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"The charity of the early Church challenges us to be wise and yet radically caring for others in need," says Ng Zhiwen. Photo by Thomas Millot on Unsplash.

As we wrestle with what to do in the present novel coronavirus crisis, let’s consider how our ancient forebears responded when they faced the plague.

Our situation is not near ‘plague’ levels, but whoever reads about what the Church did in late antiquity, we cannot help but be challenged to be wise and yet radically caring for others in need – and to adopt such a mind-set and practice even before times get worse.

Here are a few examples and quotations:

The Antonine Plague (c 165 – 180)

Suspected to be either smallpox or measles, this plague reportedly had a mortality rate of 25%, causing up to 2,000 deaths a day in Rome. The total number of deaths was estimated at 5,000,000.

“Christianity provided meaning to life and death in times of crisis.” 

In the Ancient History Encyclopaedia, John Horgan, an assistant professor of History at Concordia University-Wisconsin, noted: “The effect of the illness was not confined to the military and economy. Marcus Aurelius launched persecutions against Christians who refused to pay homage to the gods which, the emperor believed, in turn angered the gods whose wrath made itself known in the form of a devastating epidemic.

“Ironically the anti-Christian attacks produced the opposite effect amongst the general population.

“Unlike adherents to the Roman polytheistic system, Christians believed in an obligation to assist others in a time of need, including illness. Christians were willing to provide the most basic needs, food and water, for those too ill to fend for themselves.

“This simple level of nursing care produced good feelings between Christians and their pagan neighbours. Christians often stayed to provide assistance while pagans fled. Furthermore, Christianity provided meaning to life and death in times of crisis.” 

The Plague of Cyprian (c 249 – 262)

Dionysius (c 200 – 265), Bishop of Alexandria, describes in a letter how the North African church responded:

“Many who nursed others to health died themselves, thus transferring their death to themselves.”

“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.”

Early Christianity (5th Century) and the ethos of charity in a time of trouble (Including a locust plague that struck Edessa in 499)

“Christianity, which was well established in the cities of the Eastern Roman Empire by the time of the disaster at Edessa in 499, was well suited to a population beset by famine, disease, and social disorder,” according to Guenther B Risse, Mending Bodies, Saving Souls: A History of Hospitals (1999).

“Christianity became the basis for a new social solidarity eminently suited to the periodic chaos.”

“Capable as it was of providing not only an ideology of salvation, but also charity and material assistance to the homeless and poor, it satisfied the longing for relief, hope, and community experienced by the ethnically diverse and uprooted people of the eastern cities, including Greek natives, Roman conquerors, Hellenized Jewish immigrants, and traders from the Far East.

“Joining this religion ensured membership in a dedicated network of believers whose family values protected orphans and widows and whose nursing services were eagerly sought during earthquakes, fires, and epidemics.

“Christianity thus became the basis for a new social solidarity eminently suited to the periodic chaos afflicting the urban dwellers.”

Basil (c 330 – 379), Bishop of Caesarea

Basil the Great built the first ‘house of healing’ in western history – the “Basileiad” – which provided shelter for the poor, and served as both a hospital and a hospice.

He once wrote: “When someone steals another’s clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not?

“Preserve gratitude like a precious deposit within your soul, and from it you will receive a double portion of delight.”

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.”

And in his book On Social Justice: “Care for the needy requires the expenditure of wealth: When all share alike, disbursing their possessions among themselves, they each receive a small portion for their individual needs.

“Thus, those who love their neighbour as themselves possess nothing more than their neighbour; yet surely, you seem to have great possessions! How else can this be, but that you have preferred your own enjoyment to the consolation of the many? For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.

“Preserve gratitude like a precious deposit within your soul, and from it you will receive a double portion of delight. Remember the apostolic word: Give thanks in all circumstances.”

O Church of this generation, arise.

About the author

Ng Zhi-wen

Zhi-wen is a connector. His passion is to see the Church united for the mission of God.