“Death smiles at us all, but all a man can do is smile back.” These were the words of the Roman Emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius in the second century A.D. What the pagan philosopher stated in theory, the early Christians did in practice. Death was an enigma for pagans, but for Christians, it was seen as the road to eternal life. This is why the early Christians were full of hope; even as they were being led to their execution.
Indeed, the most celebrated of the early Christians, that is, the confessors and martyrs, never looked back. Their eternal destiny was ever impressed upon their minds. For what they sacrificed in this life would be paid back a hundred-fold in heaven. Such was the Lord’s guarantee. And it was this guarantee that indelibly linked sacrifice to love for the early Christians. As Fr. Lorenzo Albacete said,
“The link between love and life is sacrifice. Sacrifice is self-giving, the surrender which manifests love and renders it fruitful in abundance. The Gospel confirms this: the only way for man to gain his life is to lose it, to give it up, to sacrifice it. Sacrifice is an act central to man. The personal act performed by man at the moment of death is sacrifice.”
For the early Christians, sacrifice made daily acts of charity and even heroic love possible. Not only during state-sponsored persecutions was their sacrificial love displayed, but during the plagues that would decimate whole cities in the Roman provinces. St. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, around the year 260 A.D., wrote a tribute to the brave nursing efforts of local Christians, many of whom lost their lives while caring for others:
“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 life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbor 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 lay men 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.”
This heroic love not only impressed the pagans (most of whom had fled these plagues), but also Roman Emperors. After all, wherever sacrifice and love was practiced, there, new life flourished. This is why the early Christians displayed a serene confidence when faced with adversity and death. It was the Christians in large numbers, not pagans, who smiled back at death. This serene confidence in Christ and the eager anticipation of eternal life was exceedingly attractive to on-lookers. From it flowed a large number of conversions.
This "smile" was captured in a letter by Tertullian, a Father of early the Church (around 200 A.D.). It was a letter addressed to a Roman official who, like Marcus Aurelius, executed Christians. He reminded those who persecuted Christians of the following truth:
“You will never destroy our sect! Mark this well: when you think you are striking it down, you are, in reality, strengthening it. The public will become restive at so much courage. It will long to know its origin. And when a man recognizes the truth – he’s ours!”
That holy and serene confidence of the early Christians is the heritage of all Christians! We just have to remember to use it. Indeed, when we learn to smile amid adversity – even back at death – then the people of the twenty-first century will long to know the origin of such hope. They too will inquire. And when they recognize the truth, to borrow from Tertullian, they too will be “ours,” or better yet – HIS!
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.