Dionysius of Alexandria: An Exercise and Probation

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Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead. Exodus 12:30

“To other men the present might not seem to be a suitable time for a festival. Nor indeed is this or any other time suitable for them; neither sorrowful times, nor even such as might be thought especially cheerful. Now, indeed, everything is tears and every one is mourning, and wailings resound daily through the city because of the multitude of the dead and dying. For as it was written of the firstborn of the Egyptians, so now ‘there has arisen a great cry, for there is not a house where there is not one dead.’ And would that this were all! For many terrible things have happened already.

First, they drove us out; and when alone, and persecuted, and put to death by all, even then we kept the feast. And every place of affliction was to us a place of festival: field, desert, ship, inn, prison; but the perfected martyrs kept the most joyous festival of all, feasting in heaven. After these things war and famine followed, which we endured in common with the heathen. But we bore alone those things with which they afflicted us, and at the same time we experienced also the effects of what they inflicted upon and suffered from one another; and again, we rejoiced in the peace of Christ, which he gave to us alone.

But after both we and they had enjoyed a very brief season of rest this pestilence assailed us; to them more dreadful than any dread, and more intolerable than any other calamity; and, as one of their own writers has said, the only thing which prevails over all hope. But to us this was not so, but no less than the other things was it an exercise and probation. For it did not keep aloof even from us, but the heathen it assailed more severely.”

Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 200-265) writing c. 260 about the impact of the plague and pestilence on the people of Alexandria, as recounted by Eusebius Pamphilius (263-339) in Ecclesiastical History 7.22.

Reading the letter from the bishop we find the impact of a plague on the people in general. It causes them to lose heart. It is “more dreadful than any dread, and more intolerable than any other calamity.”

And notice the powerful words he states about the church. “But to us this was not so, but no less than the other things was it an exercise and probation.” The plague was a time of testing. It is the same today.

Will we pass the test? The test is linked to where we place our hope. Will our faith in Christ shine in crisis? This is an exercise and probation for us. As darkness covers the earth, we must show that nothing prevails over hope.

Dionysius reminded everyone to celebrate the hope of Easter back in 260 despite the plague. Likewise, let us rejoice in these days leading up to Easter 2020 with the same resolve. Hope despite great mourning.

This is our moment to love deeply and mourn sincerely. Despite social distancing, for those you touch or text, remind them of the hope and peace only found in Jesus Christ in word and deed.

Hope reigns supreme in times filled with terror, fear and darkness, with sickness, death and mourning, and with plague, pain, and sadness, the bishop Dionysius would say, because of three words.

Christ is risen!