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A Flight to Egypt
February 7, 2002

Coptic Holy Family icon
Running away to Egypt is a time-honored tradition in our neck of the woods - Abraham did it, as did Joseph's brothers when they fled the famine of Canaan.  People have been doing it after Christmas ever since the first one, when Mary and Joseph fled with their newborn to escape Herod's slaughter of the innocents.  With that kind of history behind us, and with the slaughter continuing here unabated, it only seemed appropriate to pack up our bags on December 25th and head to Cairo.

We saw the requisite sites - the ancient wonders of the Egyptian Museum, the view from a felucca boat on the Nile, the architectural marvels of Giza's pyramids.  But even more important than these was one site which, given the history of our journey, we were not going to miss: the Grotto in St. Sergius Church, one of the resting places of the Holy Family on their flight to Egypt.  We arrived at the church, nestled in the middle of Coptic Cairo, to find a few other pilgrims and tourists with the same idea. Like them, we were disappointed to note the sign on the church's door which declared, "No pictures."  More disappointment lay ahead, as we discovered a chain hanging across the entrance to the grotto: "Closed."  The Old City of Cairo has had problems with water levels, and the Grotto of the Holy Family was flooded.

The (un)holy family - Marthame and Elizabeth with a friends' child at Giza's pyramids
We left St. Sergius, dejected, and headed on to the Church of St. Barbara - inconsequential in the scheme of Holy Family sites, but it was in our guidebook - we had to oblige.  We entered to the smell of incense and the sound of Coptic Orthodox prayers chanted over rhythmic, clanging cymbals.  An infant was at the center of all the attention, dressed in white robes and a hat that made him look like a very small pope.  Young Daoud (David) had just been baptized, welcomed into the Christian family, and his young mother and father stood proudly with him as their videographer filmed family member after family member.  We gently asked if we could take a picture, too, and were soon ushered front and center with David - Elizabeth held the child, and both of us were filmed with the beaming parents.

Newly-baptized Daoud and his mother
The disappointment we had felt at St. Sergius evaporated.  No matter how many places boast the sign, "The Holy Family slept here," it is not this that makes Egypt a place of true pilgrimage.  Instead, it is the wonder of Daoud - the living, breathing church - that draws us hither to learn and pay our respects.

The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its lineage directly to St. Mark the Evangelist. These Christians remove their shoes when they pray, remembering how Moses removed his on Mt. Horeb as he faced God in the burning bush. When they greet one another in worship, they put their hands to their lips in a "holy kiss."  Their music is the sound of the voice and the "clashing cymbal."  Living and breathing indeed. Ten percent of Egyptians are Christians.  Their presence since the time of St. Mark is a testament to the resurrection of the Body of Christ.

We returned to the West Bank, refreshed and renewed.  However, the slaughter of innocents continues here in the land where the death of 22 Palestinians is described as a "lull in the fighting," where the brutality and desperation of suicide attacks are becoming almost daily news.  Here too, even in the midst of this terror, remains a righteous remnant of the church, renewed by the holy waters of baptism, a living witness to the resurrection.  In this land, awash with Biblical sites, pilgrims and tourists come by the droves - at least, they used to come.  Yet all of these places could be flooded over, for it is the Spirit of baptism, not the presence of museums, who gives life to the church.  May these waters flood the Earth.

Elizabeth and Marthame