Saint Cyprian was born around the year 200 in the city of Carthage in what is now the north African country of Tunisia. He was born Thascius Cyprianus, the son of a rich pagan senator. Like many children of wealthy parents in his day, Cyprian received a secular education, studying rhetoric and philosophy, and occasionally defending his fellow citizens in court.
Cyprian’s fortune was spent on lavish banquets, but these were not able to quench in him the thirst for truth. However, upon discovering the writing of the apologist Tertullian, Cyprian became convinced of the truth of Christianity. Cyprian was guided as a catechumen by the presbyter Cecilius, whose name he took upon baptism at the age of 46. Cyprian described his own baptism with these moving words:
“. . . a second birth restored me to a new man. Then, in a wondrous manner every doubt began to fade. . . . I clearly understood that what had first lived within me, enslaved by the vices of the flesh, was earthly and that what, instead, the Holy Spirit had wrought within me was divine and heavenly.”
So impressed where the people of Carthage with Cyprian’s faith that not long after his baptism the church ordained him a deacon and then presbyter. Within three years he was ordained as the bishop of Carthage.
Perhaps Saint Cyprian’s greatest legacy is his teaching on the unity of Christ and His Church. When the priest Novatian attempted to split the Holy Church by declaring himself Bishop of Rome, though another bishop had already been elected, Cyprian fought against the schismatics. The central issue was how to deal with the lapsed, those Christians who fell away from the faith during the Roman persecution. While Cyprian believed that they could be brought back into the church after a time of penance, Novatian did not. Cyprian defended his views in a series of encyclicals that later became the book On the Unity of the Church. In it, he reminds all Christians that “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” Cyprian calls Christians to cling to the Church, the Bride of Christ. A hymn in Cyprian’s honor recognizes his great wisdom and love for Christ’s Church.
We honor thee, O Cyprian, as a true shepherd who with your sacred words and divinely-wise doctrines has shown us the boundary-stones marking out the one Church of Christ. Even unto death did you bear witness with courage; wherefore, we extol you as a hierarch and martyr. Entreat that we all be saved.
Cyprian was also steadfast in the face of persecution. When he refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and instead firmly professed Christ, the proconsul banished him. Returning after a year, he was soon imprisoned and put on trial. On September 14, 258, he was examined and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was “Thanks be to God!” The execution was carried out in an open place near the city where a vast multitude followed. Saint Cyprian removed his garments, knelt down, and prayed. After he blindfolded himself, he was beheaded while all the people cried out with one voice, “Let us also be beheaded with him!”
Saint Cyprian writings were considered such models of the faith that his words were read as great confessions at the Ecumenical Councils in Ephesus and Chalcedon. As the hymn to him reminds us, Saint Cyprian was a great guide to all Orthodox Christians who still has much to teach us today.
Hymn for the Saint
“Guide of Orthodoxy, teacher of piety and holiness, luminary of Carthage, God-inspired adornment of confessors, O wise Cyprian, by thy teachings thou has enlightened all, O harp of the Spirit. Intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved.”
Video produced by Efstratios Papageorgiou
Written by Christopher Hansard