A pillar that spontaneously started bleeding and stopped at the behest of Pope Cyril (Kyrillos) VI, a cavern where the holy family is said to have stayed for months, a place that saw the election of Coptic popes between the 7th and 11th centuries: these are just a few of the wonders and mysteries that are said to be associated with the ancient Coptic Church in Old Cairo dedicated to the saints Sergius and Baccus. It is referred to also as the “cavern church,” or by the name that became customary after the Arabic conquest of Egypt, “Abu Serga.” As these saints are commemorated this month (October 15 in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and earlier in the month for other apostolic-rooted denominations), I wanted to share some interesting facts about the church in Egypt bearing their name.
It is one thing to teach about Christian history, and it’s a entirely different experience when you actually behold the subject of your lesson right in front of you. And that’s the experience I had when I visited the British Library and saw on display several amazing biblical historical texts, dating as far back as c. 200 AD (only about 150 years after the last New Testament writing).
It should be no surprise to anyone that Italy is filled with saints’ relics. This is not only due to the Roman empire’s expansive control over the ancient lands which served as the setting of the history of Christendom, but also because the Lord Christ and His followers often were killed or otherwise afflicted at the direction or by consent of the Roman government (with the Coptic Church contributing so many martyrs, as attested to by the early church historian and bishop Eusebius, that the Coptic Church’s calendar was readjusted to remember the most infamous persecutor of Christianity, Diocletion).
And then, years later, beginning around the time of Emperor Constantine, the Roman empire fostered and eventually vigorously promoted the advancement and spread of Christianity, as well as reverence to heroes of the faith. Frequently that enthusiasm motivated problematic/troublesome behavior, with certain individuals choosing to take advantage of people’s devotion to the saints by selling fake relics, and sometimes even stealing (or protecting, depending on perspective) bona fide relics to sell them or bring them to Italy for safeguarding (think Venice, St. Mark the apostle).1
Here are several of the sites associated with saint relics that were of particular interest for me: Continue reading
Today the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates the martyrdom of St. Philopateer Mercurius. Usually such commemorations are impersonal, but for my wife and I, we had the opportunity to come face to face with the emperor who killed him: Decius.
You may have heard of the allegations of excessive use of force by Israeli police on Coptic monks, but what I just came to discover is my family’s role in securing the Israeli Supreme Court ruling in 1971 justifying their peaceful protest of the Israeli government’s execution of an order that contravenes that standing Supreme Court decision. As I read through various sources (see below) to understand the historical context of this news and saw that the Coptic Metropolitan of Jerusalem initiated the legal action which led to that decision, I immediately called my dad and sought to confirm my hunch: “Was my great uncle, your uncle, Metropolitan of Jerusalem around the 1970s?” Immediately my dad affirmed, “Yes … Abba Basilios,” and then all the pieces began to fall in place as our ensuing dialogue over the course of several phone calls revealed details of my family history I hadn’t known, and ashamedly (I must admit) I never got around to pursuing more thoroughly until now. Continue reading
After having written previously on “The Early Church Tradition of Separate Seating,” many I had spoken to remained unconvinced that this was in fact an Early Church tradition that is not confined to a particular culture, but was normal among all of Christendom. Yet we have preserved for us physical evidence of this tradition, displayed in the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo church in an ancient city known as Ravenna.
When my wife and I decided to travel to Italy, I did not realize the extent to which we would encounter profound and deeply moving spiritual experiences. Certainly, much of my focus in planning the trip was on how to connect with the early Church, but what I didn’t realize was how much of an impact some of these places would have. The journey began well in advance of the trip, as I poured over several books and other sources, including soliciting recommendations of friends, to map out where I could find plausibly authentic* relics of saints, and visit sites significant to early Christian history. I am excited to share a series of posts on our Spiritual Experiences in Italy, beginning with this one about what for me may have been the most moving moment of the whole trip: seeing the incorrupt body of St. Marina the monk, an early Church saint who I grew up hearing about in the reading of the Synaxarion at Church, and who I have always greatly admired as an example for her resilience in humbly, and silently, accepting false accusations, pursuing Christ’s example as the innocent lamb silently led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7). Continue reading
Arguably the holiest week of the year, known simply as “Holy Week” or maybe more preferably “Pascha (aka Passover) Week” is upon us, with the Pascha Feast (the more traditional term rather than Easter) marking the end of the week, but a beginning for all of humanity. As I had written in my previous post about the History of the Great Fast, it is not enough for us to know about or simply participate in religious observances, but we must understand the “why” in order to make it all relevant to us today. Here is a summary of what I could surmise as being the current practice as well as history of the Holy Week, with a particular emphasis on the Coptic Church. (Further below you will also find a PowerPoint presentation that I used to teach about this subject that you may download and use as desired.)
“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil … He … fasted forty days and forty nights” (Matthew 4:1). That is the story we commemorate in the Coptic Church this Sunday as part of the Great Fast readings—”Temptation Sunday.”
The existence of evil spirits—Satan and his fallen angels—is undoubtedly a basic tenant of Christian belief. We read about it in Scripture, and growing up as Orthodox Christians, we often hear of their interactions with humans in very real ways throughout history and until the present. But in the secular world we live in today, where the study of things you can measure and see prevails over faith and belief in the (usually) unseen, I found it refreshing, albeit a bit scary, to have read an article on CNN about a psychiatrist who is called upon by the Catholic Church to help them determine when a person is simply mentally ill or actually demon possessed: for the former he can offer medical assistance, for the latter only God can treat.
Reading the article further validates and substantiates what Christians have known all along; and it is those same evil spirits who will take us to Hades with them after death if we have not been saved by grace and lived a life of repentance.
We are about to embark on the Great Fast (a.k.a. Lent), but as with all worship and rites, it is preferable that we not only understand the what and how of our religion, but also understand why, in order to make it all relevant to us today. The fruit of my research on this topic was intriguing (e.g., there was no “Great Fast” for the first few hundred years), but also at one point I felt embarrassed as I learned the original reason behind what we now refer to as “Preparation Week.” Here is a summary of the current practice and history of the Great Fast, with a particular emphasis on the Coptic Church. Further below you will also find a PowerPoint presentation that I used to teach about this subject that you may download and use as desired.