture discussing the oil used for anointing; that act alone demonstrates that holy chrism is incredibly important. It seems that in the third Mystagogcal Catechesis, Cyril claims that it is in the moment of anointing that a person becomes a Christian, which leads to the conclusion that the water baptism is foremost about a cleansing of sin and rebirth in Christ as they have already been anointed. “Now ye were made Christs, by receiving the emblem of the Holy Ghost” (Mystagogical Catechesis 3.1). But, what is the emblem of the Holy Ghost? Cyril describes: “In the same manner to you also . . . w[ere] given the Unction, the emblem of that wherewith Christ was anointed” (Mystagogical Catechesis 3.1). In the next section, Cyril makes the connection more clearly, “As He [Jesus] was anointed with the spiritual oil of gladness, the Holy Ghost, who is so called, because He [the Holy Ghost] is the author of spiritual gladness, so ye were anointed with ointment, having been made partakers and fellows of Christ” (Mystagogical Catechesis 3.2).

Just as in Christ’s baptism, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him, so too does the Holy Spirit descend upon the newly baptized claiming them, as God’s own forever. This act of becoming Christ’s, becoming God’s own, is the moment of metanoia that happens in baptism. This is the action that causes the newly baptized to turn from west to east – from darkness to light. Through the Holy Spirit, “this holy thing [chrismation] is a spiritual preservative of the body, and safeguard of the soul” (Mystagogical Catechesis 3. 7). It is what allows Christians to persist against the temptations of Satan and the forced of wickedness.

Cyril ends this lecture with an exhortation that encompasses the call to live into this new life – this life where a person’s very being is changed:

“Having been anointed, therefore, with this holy ointment, keep it unspotted and unblemished in you, pressing forward by good works, and becoming well-pleasing to the Captain of your salvation, Christ Jesus, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Mystagogical Catechesis 3.7).

Cyril’s theology of baptism is one of repentance, forgiveness, and sharing in Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. It is one of drastic change in the life of the newly baptized, a change so drastic it changes the very being of the new Christian. Cyril speaks of baptism in very practical terms – he is instructing the newly baptized in what they experienced. By leading this practical liturgical instruction, Cyril is actually imparting on these new Christians a deeply rooted sacramental theology rooted in Scripture, the person of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

Having completed the lectures on baptism, Cyril turns his attention in the final two lectures to the Eucharist. The fourth lecture is “on the Eucharistic Food,” and the fifth is “on the Eucharistic Rite.”

Cyril begins the lecture “on the Eucharistic Food” by declaring that the bread and wine are in fact the Body and Blood of Jesus because Jesus declared them so. When we partake of the bread and wine, which is in fact the Body and Blood of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the communicant is then made into the same. Cyril writes of the benefit of participation in the Eucharist, “that thou mightest be made of the same body and the same blood with Him. For thus we come to bear Christ in us, because His Body and Blood are diffused through our members; thus it is that, according to the blessed Peter, we become partakers of the divine nature” (Mystagogical Catechesis 4.3). This is a major theological statement of the nature of Eucharist and the transformative power it contains.

Cyril is not just teaching that participants in the Eucharist become Christ like, but they in fact become partakers of the divine nature. This is not unlike the process of divination that Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, and others discuss in their writings. This is a major Christological statement – the divinity of Christ is so powerful that it transforms ordinary people into participants of the divine. It is a statement about the incarnation that has profound implications for humanity. That the divine becomes human so the human becomes divine. Cyril may not explicitly state any particular doctrine of Christ, but there is no other way to describe his teaching on the Eucharistic elements.

In his final lecture, Cyril goes into what today might be called an instructed Eucharist. Just as he did with baptismal rite, the fifth Mystagogical Catechesis “on the Eucharistic Rite” describes in great detail the structure of the Eucharist. This lecture serves as the conclusion of “spiritual edification” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5.1).

The actions Cyril describes are: the deacon giving the priest water to wash his hands, the deacon inviting the kiss of peace, the Sursum Corda, the Sanctus, the epiclesis over the gifts of bread and wine, the prayers of the people which include prayers for the sick and those who have died, praying the Lord’s Prayer (which Cyril addresses line by line), the presentation of the gifts, the invitation to receive the sacrament, how to receive the sacrament, and finally what to do once the sacrament has been consumed. This is, for good reason, the longest of the five lectures that compose the Mystagogical Catecheses.

The Eucharistic action contains within itself the majority of the theology expressed in the previous four lectures. The first action in which the deacon gives the priest water to wash his hands represents that he must be “pure from all sinful and unlawful deeds” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5. 2). This harkens back to the cleansing nature of the washing at baptism. The second action, the kiss of peace, is not about greeting the fellow members of the community, but rather about reconciliation. It is a time to come together as a community and recognize the hurt that is inherent in community life. This action comes directly from the Gospel of St. Matthew, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (NRSV, 5:23).

The Sursum Corda, the third action, gives the instruction of how Christians are to think and behave. “Lift up your hearts” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5.4) is a call to be focused on things heavenly not things earthly. “Let us give thanks to the Lord” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5.5) recalls to mind, “for in good sooth are we bound to give thanks, that He has called us, unworthy as we are, to so great grace” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5.5).

Following the Sursum Corda, the whole assembly cries out, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5.6). This is the rehearsal of the confession of God “delivered down to us from the Seraphim, that we may join in Hymns with the hosts of the world above” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5.6). In the epiclesis over the gifts, the fifth action, “we call upon the merciful God to send forth His Holy Spirit upon the gifts lying before Him; that He may make the Bread the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ; for whatsoever the Holy Ghost has touched, is sanctified and changed” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5.7). Just as was true in the Sacrament of Baptism, in this sacrament there is clear action of the entire Godhead, not solely the power of Christ. God the Father calls down God the Holy Spirit to transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of God the Son.

This, the epicelsis over the gifts, is followed by the sixth and seventh actions: the prayers of the people and the Lord’s Prayer, in which there is a deeply embedded theology that what is prayed for speaks volumes to what a community believes. The presentation of the gifts is done with the following words, “holy things to holy men” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5.19). This harkens back to both the divination of humanity as well as the change being brought about by baptism. Ordinary people in the incarnation through baptism are made holy.

The community is then invited to receive communion with a verse from the Psalter that is a reminder that there is goodness and joy in what happens when the community is gathered at the altar. “After ye hear the chanter, with a sacred melody inviting you to the communion of the Holy Mysteries, and saying O taste and see that the Lord is good” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5.20). Cyril gets so detailed in his instruction that he even directs the newly baptized in how to hold their hands when receiving the Holy Mysteries, “come not with they wrists extended, or thy fingers open; but make thy left hand as if a throne for thy right” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5.21). This allows for one to prevent the dropping of any crumbs to the floor that all of the bread may be consumed. This is part of the high sacramental theology that the seventeenth century Protestant objected to, as discussed in the authorship debates at the beginning of this paper.

Finally, the eleventh action described by Cyril, is what to do once the sacrament has been consumed: “And while moisture is still upon thy lips, touching it with thine hands, hallow both thine eyes and brow and the other sense. Then wait for the prayer, and give thanks unto God, who hath accounted thee worthy of so great mysteries” (Mystagogical Catechesis 5.22). The Eucharist action ends with a physical manifestation of the spiritual spreading of the Body and Blood of Christ throughout the recipient’s body – throughout the communicant’s entire being. This process is very important and Cyril goes to great lengths to instruct the newly baptized in the meaning and structure of the ritual. His attention to detail and care in instruction gives witness to his belief in the centrality of this practice to the Christian faith. Embedded in these instructions is the foundational theology that emerges from practical teaching of the Christian life.

In all of these lectures, Cyril takes practical instruction and, without expressly saying so, gives the newly baptized not only a sacramental theology but a theology of Christology, the Holy Sprit, and the Trinity – he gives them an embodied theology of the theological debates of the fourth century. It seems to me that F. L. Cross and other scholars have shortchanged this Bishop is claiming that, “Cyril’s bent of mind was too practical to be really interested in such questions [of orthodoxy].”[5] He was very much concerned with question of orthodoxy, but only as far as they had practical implications for the life of the Church and of the baptized.

Cyril’s Mystagogical Catecheses is the benchmark for catechetical preparation for initiation into the Christian Church. This work has left an indelible mark on the Church in regards to the liturgical life of the Church of the fourth century and the Church of the modern era. The fact that – despite the debates of its originality – this work is still in existence today speaks volumes to its importance. Ultimately the Mystagogical Catecheses of Cyril of Jerusalem or John of Jerusalem or whomever, has taken the esoteric theological debates of the early Church and transformed them into the practical reality and embodied theology of Christian life then, today, and always. Cyril reminds Christians throughout the centuries that before a person can understand the sacred mysteries they must experience them. For as we pray, so we believe: Lex orandi, lex credendi.


[1] Cyril and F.L. Cross, St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Lectures on the Christian Sacraments: The Procatechesis and the Five Mystagogical Catechese, vol. 2, Popular Patristics Series (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1951), xxx.

[2] Ibid., xxxvii-xxxix.

[3] Cheslyn Jones et al., ends., The Study of Liturgy, Revised Edition, (London: SPCK, 1992), 92.

[4] Cyril and Cross Lectures on Christian Sacraments, 65-66.

[5] Cyril and Cross Lectures on Christian Sacraments, xxx.


Cyril, and F. L. Cross. St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Lectures on the Christian Sacraments: The Procatechesis and the Five Mystagogical Catecheses. Vol. 2. Popular Patristics Series. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1951.

Jones, Cheslyn, Geoffrey Wainwright, Edward Yarnold, SJ, and Paul Bradshaw, eds. The Study of Liturgy. Revised Edition London: SPCK, 1992.

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