That Great Cloud of Witnesses

Learning to Face COVID-19 From Those Saints Who Have Gone Before

As we try to find our way during this time of crisis, I think it is instructive to look back at how the Church has responded to similar crises in the past. We keep hearing the word “unprecedented” in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic we are facing. It is true that there are certain aspects of this epidemic that are unique to our time. But we have quite a few historical precedents from which we can gain valuable insights.

V0010664 The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome

The angel of death striking a door during the plague of Rome; engraving by Levasseur 

For our purposes, one of the more hopeful things we can take from such an exercise is recognizing that the growth of Christianity has been accelerated on multiple occasions through both persecution and plague. In fact, they often go hand in hand.

Two such plagues will serve to illustrate the point. They are the Antonine Plague in the 2nd century and the Cyprian Plague in the 3rd. These epidemics ravaged the Roman Empire. It has been estimated that between a quarter and a third of the population perished, including three Roman emperors. One can imagine the panic which ensued.

What is noteworthy is the stark contrast between the reactions of Christians and non-Christians. Bishop Dionysius described the pagan response in Alexandria, Egypt during the Cyprian Plague.

“At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread of the fatal disease.” (Stark, 1996)

Of the Christian response, he wrote:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.” (Stark, 1996)

In many cases, it was the persecuted who ministered to their persecutors. Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, for whom the plague is named, had this to say:

“There is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well…Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.” (Harnack, 1905)

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Icon of St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage

As the privileged retreated to their country estates in an attempt to escape the contagion, how could those left behind not be influenced by this powerful example of selfless sacrifice in the name of the god/man, Jesus. The result was that many of them converted to the faith en masse. The extent of this conversion is hinted at 100 years later in the efforts of the pagan emperor Julian who attempted a counter-revival to coax his subjects back to the old gods. He launched a wide-spread campaign to institute pagan charities to mirror the work of the “Galilaeans” in a bid to win back hearts and minds. According to Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity:

 “…he complained in a letter to the high priest of Galatia in 362 that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their ‘moral character, even if pretended,’ and by their ‘benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.’ In a letter to another priest, Julian wrote, ‘I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.’ And he also wrote, ‘The impious Galileans support not only their poor but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.’” (Stark, 1996)

The effort failed. By 380, the emperor Theodosius found it politically feasible to issue his Edict of Thessalonica, declaring Nicene (Trinitarian) Christianity to be the only legitimate imperial religion and ending all official state support for traditional polytheistic religious practices. This previously unimaginable result was hastened in large part by the sacrificial service of a persecuted Church in the midst of a widespread and deadly epidemic.

So, let us not be too quick to throw around the term “unprecedented” when it comes to our current circumstances. That “great cloud of witnesses” referred to in Hebrews 11 and 12 is observing our efforts, urging us to follow in those ancient and, sometimes, blood-filled footsteps. Lymon Stone, a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, in a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine put it well. “The plague does not dissolve our duties. It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.” A sobering thought to contemplate during this most unusual Passion Week.

References

Harnack, A. (1905). The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Stark, R. (1996). The Rise of Christianity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

 

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