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Theophilus of Alexandria is regarded as a Saint in the Coptic Church. He was Patriarch of Alexandria from 385-412, when he was succeeded by his nephew, the great St. Cyril. Much less well-known, he has been neglected by later historians. The best (indeed the only) scholarly introduction by Norman Russell. Theophilius’ homily on the Penitent Thief is worth our reflection. This is the first part.

The sun of righteousness appeared in the east and gave light to those who were in the darkness and in the shadow of death. (Lk. 1:79) The king of righteousness adorned himself with the diadem of the kingdom and all his enemies bowed down at his feet. (Ps. 71:9). A fragrant odour arose on the altar of salvation; the evil smell was blotted out by the perfume of his ointment.

The powerful lion sprang up out of the wood; all the wild beasts hid in their dens. The holy physician came to us with his medicines. Joy spread through the whole of creation. All the abandoned rejoiced with him, because like a city encircled and besieged by a hostile king, the hearts of all its inhabitants are in great distress. Just when they are oppressed, abandoned and groaning, the king who rules over the city receives words of his enemy’s audacity, how he was planning to massacre the inhabitants. And so he assembles all his own people and trains them how to shoot his own arrows of war. Once his own people had learned how to wage war with his enemies, they marched against them with joy, knowing that they would defeat his enemies with great slaughter.

This, if you like, is the way of Our Lord Jesus Christ, when he saw the real enemy of the whole human race, who is the devil. For the devil invade the whole earth, and afflicted everyone with many kinds of sins, which he spreads with these great scourges, namely, idolatry, robbery, vanity, fornication, theft, murder, slander, licentiousness, envy, hatred, contempt, anger, sorcery, pollution, fraud, arrogance, perjury, falsehood, corruption, prostitution, deceit and whatever is similar in them. These are the traps which the devil set for humanity, until he brought it to perdition and dispersed it.

Well now. Let us consider in what way Christ the king made war against the devil until he released our souls from him and set them free. Let us begin, then, to penetrate the great treasure house full of the fruits of life. This is the great holy mystery of the wood of the cross, on which the True God, Jesus Christ, mounted out of love.

When he descended into this world, he came to the people of Israel and preached to them saying: ‘Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.’ (Mt. 4:17) But they paid no heed to his holy counsels. After this he performed all the signs of his divinity in their presence, miracles without number. He made the blind see, the lame walk and the deaf hear. He healed lepers. He brought the dead back to life. He drove out demons. He made paralytics stand on their feet and forgave their sins. He made tax gatherers repent. He straightened vainglorious hands. He evangelised the poor. He remitted the sins of adulteresses and purified them with his divinity, restoring them to a virginal state. It was because an adulterous woman was made worthy of this great grace that her hands anointed the feet of him who had created her. (Lk. 7 37-8 ) From the moment she participated in the purity of his divinity, the voice of God came to her. ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’ (Lk. 7:50).

In spite of all these things accomplished by him in their presence, they did not give him credence, but seized him and delivered him to be crucified. Having brought him into the court of the High Priest, they treated him with contempt rather than honour. Then the word of scripture was fulfilled. They brought evils upon me instead of blessings, and hatred instead of my love.’ (Ps. 108:5)