Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt
May the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
Our Lord Jesus Christ is unrivaled as the wisest man to ever walk upon the face of the earth. He walked with sorrow, love, grief, and happiness. Facing trials and tribulations, the Lord Jesus gave to His people wise words and actions that continue to give us guidance and encouragement two thousand years after His death. They speak to us today in the same manner as they spoke to people hundreds of years ago.
As we enter into TWO THOUSAND YEARS OF COPTIC CHRISTIANITY, I would like to reflect on the Lord Jesus' flight into Egypt, the establishment of the Christian Church, and the piety of our Coptic ancestors. As we examine our history and project our future, I hope you will find that as Copts, we are not separate individuals but ONE in the Lord Jesus Holy Name and that indeed we "believe in ONE holy, catholic, and apostolic church."
The visit of our Lord Jesus Christ to Egypt was a blessing to its people. Egypt was the only country visited by the Lord Jesus with the exception of Palestine. It provided reconciliation between the Egyptians and God following the Exodus plagues. The visit prepared the Egyptians for the dawning of Christianity, which would occur approximately forty years later at the hands of the apostle, St. Mark. The Holy Family sought shelter in Egypt until the death of King Herod. It is interesting to note that the Lord Jesus as a child did not use His power. He fled to Egypt although He had authority over Herod's soul. When an angel instructed St. Joseph to return to Palestine, the Holy Family left Egypt. This fulfilled what the Old Testament prophecy had foretold, "When Israel was a child, then I loved Him, and called my Son out of Egypt" (Hosea 11:1).
Indeed, the Holy Family prepared the way for Christianity in Egypt. An ancient Coptic legend says that as the Holy Child entered Heliopolis, "the noise of a rushing mighty wind was heard, the earth trembled, the idols crashed from their pedestals...." Apart from this legend, we are specifically told in Isaiah 19:1: "Behold the Lord rideth upon a swift cloud and shall come into Egypt and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at His presence and the heart of Egypt shall meet in the midst of it." Egyptian conversion to Christianity two thousand years ago can be attributed to this historic visit of the Christ Child. Egypt was chosen by God as a place of refuge and truly the people abiding there were richly blessed.
"In that day shall be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt and a pillar at the border there of to the Lord. And it shall be for a sign and a witness unto the Lord of Hosts in the land of Egypt: for they shall cry unto the Lord because of the oppression and He shall send them a Savior and a Great One and He shall deliver them...whom the Lord of Hosts shall bless saying, BLESSED BE EGYPT, MY PEOPLE..." (Isaiah 19:19-25).
St. Mark, the founder of the Coptic faith, gave the Egyptians the distinction of having many "firsts" recorded in their history of achievements. According to tradition in all apostolic churches, St. Mark's home is well known as the first Christian Church in the world. St. John Chrysostom states that St. Mark was the first apostle to inscribe the liturgy in the form of a ritual, which was strictly followed in the celebration of the Eucharist. The liturgy would be memorized by his successors and later be written by Pope Cyril.
The first Gospel ever written was by St. Mark. It would prove to be the first attempt to present the entire "tradition" of the Lord Jesus into a continuous story. A large part of the Gospel of St. Mark was written while he was in Egypt. The Theological School of Alexandria, which dates to the beginning of Christianity, was also founded by this apostle. St Mark was the first of an unbroken chain of 117 patriarchs.
The history of Christian Egypt can also be held in high regard for its preservation of "tradition." Tradition in the apostolic age was the only source of Christian faith, doctrine, and worship. All of these were crucial in the formation and life of the early church. In the apostolic age the New Testament books were in existence but not yet officially canonized. St John the Beloved tells us, "that which was from the beginning WHICH WE HAVE HEARD, which WE HAVE SEEN with our eyes, which WE HAVE LOOKED UPON AND TOUCHED with our hands, concerning the Word of Life..." (John 1:1) comprises tradition.
In his Gospel, St. John further states, "HE WHO SAW IT has borne witness...his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth...that you also may believe" (John 19:35). St. Luke also pointed out that accounts of the events of the Lord Jesus' life "were delivered to us by those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the world" (Luke 1:2). Therefore, by His entry into Egypt and the tradition, which followed, the Copts were blessed with a strong foundation for the church, a foundation, which wars and rumors of wars, would not shake.
Our beloved Coptic Church has had many illustrious sons. St. Antony, St. Athanasius, St Clement, St. Cyril, St. Origen, and St. Pachomius to name only a few. It is well known to be the motherland for monasticism. The Coptic Church has survived the struggles of theological debates. Tragedies and persecutions with martyrdom as the end result have not weakened the Church. All of the courageousness and long suffering of its people has led to its further religious expansion in Egypt and from Egypt into the world.
A Coptic scholar once wrote, "The Coptic Church is like a historical museum; the old and the new are to be found side by side, for the antiquity of the culture leads to their being simply juxtaposed with no thought of the dialectical relationship between the two. Thus as the twentieth century ended, Copts old and new, modernizers and traditionalists agreed to interact and place their loyalty to Christianity as it was in the beginning."
As to present day exploration of the Coptic faithful, many pillars have been added to the foundation established by the Lord Jesus' entry into Egypt. Sunday School programs are progressive and the attendance is high, social service programs in Egypt and the lands of Immigration have broadened in their outreach, education is stressed as a prerequisite in our church leaders, and publications and journals are at the highest level yet.
In the United States we have a School of Theology in Jersey City and a monastery in the desert of southern California. The Orthodox Church has been blessed with increasing numbers of churches and retreat centers. We continue to have churches being built and churches awaiting priests. Our beloved Pope Shenouda III is the gift of God to the Coptic Church in this century. Certainly, we have much to be thankful for and ongoing challenges before us.
For two thousand years the Coptic Church has kept the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, beginning in a period where tradition largely dictated church worship to recorded history in books with research to prove the history. With the increasing number of Coptic immigrants to other countries, such as our own, the Church of Alexandria has been opened up to the outside world. The spirit of tradition and rite has successfully been transferred and cherished by the faithful.
We can only speculate about the future while keeping the past endeared to us. The church must continue to witness for the Lord Jesus. Its members must carry the LIVING TRADITION to the universe. There are no boundaries for the steadfast and faithful. We must follow our ancestors footsteps, carry the Lamp after our early Fathers, and proclaim the ONE God!" It is our responsibility to fulfill the words of the Lord, "but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).
The year 2000 is indeed a blessed, historical year for our Church! The entry of the Holy Family into Egypt and the celebration of two thousand years of Christianity bring much happiness and joy to our hearts. With this feast must also come a realization that life cannot only be understood by looking backward, but it must be lived by looking forward.
"But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31).
Our heritage is great and our destiny is unimaginable. Let us pray that the Lord our God will give us the true faith and courage that will continue to bring honor to HIS CHURCH AND WE WILL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER.
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States