Cyprian of Carthage: True Worshiper of God

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Cyprian of Carthage: True Worshiper of God

But He knows the way that I take; when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold. Job 23:10

“Job, after the loss of his wealth, after the death of his children, grievously afflicted, moreover, with sores and worms, was not overcome, but proved; since in his very struggles and anguish, showing forth the patience of a religious mind, he says, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, naked also I shall go under the earth: the Lord gave, the Lord hath taken away; as it seemed fit to the Lord, so it hath been done. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” [Job 1:21].

And when his wife also urged him, in his impatience at the acuteness of his pain, to speak something against God with a complaining and envious voice, he answered and said, “Thou speakest as one of the foolish women. If we have received good from the hand of the Lord, why shall we not suffer evil? In all these things which befell him, Job sinned not with his lips in the sight of the Lord” [Job 2:10]. Therefore the Lord God gives him a testimony, saying, “Hast thou considered my servant Job? for there is none like him in all the earth, a man without complaint, a true worshiper of God” [Job 1:8]…

Righteous men [and women] have ever possessed this endurance. The apostles maintained this discipline from the law of the Lord, not to murmur in adversity, but to accept bravely and patiently whatever things happen in the world; since the people of the Jews in this matter always offended, that they constantly murmured against God, as the Lord God bears witness in the book of Numbers, saying, “Let their murmuring cease from me, and they shall not die” [17:10].

We must not murmur in adversity, beloved brethren, but we must bear with patience and courage whatever happens, since it is written, “The sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; a contrite and humbled heart God does not despise” [Psalm 51:17]; since also in Deuteronomy the Holy Spirit warns by Moses, and says, “The Lord thy God will vex thee, and will bring hunger upon thee; and it shall be known in thine heart if thou hast well kept His commandments or not” [8:2]. And again: “The Lord your God proveth you, that He may know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul” [Deuteronomy 13:3].”

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, writing during the plague in North Africa (c. 251) in Treatise VII, On the Mortality, 10-11, in Treatises in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume 5 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899) 471-472.

We are living in challenging times. My prayer for everyone reading this is that God will enable us to come forth as gold and appear as true worshipers of God. That means we accept joyfully the struggles and suffering without murmuring.

Before I offer some practical suggestions, let us learn from the bishop and his use of Scripture. Notice that to inspire Christians facing difficulty, he drips Scripture. He reminds them that God tests and us and what He looks for, that God notices servants like Job as well as grumblers. He sees all.

God sees us in our self-quarantines and our social distancing. How will we function? I suggest you call one or more people daily. Check in. Ask them how they are doing? Many are in crisis. They were just laid off or furloughed from their job. Offer to assist them as you are able.

Some may be doing well. The COVID-19 crisis may not be impacting them much yet. If so, invite them to join you in reaching out to others and offer the same care. Cyprian knew that if their hearts were focused on trusting God rather than complaining, that people would see Christ in them.

It worked then. It caused the gospel to spread, and it can work now. It’s one thing easy to live generously in good times, but what we do in moments like this can best reveal our Christian faith to a hurting world. He knows the way we take. When He has tested us, may we come forth as gold.

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Cyprian of Carthage: Immortality

For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 1 Corinthians 15:53

“It disturbs some that the power of this disease attacks our people equally with the heathens, as if the Christian believed for this purpose, that he [or she] might have the enjoyment of the world and this life free from the contact of ills; and not as one who undergoes all adverse things here and is reserved for future joy.

It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others, so long as this flesh of ours still remains, according to the law of our first birth, common to us with them? So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality, but are separated in Spirit. 

Therefore until this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal receive immortality, and the Spirit lead us to God the Father, whatsoever are the disadvantages of the flesh are common to us with the human race.

Thus, when the earth is barren with an unproductive harvest, famine makes no distinction; thus, when with the invasion of an enemy any city is taken, captivity at once desolates all; and when the serene clouds withhold the rain, the drought is alike to all; and when the jagged rocks rend the ship, the shipwreck is common without exception to all that sail in her; and the disease of the eyes, and the attack of fevers, and the feebleness of all the limbs is common to us with others, so long as this common flesh of ours is borne by us in the world.

Moreover, if the Christian know and keep fast under what condition and what law he has believed, he will be aware that he must suffer more than others in the world, since he must struggle more with the attacks of the devil.”

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, writing during the plague in North Africa (c. 251) in Treatise VII, On the Mortality, 8-9, in Treatises in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume 5 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899) 470-471.

As I continue to read the words of Bishop Cyprian to the people, he reminds them that disease and trouble will affect all people. Whether a person follows Christ or not, does not make he or she immune from disease or difficulty. The same is true for COVID-19.

But the bishop reminds us of the good news. The generous gift of life in Christ gives us hope of the resurrection. Mortal Christians will someday receive immortality. But while we wait for that day, the bishop keenly reminds us, we should be prepared to suffer attacks from the devil.

That’s right, Christians also face the temptations. How are you tempted today? Related to compassion and generosity, don’t let fear cause you to hoard or hide. That’s what the evil one wants. Follow leading of the Spirit and keep living generously and loving your neighbor as yourself.

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St. Patrick: Perseverance

And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. 2 Thessalonians 3:13

“I pray to God to give me perseverance and to deign that I be a faithful witness to Him to the end of my life for my God.”

St. Patrick in The Confession of St. Patrick, trans. by Ludwig Bieler, in Saint Patrick, by William J. Federer (St. Louis: Amerisearch, 2002) 68.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day. In his Confession, Patrick states this simple prayer that has never been more fitting.

God, help us persevere as faithful witnesses, with Patrick, so that in this time of crisis, people see Christ in us as long as we may live. Amen.

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Cyprian of Carthage: He Previously Warned Us

Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Luke 21:31

“Although in very many of you, dearly beloved brethren, there is a steadfast mind and a firm faith, and a devoted spirit that is not disturbed at the frequency of this present mortality, but, like a strong and stable rock, rather shatters the turbulent onsets of the world and the raging waves of time, while it is not itself shattered, and is not overcome but tried by these temptations; yet because I observe that among the people some, either through weakness of mind, or through decay of faith, or through the sweetness of this worldly life, or through the softness of their sex, or what is of still greater account, through error from the truth, are standing less steadily, and are not exerting the divine and unvanquished vigor of their heart, the matter may not be disguised nor kept in silence, but as far as my feeble powers suffice with my full strength, and with a discourse gathered from the Lord’s lessons, the slothfulness of a luxurious disposition must be restrained, and he who has begun to be already a man of God and of Christ, must be found worthy of God and of Christ.

For he who wars for God, dearest brethren, ought to acknowledge himself as one who, placed in the heavenly camp, already hopes for divine things, so that we may have no trembling at the storms and whirlwinds of the world, and no disturbance, since the Lord had foretold that these would come. With the exhortation of His foreseeing word, instructing, and teaching, and preparing, and strengthening the people of His Church for all endurance of things to come, He predicted and said that wars, and famines, and earthquakes, and pestilences would arise in each place; and lest an unexpected and new dread of mischiefs should shake us, He previously warned us that adversity would increase more and more in the last times. Behold, the very things occur which were spoken; and since those occur which were foretold before, whatever things were promised will also follow; as the Lord Himself promises, saying, “But when ye see all these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is at hand.” 

The kingdom of God, beloved brethren, is beginning to be at hand; the reward of life, and the rejoicing of eternal salvation, and the perpetual gladness and possession lately lost of paradise, are now coming, with the passing away of the world; already heavenly things are taking the place of earthly, and great things of small, and eternal things of things that fade away. What room is there here for anxiety and solicitude? Who, in the midst of these things, is trembling and sad, except he who is without hope and faith? For it is for him to fear death who is not willing to go to Christ. It is for him to be unwilling to go to Christ who does not believe that he is about to reign with Christ.”

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, writing during the plague in North Africa (c. 251) in Treatise VII, On the Mortality, 1-2, in Treatises in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Volume 5 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899) 469.

These are complex, challenging times. Thankfully, “He previously warned us” that in such times, the kingdom or the reign of God is near. What does this mean? In plain terms, it means God has gotten the world’s attention.

Only weeks, even days ago, people thought they were in charge of their lives, their futures. I don’t exclude myself but count myself among such people. We plan as though we are in control. We are not.

Moments like these become defining moments if we allow “faith and hope” to guide us toward our true home, rather than “anxiety and solicitude” reveal our intoxication with “the sweetness of this worldly life.”

While I hear ministry blokes calling for social distancing to avoid plague outbreaks and overcrowding of medical facilities, what I am not hearing is that our lives must be regarded as less important than our neighbors.

Most messages sound like advice on how to survive in this present world. I believe the reason Jesus warned us that such times would come because He wants God wants us to prepare for the next.

Was the world passing away in the days of Cyprian? It obviously did not pass away in the middle of the third century. So what does this expression mean and why does it matter for us in these difficult times?

The bishop wanted people to grasp the fact that Jesus told us that this present existence is temporary. It’s the wrong thing to live for. I echo this. It’s why we must keep living, giving, serving, and loving generously.

We have forgotten that “perpetual gladness” awaits us. God forgive us. We have gotten too comfortable here. Lose that feeling. Now, the kingdom of God is near. Come Lord Jesus. Let us give Him our attention and allegiance.

Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.

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Dionysius of Alexandria: An Exercise and Probation

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!

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Julian the Apostate: Benevolence

Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked. Psalm 82:3-4

“The emperor, Julian launched a a campaign to institute pagan charities in an effort to match the Christians. Julian complained in a letter to the high priest of Galatia in 362 that the pagans needed to equal the virtues of Christians, for recent Christian growth was caused by their “moral character, even if pretended,” and by their “benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.” In a letter to another priest , Julian wrote, “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.” And he also wrote, “The impious Galileans support not only their poor but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”

Roman Emperor Flavius Claudius Julianus Augustus (c. 331-363) is known as Julian the Apostate for his rejection of Christianity. This excerpt from letter to a priest, as recounted by Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997) 83-84.

Nothing can touch love. In a world on lockdown due to COVID-19 ask God today how you could show love and kindness to someone.

Again, the tendency in crisis is to hoard rather than help, to retreat rather than to refresh, and to close or shut down rather than care and share.

These are unprecedented times. This is our moment to shine. The world is watching. Holy Spirit, empower us to be people of benevolence!

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Cyprian of Carthage: Seems Horrible and Deadly

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Matthew 25:34-36

“The just are dying with the unjust, it is not for you to think that the destruction is a common one for both the evil and the good. The just are called to refreshment, the unjust are carried off to torture; protection is more quickly given to the faithful, punishment to the faithless…

How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the minds of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion for their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted…

Although this mortality has contributed nothing else, it has especially accomplished this for Christians and servants of God, that we have begun gladly to seek martyrdom while we are learning not to fear death. These are trying exercises for us, not deaths; they give to the mind the glory of fortitude; by contempt of death they prepare for the crown…

Our brethren who have been freed from the world by summons of the Lord should not be mourned, since we know that they are not lost but sent before; that in departing they lead the way; that as travelers, as voyagers are won’t to be, they should be longed for, not lamented…and that no occasion should be given to pagans to censure us deservedly and justly, on the ground that we grieve for those who we say are living.”

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, writing c. 251 during the plague, in Treatise VII, On the Mortality 15-20 in Treatises, ed. Roy J. Deferrari (The Fathers of the Church, Volume 36; Washington D.C.: CUAP, 1958).

In today’s post we see another early church bishop helping the people think clearly in the midst of a plague. We must care for people but not care about the plague.

In his words, the disease “seems horrible and deadly” but when we have the right perspective, we “learn not to fear death” because by contempt of death we “prepare for the crown.”

Suffering is part of life. If we are not prepared to meet the Lord it perhaps says that we have gotten too comfortable here on this earth. These are strong but sobering thoughts.

So, how should we live in this season of Lent when everyone is in a COVID-19 frenzy? Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, and faithful in prayer. Meditate on Romans 12:9-21 and follow God’s leading.

Keep praying, fasting, and giving. Hoarding is a common sinful reaction in crisis. My friend, Roger Lam, reminded me this week that the gap between the rich and poor widens in crisis.

Those who have resources tend to hoard, and those in need tend to suffer. Fasting is the antidote. Set aside personal desires and pursue what God cares about. Keep giving and serving generously. With you!

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Dionysius of Alexandria: Move Toward Disease

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help You?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:44-46

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of 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. Many in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…

The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen, winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom…

The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.”

Dionysius of Alexandria (c. 260 at Eastertide) in Festival Letters, quoted by Eusebius in Ecclesiastical History 7.22) as recounted by Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (New York: HarperCollins, 1997) 82.

How should followers of Christ respond to Covid-19? The early disciples provide us with inspiration that reflects obedience to the command of Christ. In short, they moved toward disease with deep faith rather than running from it in fear. They did not retreat in self-preservation

This vivid picture from Eastertide in the year 260 celebrates the courage of the first Christians. In moving toward disease, they caused the gospel to spread across the ancient world So what would it look like for you and me to move toward Covid-19 rather than away from it?

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John Chrysostom: Give Gladly

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7

“It is not enough to help the poor. We must help them with generosity and without grumbling. And it is not enough to help them without grumbling. We must help them gladly and happily. When the poor are helped there ought to be these two conditions: generosity and joy.

Why do you complain of giving something to the poor? Why do you display bad temper in the practice of almsgiving? If they see you in that frame of mind, the poor would prefer to refuse your gift. If you give with a brusque demeanor, you are not being generous but lacking gentleness and courtesy. If your face reveals a feeling a of hostility, you cannot bring comfort to your brother or sister who is living in the midst of hostility.

Afterwards, you will be happy to see that they do not feel ashamed or humiliated just because you have helped them joyfully. Nothing actually causes shame so much as having to receive something from someone else.

By showing great joyfulness you will succeed in enabling your brother or sister to overcome their sensitivity. They will understand that in your opinion receiving is just as beautiful as giving.

By showing a bad temper, on the other hand, far from cheering them up you will be depressing them even further.

If you give gladly, even if you give only a little, it is a big gift. If you give unwillingly, even if you give a big gift, you turn it into a small one.”

John Chyrsostom in On the Letter to the Romans 21 (PG60, 603) in Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World, ed. by Thomas Spidlik (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1994) 302.

The world looks at how much we give. More is better. Scriptures teach us that God looks at what we don’t give and what that says about our hearts and where we place our trust.

Likewise, how we give, with glad hearts, matters more to God than the size of our gifts. And without cheerful hearts, whatever we do give appears to be spoiled.

So how does this relate to your compassionate generosity and mine? Let us sit with the Holy Spirit to discern if there be any bad temper or brusque demeanor in our giving. God, please root that out.

Let’s replace such hostility with hope. This requires us to slow down and add empathy to our giving. It’s a good lesson for me. Perhaps you too. Jesus, cause our giving to look like yours: glad.

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Basil of Caesarea: Kindly Relationships or Usury

Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done. Proverbs 19:17

“If all the same you are looking for some profit, be content with what the Lord will give you. He will also give the interest on your gift to the poor. So wait for the benevolence of the one who is truly benevolent.

The profit that you gain from the poor surpasses all bounds of cruelty. You are profiting from misfortune, you are squeezing money out of tears, you are persecuting a defenseless being, you are belaboring someone who is starving.

You think the profit you make out of the poor is just. But ‘Woe to those who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!’ [Isaiah 5:20] ‘Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?’ [Matthew 7:16] or kindly relationships from usury?”

Basil the Great in On Psalm 14 (PG 31, 277) in Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, Ancient Wisdom for Today’s World, ed. by Thomas Spidlik (Kalamazoo: Cistercian, 1994) 298.

Basil was addressing the issue of charging interest and making a profit at the expense of the poor. Sadly, this is a common practice in modern times. It’s the opposite of justice in God’s eyes. Rather than kindly relationships that help, we charge interest and extort usury from them.

If you are reading this and you have more than enough resources to live, find someone in need and assist them. God is watching. Give them a hand up to build them up as a disciple. Don’t engage in financial practices that prey on the poor. Though legal, God sees them as unjust.

Instead, use the wealth you have to be kind to the poor. This is what it means to be compassionate. Trust God to give you the interest on your gift. This form of accounting makes no sense in the world, but it will benefit all who follow it now and for all eternity.

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