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Easter, Reluctantly

Easter in Egypt is a negotiated reality; this is true for both the nation’s Christians and myself.

All last week at work I wondered about the holiday schedule. Ours is a multi-religious and liberal office; if someone wishes a religious holiday, they can pretty much have it. The Copts who work with us would take the day off and go to be with family, some traveling six hours away by train to Upper Egypt. What about the foreigners, though? Or the Muslims, would they be expected to work? Unlike Christmas, Easter is not a national holiday in Egypt. Islam celebrates the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary, but denies the resurrection indirectly, for it denies first the crucifixion, believing Jesus ascended into heaven before his arrest. Though the government is not Islamic, in this matter it toes the line with the Muslim majority by not confessing the holiday.

Toeing the line is partial, however, as I discovered at work. National law allows Christians to take the day off from work en masse, but reckons it as a claimed vacation day. Given the reality of a national holiday the day after Easter – Shem al-Naseem, or literally, ‘Smelling the Breeze’ – this policy allows Christians to celebrate their holiday, but allows all citizens to create for themselves a four day weekend. Shem al-Naseem is a cultural vernal festival dating back to Pharaonic times; Muslims and Christians celebrate it equally, though I have not yet researched why it is tied to the Easter holiday. Some Copts see this as an implicit national recognition of Easter, though it is missing from the official calendar.

An event at our office disclosed to me another shade of Easter in Egypt. We have been trying to arrange an interview with a prominent Muslim scholar from al-Azhar University, and my supervisor told me we would meet Tuesday after Easter. I was quite happy with the news, but she continued adding that he originally asked for Saturday evening, but we proposed Tuesday instead. This news meant little to me, though I was somewhat glad not to have a work appointment on the weekend. I shrugged my shoulders however, saying, “OK, whatever the sheikh wants would have been fine.” I figured we should bow to his schedule, but at this my supervisor, a Coptic Christian, was aghast. “What,” she exclaimed, “don’t you celebrate Easter?” It took me a few seconds of puzzlement, but then I remembered that church celebrations always occur on the eve of a holiday, not the day of. The day of is a feast; a day to indulge after weeks of fasting. Children gather at the church to play and the priests open their offices to receive the well wishes of visitors, but there is no mass.

In the West we celebrate Christmas Eve, but there is no such thing as Easter Eve. Yet if you remember the events of Nag Hamadi, the murderer targeted the church around midnight the day before Christmas. As there is no correlation between Coptic Christmas and the Western calendar of December 25, this fact can easily be lost on the non-Orthodox reader. This year it so happens that Coptic and Western Easter fall on the same date. Yet even I, living here now for eight months and more tuned in than most foreigners to Orthodox affairs, was caught off guard by an Easter Eve service.

Unfortunately, once I had learned of it I was not that excited. We experienced the Christmas Eve service in Maghagha, which was wonderful as we enjoyed it with the family of a local priest in his small village. Yet we arrived by train halfway through the service, so we did not have to endure a four hour mass ending at midnight with two squirming, sleep deprived children. Managing them for an hour and a half was enough, but once it was over we went to the priest’s home and enjoyed a sumptuous feast of meat, meat, and more meat. You can read about this experience here.

Easter Eve in Maadi had none of these advantages. Though we have been attending the local Orthodox Church since shortly after arrival, we have yet to make good friends there. In saying this I do not blame them; there are many legitimate reasons for this, which I describe here. Yet even so, the celebration for us would be the four hour mass, with two children, and no meat. We decided to pass.

I continued to waver. I was fully agreed that our girls should sleep and Julie would be home with them, but what about myself? I could go alone. In the days leading up to it I went back and forth on this decision several times. As a family we went to the international church Good Friday service, and we were content to let that be our Easter church attendance. We figured we would join the children’s escapades on Easter morning at the Orthodox Church, and in the afternoon a Coptic friend from the Bible Institute had invited us to join them for lunch Easter afternoon. So all in all we set aside time for the holiday, both by ourselves, with foreigners, and with Egyptians. I could appreciate a quiet evening home on Saturday, so why bother with another mass?

On the other hand I kept being jabbed by a conscious that reminds me we are trying to belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Who could confess this desire and yet ignore Easter, the holiest of holidays? There is a virtue in discipline, but I will not claim it here, for my assessment of personal motivation is far too cloudy, with a likelihood of showers. Is worshipping God and being thankful for the Resurrection anywhere near my decision making process? Hardly. Part of the reluctance of going alone is that there will be no ‘credit’. Usually, my daughter Hannah sits on my lap during the service, so I get ‘credit’ for being a good and spiritual father. Furthermore, the service will be packed and any individual will be lost among the crowd. Somewhere in my mind is the idea that if I am faithful in attendance over time I will be noticed and get ‘credit’ in this quest for acceptance and belonging. There would be none of that on Saturday. Worse, I was fully conscious that I could get at least get ‘credit’ in this blog, which would be impossible if I didn’t go. I will not bother to untangle these threads of condemnation, but in the end, go I did.

As I approached the church I was glad I did. I arrived at 8:45, less than an hour after it had begun. On most occasions the church would be about quarter full at this juncture in the mass, but tonight I noticed they had set up two outside areas with live feeds supplying the action on big screen TVs. These already had numerous people sitting comfortably in the cool evening breeze, but I pressed inside anyway and found a seat on the stairs leading upwards in the balcony. If nothing else, this was to be an experience.

As I took my place I noticed my supervisor with a friend of hers in the opposite corner. Ah, credit! The evening was starting out great. About half an hour later it got even better. During this time most of the mass, unfortunately for me, was held in Coptic. Coptic is a dead language except in liturgy, but it has been aggressively promoted in recent decades by church leadership seeking to strengthen Christian identity by, among many other methods, resurrection of the ancient Egyptian vernacular tongue. Many in the audience were chanting along, having memorized the hymns, reciting along with words they would otherwise have no idea of the meaning.

Suddenly, they switched into Arabic, chanting, as slowly as possible as the lights dimmed and the curtain was drawn across the opening in the iconostasis, “al-Masih qaam, bil-haqiqati qaam,” translating the phrase any Easter-going Christian would recognize, “Christ is risen; he is risen indeed.” Except that in accounting for the solemn, deliberate rendering it would more be like this: Chri-i-i-i-i-i-ist is rise-e-e-en; he-e-e-e-e-e-e is ri-i-i-i-s-e-e-e-e-en i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-inde-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e, e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ed. It was eerie, but effective.

Meanwhile, in the Orthodox Church the iconostasis serves to separate the altar from the congregation, holding icons of Jesus, Mary, and the twelve disciples on a lattice which allows preparation of the Eucharistic host to be viewed by all. The main view, however, is through a wide opening in the center, which as mentioned was closed by a curtain as the lights dimmed. Symbolizing the curtain in the ancient Jewish temple which divided the sanctuary from the Holy of Holies, which only the high priest could enter once a year, the mass continued for several minutes in near darkness. Then, with the loud clash of cymbals the lights flashed on and the priest reopened the curtain, setting off a spell of ululation from the women congregants. The curtain was torn in two; Christ had risen from the grave. The mass continued, appropriately, with the reading of the Gospel account of the empty tomb.

I wish I could say the euphoria continued, at least in me. Sadly, though ultimate responsibility rests only in my own human heart, I can find blame in all others around. Allow me to explain.

As I described, I was getting caught up in the presentation. Before the darkness the Bible readings were of such inspiring passages as the resurrection body of I Corinthians, the first Pentecost sermon in Acts, and the Petrine celebration of Christ’s once-for-all death and descent into Hell to preach there the Gospel. When the lights dimmed I was caught completely by surprise, but found myself one with the worshippers even shedding a tear in the darkness. Why, then, did I find the flood of light just a little bit cheesy? Why did the ululation ring hollow, and end sooner than it seemingly should have? For me this was a first time experience, but for everyone else it was observed for however many years that person had been alive. In the darkness, there is no choice but to be silent; with the light comes rejoicing, but who can fake an excitement when it is completely expected? Worse, once the lights came back on several in the congregation began to exit.

I could only guess that most of these were women who needed to get back home to prepare the after mass feast. Surely they were to be excused, but their number increased as the mass continued on. Another large contingent left after the sermon, and the congregation dwindled to about the size of a normal, non-holiday mass. I looked at the time and noticed there was still another two hours to go, and the original ideas of wishing a quiet evening at home as opposed to yet-another-mass returned. If everyone else was leaving, why shouldn’t I? If only from stubbornness to see it through to the end, I stayed.

As I anticipated, it became just an ordinary mass, only on speed, which made things worse. Because of the additional events of the holiday the rest of the liturgy was accelerated to make sure everything ended by midnight. This included my favorite sing-along hymns, which stood in stark contrast to the earlier ‘He is risen’ solemnities. Not only was I conscious of everyone leaving, wondering why I was there, I was also growing tired and sleepy. Still I soldiered on – not the best attitude for worship, but still.

At the end communion was distributed, which surprised me, since there was no communion at the Christmas Eve service. For Lent the Orthodox will fast all day Friday, and then again for eight hours on Easter Eve leading up to the midnight Eucharist. After all had partaken the priest turned to address the congregation, rebuking them for failing to maintain an attitude of reverence in the church, beginning early their Easter revelry. With this, announcements were given, holy water was sprinkled on all, the Lord’s Prayer recited, and everyone exited.

I had told Julie that if offered I would accept an invitation to join someone for the Easter midnight feast. I did not really expect one to be given, but neither did I go out of my way to be friendly. Perhaps this is either a virtue or vice – I was not engaging but at least I held back from worming my way into someone’s hospitality. Instead I went forward to greet the priests, again straddling the line between sincerity and duplicity. On Easter one is to call all friends and wish them a happy holiday, and doing so in person now with the priests I whom I know additionally from the Bible Institute is an even better gesture. Of course, it also grants me the ‘credit’ I earlier was not expecting, grand manipulator that I am. Pausing to see if the third priest I know was also available (he was not), I made way to leave.

Exiting the church I maneuvered between a wonderful scene of Copts dressed to the nines, mingling with friends and exchanging Easter greetings in the cool air of 12:15am. I also exited to witness two other scenes which return to the theme of Easter negotiation in Egypt. Stretched grandly across the street between the trees of the traffic circle was hung a cloth banner impossible to ignore. In bold lettering it wished the brother Christian Copts of Egypt a ‘Glorious Resurrection Holiday’, to translate literally, presented by Muhammad Murshidi and Hussain Magawir, members of the national parliament. Remembering the earlier statement of Islam about Easter, these two Muslim names can either be praised for their commitment to tolerance and national unity or else admonished for shameless pandering for votes. In my opinion, I think the first is more likely, and this was my initial reaction, nearly causing another tear to trickle.

The second scene dried it up, though further reflection might stimulate the tear duct further. As I was walking away back home I saw on the other side of the banner six policemen keeping watch in the center of the traffic circle. I stopped to count; altogether around the church I found sixteen policemen on patrol. For context, churches in Egypt are always under guard, but only two or three are usually to be found, at least in Maadi. It was a clear and immediate reminder of Nag Hamadi, and the efforts of the government to prevent any similar tragedy from marring a second Christian holiday. Praise God, all was fine, as things are 99% of the time in Egypt. It is the 1%, however, which reminds the Egyptian Christian, and this foreign observer, that Easter is a holiday necessary to negotiate with a Muslim majority nation.  

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