On this first Sunday of 2020, Rania Hendy from Egypt reminds us that the Christian life includes scenes of celebration and lamentation alike. Yet, because God is with us and for us in Jesus Christ, we rest in this promise: “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psa. 30:5).
A cradle of civilization, Egypt traces its history to the sixth millennium before Christ. Its rich and distinctive cultural heritage manifests centuries of interchange with Greek, Persian, Roman, Arab, Ottoman, and Nubian empires. Once an influential Christian center, Egypt has long been a Muslim-majority nation, following its Islamization in the seventh century. Today, 85% of Egypt’s 99.6 million people adhere to Islam (mostly Sunni), the official religion, and 15% follow Christianity (mostly Coptic). This week, Coptic Orthodox and Protestant believers in Egypt – along with other Orthodox Christians in North Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe – will be celebrating Christmas on January 7 (which is December 25 in the Julian calendar used in some Orthodox traditions).
Rania is pursuing a PhD in Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in the US. Through her research, she seeks to revive interest in and faithful engagement with the Old Testament across the Middle East. For the Church in Egypt, the Old Testament can be a challenging text, in which Egypt is often portrayed as the oppressor. Rania hopes to show how the Old Testament can serve as a liberating and empowering resource for Egyptian Christians, who face marginalization in society. Prior to her studies, Rania served in Cairo as Adjunct Professor of Old Testament at the Evangelical Theological Seminary (a client of the Vital SustainAbility Initiative) and the Coptic Catholic Seminary. Rania and her husband Sameh have a son, Andy, who is attending college in the US.
Rania shares the following devotional and prayer requests:
The Christmas Story as a Scene of Joy and Lament
In Egypt, about 15% of the population are Christians. Most Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which has unique Christmas traditions. Celebrating Christmas starts with 43 days of fasting, called “The Holy Nativity Fast.” During those days, Christians abstain from eating animal products (meat, poultry, eggs, milk, cheese, etc). Coptic churches also hold liturgical prayers every Saturday night during Advent.
On Christmas Eve, Christians rush to churches to attend the Christmas mass that starts at 10:30pm and lasts until midnight. After the mass is over, families gather together to have a big dinner that includes all kinds of food that they had fasted from during Advent.
As for the Protestant Church, although they do not follow the same regulations of the Orthodox Church, they too celebrate Christmas on January 7, in accordance with the Coptic calendar.
Although Christmas is a joyful time that Christians await year after year, Christmas Eve in Egypt is usually marked by mixed feelings of joy, anxiety, and mourning. It is usually celebrated under the shadow of terrorism, which has loomed over Christian communities in previous years. Thus, we celebrate Christmas amid growing misgivings.
In addition to feelings of anxiety and apprehension, many Christian families also experience Christmas as a somber day. It is a day when they remember in grief those whom they have lost in previous deadly attacks.
The Christmas scene in Egypt might be completely different from the celebrative scenes in many other countries throughout the world. Nonetheless, it is not so different from the first Christmas scene in Bethlehem.
The glorious mystery of the manifestation of God in flesh, which inspired the first joyful Christmas carol, “Glory to God in the highest heaven”(Luke 2:14a), was also intermingled with voices of “wailing and loud lamentation,” of “Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matt 2:18). And although the angelic carol was more pleasant and comforting, the sounds of lament were louder, echoing throughout the country.
Yet, the loud dismal cries could not overwhelm the soft, joyful voices heard only by a few insignificant shepherds. Rather, the laments over the attempt to thwart God’s plan of salvation were later overpowered by another angelic proclamation: “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said” (Matt. 28:6). This victorious proclamation echoed the initial soft proclamation: “On earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14b). This proclamation is echoing not only throughout the country, but also to the ends of the earth.
Thousands of years ago, Pharaoh could not obstruct the fulfillment of the divine promise: “In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). Instead, the plot to eradicate Abraham’s offspring by killing all the Hebrew boys yielded this result: “The people multiplied and became very strong” (Ex. 1:20b).
Later, the groaning from slavery was quickly transformed into widespread amazement among the nations over what the Lord had done for Israel: “And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11).
Likewise, the brutal executions ordered by Herod, Pontius Pilate, Nero, Domitian, Trajan, and Diocletian, to name a few, only prove that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” God’s people (Matt. 16:18).
The Christmas joy that overpowers our mourning and lamentation, evident in our packed churches despite the risk of death, is but another proclamation that fear and sadness can never swallow our hope. Our hope is built upon a firm faith that temporal groaning and lamenting will soon burst into a long-awaited and glorious new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9).
Pray for the Church in Egypt
Pray that no evil device being plotted against the churches in Egypt would succeed, so that Christians in Egypt may celebrate Christmas this year in peace.
Pray that Egyptian Christians may remain devout in their faith, and that nothing would separate us from the love of Christ, be it hardships, persecution, or the sword.
Pray that the sufferings of the Church in Egypt may bring peace, joy, and hope to our lost world.
Pray for My Research
I am in the first phase of my PhD studies. Please pray for strength and wisdom to handle all of my coursework requirements.
My research interests include Semitic languages and comparative studies. Through my research and studies, I have come to understand how Egyptian Christians may inadvertently contribute to the injustice against our people by interpreting the Bible in ways that have greatly hindered a number of human rights and liberation movements throughout Egypt’s history. This has led to my dissertation topic: “Towards a Formation of a Hybrid Identity: A Comparative Analysis of the ‘Oracles Concerning Egypt’ in the Major Prophets.”
My dissertation will analyze the “Oracles Concerning Egypt” in the Major Prophets, connecting Israel’s exilic situation to the current circumstances and context of Egyptian Christians. It will consider the adoption of a “hybrid identity” that can hold on to both our Egyptian “religious” and “political” identities, so that contemporary Egyptian Christians can identify themselves as the oppressed, even as we accept self-criticism as those who also oppress.
Pray for My Family
I have one son who is currently studying at a university in the USA. Please pray that he would be able to adjust quickly to the different educational system, and that his time in the States would be a great opportunity for him to deepen his relationship with God.
Pray for my husband, who could not join me in the USA due to his job obligations. I owe this godly husband so much. Without his support and sacrificial love, I wouldn’t be where I am now. I would greatly appreciate your prayers for him and for his ministry in Egypt.