How the First Christians Changed Dying by William E. Kangas:
The fathers of the church did not view theology as being dangerous if it denied God’s wrath, but rather if it denied God’s suffering.
…As many Christians were killed for their faith, the book of Revelation opens up heaven and shows the reader that death is not an end. At the center of the worship of heaven is a Lamb who was slain. The martyrs are there with Christ, as are the apostles. The format seems to follow some of the early conventions of worship at the time. In many ways the book of Revelation teaches the early Christians that their worship together is a way to participate with all those who have gone before in feasting with the cruciﬁed Lord that reigns in heaven.
…Although we cannot know for certain how the author of Revelation viewed their work in relation to the liturgy, it seems clear that there is a reflection of many liturgical themes throughout the book. The author clearly believed there was a connection between how the Christians in his community worshipped and how the dead in Christ worshiped. Christian worship, in a very real sense, was seen as a foretaste of death. Because of Jesus, death was no longer something bitter, but it had become something sweet. The sacrament was a window into eternal life and offered a picture of death to the living.
…For those born in the first century CE the understanding of death was signiﬁcantly different from how many in the west today experience it. If one was a Roman or a Greek, the traditional religion would have taught them that the dead were inaccessible. The souls of those who had passed away would have been drawn into hades, where no one could enter.
…No matter who one was or where they were born one thing would be certain: the dead and dying were dangerous. Death could have meant many things for a person in the first-century. One might have believed in a bodily resurrection; one might have believed in a spiritual existence; one might not have believed there was existence after death at all. No matter what one believed, no person would have been comfortable with the dead. This is one of the reasons Jesus was so revolutionary.
…The church began to treat the dead as if they were welcome in their lives, rather than curses to be avoided. As Christianity became the dominant form of faith in the Roman world the practice of burial shifted. People began to be buried within the city walls. When the dead cease to be a threat, a burden to, and an adversary to people, there is no longer a need to keep them far away. When the dead become a help, the treatment of their remains reflects this shift. Corpses moved from a place of exclusion at the outskirts of society to a place where they were embraced at the center of the community’s life. Since the body is seen as something that will be raised, it becomes something that is treasured and treated as holy.
…Sometimes scholars are shocked to see how ﬂagrantly Christians violated the social norms of their day relating to death. They wonder why Christians began to embrace the dead, bringing them into social spaces and bringing the remains into their worship together. They would gather the bodies of those who had died (and even the scraps of their clothing) and hold them close to them, treating them as “gold and precious stones.” They would even make a point to travel to the remains of the dead on pilgrimage. From a sociological perspective, this kind of behavior seems baffling, but if one tries to imagine what the message of Jesus would have been like to people in the first centuries of the church it is easier to understand why the world began to change.
The full participation of the living with the dead was seen as an integral part of the gospel since all were made one in Jesus. To be able to come with joy to the dead was revolutionary.
…In a world where the corpse can no longer contaminate, the dead are no longer to be feared. This is an emerging epoch and a new reality. Although it is still sad to be parted from loved ones, the sadness of the grave does not deprive a mourner of their friend or relative completely.
…At first this idea seemed to resonate among the disenfranchised in the Roman world. Those who had been controlled through the fear of death by those in power found this new reality to have an unheard of potential to bring freedom. Death was not an end but a beginning. Execution was not a shame any longer but it could be a glory, if a person gave their life as a result of imitating Christ. There was a power in poverty that could break the authority of the rulers.
…The freedom of the Christian from death was infectious. When people heard the news it was difficult to believe, but as time went on the lives of Christians showed a real conviction that God had indeed achieved victory over death. Christians were living differently, and their lives became testimonies that they did not fear death any longer.
…The Christians did not only ﬂaunt death at the hands of the Empire, they also showed no regard for it in their service to the dying. Christians were known for their compassion for the sick; when the plague would come into a city, they cared for the afflicted. While everyone else ﬂed the city in fear, the followers of Jesus would stay behind with the suffering. …People were amazed at the compassion of these early Christians and saw evidence in their seeming supernatural resistance to disease of God at work in their lives.
…By the middle of the third century the church had become centers of care throughout the empire for all people in need. In Rome alone the church was supporting ﬁfteen hundred people in need. They took in the widows, the homeless, and the sick. They cared for the destitute and the shipwrecked. These early Christians would seek out those in the most need and hold them as their dearest treasures. These Christians saw Christ in those who were broken and sought to bring the new economy of Christ to them through their own love and care.
…Christians saw Jesus as a man who walked through death and brought forth life. …As the first Christians looked to Jesus, they began to see their life together as part of a new reality, one that restored what they believed had been lost long ago. …Irenaeus of Lyons taught that the new paradise on earth was the church. He stated that the church was planted by God to restore again what was lost before.
…Death was no longer a force of chaos, and the dead were no longer gone. …The dead were tangible members of a tangible world that was being transformed…. History had a place in this new reality, and the dead were seen as just as much a part of the world as the living.