Saturday, February 28, 2009

February 28 - Martyrs in the Plague at Alexandria

In the middle of the third century, Christianity was not an acceptable thing to place one's trust or faith in if you were a citizen or subject of the Roman Empire. Within the bounds of the pax romana there was no room for those who insisted "blessed are the peacemakers." Though Alexandria was fairly far away from the heart of the Roman Empire it was a city of renown and prestige--it was a jewel within the crown of the Empire resting upon seven hills. So, in Alexandria the party line of persecution of Christians held with fervor and Christians were forced to worship and meet in secret lest they be turned over to the authorities and slaughtered by the blade of the Empire. Clergy and Church leaders were of especial interest to the rulers and powers of Rome--to convince a leader of the Church to renounce their faith weakened the resolve of others Christians while executing a leader who refused to renounce their faith deprived the Church of leadership the empire assumed it needed to continue. Essentially, there was a struggle to see who would garner the ultimate allegiance of the people: Jesus the sacrificial savior or the Empire and its assurance of security through control.

Yet, things changed when a plague began sweeping through the Roman Empire and claiming victims on all sides. It seemed that the disease cared little for whom allegiance was paid to as it killed both Christians and non-Christians with ease and speed. Alexandria was particuarly hard hit by the plague with over 5,000 people dying every day in its deadly grip. Soon, people began abandoning those who showed any trace of a symptom of the disease and fleeing to the countryside so that they might escape with their lives. With the density of the urban population, the disease spread quickly. Many fled even going so far as to abandon their children, parents, and spouses in the streets because of fear of infection. Having escaped they did their best to keep a watch on the city so that the infection might die out with its victims and they might return.

Once their persecutors had fled in the wake of the plague, the Christians of Alexandria began to come out of hiding and to take care of the sick and dying. They knew that it would likely cost them their lives yet they felt compelled to care for the abandoned and dying by the faith they refused to deny even under threat of torture and death. Soon, the non-Christians who had fled Alexandria began to hear that many of the Christians had stayed behind and had chosen not to save their own lives so that they might comfort those who were already losing theirs Since the city had been abandoned by all those who could afford to escape, there was little persecution of the Christians even though they had come out of hiding. They met in public to worship and proclaim their faith and were welcomed by those who remained because they offered hope and healing when everybody else had run for their lives. Most of those who remained died and were buried with the ones they cared for. Since their faith bade them stay and the world bade them go, they are martyrs having died on account of a faith that changed and held them.


Dean Cothill said...

Then funny how in the 1980's another 'plague' gets out and instead of christians sticking around and finding out how we can help, we point fingers and spew "poison" on those infected. Instead of sharing God's grace and love we self-righteously proclaim his wrath on those infected with AIDS... still to this day nothing has changed!
good times...

JHearne said...

Some things definitely need to change about the way we do faith. I think we need to remember that when your faith was likely to cost you something, it had definite value.

I think of a story I once heard a Mennonite brother tell me that concluded with: "If your faith doesn't cost you anything then it's probably placed in the wrong thing."

Andy Gray said...

Are there any references that show how the Christians treated the sick and dying? I once heard a quote from the Emperor or something saying something along the lines of "look how the Christians even help our own dying" indicating his shock that the Christians were not only helping other Christians, but pagans too - But I've never found a source for the quote. Do you have anything like that you can link to here? Would very much appreciate it.

Joshua Hearne said...

Andy, this is Josh from Telling the Stories that Matter. I think the quote you're looking for is from the 4th century roman emperor, Flavius Claudius Iulianus Augustus, sometimes called Julian the Apostate. He wrote in a letter to some of his religious leadership: "For it is disgraceful when no Jew is a beggar and the impious Galileans [a name for early Christians] support our poor in addition to their own; everyone is able to see that our coreligionists are in want of aid from us." It's in his letter to Arsacius. Worth checking out. Thanks for reading.