Cyprian’s Plague: On Mortality
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!
A CHANGE OF HEART
On the day prior to their baptism, new candidates in the early church gathered with their bishop. Under his guidance, they fasted, they knelt, they prayed, and, for a final time, the bishop exorcised them. Exorcism is a freighted word today. The exorcisms that were a part of baptism in the early church (and still used by Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches today) were not like in the movie The Exorcist, which features swiveling heads, projectile vomiting, a vulgar demon, and frantic, overwrought clergy. Rather, these exorcisms were part of a simple, but meaningful process of calling the candidates attention to the differences between the Christian life and the life they were leaving behind as they rose from the waters of baptism. The rite included the bishop praying with them and for them, asking God that any unbelief or hesitation, and every manner of potential evil would be removed from their being. At the end of the exorcisms, the bishop breathed his breath onto their faces, a final act of cleansing, a stark reminder and a re-enactment of God breathing his image into the lifeless body of Adam at the time of his creation in Genesis 2:7. Lastly, the bishop made the sign of the cross over each candidate. After that, the candidates kept vigil for the rest of the night, listening to Scripture readings and exhortations. The climax of this night of Vigil occurred at cockcrow on Easter Sunday morning. Then the candidates and the bishop gathered by the water — likely a river or the sea. The water was blessed, the candidates stripped naked and went down into the water, where they vocally renounced Satan, were anointed with oil, and confessed their faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each candidate was immersed three times, arising from the water as a newly alive disciple of Jesus Christ. They were anointed immediately with the oil of thanksgiving, dressed in new, white garments, and they entered the church where they experienced their new family (congregation). The newly baptized prayed with their Christian companions and exchanged the kiss of peace. For the first time, they took part in the Eucharist, in which they received a taste of milk and honey, as well as bread and wine. The milk and honey, in accord with the Exodus motif, symbolized their entrance into the promised land of new life in Christ.
The early church took this entire process very seriously. Candidates could prepare for years before keeping the Easter Vigil. It was clear to the aspirants that they were engaging in a process of instruction designed to change their lives and their way of living forever. As catechumens (converts to Christianity receiving instruction and learning spiritual disciplines before baptism), they learned the Judeo-Christian stories (both from the Old and the New Testament) that defined and formed the backbone of their newfound faith. They learned, relearned, and memorized biblical passages (no printed Bibles available back then!). They thought of themselves as apprentices — individuals living and working among other Christians so that they could learn how to be people of God by imitation (Cyprian himself lived with his mentor). They were taught distinctive values like peace and patience. They learned outward behaviors that triggered inward meaning and deeds of remembrance — like making the sign of the cross in certain circumstances. They were taught how to behave in specific situations (e.g., at a public bath), how to dress modestly, how to respond to critics in a Christian manner.
Somewhere around the early- to mid-240’s, a moderately wealthy, educated, and eloquent young man named Cyprian, from the city of Carthage (now Tunisia) in North Africa, a man trained in rhetoric and public debate, decided that his life of unhealthy excess was making him increasingly unhappy. He experienced yearning without satisfaction. He was plagued by the restlessness that later would be prayerfully articulated by Augustine — “… Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Cyprian knew that he needed rest. His yearning tugged him toward the Christians, whose way of living was visibly different from the rest of Roman culture. He found a mentor named Caecilianus and moved in with him. We do not know how long Cyprian prepared for his baptism, only that he did, and that he was baptized as described above on the dawn of Easter. Years later in a letter, Cyprian wrote that before baptism he had been held in “bonds by the innumerable errors of my previous life, and I did not believe I could be stripped of them….”1 He went on to explain his experience and perception:
By the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years had been washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, had been infused into my reconciled heart…. …after that when I had drunk of the Spirit breathed from heaven, a second birth restored me to a new man — then in a wondrous manner, doubtful things… clarified themselves, hidden things began to be revealed, dark things shone with light…., what before had seemed impossible was able to be accomplished; I was enabled to acknowledge that what previously, being born in the flesh, had been living in the practice of sins…. now had begun to be of God, and was animated by the Spirit of holiness….2
So total was his change of heart, that within a relatively short time Cyprian was ordained a priest, and shortly after that he was named the Bishop of Carthage. His youth and relative inexperience as a Christian caused resentment among some who thought the new bishop should have more Christian seasoning and life experience. However, as time passed, Cyprian proved to be a man chosen by God for his time and place. Sometimes we fail to recognize that out of all the centuries and generations of human history, we are born into the time we are by God’s intention.
ON THE ADVANTAGE OF PATIENCE
When Cyprian was appointed a bishop, the world was troubled. In AD 249, Decius became the emperor of the crumbling Roman Empire. He immediately proclaimed his intention to restore the empire’s ancient virtues by lifting up the Roman gods as supreme. For years, life had been reasonably peaceful for Christians in the Roman Empire, to the point that many had become complacent. However, in AD 250, Decius published an edict against Christians. It stated that ALL inhabitants of the empire were to sacrifice to the Roman gods, something loyal Christians could not do in good faith (since it would be idolatry). All Christian bishops were required to recant their faith or be executed. The pope himself was martyred as an example. Rather than executed, laity were apprehended, punished, and tortured until they renounced their faith. Cyprian went into hiding to assess the situation and to formulate a response. Over time, the church was torn asunder. Many chose to sacrifice to the Roman gods, and survived. Many others refused, and were imprisoned. The tension between the Christians who recanted and were spared, and those who stood fast and suffered was ruinous. The church in Carthage was deeply divided. Bishop Cyprian responded with a written treatise that was circulated among the Christians on both sides of the divide. In it, Cyprian declared that patience was the virtue necessary to react to the circumstances. We know that patience was chief among the virtues taught in the early church, that luminaries like John Chrysostom considered patience the backbone of Christian love. He, and others of like mind (e.g., Tertullian), were convinced that without patience the early church would perish. Cyprian was among those who thought this way. He wrote that “patience is an attribute of God, and that whoever is gentle and patient and meek is an imitator of God the Father.”3 He reminded his congregants to love their enemies and to pray for them, that the sun rises on the just and the unjust alike. These, he insisted, are precepts (general rules) for salvation. He spoke of Job and his patience when he lost everything, of Abraham and his patience while waiting for an heir, of how patient Jesus was in his life, his ministry, and his passion. Cyprian was adamant: “for hope and faith to attain a godly result requires patience,” even as he draws an exemplary picture of this indispensable virtue:
- Patience commends us to God. Patience saves us for God.
- Patience tempers anger, controls the tongue, governs the mind, guards peace…
- Patience regulates behavior, and makes us valuable to God.
- Patience breaks the force of lust, suppresses the violence of pride, puts out the fire of dissension and hatred….
- Patience restrains the power of the wealthy, renews the endurance of poor….
- Patience teaches us to pardon those who wrong us,
- Patience teaches us to ask pardon often and with perseverance.
- Patience resists temptations, sustains in persecutions, endures sufferings,
- Patience strongly fortifies the foundations of our faith….
- Patience sublimely promotes the growth of our hope.
- Patience directs our action so that we can keep to the way of Christ.
- It ensures our perseverance as sons and daughters of God,
while we imitate the patience of the Father.4
“On the Advantage of Patience” is a penetrating document that elevates patience to a consecrated status. The text is at once an attempt to comfort the people of God whose lives and hopes were being upended, and an admonition to hang in there. Bishop Cyprian’s message had the desired effect for many, and the church, though damaged and scarred, withstood the persecution and its aftermath.
Patience, however, was then, and it remains so today, one of the most difficult and elusive of virtues. In our culture of instant gratification, where life has been relatively cushy for many of us for the last half century or longer, we have become increasingly impatient. We see it in our frustration and annoyance at unwelcome trivialities. We see it in road rage and partisan politics. We see evidence of it every day of this Covid-19 pandemic. We do not like being told what to do. We do not like it when circumstances beyond our control limit our choices and dictate our behavior. When we feel rejection, our first impulse is not patience, it is anger.
For the last few weeks, our second reading on Sunday morning has been from First Peter. The entire letter is written to people who are suffering persecution. Peter, the New Testament paragon of impetuosity and impatience, learned the hard way from his apostleship the readiness to embrace suffering with patience. In chapter one of his first letter he writes:
I, Peter, am an apostle on assignment by Jesus, the Messiah,
writing to exiles scattered to the four winds.
Not one is missing, not one forgotten.
God the Father has his eye on each of you,
and has determined by the work of the Spirit
to keep you obedient through the sacrifice of Jesus.
May everything good from God be yours!
What a God we have! And how fortunate we are to have him,
this Father of our Master Jesus!
Because Jesus was raised from the dead,
we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for,
including a future in heaven — and the future starts now!
God is keeping careful watch over us and the future.
THE DAY IS COMING WHEN YOU’LL HAVE IT ALL — LIFE HEALED AND WHOLE.
I KNOW HOW GREAT THIS MAKES YOU FEEL,
EVEN THOUGH YOU HAVE TO PUT UP WITH EVERY KIND OF AGGRAVATION IN THE MEANTIME.
PURE GOLD PUT IN THE FIRE COMES OUT OF IT PROVED PURE;
GENUINE FAITH PUT THROUGH THIS SUFFERING COMES OUT PROVED GENUINE.
WHEN JESUS WRAPS THIS ALL UP, IT’S YOUR FAITH, NOT YOUR GOLD,
THAT GOD WILL HAVE ON DISPLAY AS EVIDENCE OF HIS VICTORY.5
The key points Peter makes are:
- You may be exiled, scattered, and persecuted, but you are not forgotten.
- God has his eye on you.
- You have everything to live for because of the resurrection.
- Healing and wholeness is coming, no matter the current aggravation.
- BE PATIENT.
- Suffering is a road with a destination, not a permanent state.
- Refinement is happening as sure as gold is refined by fire.
- Your faith will eventually be on display as evidence of God’s presence.
THE FRUIT OF PATIENCE
In the thirteenth century, St. Francis of Assisi told a story to his brothers that must have frustrated them. Francis and his brothers were walking to a monastery. It was a bitter cold winter day. As they walked, Francis lectured them where perfect joy is NOT: It is NOT in all the places we expect it, he said. It is not in healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, restoring hearing to the deaf. It is not in converting everyone to Christ. It is not in eloquent preaching or singing with the voice of an angel. Exasperated, Brother Leo finally asks, “Where then is perfect joy?!” Francis replies that, when they get to the monastery and they knock on the door — brothers, soaked and cold and hungry, and if they are turned away, and they accept it patiently, that is perfect joy. If they knock again, and are beaten back with insults, and remain patient, that is perfect joy. If they knock one more time and are regarded as shameless ruffians who will not go away, then are beaten with clubs and thrown into a snowdrift, if they endure patiently, that is truly perfect joy..6
Lost in my condensed telling of the story is the annoying persistence, the needling tone Francis used. He was taunting his brothers, working to get under their skin, intending to try their patience. Personally, I was having trouble deciphering whether the story was about patience or about perfect joy. Slowly it dawned on me that perfect joy is the fruit of patience. That is the truth that Francis wanted his brothers to learn.
Francis concludes: The greatest of all the graces that Christ gives to his friends is the gift of conquering oneself and willingly enduring suffering, insults, humiliation, and hardship for the love of Christ (patience). Carrying (going to) the cross is the ultimate exercise of PATIENCE, the resurrection (perfect joy) is the ultimate FRUIT of PATIENCE.
Of course, Francis was re-framing the choices Jesus made on the way to Calvary. He was using the example of repeated, unfair rejection — eventually total — by the very brothers who ought to welcome them with open arms. But he is really talking about Jesus — Jesus who came to a world that did not welcome him, that rejected him totally, to the point of death on the cross. Francis is talking about the patient Jesus and how he endured all for the love of people. His message slowly becomes excruciatingly clear: LEARNING AND DEVELOPING PATIENCE MAKES US MORE LIKE JESUS.
When we can LIVE in the current darkness, whatever it is, and see through it to the other side, while simultaneously RESTING trustingly in the new birth (resurrection) that is yet in the future, THEN we have learned PATIENCE, and only THEN can our joy be COMPLETE.
Patience is essential. As Psalm 30 reminds: the nights of crying your eyes out give way to days of laughter (Psalm 30: 4-5, The Message). Joy comes in the morning. Learning to move through suffering in companionship with the pain and loss involved is one of life’s greatest challenges. That is why we need mercy and grace. We will fail a lot, but by the grace of God we will persevere and thrive.
That is the message Bishop Cyprian gave to God’s people in his care as articulated in “On the Advantage of Patience.”
Obviously, Cyprian had a full plate — trying to lead, trying to set an example, and trying to stay alive all at the same time. In fact, by the time Cyprian wrote his treatise “On the Advantage of Patience” (in AD 256), an even more deadly pestilence had already gripped the land. We will turn to that situation in Part Two.
- Cyprian, “Letter 1 (To Donatus),” in The Complete Works of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, Christian Roman Empire Series, vol. 10, ed. Phillip Campbell (Merchantville, NJ: Evolution Publishing, 2013), 284.
- Cyprian, “Letter 1 (To Donatus),” 284.
- Cyprian, “On the Advantage of Patience,” in The Complete Works of Saint Cyprian of Carthage, 148.
- Cyprian, “On the Advantage of Patience,” 156 (with some paraphrasing).
- First Peter 1.4-7, in The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, ed. and trans. Eugene Peterson (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002).
- Cf. The Little Flowers of Saint Francis, ed. and trans. Raphael Brown (New York: Doubleday, 1958), 58.