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Timothy Jones

A Journey to the Other Holy Land

Rediscovering the church in Egypt.

Egypt never seems far from news headlines these days—especially so in recent weeks. A little more than a year ago, I would have noticed such reports only in passing. Now I pay keen attention, sometimes uneasily, because of ten days I spent in Egypt that spring. I went to teach theology students in Alexandra and Cairo. While I arrived with a briefcase bulging with lecture notes, I came away with insights of a different order, with kindled anticipation for the spiritual ferment taking place in this troubled region. An array of images—some jarring, some promising—linger from my trip. So does the hopefulness I have for the Christian friends I got to know there.

Some of the impressions were imprinted before I actually reached the country. That was the case at the Kuwait City airport, where I awaited my connecting flight to Alexandria. Settled in my seat in the terminal, I heard a high, thin humming. Looking to my left, I realized the sound came from the bearded, wizened man on the next seat. He peered at a leather-bound book with Arabic script, chanting verses from the Qur'an while he rocked and rocked. Across the way a man with flowing robes and a keffiyeh fingered a string of beads. Most women strolling through the airport shops wore a hijab, even if they complemented the traditional head covering with chic jeans and make-up. While my wait for a delayed flight wore on, the airport PA system broadcast a muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. No one could miss hearing the piercing, plaintive sound.

Those hours in the airport prepared me for Egypt. I could begin to imagine what I would see on the streets of Alexandria and Cairo. I knew that Alexandria sat on the coast of the Mediterranean. I tried to picture the deserts further inland with their pyramid antiquities. I wondered if I would see much-in-the-news Tahrir Square, with an impassioned leader with a bullhorn stirring a crowd to yet another round of protests. (I would.)

I was headed to teach first-year students at the Alexandria School of Theology, an Anglican school founded a few years ago through the vision of Mouneer Anis, the Episcopal/Anglican primate of the region. It is a sprawling territory he oversees—not only the Diocese of Egypt and the Middle East but also North Africa and "the horn of Africa." He had not long before visited the Nashville church I served as an Episcopal priest. While with us he told the story of his founding a theology school to serve his churches. The project had the feel both of a pioneering venture and a throwback to the Alexandrian catechetical school in the Christian church's first centuries. As we talked, I realized I wanted to make the long trek and teach. The invitation came. I went right after Easter.

Through email correspondence, the dean of the seminary, Dr. Emad Mikhail, had suggested I give six lectures on "spiritual formation and sanctification." Each would be translated into Arabic by a student or instructor as I taught. I gave the lectures first in Alexandria, then at the Cairo campus the following weekend, teaching altogether some three dozen mostly young people. I explored how spirituality grounded the life of the church leader and pastor. Each lecture drew on a guide, from Augustine to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I especially concentrated on older mentors like Julian of Norwich and Thomas Cranmer. I gave pride of place to Athanasius of Alexandria, the ancient bishop so strategic in the battle against North African Arianism.

I had studied in seminary how Athanasius insisted, against Arius' theologically anemic Jesus, on the full-orbed divinity of Christ, articulating the Trinity in ways that shape the church to this day. But that textbook information took on new vividness now. I loved that I could teach about him in the very environs where he lived and worked so courageously. He would be banished, I reminded the students, from his own diocese five times during his career as the controversies raged.

And what carried a wallop of revelation to me—both as I prepared and as I taught—was how much my Christian faith owes to this land. Not just because of Athanasius, or his fellow North African bishop Augustine. On the plane and in the Kuwaiti terminal I had been reading Thomas Oden's startling book, The African Memory of Mark. Oden reclaims ancient African traditions that link Mark, of the gospel that bears his name, to Africa. Mark not only grew up in modern-day Libya, according to the old traditions Oden retrieves, he also established a Christian beachhead in Alexandria—the very city in which I found myself. His ministry ended in martyrdom; pagan leaders had him dragged through the streets, which I could trace on my map of the city, streets that I would traverse myself. An early martyr—from Africa! (Oden emphasizes Egypt as being a part of North Africa, not simply the Middle East.) So the stories of John Mark for Africans form, argues Oden, a "moving epic for grandmothers to tell granddaughters and fathers to tell sons."

Reading such language, I felt a flush of discovery, for the "memory" of Mark, says Oden, gets "largely ignored in the West." Now it was as though my eyes opened to what I had never known or only barely observed. How much had happened here!

Indeed, as I kept realizing once I returned home, the Bible mentions the Egypt again and again—some 600 references, including a note right off in Genesis that during a famine Abram "went down to Egypt to sojourn there." And of course there is the Holy Family itself fleeing there from Herod's persecution. No wonder some call Egypt "the other Holy Land."

And while reading Athanasius' On the Incarnation, giving it one more look before a lecture, I realized that one of his analogies drew on the Alexandrian seacoast I had just walked along near my apartment quarters. "Such and so many are the Savior's achievements that follow from his Incarnation," he wrote, "that to try to number them is like gazing at an open sea and trying to count the waves. One cannot see all the waves with one's eyes, for when one tries to do so those that are following on baffle one's senses." The great theologian here becomes poetic and contemplative. I shared the image with my students.

Part of my journey, then, had me recovering for myself, as Oden put it, "the brilliant intellectual history of ancient African Christianity." One of my students in the Cairo class raised his hand to chide me, perhaps fairly, for including so many "Western" spiritual luminaries. I could have done even more with Athanasius, some on Cyril (also from Alexandria), more with Mark, for that matter.

But my discoveries not only had given me a dawning sense of how Egypt played a larger part in God's past purposes—how Egypt figured in the biblical story and the early church more than I ever realized—but also offered a glimpse of some great new prospect.

That hopefulness intensified by a happenstance (or providence) in the scheduling of my trip. For in between the sets of my lectures, I attended the Cairo consecration of Grant LeMarquand as area bishop under Mouneer Anis, with special focus on Ethiopia (a farther-away land also under Anis' oversight). LeMarquand, a Canadian by birth, has been an African missionary and American seminary professor. Priests and bishops from the U.S., the U.K., and North Africa descended on the Cathedral church in Cairo for a remarkable gathering. During the mornings, before and after, there I was, too, sharing breakfast with religious leaders from across the region.

Our table conversations made us feel hopefulness and gravity both—a sense of celebration but also of urgent work to be done in tumultuous times. As I thought more than once during my time in Egypt, the prospect of this new bishop's ministry reflected what must have been the vitality of the New Testament church. I had a sense of great forward momentum in this corner of the kingdom. Much was happening behind the news headlines. And a book, given to me as a gift by the students there during my last lecture, made me think of yet more possibilities. It was written by a noted political journalist and Muslim moderate, Hani Shukrallah. Most of his book, Egypt, the Arabs, and the World, deals with Egypt's recent history. He writes with the almost breathless urgency of a firsthand witness.

Not even the young people behind Egypt's Arab Spring, Shukrallah writes, were "even partially aware of the historic upheaval they were setting in motion." The extent of change caught them by surprise. Yes, much had been happening: "meetings in coffeehouses; creating networks of movements, organizations, and networks on the ground; … setting up headquarters and communication centers, engaging in education, debate and discussion; devising tactics for … maneuvering around police blockades; and all the rest." But the results exceeded expectations. Reading his account on the plane trip home reminded me how Egypt as a nation itself represents a vanguard of worldwide political ferment.

More than a year later, with dramatic changes in the interim, no one knows exactly what lies ahead for Egypt. The fate of the ten percent of the country that identifies as Christian is particularly uncertain. But now I wonder if Egypt's faithful might help lead the global church yet again, as in Christianity's early centuries. Might the embattled church in Egypt catch a vision for guiding the church universal as it encounters and reaches a wildly pluralistic world? I saw how something profound is happening there, not widely reported but nonetheless real. A Facebook friend living there urges his fellow Christians elsewhere to pray that he and his brothers and sisters would be fearless and courageous.

So I do, reminded by the images of violence on the news. God used the other Holy Land more than I had realized in the deep past. He may inspire world Christianity through Egypt's faithful once again.

Timothy Jones is Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina. He is a former editor at Christianity Today magazine and has authored several books, including The Art of Prayer and Awake My Soul.

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