I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve told someone that our situation seems ‘surreal’ or ‘strange.’ I doubt I’m the only one that finds it hard to shift back and forth between thinking about normal things and thinking about pandemic things. Part of what makes this pandemic so disturbing for many of us is that we don’t have anything comparable in our own experience. Some people have drawn parallels to wars or terrorist attacks.
A more realistic comparison is probably the Spanish Flu that ravaged the world almost exactly 100 years ago. That disease infected 500 million people. I suppose the lesson is that even though this pandemic seems utterly different than anything we have been through, it is not at all new to the human experience.
In the middle of the third century a plague swept through the Roman Empire. We wouldn’t know much about it if not for a preacher named Cyprian. Cyprian’s description of the disease and the related social disorder is so significant that historians have named the plague after him. Cyprian was the bishop of Alexandria at the time, and so some of his sermons were preserved. In one of those sermons he describes a hideous set of symptoms:
“. . . the strength of the body is dissolved, the bowels dissipate in a flow; that a fire that begins in the inmost depths burns up into wounds in the throat; that the intestines are shaken with continuous vomiting; that the eyes are set on fire from the force of the blood; that the infection of the deadly putrefaction cuts off the feet or other extremities of some; and that as weakness prevails through the failures and losses of the bodies, the gait is crippled or the hearing is blocked or the vision is blinded.”
Okay, so that sounds terrible. It’s possible that the disease Cyprian observed was something like ebola, but it’s hard to know. What interests me is Cyprian’s pastoral wisdom.
In the same sermon Cyprian observes that people of faith should not expect to suffer any less than their neighbours. Some of his congregants apparently were troubled by the fact that the disease attacked them just like it did their non-believing counterparts. Cyprian made it clear that we all share the same mortal flesh and so share in the same suffering. Susceptibility to disease is not where Christians and others part ways. We can’t get out of hand-washing with prayer.
Where the difference lies, Cyprian suggests, is in our response. For those with faith in Christ’s resurrection, suffering brought on by disease is a place to exercise patience and humility. Those who heard Cyprian’s sermon were people who had their own mortality impressed upon them. They knew they could be infected. Their life in the face of that terrible disease was an opportunity to prepare for their death. Their faith did not present them with a path for escaping suffering but for enduring it.
One translator renders a particularly poignant sentence of Cyprian’s this way:
“How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their [kin] . . . whether physicians do not desert the afflicted begging their help . . . whether the proud bend their necks . . . whether the rich, even when their dear ones are perishing and they are about to die without heirs, bestow and give something!”
Cyprian is a bit more gruff and no-nonsense than we would tolerate today. But we don’t need him for his bedside manner. We need him as a voice of one who has been through plague and pestilence and who can tell us from experience that the faith of Jesus Christ can help us move forward.
I hope we are not getting too grim about this. On the other hand, dodging reality isn’t helpful either. Cyprian was very realistic and very full of faith. It’s within this realism that we might find him most helpful. What he shows us is that the faith we have received has offered guidance to those who have been through such hardships before. It’s new to us but not new to the faith we have inherited.