The corporal works of mercy developed as Christians cared for world in which they lived - feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, bury the dead.
To reflect on these works includes knowing their history that inspires us to commit to them.
The world in which the Christian movement began was a world of plagues. During 165-180 C.E., it is estimated that thirty percent of the population of Antioch died and another thirty percent fled, including the physicians. There was no dishonor in fleeing. It was the accepted strategy.
However, Christians had a different approach based on a different reasoning. They believed God loved them and their response was to love one another. “One another” meant all people, not just members of the Christian community. So when the epidemics came, the Christians stayed to nurse and care for the sick. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, said:
"This plague searches out the justice of each and every one: whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love kinsmen as they should, whether masters show compassion to their ailing slaves, whether physicians do not desert the afflicted begging their help… These are trying exercises for us, not deaths; they give the mind the glory of fortitude."
Although no one is quite sure exactly what these ancient diseases were, modern medical experts believe that conscientious nursing could cut the mortality rate by two-thirds or even more. This is what seems to have happened.
So when people came back to the cities after the plague had dissipated, they found many of their loved ones whom they had left for dead alive and well. Christians had “visited the sick,” had nursed them back to health. Others had died and Christians had buried them. The Christians brought the people who had loved them to their gravesites. Therefore, Christians became known as people who visited the sick and buried the dead.
Not a bad identity, and one that we continue down to this day.
© Jack Shea