As we continue to look about for hope and direction in the midst of this present global health crisis, we would do well to train our eyes on yesterday–in particular, on the ways of the early Church in their own time of plague. Hebrews 12:1 tells us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
Among those in that holy cloud of witnesses, we find Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and his fellow Christians of the middle third century A.D., who lived in a time of pestilence and disease not unlike our own, except worse. From 249-262 A.D., the Mediterranean World experienced plague on a massive scale. For a stretch of time, it was reported that 5000 people a day were dying in the city of Rome. The Roman Empire itself was badly shaken and nearly brought to its knees.
Strange thing though, the Church experienced extraordinary numerical growth during these years of plague and, specially, in the years immediately following. Why did the Church see such growth when there were so many other religions throughout the Empire to choose from, not least the gods of the Romans? Largely because of how the Christians tended to the sick and the dying. The pagan Romans, and plenty of others, were so moved, even overwhelmed, by the love and courage of the Christians, that they began choosing the God of the Christians for themselves–and doing so in droves–to the point that the great persecutions of the Christians, that would soon follow under the Roman emperors of the late third and early fourth centuries, were seen as necessary to put an end to the ‘Christian plague’ that was taking over the Empire. (Best estimates are that in the year 200 A.D., there were 200,000 Christians in the Roman Empire, or less than 1 percent of the Empire’s overall population; by 300 A.D., however, there were 6 million Christians, or 10% of the Empire’s population).
But enough of me giving account; here is Cyprian: “How pertinent, how necessary, that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they, who are in health, tend the sick; whether relations affectionately love their kindred; whether masters pity their languishing servants; whether physicians do not forsake the beseeching patients; whether the fierce suppress their violence…These are trainings for us, not deaths: they give the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown.” (‘The Treatises of Cyprian’)
Not to be overlooked in Cyprian’s instruction on faith and crisis (given while Christians were dying right alongside non-Christians) is his determination that what is not visible to us is that which is ultimately real. This is a determination as true in 2020 as it was in 250–that ultimate reality is not a thing of science, but rather a thing of faith. In these days when we blindly defer so quickly to science, it is, in fact, faith in God and the ascendant place of the soul that is paramount. We will wait in vain for the day when science can, in any way, approximate Cyprian’s knowledge–that death is not death but rather training–training that is preparing us for a crown.