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Timothy Jones

A Journey to the Other Holy Land

Rediscovering the church in Egypt.

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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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