We continue on in our week long series. If you’re new to the conversation, you can catch Part 1 here.
During the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius in AD 165 an epidemic of what many believe to be have been small pox killed almost 1/3 of the population, including Marcus Aurelius himself. Less than a century later another epidemic overcame the western world: a great plague. At the height of this plague it is recorded that up to 5,000 people were dying daily in the city of Rome alone.¹
No one knew what to do. Leaders, politician, philosophers and teachers were at a loss. Greek historian named Thucydides wrote this about how society in Athens Greece, where 75,000 to 100,000 people died, responded to the plague:
“They died with no one to look after them. Indeed there were many houses in which all the inhabitants perished through lack of any intention of care. The bodies of the dying were heaped up, one on top of the other…. No fear of god or law had a restraining influence.”²
What was happening in Athens was happening in Rome:
“At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from the dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.”³
But there was a community of people who remembered they followed a Man who claiming to be God in the flesh and Creator of all, healed the sick, embraced the forgotten and touched lepers. They remembered how He told His disciples to do the same. They remembered His teaching when he said, “Whatever you have done for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you’ve done to me.” Dionysius, 3rd century bishop in the Church of Alexandria wrote this about Christians:
“Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need, and ministering to them in Christ. And with them departed this life serenely happy, for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors, and cheerfully accepting their pains.”4
As Christians began to serve the hungry, poor and sick, outsiders began to take notice and the Christian gospel spread like a wild fire.
As 2nd century church father Tertullian said:
“It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of our opponents.”5
This was true. By the late 4th century, an opponent of Christianity, Emperor Julian the Apostate, verbally disciplined his pagan priests for not keeping up with the Christians:
“I think that when the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence…. The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”6
Later, a 4th century Church father named Basil had an idea. What if christians build a place to love and care for the poor, sick, widows, orphans, strangers, and even lepers? Since they don’t have money or a way to pay for it, why don’t we raise the money?7
Basil’s good friend Gregory of Nyzianzus (also a Church father) then preached one of the most famous sermons of the 4th century, pointing to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 25. It reads:
“Lepers have been made in the image of God. In the same way you and I have, and perhaps preserve that image better than we, let us take care of Christ while there is still time. Let us minister to Christ’s needs. Let us give Christ nourishment. Let us clothe Christ. Let us gather Christ in. Let us show Christ honor.”8
This was the beginning of what would become known as hospitals.
A pivotal council of Christian leaders called the Council of Nicaea (the council named for the famous ancient Christian Statement of Faith called the Nicene Creed) declared in 325 AD that wherever a Church building existed, there must be a hospice, a place of caring for the poor, sick, widows, orphans and “strangers.” Eventually the government of Rome offered funding and hospitals developed throughout the world.
When by the Spirit the church extends God’s welcome to others with relational embrace, especially the least, last, left out and lonely of society, it has the power to change civilization. Hospitality–a love for strangers–is central to the Christian story.
¹ Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 73-94.
² Ibid. For a different english translation of Thucydides’ account, go to http://www.livius.org/sources/content/thucydides/the-plague/
4 George Herring, An Introduction to the History of Christianity: From the Early Church to the Enlightenment (New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 2006), 320.
5 Tertullian, Apologeticum 39.7
6 Julian the Apostate, Letter to Arsacius
7 Andrew T. Crislip, From Monastery to Hospital: Christian Monasticism and the Transformation of Health Care in Late Antiquity (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2005),108-10.;
8 Andrew Hofer,Christ in the Life and Teachings of Gregory of Nazianzus, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 224.