by Phoebe Farag Mikhail
This past Sunday, as I carried my baby and ushered my daughter towards the front of the church to take communion, I could not help but see the image of this little boy in my mind. Around the same age as my oldest son, he lost his mother and sister in a few brief seconds on the same morning, when someone set off a bomb inside St. Peter and St. Paul’s Church on the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral compound in Cairo, Egypt during communion. Twenty-five people approached the communion table expecting to be united with Christ their Savior on earth, only to find themselves united with Him in heaven. These believers, mostly women and children, finished the race that the rest of us as Christians are still running.
A race that this little boy, who will no longer feel the comfort of his mother’s arms, or the companionship of his sister during his life on earth, will also run.
It is for him, for the 50 wounded, and for the other families who were left behind, that I mourn and pray for. In solidarity with those left behind, many Coptic Orthodox Christians have set their Facebook profiles to the Arabic letter “Noon,” which is the first letter of the Arabic word “Nasara.” “Nasara” comes from the word Nazarene, and it is one of the words used to describe Christians, the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Ironically, we first see this term applied to Jesus Christ after His return from Egypt to escape persecution:
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archela′us reigned over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:19-23, RSV).
While radical groups such as ISIS use “Nasara” as a derogatory term, it is simply the word for Christians used in the Qur’an, sometimes with a positive connotation, as in: “That those who believe in God and the last day and did good deeds out of the Muslims, Jews, Christians [Nasara], and Sabians, that they have their reward with the Lord, there is no fear for them, and they shall not be sad” (Suraat El Baqarah and El Maida. For more on this, see “A Christian Appeal to Islam” by Saad Michael Saad).
The letter “noon” has come to be a symbol for Middle Eastern Christians everywhere because ISIS has used this letter to mark the homes of Christians in Mosul, Iraq. What is meant as a threat for them, however, actually a source of pride for Christians. “He shall be called a Nazarene,” and so shall we.
Terrorist acts like this are meant to sow fear and intimidation. In Egypt, this bombing is just one of the many acts of violence against Coptic Orthodox Christians in recent days, and the second act to occur at the Coptic Cathedral compound in history (the first was in 2013). The bombing happened at the start of the month of Kiahk, the Advent season for the Coptic Orthodox Church, at the time when Christians have begun preparing themselves for the coming feast of the Nativity of Christ, and when those preparations include special praise nights several times a week until the Feast.
What will surprise those cowards who intend to sow fear is that they will find churches in the upcoming weeks not empty with fear but packed with courage. This statement by the Coptic Orthodox Southern Diocese of the US says it all:
Bravery and heroism are marked by the courage of all Christians, regardless of their dire circumstances, whether poor, ill, or disadvantaged, but greet each day with faith and fill every church in this great land that has been blessed by the blood of the martyrs for more than 2000 years. We are not praying for our martyrs, for they have won the kingdom of God. We are praying and fasting for those who commit these cowardice acts and hide behind the cloak of religion to destroy a nation trying to recover from years of the poison of extremism. We are praying and fasting, not for our martyrs, for they have obtained forgiveness through the body and blood of Christ, but for those who do not know the meaning of love and will not be forgiven until they learn the power of love.
The world is in great need of learning the power of love. The same hate that inspired this bombing of worshippers in Cairo is the hate that inspired similar terrorist acts in Nigeria, Somalia, and Turkey, that inspires the ongoing bloodshed in Syria and Iraq. There are countless little boys and girls every day weeping for the loss of mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters this Advent.
The merriment and music belies the reality of the coming of the Lord that we celebrate and commemorate every Advent season. The earth rejoiced at Christ’s coming, but it was a coming full of pain and suffering. Christ was “born crucified,” as Bishop Moussa, the Coptic Orthodox Church’s Bishop of Youth Affairs writes:
The cross accompanied our Lord in His eternal thoughts, before all ages, when He was conceived in the blessed Virgin’s womb, when He was born, when He started His ministry, during the significant moment of His suffering during His crucifixion, until He granted us salvation … What is the Lord’s message behind all this? The main lesson is that Christian joy is never void of suffering, and that the suffering of a Christian is never void of joy. Behind the darkness of the tomb is the light of the Resurrection.
In all the darkness that we see, may we look for the twinkling Christmas lights and let them lead us towards the blinding light of the Resurrection.
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(c) Phoebe Farag 2016