A Cold and Broken Hallelujah
If Lent is an annual memento mori—a memory of death—Eastertide is an extended memento vitae—a memory of life. As John Paul II so aptly put it: Christians are an Easter people, and Hallelujah is our song. This year, however, as Christians around the world read daily reports of mounting death tolls, the Hallelujahs will likely sound less like Handel and more like Jeff Buckley’s take on Leonard Cohen—a cold and broken Hallelujah.
This year, the world joined Christians in the Lenten fast. Everyone, no matter their faith or religious background stopped, fasted, and watched. Many prayed. We thought of little else but death. It is doubtful, however, that so many will join Christians in the unabashed celebration of life over death in Easter. What could seem more futile or foolish right now—indeed, insensitive and unloving in the face of such great sorrow—than to announce that the Lord has risen? But, then, what else could we say?
Thoughtful observers have commented that a global pandemic makes visible what is in fact always true—that we are going to die. No matter how much money or technology we throw at the problem, we are at best only delaying that most empirical reality of death. But if Christians have been so unprepared to reckon with their mortality, as Carl Trueman has noted, will they be as unprepared for life? Will we celebrate life in the midst of daily reports of mounting death tolls? Will we sing Hallelujah—even a cold and broken one—in the midst of death?
To rejoice amidst death is native to the Christian experience, but it is not something that comes naturally. It is something learned. Throughout the ages, Christians have recognized that learning to die as well as learning to live is just that—something learned. Just as we need to be taught to look clear-eyed upon death at Lent, so too we must learn to raise a glass Deo Gratias at Easter, even when all around seems bleak.
To live—to live well—is an act of supernatural grace. In order to embrace both Lent and Easter, then, we need a deep habituation in the Church’s way of being, a way infused with sacramental grace through the sacraments, even if received spiritually. Though most of us are, for the time being, cut off directly from participation in the life-giving sacraments, that does not stop the church from being herself—in her members—a sacrament of Christ, formed from the bleeding side of the New Adam during the sleep of his passion. We celebrate life amidst death, then, because we have been catechized into Christian existence. To be an Easter people and to sing Hallelujah, we must have our entire frame of reference aligned towards a transcendent order, the supernatural mystery of Christ our creator and redeemer.
Cyprian and the Plague
The paradoxical nature of a Christian view of life and death shows up remarkably in Cyprian of Carthage’s treatise On Mortality. Written only a few years after he became bishop in 248, in the midst of a ravenous plague that nearly destroyed the Roman Empire, Cyprian reflects on what it means for Christians to be alive to God, and so not to fear death.
The plague broke out in Egypt around 249 (the “exotic” East for a Roman) and had reached Carthage by 250 or 251. Historian Kyle Harper suggests either pandemic influenza (like the Spanish Flu) or a viral hemorrhagic fever (like Ebola). Ancient sources say that it could have carried away 5,000 persons a day, decimating the population by as much as 60% in some cities. Another source says that it seemed to spread through contact with clothing or even simply by eyesight. It is often called “The Plague of Cyprian” because it is the Carthaginian bishop who provides one of the most graphic accounts of its effects: severe diarrhea (“As the strength of the body is dissolved, the bowels dissipate in a flow”), fever (“a fire that begins in the inmost depths, in the marrow, burns up into wounds in the throat”), and incessant, “intestine-rattling” vomiting (§14). In some cases, a person’s hands or feet were putrefied to the point of falling off, resulting in disfigurement or a loss of hearing and sight.
It was not a physical loss of sight, however, that worried Cyprian most. It was rather a loss of spiritual sight. While a few Christians remained unfazed by the prospects of sudden and violent death, aiding their neighbors while pagans fled, most Christians were not so stalwart. Several questioned the goodness of God or the utility of Christian membership, as the plague indiscriminately slayed Christian and non-Christian alike. The plague also spurred anti-Christian polemic, brought on by the common pagan view that a slackening of cultic worship engendered a loss of divine care and so an increase in natural disasters (“You impute it to the Christians that everything is decaying as the world grows old,” as Cyprian put it in an apologetic address, To Demetrianus §4).
Cyprian’s On Mortality: Fear as a Lack of Faith?
In his writing to Christians in On Mortality, Cyprian took what is sometimes called a “pragmatic” approach, employing Stoic ideas about ridding oneself of the fear of death. Rather than sympathizing with those who suffer, Cyprian uses the occasion of plague as a “teaching moment.” His counsel will likely strike many modern readers as unsympathetic, unwise, and even a bit misogynistic. However, his overall approach is better seen as a metaphysical reorientation, aimed to direct the vision of his hearers towards God, to draw their flagging eyes to the Christ who holds the keys to life and death. He opens by addressing the fact that, while many have endured the plague faithfully, many others did not:
Among the people there are some who, through weakness of spirit or insufficient faith, or because of the sweetness of the worldly life or the tenderness of their sex, or (what is worse) through making a mistake about the truth, stand less firm and do not display the divine and unconquered strength of their heart (§1).
He goes on to name the response of fear as a lack of faith. Fear belongs to the one who is “unwilling to go to Christ” (§2). If you “live by faith” [Rom. 1:17], however, “why do you, who are destined to be with Christ and secure in the promise of the Lord, not rejoice that you are called to Christ and be glad that you are free from the devil?” (§3). If a person were unbaptized, Cyprian says, then by all means he or she should fear death, but for Christians whose singular hope is life with Christ, how could they not give thanks for the opportunity to depart from this world and embrace the life with Christ? Taking his cue from St. Paul, Cyprian unflinchingly affirms that it is an “advantage to flee from the world” for “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (2; Phil. 1:21).
It would be easy to dismiss Cyprian’s equation of fear and lack of faith as a species of the crass theodicies we expect from certain quarters of the Prosperity Gospel world. Likewise, it would also be easy to see his dismissal of the present world as an outmoded layover of Platonist or Gnostic escapism. It is not a lack of faith that elicits fear of plague, we might counter, but a properly Christian human response by one who values creaturely existence as the good gift of a good God.
Plague as Spiritual Exercise
If Cyprian’s goal were the pronouncement of judgment upon “weak” Christians, this treatise would indeed read like a rather doleful and hard-hearted response. However, Cyprian’s interest is not to dishearten but to encourage, strengthen, and edify. He recognizes that an accurate assessment of the plague emerges from faith and a fear of God, which “ought to prepare us for anything” (§12). Whether it is plague, war, persecution, loss of property—the trials of worldly life prepare us for life in Christ.
The situation of the plague, then, is an extraordinary occasion that brings to light what is always ordinarily true—that our citizenship is in heaven and to be desired more than the present life. Such an evaluation of the secondary status of the present age, however, does not mean that a Christian should respond to the plague by fleeing, vilifying, or otherwise denigrating the present age.
In fact, Cyprian asks would-be world fleers to contemplate what they hold in common with their non-Christian neighbors. Some Christians, it seemed, thought that Christian baptism rendered them immune from the disease, when in fact the plague claimed both Christian and non-Christian alike. “It troubles some that we have this mortality in common with others” (§8). One does not become Christian, though, because faith is a magic bullet that inoculates from suffering.
As long as we are here in the world, we are united with the human race in equality of the flesh, [though] we are separated in spirit. And so, until this corruptible element puts on incorruptibility and this mortal element receives immortality and the spirit conducts us to God the Father, the disadvantages of the flesh, whatever they are, we have in common with the human race (§8).
Christians share with all humankind the simple, irrefutable fact of death. While Christianity provides a “difference in spirit,” it does not extract us from the common humanity and the “disadvantages of the flesh.”
Cyprian invites his hearers to see the plague as revelatory for how we view our life in reference to God. As an occasion for Christian sanctification, a time of plague reveals what we really care about, what we really love. The plague, in other words, makes visible what normally remains hidden in our ordinary lives of comfort and distraction.
What a significance, beloved brethren, all this has! 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 those who are well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love their kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion to their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted begging their help, whether the violent repress their violence, whether the greedy, even through the fear of death, quench the ever insatiable fire of their raging avarice, whether the proud bend their necks, whether the shameless soften their affrontery, whether the rich, even when their dear ones are perishing and they are about to die without heirs, bestow and give something!
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. (§16)
The plague is a test, a spiritual exercise, not a death. Christians, after all, do not really die once and for all. Earthly death is a “passageway” and “crossing over” into immortality and new life, Cyprian says (§22). And who would not hurry towards such things? When viewed within the proper eschatological horizon—eternal life as the basis of our care for our earthly lives, the transcendent as the foundation for the goodness of bodily life—a travesty like the plague serves pedagogically to lead Christians to virtue and Christlikeness, fitting us for heavenly goods. The plague is attended by an opportunity to see our lives for what they really are, and indeed, to turn from sin and to embrace charity and mercy. When detached from the comforts and securities of “ordinary life,” we become free to see the false securities that blind us from the true nature of reality.
Cyprian does not ask whether the plague reveals a scorn for earthly life. He asks whether it has seen us more patient and loving. He asks whether the plague has shown us to be loving our neighbors and those under our care. He asks whether it has turned the greedy and the shameless away from their sins and towards compassion, mercy, and generosity. Above all, the plague is a test for determining, not whether we have despised the world but whether we have embraced our calling as martyrs—as witnesses to God.
Singing to Life in the Midst of Death
In our present moment, as we struggle to articulate the right “balance” between our Christian commitments to life and health in the world and our hope in the Christ who transcends life and calls to hope “not as the Gentiles do,” we would do well to attend to Cyprian’s variety of “otherworldly” council. In a decidedly immanentized world, as Charles Taylor would narrate it, this is by no means an easy task. And yet, as Cyprian’s example shows, early Christians did not view life in eschatological terms because of some shared culture of “otherworldliness.” A Christian way of embracing both death and life as a gift of God is something to be learned, something for which we need to be catechized. Christian joy requires disciplined consideration and reflection:
We should consider, beloved brothers and sisters, and we should reflect constantly that we have renounced the world and as strangers and foreigners we sojourn here for a time. Let us embrace the day which assigns each of us to his dwelling, which on our being rescued from here and released from the snares of the world, restores us to paradise and the kingdom (§26).
For Cyprian, “embracing the day” and “renouncing the world” are not actually paradoxical. Rather, they are part of one seamless realm of existence in which everything hinges upon the axis of Christ. As creator and redeemer, Christ is the reason for both our care for the world and our hope for eternal life. A recognition of our heavenly citizenship provides the very ground of our care for neighbors.
During this time of global pandemic, Cyprian’s experience in a very similar trial helps us see that Christians remain a Hallelujah people, not because of its earthly comforts or bodily health but because Christ has risen from the dead and makes us citizens of his heavenly kingdom. Hallelujah remains the fundamental Christian song—both in this age as well as the age to come. This Easter, then, even if it is a cold and broken tune, Hallelujah is a song that Christians can and should sing. And now is as good a time as any to learn the melody.