Peace. It’s the first thing you notice as you approach the “Coptic cathedral” in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side. St. Mary and St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church is a former Roman Catholic parish by the name of “Our Lady of Peace,” as a sign reminds you. It was almost stunning to see the word “Peace” one day after almost 50 Coptic Christians were killed in Palm Sunday attacks in Egypt. Also, consoling. Hopeful. Even if temptations to believe such a thing — peace — unbelievable creep in.
The second thing you notice are the open doors. Again, a surprise. Given what had happened the day before, I expected police and barricades and possibly locked doors. But that wouldn’t be true to who they are. It was Monday of Holy Week, about to approach noon, and there were about a dozen people praying. And I wasn’t the only person who had made a pilgrimage of prayer and solidarity. We visitors couldn’t have been made to feel more welcome — people offering me a book, showing me what page they were on in weeklong prayers. “Brothers and sisters in Christ” can really mean something even in the big city if we’re open to hospitality. Other people came by, wanting to offer a donation for the churches in Egypt. Others, some tourists exploring, do what open church doors allow: a quick stop in to acknowledge there’s more to the world than we always recognize and prioritize.
One under-reported item in the news is that on Palm Sunday, ISIS tried to kill the Coptic pope, Tawadros II, patriarch of a branch of the Church that dates back to Saint Mark. The so-called Islamic State has targeted everyone from Pope Francis to Libyan laborers who refuse to renounce their belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. ISIS wishes to rid the world of Christians. This would be a big deal to us, it would rock us, if we weren’t so distracted by just about everything else. We would renew our insistence on religious liberty and real tolerance — where brothers who don’t really know or understand one another would stand side by side to acknowledge their common humanity. In this case, Christians from West and East are a family in faith.
ISIS wishes to rid the world of Christians. This would be a big deal to us, it would rock us, if we weren’t so distracted by just about everything else.
Preaching shortly after the attacks, His Grace Anba Angaelos, general bishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the United Kingdom, talked about the power we do have. “People invade our spaces, our lives, and our churches, but they must never invade our hearts.” With the attacks in Egypt in mind, he urged that this not be just another Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter. He urged that Christians open their hearts to a Lord who knows betrayal and who forgives in the face of it. That doesn’t always happen, needless to say. Christians can be some of the worst Christians — imperfect examples of God in the world.
“I must love even if I do not trust,” Bishop Angaelos said. “I must be prepared to forgive.” Don’t let it be just a cliché, he said. “Don’t dismiss this as your annual Palm Sunday sermon.”
And while it may be easy to dismiss words, it’s harder to dismiss people who died while they were simply gathering to pray. Or at least it should be.
“Welcome the infinite, the uncontainable, as much [of Jesus] as we can into the very limited space in our hearts,” he said. “When anger, greed takes up our hearts, there’s less space for Christ.”
And less space for one another. And isn’t that how we get into the mode of perpetual outrage and anger and fatigue and distraction? Could welcoming the infinite even give us peaceful hearts, conversations, social-media interaction, . . . and maybe even a more peaceful world?
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.