It is now two days past Palm Sunday, making my reflections perhaps tardy. To be honest, I had not meant to write much for Palm Sunday, except perhaps to mention that I found myself very much at home singing along at a Bulgarian Orthodox temple’s Vigil service on Saturday night because I was in Boston for a geography conference. I had not felt like attending – I was so tired, but I had walked past it while in search of the comfort food called Korean soft tofu stew – and I went anyway. As the people covered the litanies with ‘Lord, have mercy,’ I broke down in tears once, surrounded as I was by the love of the people of G-d as they were invoking for prayer all those who stand before the face of G-d. These are in some senses private reflections, and to speak of them more at this point is to speak prematurely, as they might give a sense that Orthodoxy is supposed to be cathartic when – as my longtime Orthodox and Greek Catholic friends gently remind me – it is manifestly not.
Then I heard the news of what happened in Tanta and Cairo. My first thought was: not again. Last time this had happened, I had been in Richmond at my home temple, where we had organized a memorial service for the New Martyrs, reading the prayer that had been composed by the Coptic Church that named each of the New Martyrs in December by name and asked for their prayers.
In some ways, I have no right to speak on this, except to mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice. Both, it seems, have been the responses of the Coptic Church. I grieved, as did many others in various Christian traditions as well as those who do not belong to any church or ecclesial community, with those who cried out in the moment of their unspeakable loss. The Coptic bishop of Melbourne even tweeted with a bit of sarcasm that this is ‘becoming our regular gift before feasts.’ The timing of the blast in the Cairo cathedral suggests that this may have even been an assassination attack on Pope Tawadros II, especially in light of Pope Francis’s imminent visit to Egypt.
And yet, there was inexplicable rejoicing. The day after, on the day the Copts call Pascha Monday, Fr Boules George thanked from St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo ‘those who would kill us’ for filling their churches, especially on Pascha Monday when the churches never seem to be filled. He said that resorting to bombing was an indicator that those who inflict such violence are not at peace:
They are a wretched lot. And because they are wretched, we must pray for them. But when someone loves God, he won’t know except love. We need to pray for them so they can sleep at night. A person who has all this inside them, how can he sleep comfortably? Can you imagine? We are being slaughtered and the King of Peace gives us peace to sleep. And the one who slaughters, all night he can’t sleep.
He quotes one of the Coptic bishops who reprimands his servants for not praying for a man who curses Christians. With the hope of the feast that precedes Palm Sunday – Lazarus Saturday – Fr George deftly (though perhaps not entirely purposefully) turns the Melbourne bishop’s sarcasm about the ‘gift before the feast’ into a truly theological reflection.
It is here that while I am tempted to follow through with my initial reaction – that I am not Coptic and therefore have no right by way of identity to speak – I am reminded that I am Catholic. I have stressed my canonical membership in an autonomous sui juris church plentifully in the past, but in this case, I was quickly reminded that these attacks come in the wake of Pope Francis imminently visiting Egypt. Francis is not my church’s patriarch – Sviatoslav is – but the right stress in this scenario is that we are in full communion with the See of Rome, the church that presides in charity over all the churches. The historic schism dividing the Copts, the Byzantines, and the Latins is immaterial here; as the Orthodox Patriarch John X of Antioch has stressed, we all have an ecumenism of blood now in the face of being slaughtered all the day long so that we must enter into an ‘ecumenism of repentance.’ To be Catholic in this moment is to recognize the full significance that the Successor of the Holy Apostle Peter will embrace the Successor of the Holy Evangelist Mark in a few weeks’ time, sharing with him fully in the cruciform pain and resurrectional joy of the ‘regular gift before feasts.’
It was in this light that I was reminded at the Bulgarian Orthodox temple in Boston that the church’s tradition during Great and Holy Week is to read through all the Gospels. The priest said after Vigil that as busy people, we should at least make the effort to get through one Gospel, and if we wanted a hint as to which one was the most doable, it was the Gospel according to the Holy Evangelist Mark. It can be read, he told us, in one-and-a-half hours; couldn’t we spare that for the Lord?
I decided to make Mark my reading after doing a Readers’ Bridegroom Matins at home yesterday; the places that offer Bridegroom Matins are for me simply too far to get to on a work day here in Evanston, as secular academia does not stop for Great and Holy Week.
Mark’s Gospel is one with which I thought I was familiar. I was a regular Bible reader as an evangelical Protestant. I also attended Catholic school where the sophomore Christology course was taught through Mark’s Gospel. In evangelical Anglicanism, the Gospel of Mark is the one on which the course Christianity Explored is based. I took a New Testament Foundations course at Regent College; the whole New Testament was the core text, to be sure, but there was special interest in Mark as the source text for the other Synoptics. Kairos time, New Exodus, Messianic Secret, the startling sudden short ending: I thought I knew it all.
I placed a Coptic icon of Holy Mark the Evangelist on my phone in my icon corner and began to read the Gospel. I was struck very quickly by a new feeling: the Gospel is full of crowds. In fact, the way that Jesus instructs his disciples seems always in relation to the crowds: in parables, in the mighty deeds of the bread, in the references to the cup. Do you not understand? the Lord always seems to say to his disciples; they of course do not. The crowds move with Jesus to Jerusalem; in fact, the story of the entry into Jerusalem features one more addition to the crowd: Blind Bartimaeus with his sight restored. Palm Sunday is the culmination of the crowds, and in the temple, the crowds continue as before to crowd Jesus to listen to his teaching. Through this interaction with the crowds, the hearer of the Gospel comes to see the story of his Passion and Resurrection as the ultimate reveal of his parabolic teaching to the crowds: it turns out that Jesus is the kingdom in whom the people share, Jesus is the bread that is taken, blessed, broken, and given to feed those who listen to his teaching, Jesus is the cup and the baptism that his disciples must share in martyrdom.
Crowds, we might say in light of the bombings in Cairo and Tanta, are a security risk; indeed, a state of emergency has been declared in Egypt. This is the same story we hear of Pope Francis – and indeed, of some of his successors, like the Holy Pope John Paul II – for whom crowds are said to be a security risk. Yet this is a reflection on the real meaning of a papacy will be – both the Coptic papacy of Pope Tawadros II and the Latin papacy of Pope Francis – because to be pope is to be father, to be abba, to be the shepherd around whom the crowds crowd, just as they did around our Lord. They are the gift – the kingdom, the bread, and the cup – for the crowds in the midst of a state of emergency, a volatile situation of violence.
I can now finally talk about why I wept at the Bulgarian Orthodox temple at the Vigil of Palm Sunday. As we processed downstairs to the church doors, the priest entered into a long litany, naming many of our mothers and fathers among the saints. The people spontaneously covered the litany with a blanket of Lord, have mercy; Kyrie, eleison; Господи помилуй. I listened and I heard many of the names of the holy women and men being read, and I realized that we had been involved in the crowds of Palm Sunday, with all the holy angels and archangels and women and men who stand before the face of the Lord – for some reason, if you must know, the invocation of Holy Athanasius of Alexandria was what really triggered the floodgates, for completely inexplicable reasons. My weeping was not catharsis; it was an expression of wonder at a mystical union words cannot describe, and as when an infant does not know how to express the inexpressible, the only thing that can be done is to cry.
The best I know how to articulate the gift that is the Coptic Church to us as Christians today is the realization that we are simply Catholic. Historic divisions notwithstanding, we are simply the crowd for whom our Lord gives himself as a ransom for many, thanking him for the Popes who preside over the transfiguration of the gifts for us to be fed and nourished. With the Coptic New-Martyrs, may I eat the bread from heaven and even drink the cup from which he drinks, aware that as the Lord announces, The time has come, the kingdom is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel. Overcome with grief at the violence of the world, let me still be a part of the people of the resurrection awaiting Pascha on Sunday.
Buried with You through Baptism, O Christ our God, we have been granted immortal life by Your resurrection, and we sing Your praises, crying out: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. (Second Tropar for Palm Sunday.)