The Happiest Christmas of My Life

You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.

How is Christmas held in mourning? For the Coptic community of Egypt, Christmas is traditionally a time of celebration. Midnight on Christmas Eve ends a forty-three day period of fasting, concluded during mass in which the Eucharist is served. Afterwards, families congregate and break the fast joyfully, eating the meat, fish, milk, and eggs from which they had previously abstained. Early the next morning parents return to church with their children, who play games and receive gifts, all wearing their new holiday outfits. And since 2003, Christmas has been a national holiday, with all Egyptians receiving a day off from work. Along with Easter, it is a centerpiece of the religious year.

Yet all this merriment was threatened one week earlier when a bomb ripped through worshippers at a Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria at the conclusion of the New Year’s Eve mass. Twenty-three people were killed, dozens more injured, and threats were issued for continuation at Christmas. At first Pope Shenouda, pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, considered cancelling Christmas celebrations altogether. In the end, the church decided to push forward, although the churches of Alexandria decided only to conduct the Christmas Eve mass, and cancel the next day celebrations. How can Christmas be held in mourning?

If one returns to the Biblical story, there was little joy in the coming of the first Christmas. Forced into a difficult period of travel, Mary gave birth to her child in the dingiest of circumstances. Later, that child would grow, and warn his friends of his coming death, promising them their grief would turn to joy. Approaching Christmas, few Copts could anticipate a similar transformation. Even if they attended mass in defiance of terrorist threats, it would be in the shadow of death and the fear of repetition. Grief, not joy, would mark Christmas 2011.

A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come.

St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Maadi, Cairo has become our church home in Egypt. It has not been easy adjusting to Orthodox traditions, and though an open, friendly spirit exists among the congregants, they are not used to making foreigners welcome in their midst. Over time, though, our girls have attended the church preschool, and we have made friends. Of course we would attend Christmas Eve mass.

The newspapers had warned that extensive security procedures would be in place, so as we walked to church, passports in pockets, we did not know if we would be allowed entry. There had been a groundswell of support from Muslims in Egypt, condemning the bombing and seeking to stand in solidarity with their brother Christians. Many had expressed a desire to attend Christmas Eve mass, either in defense of the church, or else to die together. Yet rumors abounded that either security or the church would not allow Muslims entrance. Pope Shenouda strongly refuted their rejection, but who could know? If Muslims were to be barred, what about foreigners? While we are known to church leadership, and the regular guards outside the church see us every week, what about their amplified staff? Would they risk the death of foreigners on top of all the other bad press associated with this terrorist crisis?

Approaching the church, we marveled at its military headquarters-like appearance. St. Mark’s Church occupies a place on al-Nahda Circle, between two side roads which receive regular, but minimal, traffic. Since the Alexandria attack took place outside the church, originally believed to be from a car bomb, traffic barriers were placed along a full half of the circle. No cars were allowed to park anywhere, and the two side roads were cordoned off entirely. The barriers were erected to also serve as a channel for approaching pedestrians. As we stepped forward, we were asked for identification.

The checkpoint experience was strangely odd. Security personnel were all around, but we were inspected by plain clothes individuals with badges hanging from their necks. As it turns out, the church had organized its own security team, which helped identify regular congregants from questionable interlopers. We did not recognize the woman who took our passports, but in retrospect there seemed a note of awareness in her eye. Whatever the reality, we were allowed to pass.

But when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.

We arrived at the church about 8:00pm, hopeful that by arriving early we would secure a good seat in the balcony. Instead, there was hardly a place to be found. Though we found a place in the last row of the side balcony, by the end of the evening every place was taken, as well as every step in every ascending aisle. Two lower rooms were also packed, watching the mass projected live on screen. Terrorist threats, security concerns – at St. Mark’s, at least, Copts were observing, if not celebrating, Christmas.

I have heard reports that in many churches the congregants wore black, to symbolize their mourning. Here, the term ‘celebrating’ may not be inappropriate. Many people were dressed to the nines; new outfits were visible in abundance. St. Mark’s in Maadi has a reputation as one of the more well-to-do churches in Cairo; economic stability allows festive possibilities. All the same, people seemed determined to defy terrorism not only through presence, but also through insistence on celebration. Surely their hearts were heavy, but life, including holiday, must continue unabated.

As we scanned the audience we noticed what appeared to be two Muslim women, distinguishable by hijab, seated in the upper opposite corner from us. We wondered if there were others, as religious identity is not determined by physical characteristics. Everyone else seemed to blend together. As will be seen, this was quite appropriate.

The mass continued as it always does, and always has, for hundreds of years. There seemed to me to be more Coptic language chanting than normal, which could result from a desire during times of crisis to reassert original community identity. As a language, Coptic fully gave way to Arabic in about the 14th Century, and the tongue withered away until its liturgical revival in the 20th Century. Or, the Coptic chants may have meant nothing special in particular – I should reemphasize our newness to the tradition. All the same, along with the Muslims in the corner, it felt like a slight divergence from the norm.

As the time for the sermon approached, it was introduced, as normal, by a reading from the Psalms and the Gospels. Then, an unusual but timely procession advanced. Twenty-three individuals, each carrying a lone candle, advanced toward the pulpit and sat down in a vacated pew. One, we noticed, was wearing a hijab.

When they sat Fr. Boutrus began his sermon. This Christmas was wrapped in sorrow, he spoke, but we must always look in hope for good to arise from evil. Indeed, he continued, Jesus promised his followers that there would be grief, but that grief would be turned to joy. Just as a mother suffers labor pains, so Egypt is groaning under the weight of this tragedy. The newborn baby, however, displaces the pain. What will displace the pain of Egypt? Where is the new baby to be born? It is here, in this church, in churches throughout Egypt. It is Muslims greeting us in peace and consolation. It is a national unity that will emerge from the challenge of sectarian tension. I have received so many phone calls and messages, he said, from Muslim friends who have wanted to be a part of our celebration tonight. It is their presence here that fills me with joy. In fact, I must say, today is the happiest Christmas I have had in my life.

Fr. Boutrus acknowledged that there were differences, but he spoke of Jesus on the cross demolishing the dividing wall of hostility, making the two one. We each have our faith, and we must respect each other. Yet we may all follow Jesus in good works, among which is the ministry of reconciliation. Fr. Boutrus thanked the Muslims who had joined us, and reiterated his feelings again: It is right that Egypt is in a period of mourning, but today, in what develops, this is the happiest Christmas of my life.

Ask, and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

As Fr. Boutrus ended his sermon, the procession of twenty-three, representing those who perished in the bombing, exited down the center aisle from which they came. As they did, tens of others from around the sanctuary also rose and exited. Caught off guard, we realized, these were Muslims seated everywhere in our midst.

It is traditional in the Coptic Orthodox mass that non-Christians are welcome. Visible in the ancient monasteries, but not so much the modern churches, the sanctuary was divided into sections. Up front is the place for the priests to administer sacraments, and behind them are the deacons who facilitate. Next come the believers, who are in fellowship with the church, living Christian testimony. Behind them are other Christians, but mixed also with the curious of other or no faith. These Christians are the ones who do not partake of the Eucharist, due to issues of unconfessed sin and evidence of broken fellowship. Known as the ‘Preached-to Ones’, they with non-believers listened to the Bible readings and the sermon. Immediately afterwards in the liturgy proceeds the preparation for the Eucharist and the transubstantiation of the host. Only baptized Orthodox believers may partake. Traditionally, everyone else leaves.

The tradition is not hard and fast in the modern world. We are not baptized Orthodox, and as such we do not advance for Communion, but neither are we expected to leave. In fact, not all Muslims left either; a few hijab-ed women were seen remaining in the pews. Yet it is customary for figures of state to attend Pope Shenouda-led masses during holidays, and at the appropriate moment, he acknowledges them, and they leave. For years this was a perfunctory, if admirable, feature of church-state relations; today, at St. Mark’s, it seemed poignant and appreciated. Officials from the governorate and district, friends of the priests, friends of the people – all were welcomed, and present in abundance.

In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.

After the Muslims’ exit, the liturgy proceeded as normal, but towards its conclusion we were reminded of reality. Before serving the Eucharist the priests asked each congregant not to leave their shoes behind in their seat as is customary. (Coptic Orthodox remove their shoes at Communion.) Instead, they distributed plastic bags in which they could carry their shoes while taking Communion. Following the bread and wine, they were to exit the church, don their shoes, and leave quietly one by one.

It is common following a midnight mass for the Copts to congregate outside the church as they wait for their friends to finish Communion. Having fasted, having waited through a lengthy liturgy, they finally meet up together and begin Christmas celebrations. It was this fact that led to so much destruction in Alexandria. Many people had exited church early, and were just hanging around outside when the bomb detonated. Anxious to avoid the same fate, the priests and security agreed to have each person leave immediately after their Eucharistic share.

Not all did, but many obliged. As we left we filtered through a subdued, porous crowd amidst reminders from the priests to leave. We passed through the gate, navigated the erected corridor, thanked a few security guards as we left, and headed home. It was a somber evening, despite the signs of hope and promise. The questions could not be dismissed: Will this same encampment be present next week? Will the terrorists simply delay until the next mass when both people and security let their guard down? Can the guard ever be let down? What about tomorrow morning, when celebrations should take place?

We woke early to bring our girls to the festivities. Indeed, they were festive. A puppet show was arranged for the youngest children. All age groups had activities going on. The high school students prepared to visit a local home for orphans. As before, people were dressed well, decked out in new outfits. It was enough to make me forget the circumstances; upon seeing some friends, I asked an impertinent question.

One’s guard is lowered quickly. The same security layout was present as the day before. Once again we presented our passports for a security check. At the gate Fr. Boutrus greeted each coming congregant, standing with a contingent of policemen. One policeman, though, produced a pink flower he offered to our four year old daughter. Throughout the day I saw several sporting theirs somewhere on their person. Greetings were exchanged; children played and laughed. Christmas was here, held amidst mourning.

I stumbled. “Are you having a joyous holiday?” My friends lost their smiles produced upon our meeting and replied, “Half and half.”

—–

Perhaps Jesus has overcome the world. Perhaps if these Copts ask, their joy will be complete. Did Fr. Boutrus speak from a sincere heart, or was he trying to will his words into reality? Has a newborn baby entered into the world?

One year ago six Christians and a Muslim security guard were killed in Nag Hamadi when alleged Muslim assailants opened fire upon Christian worshippers exiting Christmas Eve mass. Following the incident many similar expressions of condolences were offered by Muslims, and national unity was asserted in the face of tragedy. One knowledgeable Muslim journalist friend stated that he felt something was changing in society. The outcries were louder, more sincere; he expected the sectarian situation to improve. Yet the year that followed was filled with incident after incident of tension and conflict. This can be traced to a number of factors, far broader than religious difference. If at that time, though, the baby was stillborn, what gives hope this one will survive?

Certainly this occasion is different. The scale is far more serious and the stakes far higher. The past year was filled with recriminations, each to the other. Perhaps, on their part, the Copts never asked. They rallied, they worked, they sought legislation – did they seek God?

In his sermon Fr. Boutrus praised the Muslims, quoting Scripture: “He who loves, knows God.” He continued, expressing his wish, “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

The message is Christian, but its borders are porous. Have Copts sought unity? Have they loved? The tragedy in Alexandria has brought substantial love to them; what will they do with it?

Certainly some of this love is perfunctory. Some of it is surface level condolence. But much of it is sincere. It is a love that brought Muslims to enter a church so as to express their solidarity, in the middle of heightened tensions and personal risk.

A Christian skepticism is warranted. They came, but they left early; the bomb would have gone off near the end. If they don’t condemn the massacre they will be perceived as supporters of it. It is the reputation of Islam they are concerned to defend primarily, not us. If they entered a church under normal circumstances, they would run afoul of security, and we would be accused of evangelizing.

Perhaps. But what Copts do next is of the utmost importance. If rebuffed, those Muslims who have sought reconciliation will have little reason to try again. The cycle of mistrust and mutual accusation will begin anew. Can they, with Jesus, overcome the world? Can they overcome themselves?

It is no easy task, but the life of a newborn baby is at stake. The mother, however, remains in critical condition.

Bible verses taken from John 16-17.

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