Reflecting on Holy Week in the Light of Christmas

At the recent clergy gathering on 3rd April 2017, the day of the Chrism Mass, Fr Greg Bellamy presented to the clergy of our diocese about Holy Week in the light of Christmas, at the request of Bishop Michael McKenna. The presentation was very well received and has been developed into the following article that Bishop Michael wanted to share with you this Holy Week.


According to the Thought of St Cyril of Alexandria 

St Cyril of Alexandria is closely associated with the Christological controversies of the fifth Century, particularly the Nestorian controversy that resulted in the Council of Ephesus in 431. That controversy centred around how divinity and humanity could be unified in Jesus Christ. For Cyril, the key is to grasp that Jesus’ identity can only be properly understood if what he does for us is properly understood. That is, understanding his mission allows us to understand his identity. We have to understand salvation in order to understand the Saviour. So, it is profoundly true to say that, for Cyril, Christmas can only be understood in the light of Holy Week and conversely Holy Week can only be understood in the light of Christmas.

So what I offer you today are a few reflections on Holy Week in the light of Christmas according to St Cyril of Alexandria. 

Palm Sunday
Christmas and the Transformation of Suffering and Death

 In the background of Jesus’ feted entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate at the beginning of Holy Week, is Jesus’ ominous predictions of his suffering and death. These predictions surely were in the back of the minds of the disciples even as the crowd celebrated their arrival. Most arresting of all these predications is the one found in Matthew chapter 16 where we find Christ’s strongly-worded rebuke of Peter’s urging that Jesus and the disciples should avoid Jerusalem and so avoid the future suffering that will culminate with the Cross and tomb. Christ’s response is strong: suggesting that his acceptance of suffering is not an unfortunate peripheral to his mission, but in fact is something central.

For Cyril, Jesus turning his face to Jerusalem and passing through the gates of the city is a deliberate decision for suffering and death. If Jesus were simply another man, we could accuse him of being a masochist with a persecution-martyrdom complex. But, according to Cyril, the idea of deliberately embracing suffering makes sense if we keep before our minds two vital tenants of our Christian Faith: that the core of Jesus’ identity is divine and that his mission is to accomplish the divine indwelling of the entire human condition.  In other words, Jesus’ strong reaction to Peter’s suggestion only makes sense in the light of his origin and purpose: it only makes sense if Christmas is the mystery of a divine person taking on human existence for the purpose of our divinisation.

 In his writing, Cyril is incredibly strong and consistent in insisting that the mystery of Christmas means the living God, who remains eternal, immutable, spiritual, can also now experience the concrete reality of human life: not metaphorically, but in reality. God can feel hunger, thirst, fatigue. God can grow in maturity from infanthood to adulthood. God can learn how to speak and to act. And most importantly of all for Cyril, God can have a genuine mother. But the Bishop of Alexandria doesn’t stop there. In Jesus, God experiences not only the authentic aspects of the human condition, but also the inauthentic aspects: that is, the damaged condition we have inherited as a result of sin. Although Jesus is not himself a sinner, he voluntarily experiences temptation, suffering, humiliation, and death.  

Cyril’s opponent Nestorius had insisted that such statements were nonsensical and even blasphemous. He wanted to protect the purity and the transcendence of God. He also wanted to protect human logic. But for Cyril this is clearly the case because the Scriptures attest to it. But most importantly, the notion we are saved by Christ means that Jesus must be the en-fleshment of God. For Cyril, Nestorius gets Jesus’ identity wrong because he forgets what the Christ-event produces: deified human beings (human beings that are penetrated with divine life: Christians). This is why Cyril accuses Nestorius of, what I call, teleological amnesia. Nestorius gets the mystery of Christ wrong because he forgets what it is for. The lived Christian insight that we are saved and raised up in Christ is the essential, fundamental insight for understanding who Jesus is and what he does. For Cyril, Christmas cannot be understood apart from its purpose: the Paschal Mystery which is the mystery of our salvation, and conversely the Paschal Mystery which brings us salvation cannot be understood apart from Christmas, which is its foundation. That’s why Jesus’ decision to enter the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, entirely aware of the consequences of this decision, is profoundly linked to the scenes of the annunciation and the manger.

What Jesus’ insistence on embracing suffering tells us is that his incarnational mission does not by-pass our fallen condition. Rather, the divine life flowing from the Word should penetrate our whole condition in order to transform it. In liberating his human nature from the effects of Adam’s primordial sin, the Word comes to experience suffering and death, not because of “faintheartedness” or because he is “overcome by fear and mastered by weakness”, but because he is a divine person who deliberately chooses to carry divine life – divine energy – into every nook and cranny of human existence, including the ugly parts.[1]

So, when I experience suffering and death in my flesh, I am overcome by it because I am a limited human person. But when a divine person – who is Life itself and the foundation of all reality – experiences suffering and death through the flesh, it is the suffering and death that are overwhelmed by divine life. Cyril’s idea is that suffering and death cannot survive contact with the divine energy of the living God. Cyril’s analogy is of an iron bar dropped in a furnace: the fire totally penetrates the iron, super heating it while burning away all impurities. All that is contrary to God, made manifest in the flesh of Christ, is burnt away. Suffering and death are destroyed from the inside because these two anti-divine realities have been indwelt by pure life. Jesus’ flesh is utterly penetrated by divine fire which liberates it from whatever is contradictory to God.

Good Friday
The Conclusion of the Annunciation 

Cyril’s understanding of the Cross is not simply a crude mechanical sacrifice-immolation model of salvation. On the contrary, the Cross is the end-point of a life-long process that began at Jesus’ conception. For Cyril, the key text for understanding this is the Kenotic Hymn of Philippians 2:5-11.

Let each of you have among yourselves that same mind which was in Christ Jesus who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, assuming the form of a slave, coming in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man he humbled himself becoming obedient even to death, death on a cross. And so, God highly exalted him and granted him the name above every name (Phil 2:5-9).[2]

For Cyril, this is absolutely the key text in the New Testament for understanding what is going on in the incarnation as well as understanding how this saves us. For Cyril, the incarnation is understood less as the single-event of Christ’s conception in Mary’s womb at the annunciation, as it is an ongoing process of descent which is the foundation of our ascent. As God, the Word is described as emptying himself  in order to descend into created existence. This existence is described as nothingness because, next to the absolute being of God, man’s small contingent nature is as nothing. But this descent into nothingness continues as Christ voluntarily chooses humiliation, which reaches its culmination on the Cross. Thus, the incarnation is a movement that stretches from annunciation to the Cross; from the eternal life of God to the nothingness of death.

It is on the Cross – at the moment of death – that Cyril sees the Kenotic Hymn pivoting: the descending motion produces the ascending motion; Christ emerges from absolute nothingness to receive the name above all names (to be deified). In other words, the Cross marks the point where the self-emptying of the divinity of the Word reaches its turning-point, the humanity of the Word is lifted-up to participate in divinity itself. Self-emptying produces super-abundant filling of Christ’s humanity with divine life. This does mean that, for Cyril, Jesus himself – in his humanity – is the first beneficiary of his sacrifice on the Cross. In his humanity we find the first example of deified humanity.

For Cyril, Jesus freely accepts the Cross for the sake of remaining faithful to the mission entrusted to him by his Father.[3] In this fidelity, he proves to be “sufficient where Adam was deficient.”[4] That is, his “life of obedience” stands in stark contrast to “Adam’s act of disobedience.”[5] Many theologians throughout the ages have seen Christ’s cry from the Cross as a manifestation of Jesus feeling utterly abandoned by his Heavenly Father. Not so for Cyril. In Christ’s cry “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46), Cyril hears, not a cry of desperation, but a cry of boldness.[6] While the first Adam and those who share in his accursed condition have no right to ask this question of God, - a sinner is justly forsaken by God – the Second Adam may dare to ask it since he is not estranged from God. For Cyril, Christ-Crucified reconciles us to the Father because we now belong to One in whom there is no justification for divine abandonment. Our salvation comes from the fact that Jesus associates us with himself: the only one who can ask God in honestly: Why have you abandoned me? There is no reason!

The word Cyril uses to describe our association with Jesus on the Cross is Pauline: ‘recapitulation’. In Christ’s humanity all of human history and in fact all the cosmos is gathered together and ‘perfectly accomplished’ in Christ’s life and death. To picture this association, Cyril favour’s St Paul’s images of the Second Heavenly Adam and the New Rootstock. We are all present in Jesus just as all humanity is, in a sense, present in the first earthly Adam as our progenitor. The term ‘recapitulation’, then, means that we are all grafted into Christ as our new rootstock: he is the root of a new people. It is by being rooted in one who is not a fallen creature, but a divine person with a dual divine-human existence that we are liberated from the damage of our fallen condition and made partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). The full mystery of how we are grafted into this new rootstock of a new humanity – this new Heavenly Adam – is the mystery of Easter.

Holy Thursday, Easter and Pentecost 
The Second Christmas  

In this final part I am putting Holy Thursday, Easter and Pentecost together. This is because, for Cyril, these events are linked in one important way: together they give us the means to benefit from what Jesus has accomplished in his own humanity on the Cross. They are the means of our recapitulation in Christ: the way we are grafted into the new rootstock and re-founded in the Heavenly Adam.

As I mentioned, the key to understand how we are saved (how we are deified) – in Cyril’s view – is the realisation that salvation in its totality first occurs in Jesus’ own humanity, and then we participate in that humanity and so are saved through our communion with Jesus’ flesh.  In 1 Cor 15:20-23 Paul identifies Christ as the “first-fruits” of the resurrection. In so doing he arguing that Jesus’ resurrection is the first causative instance of a general resurrection.[7]  For Cyril, we can participate in Jesus’ resurrection because we have kinship (συγγένεια) with him. This kinship has three levels. In the first instance we have kinship with Christ because of our shared humanity. The Son of God has flesh like we do and so we can relate to him as like to like. Without Christmas I could never have a true relationship with the Risen Son of God because he would not be flesh and blood. He could not be raised to new life and I could not receive the benefits of this resurrection. But for Cyril, this is just the foundational level of kinship. There are two more levels: two more ways through which we benefit from his resurrection.

The second level of kinship is through sacramental grace or the Holy Spirit. For Cyril, there is not a clear distinction between grace and the Holy Spirit. They are virtually interchangeable. What is important is that grace establishes a supernatural kinship with Christ through the sacraments, particularly Eucharist and Baptism.

The institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday provides the means par excellence by which we appropriate the benefits of Easter. Jesus’ own flesh and blood (σάρξ) has been transformed by divine energy: it is ‘super-charged’ by divine life. So, that ‘super-charged’ flesh has the potential to transport divine life into us as well since we are also made of ‘flesh and blood’. The reason Jesus institutes the Eucharist is so the resurrection will not remain a closed-in solitary event, but will spread-out (like a virus) into the humanity of his disciples, making them a deified people (an Easter people). We sacramentally receive deified flesh – human flesh that is utterly inter-penetrated by the Holy Spirit (divine life) – and so we are transformed in the reception of this sacrament. Thus, Holy Thursday is for Easter Sunday, and Easter Sunday only makes sense in the light of Christmas.

Although the Eucharist is the primary sacrament to which Cyril gives attention, Baptism does also feature in his vision. In his brief reference to Christ’s baptism, Cyril reminds us that the Holy Spirit “remained [ἔμεινεν]” on the One “who shall baptize in the Holy Spirit.” (cf. Jn 1:32-34).[8] For Cyril, we receive the entire Godhead into our souls through baptism precisely because Jesus’ humanity provides a stable dwelling-place for the Holy Spirit on earth. It’s an interesting idea: before sin, the Holy Spirit dwelt on earth in man’s soul. It was a suitable dwelling-place. But through sin, the Holy Spirit – the divine breath breathed into Adam – was chased away from earth. The Spirit needs a dwelling-place. As the post-fall world falls into chaos the Holy Spirit no longer finds a suitable sanctuary in which to dwell. The Spirit loses its earthly habitat and so can’t dwell here anymore. Thus, it is not till the divine Word assumes human nature – which means a human soul – that the Holy Spirit is once again at home in creation. Jesus’ humanity provides a safe earthly habitat for the Spirit. That’s why the Gospels tell us the Spirit didn’t just visit Jesus, but remained in him. We can baptise and confirm at the Easter Vigil because of Jesus’ humanity: it is the suitable environment, the stable place in the created world, within which the Holy Spirit it at home. Jesus’ humanity is the launch-pad of the Spirit. Thus, Christmas is the foundation not only of Holy Thursday but also of Pentecost, not only of the Eucharist but also of baptism and confirmation.

After our common human nature and sacramental grace, the third level of our kinship with Christ is moral conformity. As we appropriate sacramental grace more and more we are progressively conformed to Jesus in our thinking and acting. We become an ‘Easter People’. That means, just as the Word deified his flesh, so too through our kinship with Jesus we are deified: we become participants in divine life. This transformation should be progressively reflected in the way we choose to think, speak and act. What the incarnation aims toward is the full spiritualisation of human life: we become participants in the life of the Trinity (adopted sons in the Son, indwelt by the Godhead and crowned in divine dignities). In other words, at Christmas God is born into human nature, making it his very own. At Easter man is born into divine nature, participating in that life thanks to Christmas. In a sense, then, Easter means our Christmas: our being reborn into a new mode of existence that is both human and divine.

Some Final Thoughts

In reflecting on Cyril’s way of thinking about Christ and salvation a few distinctive elements stand-out. For Cyril, salvation first occurs in Jesus’ own humanity: his own flesh and blood. His own body is deified. We are saved only by partaking of this first instance of salvation through kinship with Jesus. This kinship relies on the fact that the Word of God has now become flesh: humans can only have kinship with other humans. It is on this foundation that we enter into supernatural kinship with Jesus through sacramental grace and moral conformity.

Certainly, divinisation is a more Eastern way of thinking about salvation and the mystery of Christ. To many contemporary people the more classically-Latin language and concepts used to speak about salvation may seem foreign or unintelligible. The ancient Greek way of thinking may provide a helpful supplement to the more Latin approach.  

Lastly, for Cyril, Christ cannot be separated from salvation and salvation cannot be separated from Christ. That means forgetting Christmas distorts the meaning of Holy Week and forgetting Holy Week distorts the meaning of Christmas. It is only through a holistic view of Christ and salvation that we can begin to grasp the depth and the breadth of this great mystery.

Fr Greg Bellamy 



[1] Quod Unus 755e-756a; Cyrillus Alexandrinus, On the Unity of Christ, 104.
[2] Cf. Quod Unus 718b-c; 741d-e; Cyrillus Alexandrinus, On the Unity of Christ, 54, 85.
[3] Cf. Quod Unus 772c-d.
[4] J. VanMaaren, «The Adam-Christ Typology», 293.
[5] J. VanMaaren, «The Adam-Christ Typology», 294.
[6] Quod Unus 757a; Cyrillus Alexandrinus, On the Unity of Christ, 105.
[7] Cf. R.W. Wall – al., The New Interpreter’s Bible, X: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, 979-980.
[8] Quod Unus 752b; Cyrillus Alexandrinus, On the Unity of Christ, 99.

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