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Naming of Saints in English

The lettering for the icon of Saint Cyril.

This is an issue very near to my heart.

In 2005 our second son was born. He lived for thirty-eight days before entering the glory of his Father. His name was Anthony. In that too-short time with us, we were informed by some well-meaning members of our community that we had gotten his name wrong, and that St. Anthony was a Catholic saint, different from the Coptic Abba Antony. Today, the studio often faces similar discussion over the naming of the saints. This may seem like a trivial matter, but the hope of the studio is to be a bridge, celebrating the incarnation by making the saints present here and now through iconography. We do not separate the saints to their earthly lives, as they are with us, here and now.

Consider the example of the recently completed icon of Abba Kyrillos VI, the 116th Patriarch of Alexandria. The icon is named, “St. Cyril the Wonderworker”. People in Egypt only a half century ago called him “Baba Kyrollos”. Why select the English form of his name, rather than the name his people knew him by—especially when it might result in confusion with the more widely known St. Cyril the Great of Alexandria?

We are Orthodox Christians, and we are english-speaking Canadians, here and now. We participate in  the ancient tradition we have received, but we wish to live in that tradition in a way that celebrates Christ’s presence in our land. Cyril is a venerable name in the english language, which  is part of the reason I choice to name my first son by it. I could never call my son, “Kyrillos,” because that name to Canadians is, “Cyril.” An icon of St. Cyril participates in the understanding that our God is the God of the living, and that St. Cyril is present and working everywhere in the church, even here and now, in Canada and in our lives.

This is the miracle of the Incarnation, that God comes to be with us, Emmanuel. He is as present today as he was two thousand years ago through the Incarnation. He isn’t a dead teacher, rather we are His Body. The Apostles are not merely the founders of the Church, they are the foundation of the Church, alive and active in her today, here and now and everywhere. This is why we can have icons of Christ—while God cannot be depicted—because he passed through the veil and took on matter, becoming perfectly man.

This is why icons of the saints are not just portraits of holy men and women who came before as examples. They are manifestations to us of the reality that these saints are alive, fellow members of the Body of Christ, with us, working among us now. We don’t kiss a portrait of a man from another land and time; we kiss an icon of a holy one who is here interceding for us now, made manifest to our weak spiritual vision via wood and pigment. Just as Christ’s heavenly glory was revealed in the Transfiguration, the glorified saints are also transfigured. They are not depicted with an earthly vision, painted in black clothing or in illness (as they may have been on earth) for they are glorified, and they shine like glorious moons, reflecting the light of the Sun to us today. And so St. Cyril was in Egypt a half century ago, known to the Egyptians as Baba Kyrollos (though he was ordained Kyrillos the Coptic rather than the Arabic). But he is glorified  and lives here now, and his Canadian children call him Cyril.

The recently finished icon from the studio is named as “St. Cyril the Wonderworker.” This is the  name of a glorified saint who transcends time. Historically, he is identified as Pope Cyril VI, Patriarch of Alexandria, but within the full Kingdom of God there are many other men named Cyril, and so this new  icon could not be named, “St. Cyril of Alexandria,” or “St. Cyril the Great,” since that would cause confusion with the more widely known “St. Cyril I.” This required thought and prayer on our part. And so, after deliberation that stretch to hours, we realized that he is “St. Cyril the Wonderworker.” A name appropriate because of the great miracles worked through him, which was his charism, the gift by which he was and is known. This naming also ties him to his intercessor, Abba Mena the Wonderworker.

Christ has broken down every dividing wall between varied tongues, nations, ages, genders, and made us all one in Christ. Saint Cyril the Wonderworker is incarnate and present to all of us, in the cloud of witnesses that is Christ’s saints, His very Body. We are the Church, the assembled people of God in this place. We commanded to make Him known here and now, and so surely just as the Apostles preached to every tribe in their own tongue, we must manifest the unchanging Orthodox faith in this time and place, in this land of Canada, in the english language. To do otherwise risks carrying on the work of a museum, holding a Liturgy of dead pageantry from another land, rather than to be the living Church here and now. We are members of the One Holy Catholic Church, the eternal breaking time and space here and now in our assemblies. This reality is a great mystery that we are invited to participate in—eternity here and now. It is the mission of the Church to be the Church in the present time and place, and to witness and offer the Gospel to our neighbours. It is the work of this studio to manifest our Lord and His saints to the people around us, to the Glory of His Name.

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