Cyprian’s Plague: On Mortality (Part 2)

Rev. Edward A. Scott

Pastor of Bethel Lutheran Church (LCMS), Hobe Sound, Florida

As we face unprecedented circumstances in our daily lives, I am reminded that unprecedented circumstances are a part of every generation.  We can always find people and situations where lessons were learned that can help us today.  Nearly 1800 years ago, Cyprian, an early Christian bishop, faced a plague (epidemic) with horrifying death tolls.  In three parts I will tell his story to see what we can learn from it.  I hope you find the reading of his story as helpful as I did the writing of it.  Read and reflect!


The Juggler of Carthage

As revealed in Part 1, Cyprian was a very educated and literate individual.  There were few people with his modestly aristocratic background and education who were drawn to the fledgling Christian movement, which, in Cyprian’s day, boasted no more than a few hundred thousand members lightly peppered throughout the entire sprawling Roman Empire.  Cyprian’s literacy, education, and verbal eloquence fueled his rapid rise from candidate for baptism to priest to bishop.  In spite of his education, he was not an intellectual.  He had a pastoral demeanor and heart.  He felt what his people felt.

While the church was being overrun by the persecutions of Emperor Decius, around Easter of A.D. 250 an epidemic erupted in Ethiopia, spread across the African continent into Egypt, and throughout the Roman Empire.  The pandemic lasted for a decade, and, at its height, likely claimed about 5,000 lives per day in the city of Rome alone.

Today, when a person is adept at managing multiple crises simultaneously, we describe him/her as a juggler, someone capable of keeping numerous balls in the air at the same time without faltering.  Bishop Cyprian was in that unenviable position.  He was the Juggler of Carthage:

Ball Number 1:  The persecution of the Christians.

Ball Number 2:  As a result of the persecutions, the church itself split into two factions — on one side, the faithful who stood fast during the persecution and suffered punishment, torture, even death, and, on the other side, the petrified Christians who decided it was more expedient to burn incense to the Roman gods rather than suffer torture and death.  After all, they reasoned, what is better — lighting a little incense and speaking a few empty words of devotion to a non-existent god, or facing torture?  However, as the persecutions ended, the lapsed Christians wanted to return to the church.  Many were ashamed and guilt ridden for their failure to resist.  But those who remained faithful said, “Wait a minute — not so fast!”  They were hurt and angry, determined to keep the lapsed Christians (known as the lapsi) out of the church.  Why should they be allowed to renounce Christ in the bad times and then be welcomed back like nothing ever happened when the persecutions abated? (PASTOR’S NOTE:  Cyprian mapped out a plan for restoring the lapsi to the fold, but that is a story for another day.)  

Ball Number 3:   The plague itself.

Cyprian’s Plague

Cyprian’s biographer, Pontius the Deacon, describes the disease:

… there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease [that] invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, everyone from his own house. All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude [his own] death…. There lay about, meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event.1

The world was falling apart.  The fear and dread were palpable.  The disease invaded every home — advancing with rapid devastation.  Everyone was shaking in their proverbial boots.  Countless people died each day.  The healthy ones were so desperate to get away from the contagion that they shunned, even fled from their sick family members, leaving them to die an ignominious and lonely death.  As shameful as it was, they believed that abandoning the sick would exclude them from death.  When Pontius distinguishes between bodies and carcasses (above), he is referring to the loss of reverence and respect for the dead.  A dead body is a person with a name, a history, a family who cared; a dead body was tended to by loved ones who prepared their bodies and lovingly buried them.  The abandoned dead were carcasses — anonymous, unclaimed remains, putrefied, decomposing hunks of debris dumped into mass graves to be burned as quickly and unceremoniously as possible.  People were literally dying in the streets, alone. Fear was the winner. Death was the enemy.  Alienation was the end result — not that there was a host of better possibilities.  No one could remember anything like it.  Many believed the world was coming to an end (Cyprian among them).  The plague turned otherwise caring people into self-centered narcissists:  MY survival is tantamount.  It was every man or woman for himself or herself.  No province in the Roman Empire was spared from the pandemic, which raged for at least a decade.  When Pontius wrote that it invaded every house, he was not exaggerating.

The voice (and juggler) of the Christian response to these simultaneous crises?  Bishop Cyprian of Carthage.  He responded, in part, with another treatise inspired in his pastoral heart, formulated by his keen intellect.  The title of this treatise was “On Mortality.” In it he described the symptoms of the disease:

… abrupt or sudden onset

… the bowels loosened into a constant flux,  dissolving bodily strength

… a fire (fever) originated in the marrow (deep in the body) that fermented into wounds at the fauces (the back of the mouth)

… the intestines were shaken with continual vomiting

…. the bloodshot eyes burned

… infection and putrefaction in the feet or extremities caused loss of limbs

… the weakness of the body led to maiming or an enfeebled gait

… the hearing impaired, the sight blinded.2

Relentless diarrhea.  Lesions in the throat.  Intractable vomiting.  Frightened, tired eyes, bloodied by the violence of bodily upheavals.   Putrefaction of infected limbs.  Weakness, maiming, enfeebled gait.  Obstructed hearing. Loss of sight.  Because of Cyprian’s concise descriptions, later historians took to calling the disease Cyprian’s Plague, not because he caused it, but because he described it so well.  No one has been able to identify the disease with certainty.  Some suspect smallpox or measles, but none of the recorded descriptions mention a rash, so others consider it more likely that it was either a strain of influenza or Ebola.

Medical knowledge in the year 250 was virtually nil.  Much of it was based on superstition and false assumptions (e.g., that sin causes illness).  Doctors were scarce and uninformed.  While they may have had a special concern for people, they did not know much more than the general public about healthcare.  Their understanding of human anatomy was vague, they knew nothing of the relationship between health and hygiene, they were ignorant about the spread of disease, and they did not know what a germ was.  Some believed that the air itself was corrupted and laid like a blanket spreading disease over the Empire.  Others believed the disease was passed by sight. The red eyes were particularly frightening for that reason.  Today we know that bloodshot eyes can result from numerous causes, from pollen to pink eye or capillaries ruptured from the exertion of violent retching.  Today, we take an anti-allergen, or drop in some Visine, or apply a topical antibiotic and move on.  However, from the days of the early Greeks, people of antiquity thought that the eyes had the capacity to emit tiny particles that could cause harm or carry contagion.  Such is the origin of the evil eye.  No wonder it was terrifying for people to remain in the presence of infected loved ones.  To them, a pleading look could mean a death sentence.

The Present Mortality

Among the Christians there was vacillation and confusion:

Although in very many of you, dearly beloved…, there is a resolute mind, a firm faith, and a devout spirit that is not disturbed at the numbers of this present mortality, but, like a strong and unmoving rock, [your faith]… shatters the turbulent attacks of the world and the violent waves of the age and is itself not broken…, [you are tried] but not overcome, [you are] not [defeated] by these temptations…. Yet because I observe that… some… are standing less steadily and are not revealing the divine and invincible vigor of their hearts…. the matter must not be ignored or passed over in silence, but so far as my feeble powers [as Bishop] suffice…, [I offer] a discourse gathered from the Lord’s lessons [to me]….3

So begins Cyprian’s treatise.  He was wise to describe the plague as the present mortality, and to entitle his treatise “On Mortality.” The most unsettling aspect of the plague was the grim and relentless forward march of death.  Disease and death invaded every household.  It loomed larger and larger with each passing day for a decade. The bustling city of Alexandria in Egypt had a population of 500,000 when Cyprian’s Plague began.  By its end, the population had declined 62%, to only 190,000 people.4 Such was the present mortality.  (For Cyprian, present mortality is a general term pertaining to anything that can cause death in the present moment.)  

In the midst of Covid-19, with all the knowledge and skill of modern science at our disposal, our anxiety-laden response to this inert, microscopic virus is driven by the same controlling specter of death.  In Cyprian’s time they tried to control the spread of the plague by covering corpses with lime and burning them in mass graves.  In some of our cities, bodies of Covid-19 victims are stored in refrigerated tractor trailers because our morgues cannot hold them.  On the news recently I saw drone pictures of thousands of waiting graves dug side by side outside of Brazilian towns being decimated by Covid-19.  In the third century and now, both those dying from the pandemic, and those dying of other causes, are denied the comforting presence of loved ones to hold their hands, or the opportunity for necessary and healthy post-mortem funeral rituals.

Presence of Death, Absence of God

In his novel about World War II (The Book Thief), Marcus Zusak depicts death as an observer, a hovering, curious, invisible apparition.  Zusak does not consider death as the enemy during World War II.  Death, he makes clear, was simply doing his job.  Death was an intercessor.  The real enemy was Adolf Hitler and the inhumanity of human beings toward one another.   When it was time, death (who also narrates the novel), as expected, swooped stealthily onto the scene and extracted the life force, the soul from the dying individual and gently carried it off to death’s namesake netherworld.  Judgment was on earth; death was a perfect void.

Cyprian’s people experienced death very differently.  Looking from the human side of the pandemic, they saw plundered bodies and terrified consciences.  They saw death as violent, unmerciful, and relentless.  Helplessness and desperation supplanted faith and hope.  Patience was stretched beyond the breaking point.  God seemed absent.  It is not at all hard to imagine feelings of abandonment and disillusionment growing among the faithful.  Many of those fretting and fuming believers, in fact, wondered why they were not exempt from the plague. After all, they reasoned, they were people of God.  Cyprian responded:

… it disturbs some that the power of this disease attacks our people equally with the pagans, as if a Christian believes that he (the Christian) [might remain] free from contact with evils; [that] he may happily enjoy the world and this life, and, without having [to] endure all adversities here, [he] may be reserved for future joy. It disturbs some that we have this mortality [the plague] in common with others; but what in the world do we not have in common with others…? So long as this flesh of ours remains, according to the law of our original birth…, as long as we are here in this world, we are united with the human race in equality of flesh, [and] are separated [only] in spirit.5

In the midst of the valley of the shadow of death it is easy (and common) for all generations to wonder what is the purpose of faith if it is not going to spare us from brutal suffering and grisly demise?  Isn’t there such a thing as “friends with benefits” in the kingdom of God, especially in the midst of a pandemic?

Well, no, there isn’t.

Faith is not a magic bullet.  Faith does not come with a protective bubble allowing believers to sit and watch the suffering of others while they proclaim what a great guy God is. In the end, such a capricious God would be utterly without devotees, and for good reason.  He would be nothing more than a loveless power monger.  Cyprian expounds:

… until this corruptible [body] puts on incorruptibility, and this mortal [body]  receives immortality,

and the Spirit conducts us to God the Father, the disadvantages of the flesh, whatever they are,

we [Christians] have in common with [the rest of] the human race.6

He goes on to include all manner of unfortunate occurrences in addition to disease as part of the disadvantages of the flesh — famine, drought, war, captivity, and shipwreck as disadvantages of the flesh.

Radical Resurrection

Corruptible bodies putting on incorruption is a lofty concept in any age.  In today’s worldview, we are more likely to speak of death as shedding our useless, worn out bodies for a disembodied, but blissful eternity, regardless of what the Creeds say about the resurrection of the body.   As our lives have become less difficult in the Twenty-first Century, we have also evolved toward a softer view of Easter. We have spiritualized Easter.  Death is heartbreaking, but not in control, we say.  The soul is spirited away from the body, where it can live forever in heaven, we teach. The resurrection is an invisible, gentle, soulful moment of transition, not an earth-shattering cataclysm, we posit.  We treat death and resurrection as death peacefully whisking us off to eternal euphoria.

We deliberate over the empty tomb, the radiant angelic beings, the pronouncement that “he is not here” — are these things symbolic or factual?  We frequently compare resurrection to an unseemly caterpillar dutifully spinning a cocoon, then magically emerging weeks later as a beautiful butterfly.  We relate to the beginning and end of the story of metamorphosis, but we conveniently forget the middle.   The caterpillar doesn’t merrily grow a couple of wings and then contentedly munch his way out of the cocoon to happily ever after.  No, the transformation of the caterpillar is so violent and larval that the caterpillar’s entire body is totally liquefied and remade in the cocoon.  Death is a menacing force and a total end.  Resurrection is a formidable, godly force and a new beginning.  Resurrection is a radical response that completely alters death and totally remakes human beings.  Jesus came to prepare a way to heaven for us, yes.  But to stop there leaves us with an addled and underdeveloped view of the hard-fought victory of Christ.

Let’s go back.  The night before his baptism — Holy Saturday — Cyprian kept vigil.  He was baptized at dawn on Easter Sunday.  Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday.  Holy Saturday is the night after Jesus died.  His resurrection is mere hours away.  Cyprian spent Holy Saturday night participating in exorcisms (cf. the first part of Part 1 of this essay), receiving the sign of the cross over each of his senses (signifying the conversion of the whole person), then spent the rest of the night listening to readings, receiving instructions, and praying.  It was an intense night of final preparation for his baptism.  Why this night?  Why keep vigil?  Why didn’t Cyprian and the other candidates go home, get a good night’s sleep, and show up bright and early on Easter morning for baptism?  They could have cake and coffee afterwards and enjoy the day.  Candidly, as a follower of Jesus, Cyprian was keeping watch with Christ that night.  This was a night of action for Jesus, perhaps the most intense night of his entire journey to resurrection.  You see, Jesus did not spend this night in the tomb in a rejuvenating slumber, catching up on some much needed rest, allowing his wounds to heal, while waiting for the angels to show up to move the stone and inject him with the elixir of new life.  Jesus had much to do that night to make the resurrection a thoroughgoing and enduring experience for every human being who ever lived and would live.  The ancient church called the activity that took place during this night the “harrowing of hell.”  Harrowing means to disturb painfully or distress acutely.  Jesus was busy disturbing and distressing death and invading its environs.  Ancient icons provide a graphic picture of this night of nights and remind us of what an Easter celebration was like in Cyprian’s day.

Jesus is often portrayed as visiting the realm of death with grim determination.  He is the central and tallest figure in the picture, surrounded by an aura of light.  When he arrives in the realm of death, he breaks open the gates and wrestles the guardian of death into submission.  The scarred Jesus binds death’s hands and feet, rendering him helpless, small, and, yes, trampled beneath the victorious feet of Jesus.  Strewn about death are the bolts and keys that no longer keep the gates of the realm locked.  In fact, the planks in the shape of a cross that Jesus is standing on are what used to be the gates of death, destroyed, and transformed into a pedestal for the living Christ!  Behind Jesus are kings David and Solomon, John the Baptist, Moses, and others.  They observe with curiosity and astonishment, John gesturing as if to say, “I told you so!”

Jesus is holding the outstretched hands of two people, lifting them from their tombs.  They are Adam and Eve, but they have grown old.  At the time of creation, they were youthful, fresh, and radiant, but the knowledge of good and evil and an eternity of reflection has taken its toll.  Their faces are lined with guilt and shame, hurt and regret. Jesus does not make Adam and Eve young again.  Nothing can erase the scars of their hurts and disappointments, nothing can remove the signs of their struggles, or the toll that living in a broken world takes. That is not why Jesus came.  His mission is grander than that.  Jesus is going all the way back to the beginning — to the time when life was derailed, when the image of God was stained and blackened.  Jesus resurrects Adam and Eve, yes, but on a more elemental level, he is remaking the world, restoring the beauty and the hope that has been tarnished for eons.  Slowly we understand.  We are Adam and Eve!  Made new!  Baptized!  Transformed!  Oh, death, where is your victory?  Oh, death where is your sting?

So what Easter, what resurrection offers is a profound new beginning.  Death exists, yet it is vanquished and has no hold on us.  On that Holy Saturday, Jesus was quite busy, engaged in the work of making all things new — the remaking of creation itself.  That is what radical resurrection is about.  NEW BIRTH!  NEW LIFE!  We are all going to die, but it’s not going to kill us!

Cyprian spent the night before his baptism remembering, keeping vigil, preparing to strip off the old garments of his broken and crippled life, following Jesus into death.  At dawn he stepped naked into the waters and was baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  He experienced the hand of Jesus raising him.  He rose out of the water and put on the white garment of new life, a new man, transformed.  He took his place among the faithful to share body and blood.  As it is written in 1 Peter:

The waters of baptism do that for you, not by washing away dirt from your skin but by presenting you through Jesus’ resurrection before God with a clear conscience. Jesus has the last word on everything and everyone, from angels to armies. He’s standing right alongside God, and what he says goes (First Peter 3:21-22).7

A Severe Encouragement

The encouragement Bishop Cyprian offered to his people in “On Mortality” was a severe encouragement.  It was not easy to swallow or to live.  From his own experience, he knew what he was asking.  He knew that he could ask confidently because death was the ONLY thing to fear, and, despite the tragedy and suffering all around, he knew that deep down inside, his people knew who they were and whose they were.  He reminded them that those who died in this “present mortality” (plague) were “liberated from this world.”8 He challenged them to look beyond their fear and confusion and embrace the higher standard of the kingdom of heaven:

… [the] pestilence and plague which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the righteousness of each and every one, and examines the minds of the human race; to see whether those who are well care for the sick; whether relatives dutifully and tenderly love their kindred…; whether masters show compassion to their ailing slaves; whether physicians do not desert the afflicted begging their help; whether the violent suppress their violence, whether the greedy, even through the fear of death, can quench the ever insatiable fire of their raging avarice (greed)…; whether the haughty (people who feel superior) can bend their neck (choose humility); whether the wicked [can] soften their boldness….9

To live accordingly would take determination, effort, trial, and error.  It would take an enormous dose of the grace that made them God’s people to begin with, but, Cyprian reminded them, in the process it would also help them learn to “not fear death” and “give [their] minds the glory of fortitude.”10 Fortitude is not a bad thing in the best of times, even more useful in time of pandemic.  Cyprian’s word, while direct and challenging, was first and foremost a word of consolation.  What he wrote made a difference, because even in the midst of persecution and pandemic, the ranks of Christians increased in number.  The new converts were impressed by the patience, love and fortitude displayed toward the sick and suffering.  The church strove to be Easter people in a world gone haywire.

 I would like to end Part 2 with words from a contemporary righteous man.  They are from an April 23, 2020 Wall Street Journal article by Kavin Rowe, Professor of New Testament at Duke University School of Divinity.  He has learned something about the “glory of fortitude” from caring for his terminally ill wife, and, he indeed has grasped the spirit of Bishop Cyprian, as I hope we do.  He wrote:

When we accept the truth about our mortality, we can also experience remarkable freedom:

to take the time to say “I love you”;

to stop nursing resentments;

to stop thinking that forgiveness

can always wait for another day;

to cease pretending that little annoying things matter so much;

to pick up our heads and look at the beauty of the world;

to examine our beliefs about what really, really counts in life;

to mend relationships; and,

for those who have never tried it before, even to pray.11

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  1. Pontius the Deacon, “The Life and Passion of Cyprian,” in The Complete Works of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, ed. Phillip Campbell, Roman Empire Series, vol. 10 (Merchantville, NJ: Evolution Publishing, 2013), 8.
  2. Cyprian, “On Mortality,” in The Complete Works of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, 122; cf. Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 138-39.
  3. Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 117.
  4. Harper, The Fate of Rome, 141.
  5. Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 119.
  6. Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 119.
  7. This translation is from The Message, trans. Eugene Peterson (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002).
  8. Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 122.
  9. Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 123.
  10. Cyprian, “On Mortality,” 123.
  11. Kavin Rowe, as quoted in The Christian Century (May 20, 2020), 9.

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