Today, 28th February, the Church remembers the heroic charitable acts of the Martyrs of the Alexandrian Plague.
In the middle of the third century, a plague spread through much of the Roman Empire. The illness was so lethal and so contagious that it was reported that in one day over 5,000 people died in Rome. The plague was similarly catastrophic in Alexandria, Egypt.
Frightened by the plague, many of the pagan residents of Alexandria left the city and abandoned those who were victims of this terrible disease. People were left to die alone and to remain unburied on the streets.
Amidst these horrors a great number of Christians of the city, priests and people, chose to stay behind and voluntarily nurse the dying and bury the dead. This was remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, it would be quite certain that these Christians would catch the plague from the victims they tended and undergo great suffering and death themselves. Secondly, as the Christian community had been heavily persecuted at that time in Alexandria, they were actually tending to the cruel persecutors who had tortured them.
The Bishop of Alexandria, St Dionysius, wrote accounts of the great charity shown by the local Christians. “Most of the brethren were prodigal in their love and brotherly kindness. They supported one another, visited the sick fearlessly, and looked after them without stint, serving them in Christ. They were happy to die with them, bearing their neighbour’s burdens and taking the disease and pain on themselves, even to death which they caught from them. They put reality into what we look on as a courteous formula, accepting death as “humble servants” of one another. Such religious dutifulness and strength of faith seems not to fall short of martyrdom itself.” St Dionysius goes [on to note in] the report that, “the pagans behaved very differently.
The identity of these Alexandrian Christians as martyrs was later promulgated in the Church’s book of recognised saints, the Roman Martyrology.
St Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Christianity is an imitation of God’s nature.” Those who practise Christianity perfectly will always act differently to “pagans”, as mentioned by St Dionysius, because they imitate Jesus Christ, who showed such great love to those in need beyond the normal calling of women and men.
– From: “Spiritual Thought from Fr Chris”, 2/2016