Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cave Churches in Cairo

Greetings! We are coming to the celebration of Holy Week in Egypt (using the Eastern Christian calendar), and you will soon be remembering the Ascension of our Lord in your churches. With a visiting professor in Hebrew, I journeyed last week to an outlying area of Cairo where mostly Christians live. As we inched our ways through narrow streets, lined with large bags of garbage and trash, pungeant aromas filled the air. (Christians have performed the job of collecting garbage for a long time, and here the garbage and trash is sorted and recycling work takes place.) But then we came to a hillside beyond the village, and to an area where the Coptic Church was permiited to develop a worship center (about 20 years ago), and this is what we saw. Because of the mostly dry climate in Egypt and the high cost of erecting buildings, the Coptic church has constructed an outdoor, ampitheatre church facility, where the entrance to a cave has been transformed into the chancel and altar area. (You can see a little of the celebrating bishop in the white robe with his back to us at the entrance to the inner cave).

The entire area seves as a gathering place for Coptic people. Here, visible signs tell the Good News of Jesus, where in the public spaces of Cairo this would not be possible. Reliefs have been carved into the hillsides and there are chapels devoted to St. Anthony (the father of Egyptian monasticism) and other holy men. The picture to the left shows a small chapel dedicated to the Ascension depicted in a mosaic on the dome. On the hillside behind is the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem which has the inscription underneath: "Blessed is he who comes....Jesus, command your disciples to be silent....if so, then the stones themselves would cry out!" There is an irony here - in this place where Christians can "display" their message openly - that the stones are called upon to help proclaim the Lord's coming.

This Sunday was set aside for baptisms and about 100 families had come to have their children become part of Christ's Church. One mother proudly held up her son (and hid behind him?) asking me to take a picture. Two things are interesting in this. You would normally not see women in public dressed in bright colors and without veils. But here in this worship center this is possible. Second, you would not normally see a display of the cross in public, but again since this is an area set aside for Christians to gather it is possible. One sign of the vitality of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt. More on the practice of infant baptism and the impact of the "evangelicals" from the United States in a later blog. Peace and Justice, Roger

(I have formally signed on for another year at the seminary. Will be in the Los Angeles area late June through late July if you would like me to speak at your church. Contact me at

Monday, April 7, 2008

St. Catherine's Monastery and Mt. Sinai

Greetings from Egypt! I was privileged to join with many of the students of the seminary to visit St. Catherine's monastery, which stands at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the mountain where Moses led the people of Israel during the Exodus. The monastery was built by the first Christian emperor, Constantine I, in 333 C.E. to honor the woman who was martyred in Alexandria during the years of persecution, before the empire became Christian in the early 4th cenury. It became and has been since that time a place of pilgrimage. You can see the heavy walls which surround the church and cloister, which still is home for about 45 monks. These were built during turbulent times to protect them and the religious treasures and manuscripts housed there, which are on display to the public for about 3 hours daily.

I am learning that not only was monasticism a very significant movement and development in the life of the ancient church, but has continued to be a place where people come away from the world for a short time or for the rest of their lives. The number of people entering monasteries in Egypt is increasing. Today, monasteries are also important in the life of the Egyptian Coptic Church, for "men" from these cloistered environments are chosen to be bishops and the new Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church when necessary. The people have continued to appeal to these "holy men", who seek quiet and solitude away from the world to move closer to God, so that these "spiritual" persons may lead them in religious matters, and also serve as administrators of the church, and in its interaction with the Muslim society and the government of Egypt. Not an easy task.

This is a copy of a painting I purchased at the monastery, by the Spanish artist "El Greco". The monastery is small in comparison to the mountains which surround it, the center one being Mt. Sinai. Together with the students and faculty of the seminary, I arose early one morning (about 2:00 a.m.) and ascended the four and one half miles to the top (about 4,000 feet above), to watch the sun come up. We were not alone. Many others came, (probably a few thousand) from all parts of the world to be there, some making part of the ascent by camel. It is truly an example of a "multitude of saints" from many nations, gathered in one place. (It was also quite a traffic jam, particularly on the way down as people, tired from lack of sleep and the exertion, vied for space on the narrow, steep pathways. Fortunately, everyone arrived at the bottom safely.

I very much enjoyed sharing this informal time with the students and some faculty, and we reflected on the significance of these places. I shared that El Greco had added what seem to be faces on the mountains, and also crafted these to resemble human forms to remind us of those who had also been in this place, and appear to be watching over us, and that the same God who was present before in this place is present with us on our journeys through life.

Peace and Justice, Roger