Five-and-a-half years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Pope Shenouda preach. The now-deceased 87-year-old had presided over the Coptic Orthodox Church for 39 years, along the way establishing a new tradition of holding a weekly meeting with the people every Wednesday.
Last week in my first visit since, I witnessed his successor Pope Tawadros continue the tradition.
It was a fine sermon. Pope Tawadros preached on the character of Mordecai in the Old Testament book of Esther.
To briefly summarize, the book describes a period when the Jews were captive in Persia and a wicked minister planned their extermination. But prior to the scheme, following the announcement of an empire-wide beauty contest Mordecai helped the Jewish orphan Esther win the favor of the king, who then married her and made her queen.
In the end, Mordecai challenges Esther to violate palace protocol and inform the king of the minister’s intrigue. God, who interestingly is not named in the entire book, rules sovereign over events as the plot twists and the minister instead is put to death, hanged on the gallows he built for Mordecai.
Pope Tawadros had been preaching a series entitled ‘Names in the Shadows,’ featuring minor characters from the Bible who are celebrated less often.
Mordecai was a hero, he said, in three areas.
First, in owning responsibility to raise the orphan girl Esther. In an age when many who are fathers do not live up to their title, Mordecai assumed fatherhood outside the requirements of blood. In both church and society we must honor the responsibility God gives us, said the pope.
Second, Mordecai was a hero in contentment. Despite promoting his adopted daughter to the position of queen, he never sought personal advantage or advancement. Furthermore, after exposing an earlier plot against the king’s life he did not run after reward. He was satisfied in his position, and used his connections only when required to save the life of his people – not serve his own interests.
Third, Mordecai was a hero in faith, the pope said. Despite living in a foreign land he did not give up his prayers or rituals. Even when others bowed down to the wicked minister, he risked censure by refusing a posture due only to God. Trusting fully in God’s sovereignty, he held to his principles confident nothing happens apart from God’s will.
To close, Pope Tawadros encouraged the congregation with a picture from the book of Revelation, where the martyrs were honored as those who were faithful unto death. Whether God gives you high position or ordinary standing, he said, great works can emerge from acting with responsibility and faithfulness to God’s principles.
The book is named after Esther, but Pope Tawadros called Mordecai the hero of the story. The saying goes that behind every great man is a great woman, but here, he said, we see this truth in reverse.
As mentioned, it was a fine sermon. But the evening was different than what I experienced five-and-a-half years earlier.
First, there was a mini-protest. One man had to be removed from the audience over something I didn’t understand. Another woman, across the aisle, stood up and shouted something I couldn’t make out. All was calmed without incident, but a week earlier the pope canceled his sermon altogether when activists agitating for wider divorce and remarriage rights disturbed proceedings.
Second, there were vesper prayers. Pope Shenouda opened his weekly meeting taking questions from the audience, on all manner of topics, both mundane and theological. Pope Tawadros has a similar practice, but on television where people can call in or share questions electronically. Replacing the audience participation was one of the ritual daily prayers of the church, with the audience, perhaps, passively involved.
Third, the cathedral was half-empty. With Pope Shenouda the hall was packed, replete with the faithful even scaling the scaffolding. Here, all was subdued. When Pope Shenouda entered, the crowd rocked with the chant of ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ With Pope Tawadros everyone stood, but I had to ask about this missing custom. It was there, I was told, but intoned in quiet Coptic.
In both personal relations and public address, Pope Shenouda was revered for his wit. In Pope Tawadros’ sermon no one laughed. At the close everyone filed out, in orderly fashion.
To leave the comparison at this sentiment is not just. My attendance with Pope Shenouda came after his long service; Pope Tawadros is still young in office. He is also a different person. Pope Shenouda was acclaimed for his charisma; Pope Tawadros is respected for his administration.
One Copt sitting next to me agreed, and helped lead me in the descriptions above. But perhaps unconsciously influenced by the sermon on Mordecai and Esther, this person said that Pope Tawadros was the man for this time, chosen by God for these unique circumstances.
Pope Shenouda coincided with the regime of Mubarak, with its stable but contested relations with Copts. Pope Tawadros coincides with revolutionary instability and whatever is emerging in the nature of the state.
Each is responsible to God for his conduct in office. But each, Copts believe, was put there by God in his sovereignty and wisdom, to guide the church through challenging times.
Will Pope Tawadros, one day, be as deeply loved?
Mordecai counseled Esther, ‘Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?’
And Esther responded, ‘I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.’
As indicated in his own sermon, nothing less is demanded of the pope. Whether he is loved or not, what is required is faithfulness. God may yet have great things for him; perhaps he is walking in them already.
May he honor his responsibilities, content in his position, according to God’s principles. May his good word preached be true in practice.