A Flame in the Desert

“I commit myself to thy compassion…
Enliven my heart and awaken my conscience.
Disperse the fantasies of the adversaries.
Still the tempest. Walk with me and calm my terror.
Quench my thirst, kindle the flame of love in my heart.
Abide with me, for the day is far spent,
And accompany me until daybreak.
For thou art my goal and my happiness.”

—An Egyptian Coptic prayer

The way we pray shapes who we become. Our prayers reflect our understanding of God’s work in the past and our hopes about the way God will interact with us in the future.

In this ancient Coptic prayer, included in Richard Marsh’s collection Prayers from the East, we see that Egyptian Christians had an expectation of coming difficulties. Adversaries, tempest, terror—these words speak to the potential for future suffering. But the prayer also testifies to the expectation that God walks with believers through the storm, that His presence is a sustaining force and source of joy. And it reflects their desire to become a flame of love even in the face of opposition.

This prayer was recited after the church celebrated communion, but before the gathered community of faith departed to go out into the world. Marsh notes that the prayer “has a nervousness about it. Despite the gift of God in the bread and wine there are still human fears and forebodings with which to contend.”

Over the centuries Egyptian Christians have had plenty of reasons to be nervous. This past Sunday—Palm Sunday—when two bombs exploded in two Coptic churches in Egypt killing more than 40 people, we were all reminded of the real terror faced by Christians in the Middle East.

A Church Rooted in the Local Community

Christians have lived in Egypt since the first century. The founding of the church there has long been associated with the witness of Mark, who authored of one of the four Gospels. Tradition holds that Mark was martyred in Alexandria, the same city where one of the bombs exploded on Sunday, killing eighteen people in the church which sits right beside the Cathedral that bears his name.

Alexandria was one of the four great centers of Christianity in the ancient world, along with Jerusalem, Antioch and Rome. In the fourth century, Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, was one of the most significant defenders of orthodox Christology during the Arian controversy. Athanasius’s position defined the shape of the Nicene Creed of 381 that declared Jesus was “of the same substance” with the Father. That affirmation, says Alistair McGrath, “has since widely become regarded as a benchmark of Christological orthodoxy within all mainstream Christian churches, whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox.”

Later in the early fifth century, Cyril of Alexandria played a defining role in resolving the Christological controversies of the Council of Ephesus. Both Egyptian church fathers influenced the development of key doctrines Christians still affirm today. I may be Protestant, but the roots of my faith are in Israel, Asia Minor and Egypt, as much as they are in Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Christianity was Middle Eastern before it was ever European.

A Flame in the Desert

While the theological contributions of the Alexandrian fathers like Athanasius and Cyril gave shape to the beliefs of the church, the heart of Egyptian Christian spirituality was forged in the desert.

In the third century, an Egyptian named Antony retreated to the desert west of Alexandria to fast and pray, living the most radical of ascetic lifestyles. Antony was more like a burning bush than a flickering flame. His severe strain of devotion inspired generations of Christian ascetics—including St. Francis of Assisi—to take Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount literally. Once he found his home in the wilderness, Antony never left. Although he was a Coptic-speaking Egyptian, who never taught or wrote in Greek—the common language of church leaders at the time—he became the father of Christian monasticism. His practice of praying and worshiping in his own heart language was a definitive trait of the Egyptian Coptic church.

In most of North Africa the church was all but wiped out by Arab conquests during the seventh century. But even after Egypt came under Muslim rule, the indigenous church continued to thrive. In The Lost History of Christianity, historian Philip Jenkins suggests that one of the main reasons the Coptic church has survived for nearly two thousand years is that it was planted in the language of ordinary people. He says the survival of the church primarily depended on “how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed. The Egyptian church succeeded wonderfully in this regard, while the Africans failed to make much impact beyond the towns.” He concludes: “Egyptian Christianity became native; its African counterpart was colonial.”

All these centuries the Coptic church survived because it was home grown, rooted in the distinctiveness of the local culture, part of the air people breathed.

Jenkins explains that Egyptian churches reached the hearts of local people because they worshiped and taught in the heart language. The name Copt is derived from Aigyptos, which means native Egyptians, whose language descends from the one spoken by the pyramid builders. When scholars translated the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone, they drew from the language they found spoken in the liturgies of the Coptic church.

Midnight in Egypt

At the request of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Richard Marsh spent years visiting the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East and North Africa, collecting and preserving their prayers and documenting their traditions. He describes joining Egyptian monks at a desert monastery for vespers as night began to fall: “There was a profound insistence about the careful chanting of the Psalms. It was so dark in the monastery church that I could not make out faces of individuals but felt drawn into a community of prayer they had forged. Leaving the monastery to drive back to Cairo, I saw the silhouette of a monk on the skyline, solitary, etched against the desert.”

He saw a flame in the desert. May there always be a flame burning in the desert.

When the monks gathered for prayers at midnight, this is part of what they prayed:

“O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth,
who are everywhere present, and fill all things,
O treasury of good, and bestower of life,
come and dwell in us,
and cleanse us from every stain,
and save, O Good One, our souls.
As you were with your disciples, O Savior, and gave them peace,
come also and be with us, and save us, and deliver our souls.
Kyrie eleison…Lord have mercy.”

It must feel a lot like a never ending midnight for believers in Egypt.

Two years ago twenty-one Coptic Christians dressed in orange jumpsuits were lined up on a beach in Libya and beheaded by ISIS, who recorded the executions and posted the videos on the internet. In response, a Christian church located on one of downtown Cairo’s busiest streets, hung a poster on its wall with the message: “We learn from what the Messiah has said, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you….’”

Could there be any clearer reflection of the merciful love of God? We can be inspired by ancient Christian traditions even as we hold fast to the distinctiveness of our own.

May the Lord kindle the same flame of love in our hearts.
And may the flame burning in the desert burn even brighter through the dark night,
Until the flame is swallowed up in the dawn of resurrection.
Easter is just on the horizon.