Mercy, Smallpox & Maximos the Confessor

Carlos Overstreet's picture

"He that loves Me, saith the Lord, will keep My commandments; and 'this is My commandment, that you love one another.' He therefore who does not love his neighbor does not keep the commandment. Nor is he that does not keep the commandment able to love the Lord." - St. Maximos the Confessor 

In the third century, the Roman Empire suffered a terrible plague that many historians believe was smallpox. It has been termed the "Cyprian Plague" after Saint Cyprian of Carthage, whose account of the epidemic was written down by Pontus the Deacon. The epidemic hit the metropolitan regions of the Mediterranean particularly hard. Of interest to us, is the reaction of the Christian and Pagan communities to the calamity.

During the epidemic, the affluent inhabitants of the Empire’s cities fled to the countryside, taking shelter in their estates to avoid contracting the deadly disease. For many of the lower classes, this simply was not an option. In Rome, thousands perished every day, and the city’s administration was unable to deal with the crisis. As evermore people died or fled, services stopped, and the dead were no longer being buried. The followers of eastern cults fled out of fear, many believing that death was the end of the soul. The practitioners of stoicism demeaned any attempt to help the sick, allowing many to simply die alone. Out of the catacombs and into this terrible scene steps the Christian Church.

The Christians of Rome came to the aid of the dying, whether they were Christian or not. They plunged themselves into service. Writers reported Christians would take food to the sick, tend to their sores, and began to bury the dead, whether they were baptized or not. Deacons and Presbyters sought to comfort the dying, and what Christian physicians there were, administered what treatments they could to ease their pain. What was remarkable to the pagan historians was the fearlessness with which the Christians went about caring for the sick. “They seemed”, said one writer, “to have no concern for their own life.” Their duty to take care of not only of their own community, but of the entire city astounded the pagans who witnessed this, even as some of their own fell ill.

In Carthage, Saint Cyprian turned his churches into hospitals for the sick and dying. In Antioch, the orphaned children and widows of dead relatives reached into the thousands, and the Church there set up widow houses and orphanages to take care of those who no longer had anyone to care for them. Everywhere, the Church became the image of mercy to the world. Even as people continued to perish, it was the audacity of Love, selfless love that the Christians showed that woke up Pagan Rome to the message of Christ. As historian Rodney Spark put it, “It was the soup [the Christians] so patiently spooned to the helpless that healed them.”

Saint Cyprian later recalled that both "the just were dying with the unjust”, and that while a cause for fear in some, it brought about the best in others; he says the "pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the mercy of each and every person." Such was the example set by the Christians, that Emperor Julian a century later exhorted his fellow pagans to follow the example of the Christians: “I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the [pagan priests], the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence.”

Let us seek in this day to emulate the actions and love of these Christians, who surrounded in their own time by unbelievers, and facing persecution, stormed into the face of death and were Christ's hands and feet to the poor, the sick, the destitute, the widowed, the orphaned and the dying. They did this, because they believed in the Resurrection. They did this, because they believed in the Mercy of Jesus Christ.

This Lent, examine how you have been the image of Christ to those around you. There is always room for improvement, and if you find yourself coming up short of what you think you ought to be doing, then make an effort this year to do just a little more. This is all the more important considering the popularity of secularism in our culture now. Like the Christians of the third century, we must live our faith even in the midst of tribulation. If we truly believe in Jesus and His Ressurrection than we will have no fear in emulating such feats. If the world will not hear the words of truth, than we must manifest it by our actions and deeds. Remember, in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew says Saint Paul (Gal 3:28). Everyone is deserving of His Mercy. As Saint Maximos the Confessor says, if we have the Love of Christ, than we will see our neighbor, regardless of who he or she is, as Christ. "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me" (Matt 25:40).

"For him who is perfect in love and has reached the summit of dispassion there is no difference between his own and another's, or between Christians and unbelievers, or between slave and free, or even between man and woman. Because he has risen above the tyranny of the passions and has fixed his attention on the single nature of man, he looks on all in the same way and shows the same disposition to all." - St. Maximos the Confessor 

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