Pandemics and evangelism: The martyrs of the plague of Alexandria

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The Plague in Rome, Jules Elie Delaunay. Art: Minneapolis Institute of Art/Wikipedia

“Many who had healed others fell victims themselves. The best of our brethren have been taken from us in this manner: some were priests, some were deacons and some laity of great worth. This death, with the faith that accompanied it, appeared to be little inferior to martyrdom itself.”

—St. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria

In his book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Baker, 2016), Alan Kreider tries to understand why Christianity grew so much in a period when there was no public evangelism and the liturgies were completely off-limits to outsiders—no seeker services here. Kreider, a brilliant scholar and a holy man who died in 2017, says that a significant part of the answer has to do with pandemics.

Kreider’s book links pandemics and the growth of Christianity. Photo: Contributed

The martyrs of the Plague of Alexandria (AD 261) are an example of what Kreider was talking about. In a time of vicious and deadly persecution, Christians came out of hiding to tend the sick, care for the dying and bury the dead. As all others fled, they were seen, at great risk from persecution and infection, going in the opposite direction. It was this that was the compelling argument for the faith. The witness was twofold: extraordinary compassion, even for those who were persecuting them; and a fearless attitude towards death, even in the face of a horrific and excruciating fatal illness. This kind of faith and practice was something people wanted to have; something people wanted to be.

As we face a pandemic, we rightly work to protect our members and the larger society, especially the vulnerable. Many, from what I can see, are doing all that they can to connect with people in ways that are safe. We fall into line, as we should, with all the safe practices. I am not arguing for us to march in and become points of spreading infection. What I am arguing for is a way to connect this to the heart of faith, what we say we believe, and who we are, in Christ. Do we meet these events with a compassion and fearlessness schooled by our daily encounter with God?

We are to be a people of Spirit; a people of faith, hope and love. Our imagination is to be overwhelmed with the life, death, resurrection and second coming of Christ. This story is to shape us in ways that unveil its meaning in our encounter with fear, isolation and suffering. That, more than anything else we could say or show, is a real contribution to our faith, our world and the path that Jesus is leading us on towards the World to Come.

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Mark MacDonald
Archbishop Mark MacDonald is national Indigenous archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.

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