As December 25th came and went and most folks in Pittsburgh began to take down their Christmas lights and tinsel, a church in the city of Helwan in Egypt was attacked. Gunmen brutally murdered Orthodox worshipers and security guards after a liturgy service on December 29th.
This terrorist act was just one in a string of attacks against the ancient Orthodox church, particularly those planned around significant feast days, such as Christmas and Easter. Founded by St. Mark not long after the death of Christ, the Coptic church and its people comprise almost 10% of the population of Egypt, and the Coptic diaspora has stretched throughout Africa, Europe, the US, and Australia.
In the tiny town of Ambridge, PA, St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church is home to hundreds of families from western Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, who mourned the loss of these Christian worshipers, known to us as martyrs. In fact, the centuries old apostolic church is rooted in a history of persecution and founded on the blood of these holy saints who gave up their lives in order to worship and confess our faith in our God freely.
Even so, every year, on January 7th, we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity. Beginning four weeks prior during the Coptic month of Kiahk with fast to help us reflect and prepare spiritually for the coming of the Lord, it culminates in a divine liturgy in which we joyously celebrate this gift.
Families arrive in the evening at the church for the five hour service, chanted in English, Arabic and Coptic. As candles are lit and incense floats through the air, prayers are lifted and the people are united in celebration to receive the holy Sacrament of communion. Afterward, these friends and families join together afterwards to enjoy traditional home-cooked Egyptian meals.
Christmas, however, is more than just a beloved family tradition or a seasonal celebration. Instead, it is the first feast of a new year, in which we constantly honor and remember the life of Jesus Christ, for whom the Coptic people not only given their whole earthly lives to, but have lost them for.
In 2017, repeated attacks on the church of Egypt led to many closings of summer activities and church celebrations throughout the latter part of the year, yet the celebration of the Nativity in Ambridge, PA – amongst others around the world – is an unshakable testament to the devotion of followers tied together by a strong Orthodox faith, which perseveres not only through all suffering, but rejoices constantly.
“[He] Was incarnate and became man, and taught us the ways of salvation. He granted us the birth from on high through water and Spirit. He made us unto himself a congregation…” – Excerpt from the Divine Liturgy
Photos courtesy of St. Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church of Ambridge, Pennsylvania.