As 2015 drew to a close, church leaders were expressing grave concerns for the future of Christianity in the Middle East. But such fears might be exaggerated, according to a writer for a British Christian website. As one of his points of evidence he cites Egypt’s Coptic Christians, whose “faithful piety” means “there are almost certainly more committed believers in Egypt than there are in the UK!”
It is a valid argument, and it struck a chord, as my pastor had asked me to preach one of our church’s sermons during the Christmas period, and I had spoken at length on the Coptic Church.
The topic of my sermon was the visit of the magi – the three wise men of biblical tradition – to the infant Jesus, and I used this story to discuss the theme of trust.
According to the gospel writer Matthew, it was the visit of the magi that alerted King Herod to the birth of Jesus, whereupon Herod ordered the slaughter of all boys aged under two years in the vicinity of Bethlehem.
But an angel of the Lord had already warned Joseph to flee, and he escaped to Egypt with Mary and the baby Jesus.
In my sermon I noted that, although the Bible says nothing about the Holy Family’s time in Egypt, the Coptic Church believes it knows the route of their journey, and today many of these places are famous pilgrimage sites.
But the key reason I wanted to discuss the Coptic Church was, I told my congregation, because I believe it is one of the finest examples we have today of a church that has trusted God. Right from the start of its existence – tradition says it was founded by the gospel writer Mark soon after the death of Jesus – the Egyptian church has been subject to intense persecution, and this has continued down to the present day.
Yet church members have consistently placed their trust in God. They have chosen death rather than renounce their faith. Is this the reason the Coptic Church has survived and flourished, even as, over the centuries, Christianity was being wiped out in many of the neighboring countries of the Middle East? I feel it might be.
In my sermon I gave an example of what could be termed the “faithful piety” of the Church. I live in Melbourne, Australia, not far from a large Coptic monastery that serves as their local headquarters. They have their own bookstore that is open on Sundays, and a few years ago I went there to buy a couple of books for some writing I was doing.
I got chatting with one of the senior priests, and he gave me some pamphlets about the Church. Then he went away and came back with a loaf of the monastery’s communion bread, which he presented to me. It was a round, flat loaf with a cross stamped in the center, representing Jesus, surrounded by twelve smaller crosses, for the twelve apostles.
The priest explained to me that the bread is made each Saturday by priests who pray and chant psalms throughout the whole baking process. It is round because that represents Jesus, who is eternal, without beginning or end. And each loaf is pierced five times, to symbolise the three nails of Jesus on the cross, the spear that the Romans pierced him with and the crown of thorns.
He told me it is made of wheat and yeast only so as to represent the manna that God gave the Israelites each day in the Sinai Desert, which was intended as their daily sustenance. So the bread never contains salt, as this would give it some taste and might also help preserve it. It is made to be without particular taste, and to be eaten immediately.
As we enter 2016 we see Christianity under threat in many places, not only in the Middle East. I suspect some of us might be tested as never before. Do we have the same strong trust in our Savior that has been shown over many centuries by Egypt’s Coptic Church?