NASHVILLE—Yesterday, I spoke at the Every Nation office devotional (via GoogleMeet), and on the same day, my son, William, spoke (via FaceTime) at his wife’s grandmother’s funeral. We didn’t plan it, but we both began our messages by reading the words of Dionysius of Alexandria, a third-century bishop from Egypt:
Other people would not think this a time for festival… [But] far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy. Now, alas! all is lamentation, everyone in mourning, and the city resounds with weeping because of the number that have died and are dying every day… yet again we found joy in the peace which Christ has given to us alone.
I had chosen to read this passage for two reasons: First, Dionysius wrote this letter to the church in Alexandria during Holy Week in 260 AD. Second, Dionysius wrote this letter during a vicious pandemic, known as the Plague of Cyprian (c. 249-262 AD).
Contemporary eyewitnesses claim that at the height of the plague, five thousand people died every day in Rome. Historians estimate that the population of Alexandria decreased by 62% over the decade-long plague (scholars speculate it was either smallpox or ebola).
The striking part of this Egyptian bishop’s account of the plague is his radical claim that this was “a time of unimaginable joy.”
A vicious plague was afflicting pagans and Christians across the Roman Empire, and Dionysius’ own city and its population was collapsing. How could he talk about unimaginable joy in the midst of a pandemic?
This question is the very same one that pastors all across the world will have to answer as they preach their Easter sermons this weekend. Whether or not they realize it (and I hope they do), this is the only question anyone listening will be asking: How can Christians celebrate Easter during a global health crisis?
How can they celebrate new life in the shadow of death? How can they talk of resurrection when thousands of people are dying of the coronavirus every day? How can Christians talk about an empty tomb in the first century when we are digging mass graves in the twenty-first century? How can we speak of joy and peace in an age of fear and anxiety?
This was Dionysius’ answer: “yet again we found joy in the peace which Christ has given to us alone.” In this simple answer, we find three profound truths about joy.
Joy is a Gift.
The joy of the Christian—the profound calm in times of panic—is not a matter of willpower, positive thinking, or personality. It is a gift from God purchased by the blood of Jesus. We cannot earn it, and we cannot manufacture it. We can only receive it by faith. We can celebrate Easter in the midst of a pandemic because we have been given a gift that is greater than anything we might lose as a result of this pandemic.
Joy is Found in Jesus Alone.
If we look anywhere else for joy and peace, it will elude us. If we look to politicians, doctors, economists, public health experts, friends, or even family as our ultimate source of joy, we will only find sorrow. Jesus is the only person who can give us a joy that no one (and no virus) can take away. Predicting his death and resurrection, Jesus said to his disciples on the night he was betrayed, “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22). We can celebrate Easter in the midst of pandemic because our ultimate source of joy is in Jesus—who has defeated death and every curse that plagues humankind.
Joy is a Shared Inheritance.
It’s interesting that when talking about the pandemic in Alexandria, Dionysius did not talk about his personal joy and peace (though it’s clear that he had it). When reflecting on the profound difference between the Christian and the pagan response to the pandemic, Dionysius focused on the collective Christian experience of joy (“we found joy”) and the urgency to share this joy with others. This is also how the Bible talks about the disciples’ response to Jesus’ resurrection (see Matthew 28:5-8). It’s not that personal joy and peace is insignificant—it’s just insufficient. Whenever we live and wherever we live, one of the most profound truths about joy is that it is meant to be shared—with one another and the world. The early Church experienced explosive growth in the late third century, and some historians have pointed to the Plague of Cyprian as a pivotal turning point in the conversion in the Roman Empire to Christianity. In the midst of the pandemic, Christians embodied the love of Jesus in creative ways and shared the joy and hope of the resurrection with their neighbors and family members. Like Dionysius, we can celebrate Easter in the midst of a pandemic because our joy in God is what our world needs most.
As you prepare to preach this Sunday, I pray that God would give you a word that ministers joy and hope to every person who happens to scroll across your Facebook Live feed. I pray that you would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to give a compelling account for the hope that is in us. And I pray that after wrestling with the text, the context, and the resurrected Jesus, you would be able to say with confidence along with Dionysius: “now is a time of unimaginable joy!”