Christians are no strangers to epidemics. Throughout their history, they have been on the frontline wrestling with the issues and offering practical help and hope to those being affected. The Plague of Cyprian, named after the Bishop of Carthage, swept across the Roman empire in the year 249AD. Cyprian witnessed the devastating effect and loss of life caused by this plague where it was believed that around 5000 people a day were dying. In his treatise, On Mortality, Cyprian discusses the plagues, its characteristics and its effects. Cyprian’s purpose, however, is not to document the plague, but rather to write to Christians to provide instruction and exhortation as they deal with this deadly plague.

In an important passage, Cyprian describes the effect of the plague on his Christian community. “Many of us are dying in this mortality that is many of us are being freed from the world. . . [W]ithout any discrimination in the human race the just are dying with the unjust, it is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good.”[1]

Cyprian begins by noting the devastating effect this plague has on everyone, irrespective of their religious persuasion. The plague does not discriminate but kills both the just and the unjust. Christians like Cyprian knew that there was no special protection from God for them from the epidemics and plagues of death that ravaged the ancient world. Their suffering was common to all people.[2]

 

cyprian-Blog-body-1.jpgCyprius born about the year 200, was an orator and teacher in Carthage. In his treatise, On Mortality, Cyprian writes to Christians providing instruction and exhortation as they deal with the deadly plague of 249AD. Image credit : For All the Saints


The notion that Christians are not exempt from suffering disturbed some early Christians and Cyprian writes to address these concerns, concerns that are shared by modern Christians. Recently some voices have suggested that by merely praying Ps 91 or by tithing, Christians will be somehow protected from this virus that is ravaging planet earth. Unfortunately, such thinking departs from biblical wisdom. The Christian Scriptures have never promised an escape from the vagaries of life. Rather, we are promised comfort and care through difficult times. Ps 23 reminds us that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. The early Christians knew “death” was the ultimate enemy (1 Cor 15:26), but also knew they were promised not an escape from it, but the transforming promise of resurrection because Jesus has defeated death. Cyprian’s whole treatise is preoccupied with instructing Christians regarding their future hope of salvation and restoration, which is to provide them hope amid their suffering.

Cyprian suggests that the horrible plague has the effect of testing us to see what kind of people we are. He writes, “And further, beloved brethren, what is it, what a great thing is it, 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…”[3] Such terrible times reveal to us who we truly are.

Are we those who tend to the sick? Are we those who affectionately love our families? Are we those who stretch out in help and hope to those in need? Such times of disaster reveal to us the character we have cultivated by our affections and allegiances. But such disasters also provide us with the opportunity to cultivate caring and concerned characteristics as we become aware of deficiencies or weaknesses in our selves.
Underlying this insight is something that carries over from the first insight, the importance of solidarity with those who are suffering.


 
helping-Blog-body-1.jpgTimes of disaster reveal to us the character we have cultivated by our affections and allegiances
 
Solidarity with the human experience makes us aware of the suffering of others. By being aware we can experience compassion for those who are vulnerable and in need of assistance and aid. If we were not aware and did not experience compassion, then we are isolated from the common experiences of the world, and this would be unfortunate since we are created to benefit and bless one another. How can we serve people faithfully if we are not aware of their circumstances and don’t experience compassion for them? Life experiences teach us that no one is exempt from the devastating effects of creation’s brokenness.
 
Thus, Cyprian offers us two insights that provide a perspective as we face our pandemic. Firstly, we should not expect that Christians are exempt from the common suffering that afflicts humanity. Movie-stars, government leaders, truck-drivers and the homeless are all infected by this virus. It does not discriminate. Such solidarity in facing this virus helps us to identify with those who are suffering and to cultivate Christ-like dispositions of compassion and character to provide help and hope.

While the current pandemic is causing great anxiety and economic devastation, we can look to this as a moment of revelation and reformation. We can use the time allotted to grow in our discipleship, to put our faith into action. To spend time in prayer, lamenting the death toll and devastation but also praying that God’s wisdom and strength would comfort or challenge those who need it. We can exercise our compassion by looking after the vulnerable and marginalised among us and even those who are far from us. We can remind ourselves of our future hope and that can shape us here and now.

[1] Cyprian, De mort. 7.15.
[2] Cyprian, De mort. 7.8.
[3] Cyprian, De mort. 7.16.
 

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