Fear gripped Alexandria, Egypt, in A.D. 260 as a pandemic pummeled the great city. Along with their neighbors, followers of Jesus endured a plague — perhaps smallpox, measles or Ebola — that some people blamed on the Christians. Without medical advances that would diminish a pandemic today, up to one-fourth of the Roman world’s population died.
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage in Tunisia, said suffering was terrible: bowels loosened, high fever, throat ulcers, continual vomiting, blood-shot eyes, putrefaction. To Dionysius, Patriarch of Alexandria, the disaster was worse than the final plague of Exodus, since “there is not a house in which there is not one dead — how I wish it had been only one.”
Frightened pagans pushed sick loved ones out onto the street to die — where Christian neighbors, as they were able, cared for them. In his Easter letter, Dionysius said Christians boldly attended the afflicted, showing “unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another.”
Christians had confidence that others did not: Christ rose from the grave, and death is not the end for those who belong to him. “What place is there here for anxiety and worry?” Cyprian asked. “Who in the midst of these things is fearful and sad save those who lack hope and faith?”
Cyprian underscored that Christians should not expect that the plague would spare them. “It troubles some that . . . this disease carries off our people equally with the pagans,” as if Christians ought to live and die care-free. Rather, Cyprian wrote, hope rests in Christ, who said, “I am the resurrection: those that believe in me, although they be dead, shall live.”
Christians have “sublimity to stand erect amid the ruins of the human race,” Cyprian declared, “and not to lie prostrate with those who have no hope in God.” For those who trust in Christ, physical death is “but a passage . . . a crossing over to eternity.” If you were at sea, and a furious storm meant shipwreck was imminent, “would you not more quickly seek port?” Death in Christ is a homecoming.
In the present crisis, Cyprian continued, the measure of faithfulness is how “the well care for the sick,” how “relatives dutifully love their kinsmen,” how “masters show compassion to their ailing slaves” and “whether physicians do not desert the afflicted.”
Today countless people have essential roles that require social contact, and they should press ahead with our prayers and encouragement. Nursing care that early Christians provided for each other and for neighbors saved lives, and the same is true today. The early church grew when people saw or experienced followers of Jesus risking their lives in loving service.
We should pray and expect that today’s global health crisis soon will fade. Let all of us observe guidelines health authorities provide. Some of us must take risks, some will take ill, and most will weather this crisis well. But should the storm end our journey, we have a safe harbor ahead.
J. Nelson Kraybill is president of Mennonite World Conference and president emeritus of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. See more writing and information about his upcoming tours to Israel-Palestine at peace-pilgrim.com.