We currently live in troubled times lately with a lot of uncertainty around us, both locally and globally. But even now as I write this and think on the topic of the virus, one verse in particular springs to mind:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff —
they comfort me.
It does feel a little bit like we are all walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” at the moment! But as the Psalmist says, “I fear no evil” for God is with us and comforts us. That doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t get sick (or die), but that no matter what is happening around us, internally we should be at peace and have a stilled mind; not one filled with worry and hopelessness.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Not to mention the mandate to not worry about what we’ll eat or wear etc. (Matthew 6:25–34) especially in this time of panic buying where shops are facing food shortages. We must strive to avoid this type of thinking and behaviour, because not only does it not help anyone (and is incredibly selfish), it just causes more panic. As Christians we should keep in mind what God has spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.” (Isaiah 41:10), and what Paul wrote to Timothy that “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Christians and Plagues Throughout History
Disease, plagues and pandemics are not new things in this world. History is replete with sickness and death, the only difference now is that since around the 20th century, modern medicine and vaccines have improved to such a degree that we are fairly well protected against anything on a pandemic, or even an epidemic, level. Sickness is often relegated to a temporary inconvenience during winter, which we can pop pills for; whereas the more serious sickness and death are hidden away in hospitals and care homes out of sight for the most part.
Prior to this time, past generations just had to deal with recurring diseases and plagues killing off the populations fairly regularly. Just take a look at this infographic to see the scale and frequency of them! It dates back all the major pandemics to the second century, of which there are about twenty, so that’s just over one global disease per century. As scary as the current times are, this is nothing new, historically speaking.
In these past times of plague and disease, many people would flee their towns and cities if they weren’t obviously sick to try and escape the looming deadly virus — but the Christian communities often had the opposite response: they stayed with the sick and dying!
In the year 249 AD, a pandemic swept the Roman Empire known as The Plague of Cyprian, named in commemoration of Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, as he was a witness to it. At the height of the outbreak, it was thought that around 5,000 people a day were dying, and it almost toppled the Empire. Cyprian wrote about the plague in his On Mortality, describing its symptoms, which some modern historians think could describe a type of Ebola:
This trial, that now the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened…
As gruesome as that sounds, Cyprian, a couple of chapters later, writes in praise of those who forsook their own well-being for the sake of others who were in need during this trying time:
And further, beloved brethren, what is it, what a great thing is it, how pertinent, how necessary, that pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each one, and examines the minds of the human race, to see whether they who are in health tend the sick…
Around the year 260 AD, Dionysius the Great (Patriarch of Alexandria), wrote in one of his letters about this plague, describing how badly “the heathens” treated their sick in contrast to the Christians:
But among the heathen all was the very reverse. For they thrust aside any who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died, steadily avoiding any kind of communication and intercourse with death; which, however, it was not easy for them altogether to escape, in spite of the many precautions they employed. (Epistle 12: To the Alexandrians)
Dionysius praised the Christian community for not abandoning the sick and dying, but for living out the Gospel and a Christ-centred mindset by going to help the ill at the expense of their own lives. I’ll quote this paragraph in full below as I think it’s shows the impact of truly living out the command to “love your neighbour”:
Certainly very many of our brethren, while, in their exceeding love and brotherly-kindness, they did not spare themselves, but kept by each other, and visited the sick without thought of their own peril, and ministered to them assiduously, and treated them for their healing in Christ, died from time to time most joyfully along with them, lading themselves with pains derived from others, and drawing upon themselves their neighbours’ diseases, and willingly taking over to their own persons the burden of the sufferings of those around them. And many who had thus cured others of their sicknesses, and restored them to strength, died themselves, having transferred to their own bodies the death that lay upon these. (Epistle 12: To the Alexandrians)
Eusebius, in his Church History, also chronicles the efforts of Christians during this plague and notes how selflessly they acted in the face of death:
For they alone in the midst of such ills showed their sympathy and humanity by their deeds. Every day some continued caring for and burying the dead, for there were multitudes who had no one to care for them; others collected in one place those who were afflicted by the famine, throughout the entire city, and gave bread to them all; so that the thing became reported abroad among all men, and they glorified the God of the Christians; and, convinced by the facts themselves, confessed that they alone were truly pious and religious. (Church History, Book IX, ch. 8.14)
It was this level of Christ-centred, self-sacrificing love for all people — regardless of age, race or religion — that made even the pagan critics of Christianity sit up and take notice. The Emperor Julian in 362 AD wrote about how the “atheists” (i.e. Christians) demonstrated better virtue and benevolence than his own people and priests did, and to their shame, because the Christians not only looked after their communities, but the wider population and strangers too! While this quote isn’t specifically related to a time of pestilence, it serves as a good example of the general attitude of early Christians in normal times:
…why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism [Christianity]? I believe that we ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practise them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception. […] For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. (Letters of Julian, Letter 22)
The Church’s Response
So why am I stating all of this? Hopefully it should be obvious by now: this is how Christians should be thinking and acting during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Obviously, we need to be heeding the government and WHO’s advice during this pandemic, but that shouldn’t stop us going above and beyond to help others during this time of national and global crisis. Even if we observe the social distancing, I’m sure there are ways in which we can still help our communities and limit physical contact and the spread of disease; for example, instead of panic-buying and selfish hoarding, buy extra for the food banks or the homeless, or donate to charity and help those who may get overlooked in all the panic.
As I read through various posts on Facebook and Twitter, I do see a recurring verse getting shared by some people in light of the current situation:
2 Chronicles 7:13–14
When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.
How relevant this is to the coronavirus, I can’t say, but it is surely a principle of Scripture that mass repentance and prayer leads to change and healing from God, so even if we are isolated, sick or feeling generally overwhelmed and helpless in the face of this virus, we can always pray. Church leaders across the UK have declared a National Day of Prayer on March 22nd for Christians across Britain and Ireland to join together in prayer about the pandemic at 7pm.
Above all, remember the words of Jesus:
“Love your neighbour” should guide us in this situation in all things, and what’s more loving than not infecting people with a potentially deadly disease? Stay vigilant, wash your hands, and limit physical contact where possible.
I’ll close this with the words of St. Teresa of Avila as some inspiration for us during this trying time:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
- https://www.visualcapitalist.com/history-of-pandemics-deadliest/ (infographic)
- http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050707.htm (Cyprian, On Mortality)
- http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0632.htm (Dionysius, Epistle 12: To the Alexandrians)
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