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Epistle XII.—To the Alexandrians.905905 Eusebius, Hist. Eccles., vii. 22. Eusebius prefaces the 21st chapter of his seventh book thus: “When peace had scarcely yet been established, he (Dionysius) returned to Alexandria. But when sedition and war again broke out, and made it impossible for him to have access to all the brethren in that city, divided as they then were into different parties, he addressed them again by an epistle at the Passover, as if he were still an exile from Alexandria.” Then he inserts the epistle to Hierax; and thereafter, in ch. xxii., introduces the present excerpt thus: “After these events, the pestilence succeeding the war, and the festival being now at hand, he again addressed the brethren by letters, in which he gave the following description of the great troubles connected with that calamity.”
1. To other men, indeed, the present state of matters would not appear to offer a fit season for a festival: and this certainly is no festal time to them; nor, in sooth, is any other that to them. And I say this, not only of occasions manifestly sorrowful,906906 οὐχ ὅπως τῶν ἐπιλύπων is the reading of Codices Maz., Med., and Savil.; others give, less correctly, ἐπιλοίπων. but even or all occasions whatsoever which people might consider to be most joyous.907907 The text gives, ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ εἴ τις περιχαρὴς ὃν οἰηθεῖεν μάλιστα, which is put probably for the mere regular construction, ὃν οἵοιντο ἀν μάλιστα περιχαρῆ. Nicephorus reads, εἴ τις περιχαρης ὢν οἰθείη. The idea is, that the heathen could have no real festal time. All seasons, those apparently most joyous, no less than those evidently sorrowful, must be times void of all real rejoicing to them, until they learn the grace of God. And now certainly all things are turned to mourning, and all men are in grief, and lamentations resound through the city, by reason of the multitude of the dead and of those who are dying day by day. For as it is written in the case of the first-born of the Egyptians, so now too a great cry has arisen. “For there is not a house in which there is not one dead.”908908 Ex. xii. 30. And would that even this were all!
2. Many terrible calamities, it is true, have also befallen us before this. For first they drove us away; and though we were quite alone, and pursued by all, and in the way of being slain, we kept our festival, even at such a time. And every place that had been the scene of some of the successive sufferings which befell any of us, became a seat for our solemn assemblies,—the field, the desert, the ship, the inn, the prison,—all alike. The most gladsome festival of all, however, has been celebrated by those perfect martyrs who have sat down at the feast in heaven. And after these things war and famine surprised us. These were calamities which we shared, indeed, with the heathen. But we had also to bear by ourselves alone those ills with which they outraged us, and we had at the same time to sustain our part in those things which they either did to each other or suffered at each other’s hands; while again we rejoiced deeply in that peace of Christ which He imparted to us alone.
3. And after we and they together had enjoyed a very brief season of rest, this pestilence next assailed us,—a calamity truly more dreadful to them than all other objects of dread, and more intolerable than any other kind of trouble whatsoever;909909 Dionysius is giving a sort of summary of all the calamities which befell the Alexandrian church from the commencement of his episcopal rule: namely, first, persecution, referring to that which began in the last year of the reign of Philip; then war, meaning the civil war of which he speaks in his Epistle to Fabius; then pestilence, alluding to the sickness which began in the time of Decius, and traversed the land under Gallus and Volusianus.—Vales. and a misfortune which, as a certain writer of their own declares, alone prevails over all hope. To us, however, it was not so; but in no less measure than other ills it proved an instrument for our training and probation. For it by no means kept aloof from us, although it spread with greatest violence among the heathen.
4. To these statements he in due succession makes this addition:—Certainly very many of our brethren, while, in their exceeding love and brotherly-kindness, they did not spare themselves, but kept by each other, and visited the sick without thought of their own peril, and ministered to them assiduously, and treated them for their healing in Christ, died from time to time most joyfully along with them, lading themselves with pains derived from others, and drawing upon themselves their neighbours’ diseases, and willingly taking over to their own persons the burden of the sufferings of those around them.910910 ἀναμασσόμενοι τὰς ἀλγηδόνας. Some make this equivalent to mitigantes. It means properly to “wipe off,” and so to become “responsible” for. Here it is used apparently to express much the same idea as the two preceding clauses. And many who 109had thus cured others of their sicknesses, and restored them to strength, died themselves, having transferred to their own bodies the death that lay upon these. And that common saying, which else seemed always to be only a polite form of address,911911 μόνης φιλοφροσύνης ἔχεσθαι. they expressed in actual fact then, as they departed this life, like the “off-scourings of all.”912912 The phrase περίψημα πάντων refers to 1 Cor. iv. 13. Valesius supposes that among the Alexandrians it may have been a humble and complimentary form of salutation, ἐγώ ειμι περίψημά σου; or that the expression περίψημα πάντων had come to be habitually applied to the Christians by the heathen. Yea, the very best of our brethren have departed this life in this manner, including some presbyters and some deacons, and among the people those who were in highest reputation: so that this very form of death, in virtue of the distinguished piety and the steadfast faith which were exhibited in it, appeared to come in nothing beneath martyrdom itself.
5. And they took the bodies of the saints on their upturned hands,913913 ὑπτίαις χερσι. [See Introductory Note, p. 77.] and on their bosoms, and closed914914 καθαιροῦντες. their eyes, and shut their mouths. And carrying them in company,915915 ὁμοφοροῦντες. and laying them out decently, they clung to them, and embraced them, and prepared them duly with washing and with attire. And then in a little while after they had the same services done for themselves, as those who survived were ever following those who departed before them. But among the heathen all was the very reverse. For they thrust aside any who began to be sick, and kept aloof even from their dearest friends, and cast the sufferers out upon the public roads half dead, and left them unburied, and treated them with utter contempt when they died, steadily avoiding any kind of communication and intercourse with death; which, however, it was not easy for them altogether to escape, in spite of the many precautions they employed.916916 Compare Defoe, Plague in London.]
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