Friday 7th February 2014
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Women's World Day of Prayer

Even without its key role in the Bible, Egypt occupies a key reference point in Western culture; there might be older civilisations such as that of Mesopotamia but none has left such a tangible heritage as the Pyramids, such remarkable structures that it is somewhat surprising that, in spite of Israel and Judea's traffic with Egypt in good times, but more often in bad, they are not mentioned, although it would be very surprising if the Chosen People were not occupied in building pyramids during their extended period of enslavement.

The causes of that enslavement are put down to the vagaries of imperial succession but I wonder whether there is a deeper, familiar cause. While the Chosen People are wandering in the desert after their liberation they hark back to the flesh pots of Egypt, to meat and fish, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic, raising the question of whether the descendants of Joseph became used to a comfortable life and forgot their somewhat fierce, unsophisticated God. It was the fruitful Nile delta which had drawn the sons of Jacob to seek for food during a persistent famine and after Joseph's establishment as Imperial Chancellor, the whole of his family settled in the Land of Goshen.

The Jewish infant Moses was brought up in the Imperial Palace and was only forced to flee when one of his own people threatened to betray him; and it was as an exiled herdsman that Moses became acquainted with the old, fierce God of Abraham in the burning bush which ultimately led to the liberation of the Chosen people, an Old Testament narrative unparalleled in its influence, particularly in poor countries in our own times. Thereafter, malcontent kingly rivals sojourned in Egypt awaiting better times and a remnant of the Judean remnant after exile degenerated in Egypt into idolaters. Later still, we read of the mixed fortunes of Egypt as it comes into contact with Empires to the East but, more significantly, with the power of Macedonia after the rise of Alexander the Great. And here we should insert a note of gratitude for the creation in Alexandria of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint, the text which all the Evangelists read.

Alexandria was a key centre of early Christianity and we have to thank its great Patriarch, Clement (150-215), for the creation of Christmas. Egypt was the home of the Desert Fathers as well as scholarship but well before the explosion of Islam its influence had begun to wane in the face of the rising importance of Byzantium and the increasing self-confidence of Rome in spite of its sacking by the Vandals in 410.

And yet Coptic Christianity has never lost its distinctiveness and we have renewed a long neglected acquaintance since the recent political upheavals in Egypt following the overthrow of President Mubarak, misleadingly characterised as part of an 'Arab Spring'.

Because it is an Islamic country with a large Christian minority, recent events in Egypt have forced us to face up to some fundamental issues which will be important for Christian/Muslim relations for at least the next 50 years:

At a very deep level, the question which Islam asks is this: are we to turn the other cheek or are we, to use an awkward phrase, to be aggressive defenders of Christianity? We know what Jesus says about turning the other cheek, but it's so hard when fellow Christians are being persecuted. In the meantime, we should, of course,  provide all the help and support, spiritual, moral and financial that we can; but, ultimately, we must fervently pray that we have the strength to be good Christians and that the Christians of Egypt want us to behave as good Christians by not being militantly Christian. We made that mistake in the Crusades.

But it is never enough to consider problems entirely from a principled point of view. As human beings, we are surely more moved by stories than theories; and the story I deliberately left out of my potted account of Egypt, the Bible and Christianity, was the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and their exile there. For all the enmity between the two peoples, Jesus found a home among strangers.

And perhaps that is an even more important thought than any theory we might develop about religious tolerance. We live in an age of massive cultural and population churn and, as comfortable inhabitants of a comfortable land, we have shown a natural reluctance to share, or even reduce, what we have in the face of immigration. There is nothing more sure that no matter how generous we are to the Christians of Egypt, many of them will be knocking at our door, wanting to come in to escape political turmoil and religious persecution. And then, what shall we do? What shall we say to the authorities which are trying to keep immigration under control?

It would be dishonest of me not to feel a certain nostalgia for the England of my youth where immigrants were a curiosity which did not impinge upon our lives and our relatively homogeneous culture; but the imperative of hospitality, painful though it might be, must take priority over comfort. This will not be easy; but we must never forget - as our media too often forget - that the suffering of the exile is always much greater than the suffering of the host; let us offer up this suffering to our exiled Christ.