Love in the Time of an Epidemic

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

A friend of mine recently posted a passage written by Eusebius, an early historian of the church, which I wish to share with you. At the peak of the Cyprian Plague, which ran from about A.D. 249 to 262, there were as many as 5,000 deaths per day throughout the Roman Empire. The plague was named after Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage who witnessed the plague and wrote about it.

"Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house. All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience." [Pontius of Carthage, Life of Cyprian].

"The Plague at Ashdod" by Nicolas Poussin

The plague nearly destroyed the Roman Empire.

"... the history of Rome is a confusing tangle of violent failures. The structural integrity of the imperial machine burst apart. The frontier system crumbled. The collapse of legitimacy invited one usurper after another to try for the throne. The empire fragmented and only the dramatic success of later emperors in putting the pieces back together prevented this moment from being the final act of Roman imperial history." [Kyle Harper,  The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire," Chapter 4, 2017].

Yet, in the midst of this chaos, Eusebius records,

"Most of our brethren showed love and loyalty in not sparing themselves while helping one another, tending to the sick with no thought of danger and gladly departing this life with them after becoming infected with their disease Many who nursed others to health died themselves, thus transferring their death to themselves. The best of our own brothers lost their lives in this way -- some presbyters, deacons, and laymen -- a form of death based on strong faith and piety that seems in every way equal to martyrdom. They would also take up the bodies of the saints, close their eyes, shut their mouths, and carry them on their shoulders. They would embrace them, wash and dress them in burial clothes, and soon receive the same services themselves.

"The heathen were the exact opposite. They pushed away those with the first signs of the disease and fled from their dearest. They even threw them half-dead into the roads and treated unburied corpses like refuse in hope of avoiding the plague of death, which, for all their efforts, was difficult to escape." [Eusebius, The Church History, Dionysius and Dissent; Strife and Plague in Alexandria, 7.22.]

Because of the Christians' unwavering confidence in the face of death, many were drawn to the faith.

May we be like our brethren in the past. Whether the current concerns of the coronavirus proves deadly or not or whether we face a pandemic in the future, let us be resolved to never push away those who need comfort among the sick and dying. In showing love for our neighbors we glorify the name of our Lord. "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).

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