Mary


ImageWould you give your life for Christ? If your answer is “no” you can skip ahead to the next paragraph. If your answer is “yes”, here’s another question for you: would you attend church if doing so put your life at risk? No? Ok, skip ahead. Yes? Here’s another: would you encourage your spouse or your children to attend church with you, if doing so put their lives at risk?

To be very honest, I am not sure what the correct answers are to the second two questions, and I’m certainly not sure what my actual, as opposed to my theoretical, response would be if I was personally faced with these choices.

What I do know is that tonight many of my brothers and sisters in Egypt will make these decisions, just as our brothers and sisters in Nigeria did thirteen days ago. Twelve Christians there were killed in attacks by extremists on two different churches.

The Nigerians didn’t unwittingly choose to put their lives at risk. Attacks on churches have become part of the regular news cycle, and they would have been very much aware that acts of violence on a significant holy day are of particular interest to extremists as they look for high profile publicity to spread their brand of terror.

Tonight, on the first Christmas Eve celebrated under a new Islamist constitution, Egyptians will also make this choice. They know the risks and are painfully aware of the threats that have already been made against them. And yet, a very great number of them will venture out of their homes and neighborhoods to join together to worship and celebrate the birth of our Saviour. They will do so with the full knowledge that the act of physically coming together in fellowship transforms them in the eyes of extremists into a high value, high profile target.

This great country, which once served as a place of refuge for the Holy Family fleeing persecution, is becoming a place where it is unsafe to celebrate the birth of their Son.

It is dark, but it is not hopeless. Each person who tonight stands in a church in faith stands against that darkness. Each one of their non-Christian Egyptian brothers and sisters who stands with them in solidarity tonight stands against that darkness. Each one of us who tonight stands with them in prayer, stands against that darkness.

John 1:1-14

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 The same was in the beginning with God.

3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.

5 And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.

9 That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.

11 He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

13 Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

Mary on the 2nd Day

A number of years ago I attended a religious liberty conference in Bulgaria. I like to try to take advantage of being in countries where I can actually afford art I like, so while I was in Sofia I used a free afternoon to go down near the cathedral to peruse the open air market where Bulgarians sold art, much of it original, and antiques (lots of the expected Soviet memorabilia and the more unexpected Nazi paraphernalia). I was drawn to the art booths that sold icons and searched for one that looked “different”, something that would call out to me. When I saw this icon, though I had no idea who it was, I knew it was the one I wanted. The artist couldn’t speak English but from what he said I gleaned the two words Kata Pia. In my ignorance, I didn’t realise he was telling me what the Greek letters on the icon said, I thought I was buying an icon of St. Kata Pia and quite happily went away.

That afternoon we met with a Bulgarian Orthodox bishop and a number of priests. The bishop was celebrating his birthday and in the midst of boisterous toasts, I pulled out my new icon to show him and asked his opinion, introducing him to St. Kata Pia. This caused great consternation. The bishop and the priests all agreed that the icon was a good one but they did not think there was a saint called Kata Pia. After about fifteen minutes of intense discussion and argument they reached a definitive conclusion.

“The woman is Mary, Jesus’ mother, but it’s a special Mary,” said Bishop Cyril, looking at me intently. “It’s not the Mary we usually see, the Virgin receiving the good news, or Mary in her glory, ascending to Heaven. It’s Mary on the second day. That is why she looks so sad.”

I love this Mary. I keep the icon on my desk where I look at it several times a day. She is a Mary whose son has just been killed. She is a Mary who has just seen her dreams and what she thought were the promises of God crushed. She is a Mary who watched the Light of the world die a horrifying and final death. She is a Mary who doesn’t yet know what will come on the Third Day and doesn’t even know to hope for it. She is a Mary asking “Why?” in agony and pain.

The Church gives a great deal of emphasis to Good Friday and to the Resurrection, but there is rarely any real focus on the Second Day. Yet this is the day in which most of us live. This is the experience of those who are persecuted for their faith, both those who die and those who survive to mourn the loss of their loved ones. This is the experience of my colleagues who receive devastating news day after day from Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Burma, North Korea, and others where Christians suffer horribly and little seems to change. This is the experience of those of us who have seen dreams die along with those we love.

Mary on the Second Day reminds me that we are not alone in our confusion and our despair. We share it with her, with the disciples, and with all of those who throughout time have cried out in pain as what we thought would be is destroyed for no apparent reason. We can bring our grief and our despair before God and know that He understands it.

I read from Hebrews 12:22-24 this week and was reminded of the hope that lies in the Third Day. We live in the Second Day, and while it can be bleak, we have this promise: No, you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to countless thousands of angels in a joyful gathering. You have come to the assembly of God’s firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God himself, who is the judge over all things. You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the one who mediates the new covenant between God and people, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks of forgiveness instead of crying out for vengeance like the blood of Abel.

The line, “You have come to the spirits of the righteous ones in heaven who have now been made perfect” particularly stood out to me. That number includes so many: people we have loved, our ancestors who have gone before us in faith, the martyrs whose names, or sometimes just numbers, flood the inboxes of all of us who work on behalf of the persecuted. This is Hope. We have come to them! They have been made perfect! They are part of all we do! They wait for us!