18 February 2015

We Are People of the Cross

Three years ago I wrote an article here supporting the idea that we Christians are People of the Cross. (cf., We Are People of the Cross). I felt strongly about my disagreement with Sister Joan Chittester's point --- though I understood what she was focusing on and completely empathized with that. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that the importance of that label would be underscored in blood and martyrdom in the way that occurred just three days ago.  On that day ISIS took 21 Coptic Christians out to the beach somewhere along the Mediterranean and beheaded them for being "People of the Cross" and People of the illusion of the Cross. We have all seen the pictures: the long row of young men in orange jump suits, each accompanied by his murderer dressed in black and masked from identification; the ISIS member brandishing his knife towards the camera; the headless torso lying in a pool of blood on the sand; the sea turned red with the blood, bodies, and separated heads of these martyrs.

Relatives of Egyptian Coptic Christians purportedly murdered in Libya by self-proclaimed Islamic State militants mourn for those killed.
Families of Martyred Christians in Egypt
On Sunday our parish celebrated several baptisms of children. In each case the parents and godparents traced the sign of the cross on the child's forehead following our pastor who had first done so --- claiming these children for Christ. It was a joyful occasion also marked by our own renewal of baptismal vows: "Do we renounce. . .?" "Do we believe. . .?" and echoes of our own initiation into the People of God, "Let your light shine. . .!" "Keep your baptismal garment unstained. . .!"

Today, on Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, we will each have a cross traced on our own forehead in ashes and this cross will be visible for at least several hours as we move through our world identified as believers in either the greatest foolishness or the greatest wisdom the world has ever known. Remember, it was Paul, the last and in some ways, the greatest Apostle who said, "If Christ is not raised from the dead then we are the greatest fools of all!" ISIS is certainly not the first to claim the cross was the symbol of an illusion! They will not be the last to suggest Christians are deluded in their faith. But we know Christ crucified and risen, we know him intimately since through him our lives have been changed in ways only the Living God and certainly no mere illusion (or delusion) could do.

I have no doubt that ISIS believes the orange jumpsuits and beheadings are somehow degrading, scandalous, and shameful. (They, at the very least, literally represent a complete loss of face and the taking away of honor. In honor-shame cultures honor resides especially in the head.) Perhaps they see these in somewhat the same way the cross was perceived in Jesus' day. I am sure they believe death has forever separated these Christians from God's love. But in this case orange is the new white --- the white garment of men and women who have been baptized into Jesus' death and resurrection. The white garment of witnesses, martyrs, who know that our God loves us and all of creation with an everlasting love from which no guilt, no sin, no shame, no death, can separate us. The sign of that love, a love which enters into the godless depths of our own terrible alienation and shame  in order to bring us back "home" to ourselves and our God is the cross of Christ. We are People of the Cross --- marked by both the world's guilt and shame and the righteousness and hope of God's vindication.

Coptic Tattoos; Marked as People of the Cross

Today we will wear that sign both proudly and humbly, joyfully and in grief at our renewed recognition of all it can mean in a broken and often savage world; once again we wear that sign on our very flesh as we renew our commitment to repent and believe in the unconquerable Love-in-act made real for us in the depths of human shame and shamefulness on and through the cross of Christ. Today as we renew our own professions and identities as People of the Cross, we especially remember these martyrs, these brothers in the faith. They died with Christ's name on their lips; may our own lives similarly proclaim him and the God he revealed.

+Milad Makeen Zaky
+Abanub Ayad Atiya
+Maged Solaimain Shehata
+Yusuf Shukry Yunan
+Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
+Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
+Somaily Astafanus Kamel
+Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
+Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
+Girgis Milad Sinweet
+Mina Fayez Aziz
+Hany Abdelmesih Salib
+Bishoy Adel Khalaf
+Samuel Alham Wilson
+Ezat Bishri Naseef
+Loqa Nagaty
+Gaber Munir Adly
+Esam Badir Samir
+Malak Farag Abram
+Sameh Salah Faruq
+And the martyr whose name we do not know, a “Worker from Awr village”
Faces of Honor: St Mark's Coptic Church
marks Martyrs with Crowns, Candles, and Flowers