September 16, 2020

The Passion of Saint Cyprian of Carthage (Prudentius)

The Passion of Cyprian

By Prudentius (348-413)

The Punic land bore Cyprian to give lustre to the whole earth everywhere; that was the home he came from, but he was to be the glory and the teacher of the world. As martyr he belongs to his native country, but by his love and speech he is ours. His blood rests in Africa, but his tongue is potent everywhere; it alone of all his body still survives in life, it alone cannot die, as long as Christ shall suffer the race of men to exist and the world to function. As long as there shall be any book, any collections of sacred writings, every lover of Christ will read thee, Cyprian, and learn thy teachings. The Spirit of God, which formerly flowed into the prophets to inspire them, was sent from heaven and flooded thee with streams of eloquence. What speech is thine! It is purer than snow, and of a new savour! Like an ambrosial liquor which soothes the heart, bathing the palate and penetrating to the seat of the soul, while it sustains the spirit and spreads through the whole frame, it makes us feel God within us entering into our marrows. Show us, O Father, from whence Thou didst give this unexpected blessing to the world.

The apostolic writings wanted a powerful interpreter, and a richly-furnished eloquence was chosen out to teach the world and to serve the works of Paul as an expositor, whereby the raw minds of men should be refined and come to know better both the work of fear and the deep mysteries of Christ. He was pre-eminent among young men for skill in perverse arts, would violate modesty by a trick, count nothing holy, and often practise a magic spell amid the tombs to raise passion in a wife and break the law of wed- lock." But all at once Christ checked this great rage of self-indulgence, scattered the darkness from his heart, drove out its frenzy, and filled it with love of Him, giving him the gift of faith and of shame for his past behaviour. And now his face and his elegant style changed from their former fashion; his countenance lost the softness of its skin and went over to an austere look, the flowing locks were clipped short, his speech was sober, he looked for the hope of Christ, holding to his rule, living according to his righteousness, and seeking to fathom our doctrine. So by these merits becoming most worthy he was advanced to the bishop's throne to be teacher and took the highest seat.

Valerian and Gallienus were then at the head of power, and together they decreed sentence of death on any that confessed God, They commanded that a multitude of unclean earth-born creatures be worshipped as divine ; but Cyprian by his teaching was rousing the spirit of his people against them, urging that none should fall short of the honour due to outstanding courage nor lapse and fear to take the reward of faith. "The torture is but light," he told them, "if only you compare with it the things that shall be, the unending joys which God himself has promised to men if they are brave. The pain is but the price we pay for the hope of light and eternal day; all the ill passes quickly away with fleeting time, and nothing is grievous to which an end brings completion and gives rest." He himself, he said, would be the first to go to a noble death and be their leader in suffering bloodshed; he submitted his head to the sword and made an offering of his blood; whosoever would unite his soul to Christ, let him follow in his company. And when with such words he had kindled men's hearts and made them ready for Christ, he was taken away in bonds before all others, for the governor was in a furious rage. There is a dungeon hidden away at Tyrian Carthage, withdrawn from view, a place that knows the darkness of hell and is disowned by the sun. Shut up in this cavern, both his hands bound with a chain, the holy Cyprian called on the name of the most high Father: "Almighty God, Father of Christ and creator of the world, and Christ the father of men, whom Thou lovest and dost not suffer to perish, I am he on whom Thou in thy goodness didst take compassion when I was all defiled with the venom of serpents and stained with many a sin, and didst wash me clean and from henceforth bid me be thine, and I became another Cyprian, a new man in place of the old, no longer the guilty sinner I was before. If by thy ready grace Thou didst cleanse my vile heart, be pleased to visit the dark prison-house and scatter the gloom. Take this soul of mine out of the prison of the body and the bondage of the world ; let me shed my blood in sacrifice to Thee; let no forbearance curb my judge's cruelty, nor the persecutor's hatred be able to grow gentle and deny me the glory. Grant too that none of the flock which I ruled for Thee be backward, that none of thy people fail or falter from being unable to bear the suffering, that I may give back to Thee the number undiminished and pay Thee what I owe." With these words he prevailed upon the Lord, and thereafter the Spirit flowed in upon the people of Carthage inspiring a bolder temper, so that under his prompting their hearts might be warmed to seek illustrious honour by the hazarding of their blood, teaching them not to be afraid nor give way nor be overcome by the pain, but to be swept on by the love of glory, to think like Christ and keep the faith.

Tradition tells that there was a pit which had been opened by command in the midst of a piece of level ground and filled nearly to the brim with smoking lime, the heated stones pouring out fire, the snow-white dust hot, capable of burning anything it touched and killing with the smell of its breath. They say an altar was set up by the top of the pit and the order was that the Christians must either offer in sacrifice a grain of salt or a sow's liver, or else throw themselves into the depths in the midst of the pit. Three hundred together sprang forward eagerly with a quick rush and sank in the powdery gulf, where the dry sea swallowed them, enveloping the plunging mass in its lowest depths. Whiteness possesses their bodies, and whiteness carries their souls to heaven. "The White Mass" justly gained its name from that day forth for ever more."

Meanwhile Thascius, gladdened by his people's end, was brought out to face the proconsul's ungovernable rage. Bidden to declare his way of life, he said: "I am a worshipper of one God, and I teach the holy mysteries of Christ our Saviour." Whereupon the other cried: "Guilt enough! Thascius himself admits it, and denies Jupiter's thunderbolt. Get ready the steel, ye executioners. Let this enemy of idols pay the penalty by the sword." Cyprian gave God due thanks and sang in triumph.

Africa wept in sorrow at the departure of the man whose teaching advanced her in cultivation, and of whose eloquence she boasts of having been the pupil. Afterwards with tears she raised a tomb and consecrated his ashes. Weep no more for this great blessing! He has attained to the realms of heaven, yet none the less he moves over the earth and does not leave this world. He still discourses, still holds forth, expounding, teaching, instructing, prophesying; and not only does he direct the peoples of Libya, but goes forth to the east and the west, nurturing the Gauls, training the Britons, keeping guard over Italy, spreading the knowledge of Christ in farthest Spain. Indeed he is both teacher on earth and martyr too in heaven ; here he instructs men, from there as their patron gives them gifts in love.