A reflection from Julie:
Today marks a strange day. Just one week ago, a suicide bomber killed over 25 people, mostly women and children, as they worshipped in church here in Cairo. And one week from today, people all around the world will celebrate the joyous birth of a Savior during Western Christmas. On one end of the bookend is a most tragic event; on the other, a most joyful one. And yet for both events, that is only part of the story.
The bombing last week hit close to home. Although we are not from the Orthodox tradition of faith, we have worshiped at the local Coptic Orthodox church since we arrived in Cairo seven years ago. We are familiar with the layout of the sanctuary, including the segregation of men and women. The right side of the pews, facing the altar, is for the women and consequently most of the children. The men sit on the left side of the church. In our church there can be some mixing toward the back, and that is often where our family sits. But for the suicide bomber, whether this was his target or just the nearest group he could reach, his bomb exploded in the women’s section.
Mothers and daughters lost their lives. Sisters, friends, aunts, and grandmothers. Mothers lost daughters and daughters lost mothers. In at least one family, both the mother and daughter died, and another daughter was injured. In another family, two sisters died, just graduated from school. As I looked at the pictures of some of the victims, I couldn’t help thinking about the Sunday school teachers with my kids every week. Young, vibrant, with their whole lives ahead of them.
One report mentioned the timing of the explosion. During mass there is always a “giving of the peace.” This has been a favorite time for our children as they slide their hands between the hands of other congregants, their siblings, and us, and then kiss their own fingertips, while saying “peace of the Messiah.” This was the time, purposefully for not, that the suicide bomber entered the church. Instead of peace, how tragic this man would give only violence.
Yet the Coptic Orthodox Church, thought mourning, still rejoices. It is a church built on a history of pain, persecution, and suffering. Children hear the stories of martyrs from centuries past and marvel at their strong faith and unwavering resolve to follow Jesus despite the threat of death. Adults aspire to stand firm in the face of fear. One friend told us he wished he was counted worthy to be there and die. We are glad he wasn’t one of 25-plus now added to the church roster.
Such hope can sound trite. A band-aid for the pain or an elixir to numb feelings after tragedy. But it is not. Mothers are grieving. Fathers are burying their children. Children try to understand where their mom has gone. All of the pain is real and felt. Yet they have a deeper faith that can help support those who are mourning.
Though the Coptic Orthodox calendar has Christmas on January 7, most of the world will celebrate just one week from today. There is so much joy and happiness that surrounds this event. For me it means baking, spending time with my family, fellowshipping with friends, making Christmas ornaments, and attending special church services. And of course, we know the Christmas story where angels appeared to shepherds and announced the good news with great joy! Amazing things happened more than 2000 years ago.
But tragic things happened too. As I reflected this week on the bombing—with Christmas so near—I thought of the mothers in Bethlehem who lost their sons. As Herod’s jealousy grew over the rumors of a new king, he ordered his soldiers to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem two years and younger. Can you imagine? Murdered as they slept in their beds. Seized while nursing. Moments earlier they were crawling down the corridor or toddling toward their moms. What pain, what tragedy.
Christmas is a joyous celebration because it signals the birth of the Prince of Peace who will—one day—bring peace to this world. But this year not all are festive with blinking lights and wrapping paper. Besides the families of the Egyptian martyrs, some are dealing with debt, divorce, death, and disease. The world is dealing with refugees, war, terrorism, and racism. Not exactly the happiest Christmas message.
How do we, how do I, handle all the tragedy in the world and still somehow celebrate the birth of my Savior? This reflection is how I will start; I will remember the bigger picture. Some are suffering; some are rejoicing. I will pray for both. I will help others. I will be kind. I will teach my children what I must continually learn: To not just focus on my own joy this Christmas, but to look outward and consider others.
We are mothers and daughters, mothers and sons. Let us pray for peace on earth and goodwill toward men.