To be a Christian today is not to invent something new. It is rather to be a part of something that you share with many billions of others who have lived in times and places as diverse as the Late Classical Roman Empire, medieval China and modern Gabon. They have been short and tall, fat and skinny, rich and poor, powerful and oppressed, slaves and free, old and young, male and female. Yet all of this huge mass of humanity is united by one transcendent belief: that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, saved us from our sins.
It has not always been easy to hold this faith. Often, to be a Christian has meant to suffer taunts and jibes at the least, a painful death at worst. The courage and utter dedication to the truth of the Christian Gospel of those who came before is profoundly inspiring, and gives today’s Christian a background or heritage against which to measure her own practice of the Christian way. The Coptic Church, like many others, has preserved the stories of those heroes of the past in books like the Synaxarium (read during the liturgy) and the Antiphonarium (read during the Midnight Praise). She has preserved their stories in beautiful icons, which are said not be painted, but ‘written’, since they are created chiefly to tell a story and communicate important theological truths about the meaning and purpose of human life in the light of the Christian message of divine love. We sing praises to these saints, celebrate special days to remember and honour their lives and sacrifices, and name our children after them in the hope that they will emulate some of their virtues. These are heroes worthy of the title, for their victories and achievements were not just in some passing arena of human endeavour, but in the arena of eternal life. Their crown is not a fading wreath of leaves, but a state of heavenly existence in the light of their loving Creator.
Christianity is first and foremost about love, about losing the ego, the self, by offering it up as a sacrifice of love for God and for others. “No one is saved alone” goes the old desert adage, but “Our life or death rests with our brother”. To be Christian is to be part of a community. The Apostolic Churches embrace the whole community of the Body of Christ, across the world, through the ages, and across the gulf that lies between the living and the dead. The bonds of love that unite us, and the faith in Christ that makes us one with each other are too powerful to be severed by death, for as we saw earlier, Christ has defeated death.
This is why the Apostolic Christian asks those who have departed this world to pray for her. Those who have completed their course and gone to wait upon God do not love us any less – if anything, they love us even more for being freed from the limitations and desires of this fallen life and having come into the blessed light of God’s presence. So, just as I might ask a friend I meet at Church to pray for a problem that needs a solution, so I ask a friend who has gone to God to do the same. If anything, the prayers of the saints are more effective, for “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16), and if those saints were not righteous, then who was?
Such petitions and prayers between the living and the departed prefigure our eventual reunion in the Kingdom of Heaven and they are tinged with the same emotions one finds in the letters of long sundered relatives who are about to be finally and permanently reunited.
Not only does the large ‘T’ Christian Tradition tie us to those who came before us, but so also do the small ‘t’ traditions. There is something profoundly moving, something timeless and eternal about praying words in a 5,000 year old language with tunes that are also thousands of years old, and knowing that you are sharing in the same liturgy or praises as St Cyril in the fifth century. Some Coptic tunes are said to have been adopted from ancient Egyptian temple worship, which gives them a lineage that predates Christianity itself. Even more beautiful is the experience of praying a liturgy in a place as hallowed as the ancient Church of an Egyptian desert monastery, or, as I was once blessed to experience, in the very cave in which St Anthony lived out his long life high up the side of a mountain. And the traditions of using candles and incense, curtains and liturgical vestments not only reflect the symbols used to describe the future eternal heavenly state in the Bible, they also all have long histories behind them, and many ancient artefacts that remind us that the experience of attending a Coptic liturgy has not changed that much since the earliest times. Psychologists say that one of the chief things that make us feel fulfilled in life is the sense of belonging to something bigger than yourself. Orthodoxy provides that sense in generous abundance!
But not all history is good history. Perhaps one of the weaknesses in Orthodox Churches today is that we sometimes emphasise the victories and virtues of the saints while ignoring their weaknesses and failures. I think this is a big mistake. I have heard far too many young Copts remark that the saints are not relevant to their lives because they are too distant in their perfection. They represent a standard that the young person feels they can never reach, so why even try? Why even pay any attention to them? They belong to a world different to their own world full of temptations and falls and painful, laborious struggles to rise again. But in truth, I am convinced that even the loftiest of saints went through all that we go through today, taking into account differences in culture and society of course. But while those things change, human nature never changes, and those saints were every bit as human as we. In fact, I think humanising the saints makes them even more inspiring. It brings them closer to our own lives and shows us that if God could work so wonderfully in their lives, He can do the same in ours.
Nor must we sweep the mistakes of the past under the carpet and pretend they never happened. In its essence, Christianity is a search for Truth, and Jesus called Himself “the Truth”. To twist our history to make it less embarrassing is to betray the truth. Not only is it unfaithful to Truth, but it is also dangerous. “Those who ignore the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them”. As you read through the Bible, one of the things you notice is that it relates the lives and acts of people warts and all. Within its pages we find Abraham’s lies, King David’s adultery, and St Peter’s cowardly denial. These are just as instructive to us as their victories and virtues, and we ignore them at our own peril. In fact, St Basil, author of our main Eucharistic liturgy, spends all of the last chapter of his essay “On the Holy Spirit” criticising and lamenting the lack of the Holy Spirit in the Church of his day and vehemently denouncing the selfish ambition and factionalism that appears to have been rampant around him. Sadly, these stark realities of human weakness are now lost in the mists of time for most of our saints, and may never be recovered, but it is important that we at least acknowledge their reality and keep them in mind when we remember them.
But to return to a more positive note, the wonder of knowing that you are part of something as ancient and universal as an Apostolic Christian Church is rich part of the Orthodox Christian experience. And one of the most ancient and universal aspects of that experience is the concept of the Christian Mysteries or Sacraments, the subject of the next post.