Thanksgiving provides opportunity for many a happy and holy activity. In my various interactions this past week with the church and at home with family I have observed a vivid example of one such activity. It is a quality of love that God’s children express toward one another. The character of this love reflects something of heaven itself, since God is its source. In biblical language it is called “brotherly” love. The following quote from Dionysius helps explain how brotherly love works among God’s people.
Dionysius the Great was bishop of Alexandria (c. 190 – c. 264), in Egypt, from 247 until his death. During this time, the Christians in Alexandria suffered persecution under the Emperor Decian. For several years Dionysius led the church whilst in hiding. A number of his surviving letters contain horrific descriptions of believers being tortured and murdered because they would not deny Christ. However, persecution was not the only threat; the city also suffered civil strife, plague and famine. In one letter, Dionysius writes about a time when Alexandria was struck by a severe plague. He describes the response of the surrounding pagans—one of utter selfishness. When the pagans abandoned their fellow-men, the Christians stayed to help.
“[The heathen] 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.
However, in spite of the way they had suffered at the hands of their neighbors, the behavior of the Christians could not have been more different.
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. And many who had 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, they expressed in actual fact then, as they departed this life, like the “off-scourings of all.” 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.”1
1 Dionysius of Alexandria, “Epistle XII – To the Alexandrians”, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 6, trans. S.D.F. Salmond (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1886), 108-109.