A few weeks ago, on December 15th, 60 Minutes aired a story on Christians in Egypt. Like 60 Minutes Correspondent Bob Simon said, “Think of Egypt and the first thing that comes to mind is not Christianity. But Egypt is home to the Copts, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, with roots dating back to the time of Christ himself. Back then, the word “Copt” meant, simply, “Egypt”. But after the advent of Islam, it came to mean “the Christians of Egypt” and the name has stuck.
“Copts have never had it easy there. They’ve been persecuted and discriminated against by the Muslim majority for centuries. They’d hoped the Egyptian revolution would change that. But it hasn’t. Instead, the last year has been one of their worst ever. Copts have been murdered by Islamic extremists. Dozens of their churches have been gutted.”1
But this is the way it has always been for God’s people in Egypt. If Christianity exists wherever Christ is present, then Christianity began early in Egypt. St. Matthew told us today about how an angel told Joseph to pack up and get out of Israel, because danger was coming. You see, King Herod had been visited by some magi, some wise men, from the East, and so he had a good idea that someone special had been born in his kingdom; someone had been born that might even threaten his power in his kingdom. The wise men had unwittingly given this knowledge to Herod, but they were indeed wise, and so they listened to the Lord when the Lord told them to avoid Herod and to go back home another way.
This avoidance did not please King Herod, and so since he could not easily ascertain where this newborn King might be staying, Herod instead decided to just slaughter all the young boys in the area, presumably along with anyone who didn’t like that idea.
And so Joseph, who was also very wise, packed up his holy family and skedaddled to Egypt, where they would be safe. Matthew doesn’t tell us how long the Holy Family was in Egypt, but the Coptic Church says that they were present for about three-and-a-half years, long enough that Jesus would have been able to remember clearly His time there.
The Copts did a good job in making sure that the national memory of Jesus’ time there was remembered as well. There are nineteen places in Egypt that are set apart as places the Holy Family rested or sojourned. One is a sycamore tree that gave shade to Mary and the Child while Joseph fetched water, they call it the Mary Tree.
But the most important site is Abu Serga, the Church of Ss. Sergius and Bacchus. Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church is traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family… rested at the end of their journey into Egypt. They may have lived here while Joseph worked at the…Babylonian Fortress, a huge city-sized fort that, interestingly, now houses several churches where his foster-son is worshiped.2
It’s in the crypt, the cave-dwelling below Abu Serga, where the Holy Family lived while in Egypt. On that same 60 Minutes piece, a historian named Febe Armanios said that “Local traditions say that they lived here, that the Virgin Mary may have even bathed the baby Jesus in that spot there. That you can hear His voice in this room– that he breathed in this room. All of this is part of that memory.”3
All of this is part of that memory, that memory of Christ present with them, of Emmanuel, God with us; that memory of Him learning to walk on that ground, the very Word of God speaking His first words in that same space.
But it’s not a memory that keeps the Coptic Church together in the face of brutal oppression. What keeps them together in the face of death is that same Jesus, that same Jesus who still rests there, whose voice they still hear, whose breath still lingers in the air.
This second Sunday after Christmas, on the day before we mark once again the arrival of the wise men, and the saving of Jesus from Herod, remember if you will the Christians of Egypt, the descendants of those who kept our Lord safe so far away from home, and pray that through their faithfulness and example, that the breath of God might inspire the world to mercy, and that the whole world will hear His voice.
1The Coptic Christians of Egypt, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-coptic-christians-of-egypt/
2Wikipedia, both Abu Serga and Babylonian Fortress.