Yesterday, Palm Sunday, was the beginning of Holy Week. Worshippers of the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church in Tanta, Egypt were gathered together, palm branches in hand, to remember the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of his Passion. Without warning, an explosion violently rocked the front row of the church, spraying the attending priest with blood. Deafening noise and dark smoke filled the church, as if the very fires of hell had invaded the holy place.
As the smoke cleared, the devastation became apparent. Blood and body parts covered the floor, pews, and walls. Palm branches that were moments ago held aloft in joyful celebration were now scattered on the ground. Wails and cries erupted as survivors identified the dead as their loved ones and friends. Passion week had truly begun for these Egyptian Christians, entered into and sealed with sorrow.
The People of the Cross
I shed tears with a broken heart for these dear Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt. They have suffered so much for being faithful to the name of Jesus. In my home, I have a copy of the original icon created by a Coptic Christian after 21 Copts were kidnapped and beheaded on a beach in Libya. They died repeating the name of Jesus. “The people of the Cross,” their killers called them with spite and hatred in their voice. And so they were, though their killers knew not that it was the sign of their triumph and not their defeat.
The word martyr comes from the Greek word meaning witness. In the early church, the martyrs were the most cherished treasures of the ekklesia. Their mangled bodies were recovered from the places of their executions and buried with great love and honor. Prayers were offered at their graves and many of their names are still remembered and venerated today.
Why so much honor for those who died in the name of Jesus? Because the earliest Christians could think of no greater honor or privilege than participating literally in the cross of Christ by suffering and dying for their Lord. Moreover, they knew death was but a door to the glory of the kingdom of Christ. As they suffered and shed their blood for their savior, they became living icons of him, radiating his redeeming love to the world. In the words of St. Paul, apostle and martyr, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
No More Tears
The world looks at martyrdom and sees only tragedy and defeat. The sorrow, the pain, the agony of loss and death. But we see things differently as Christians. We see glory. For death is not the end, it is the beginning; it is the door to a world more real than we can fathom. We are the people of the Cross.
The Egyptian worshippers did not expect to die at their Sunday liturgy. They simply went to worship as they have always done. And yet, their presence was a sign, a prophetic witness, of the priority of Jesus Christ in their lives. Like these faithful Christians, we must always live as living martyrs, as witnesses to the power of the Gospel, saying like the apostles, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” For living as faithful Christians in a modern world so hostile to true faith is often a radical and revolutionary act. It will cost us in one way or another.
The new-martyrs of Egypt are not sorrowing today. They are not defeated, for they have won the crown of righteousness laid up for those who are faithful and true. They have washed their robes whiter than snow in the blood of the Lamb. They are even now rejoicing before his throne.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood round the throne and round the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Therefore are they before the throne of God,
and serve him day and night within his temple;
and he who sits upon the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more;
the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of living water;
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”