The British Orthodox Church

within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land ?[1]

 

The Babylonian Captivity

How shall we sing the Lord’s song

in a strange land ?[2]

The poignant refrain of Psalm 137 reflects the sorrow and desolation of the Jews whose kingdom was overthrown, their Temple destroyed, and who were carried off as captives to Babylon in three successive waves.[3] Their sense of loss was immense and their desolation is expressed by the implied contrast to the joyous songs of Zion that their tormentors demanded they should sing. They called themselves the ‘gola,’ (exiles), or the ‘bene gola’ (the children of the exiles), and out of the depth of abandon and despondency, they forged a new national identity and reinvigorated faith, accepting the need for repentance and renewed fidelity.

St. Peter’s First Epistle

A generation after the Lord’s Ascension into heaven, the apostle St. Peter wrote an epistle to the Christian Jews scattered by persecution and other circumstances to various parts of Asia Minor. Making the link with the Jewish captivity he refers to Rome – his place of exile – as Babylon and addresses them as “God’s elect, strangers in the world.”[4] He is writing at a time of impending persecution so his epistle exhorts his readers to “stand fast[5] and to live wisely as Christians, “as aliens and strangers in the world” abstaining from sinful desires that war against the soul.[6]

The Apostle traces a rich vein of imagery in Old Testament history, to show that those who were once aliens now belong to God.[7] They have the privilege of receiving what the prophets spoke about and longed to see.[8] Because Christians are aliens here, and because heaven is their home, hope is the key to their identity. Hope is the great motivation in the Christian life; hope is the reason Christians endure suffering – their suffering is only for “a little while” until God takes them to heaven. Hope motivates our evangelism:  “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.[9] Hope is the motivation for the elders who will stand before the “Chief Shepherd” and receive the “crown of glory that will never fade away.” Hope is everywhere in St. Peter’s first epistle.

Suffering is the vocation of Christians

The inescapable truth is that when you start searching for literature about Christianity and persecution, it isn’t a case of having to seek very hard as the examples are numerous, beginning with the New Testament, comprising much of the writings of the fathers and lives of the saints and continuing with inexhaustible abundance to our present day.  The fact is that suffering is the vocation of Christians and we distort our faith if we suggest anything else. St. Paul, quoting from the Psalms[10]says, “We have been led like sheep to the slaughter”, showing that this is the ordinary condition of the Church, and continues to be. It is true that God sometimes allows us a respite and time of refreshment, as the psalmist says of the wicked, “He breaks their staff, lest the good should fall away, by being too hardly pressed”[11] but we are warned against complacency, for “while people are saying. ‘Peace and safety, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman.”[12]

In the Gospels the Lord invites anyone who desires to come after him to deny himself, “take up his cross” and follow Him.[13] There is no doubt of the imperative nature of this command as He also warns that “whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”[14] This simple message, summed up in the old maxim, “No cross, no crown” inspired the apostles in proclaiming the Gospel; it has sustained the faith of Christians through times of fierce persecution and personal tragedy and it has animated the monastic fathers and ascetics. In the Coptic tradition the monastic fathers are known as “the cross bearers.” Following in the footsteps of the Lord, the saints and martyrs of every age, and still today, have willingly borne their crosses.

St. Paul, writing to the Galatians says, “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”[15] For Saint Paul the ‘World’, meaning ambition, human praise, position, reputation, wealth, all the things by which we are judged to be successful, is dead to him and he talks of another kind of death, dying to the world itself. It is a determined renunciation of everything in our lives which we know is contrary to God’s will. It is an absolute challenge because once accepted there can be no partial or half-hearted response. The late A.W. Tozer, an American pastor, vividly reminds us that the cross is a symbol of death:

“It stands for the abrupt, violent death of a human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said goodbye to his friends. He was not coming back. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing; it slew all of the man, completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. It struck cruel and hard, and when it had finished its work, the man was no more.” [16]

Saint John Chrysostom highlights the paradox that it is in the very offence of the cross that we discover its call. He says, “The gospel produces the exact opposite of what people want and expect, but it is that very fact which persuades them to accept it in the end. The apostles won their case, not simply without a sign, but by something which appeared to go against all the known signs. The cross seems to be a cause of offence, but far from simply offending, it attracts and calls believers to itself.

In his first epistle to the Thessalonians St. Paul is writing about a God Who is present among his suffering people but Who is leading them to their promise of salvation. The theological themes found in the letter respond to situations created by persecution and martyrdom as well as to the problem of living the Christian life in the middle of pagan culture. When Paul’s encourages them to accept persecution “with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit”[17] it is because joy in any situation, especially in one involving persecution, is always a gift of the Spirit. It is rooted in faith and nurtured by the hope of God’s imminent triumph. No matter how difficult the immediate moment, the believer is always enabled to transcend this situation through prayer which allows them to be strengthened for the gifts of the spirit. St. John Chrysostom raises the thought, which comes to us all, how can you speak of affliction and joy in the same breath ? His explanation of this text is that, “The affliction pertains to the body, and the joy to things spiritual …. The things that happened to them were burdensome, but not so the things that sprang up out of them, for the Spirit does not allow it. So then, it is possible for one who suffers not to rejoice when he is suffering for his sins but nevertheless to experience pleasure when he is being beaten and suffers for Christ’s sake. For such is the joy of the Spirit. In return for the things which seem to be burdensome, the Spirit brings delight. They have afflicted you, he says, and persecuted you, but the Spirit did not forsake you even in those circumstances.”[18]

Refined in the fire

For most of us the thought of embracing suffering is hard. Few of us are very brave and the gruesome accounts of the sufferings of the early Christian martyrs is certainly not for the squeamish. Among all of them there are two I find especially appealing. One is St. Polycarp, the second century Bishop of Smyrna, who in his youth had been a disciple of the Apostle St. John but was martyred at an advanced age for failing to sacrifice to the Emperor. When threatened with death he calmly replied, “Eighty and six years I have served him. How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? Bring forth what thou wilt.” The other is his contemporary and another disciple of St. John, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch, who was able to contemplate his death serenely and wrote to the Romans, “I am writing to all the Churches and I enjoin all, that I am dying willingly for God’s sake, if only you do not prevent it. I beg you, do not do me an untimely kindness. Allow me to be eaten by the beasts, which are my way of reaching to God. I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.” We may marvel at such courage in the face of suffering and death and wonder how these men showed such resolve. They were human, so did they possess no fear ? The answer must surely be that they faced martyrdom fearlessly because they were strengthened by the Holy Spirit. In that power and that faith they were enabled to overcome their fear and to trust in God.

However, we learn from history that the systematic persecution of Christians had the opposite effect to what was intended. It did not destroy the early Church, in fact their sufferings offered a powerful witness to the truth of the Christian Gospel and brought others to faith. Our Lord had warned His disciples to prepare for these trials, “they will lay hands on you and persecute you” but “This will result in you being witnesses to them.”[19] St. Paul while chained in prison declared “that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.”[20] The early Christian writer Tertullian, viewing this impact coined the famous phrase, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

At times God has delivered His servants in a miraculous manner and against all human expectations, as with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the burning fiery furnace; Daniel in the lions’ den of the apostle St. Peter from Herod’s prison, where he was locked, chained, and guarded closely. If  at other times He permits tyrants to slay us, it is not because our life is not dear to Him, and held in a hundred times greater honour than it deserves, for the psalmist declares, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”[21]

 

Love your enemies

 

Our Lord offers an unequivocal challenge to our calling as Christians with His command that we should love our enemies.[22] He doesn’t offer us any compromise, such as tolerating our enemies or just not responding to the assaults of our enemies, but actually tells us that we should love them, an emotion we usually reserve for those who are dear to us and with whom we feel the greatest sympathy.  To be honest, it is a hard commandment and goes against human nature.

And that is probably the key to it, because our human nature is a fallen one and our vocation – with God’s help – is to cast away the old Adam, which our baptismal rite calls the “old nature which corrupts” and put on “the new nature which restores [us] to the image of the Creator.” The Apostle St. Paul reminds us that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation”[23] for all things have become new, both in Him and by Him, both covenant, and law, and mode of life. In fact our Lord is quite specific in this Gospel passage and shows us how we should respond to our enemies: “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”[24]

Of course our Lord acted out the precepts He taught, so when He was reviled and tortured and put to death, He was able to respond by asking God the Father to “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”[25] True to the Lord’s example, St. Stephen the first martyr, while being stoned knelt and prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”[26] It is a consistent pattern throughout the accounts of the saints and martyrs, for, as St. Paul says, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.”[27]

St. Cyril the Greatcommenting on this passage, shows he understands human nature when he anticipates how we might respond to this challenge,

“But perhaps you will object, saying within yourself, ‘Christ was God, but I a frail man, having but a feeble mind, and one unable to resist the attack of covetousness and pain.’ What you say is true: for the mind of man easily slides into wrong doing. Nevertheless, I say, The Lord has not left you destitute of His compassion and love: you have Him by you, indeed within you, by the Holy Ghost: for we are His abode, and He lives in the souls of those who love Him. He gives you strength to bear nobly whatever befalls, and to resist manfully the attacks of temptations. “Be not overcome therefore by the evil, but overcome the evil in the good.”

When our Lord tells us, “If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also”[28], He was clearly alluding to the Mosaic Law, the lex talionis or law of retribution. There are echoes here of the Sermon on the Mount.[29] In our Lord, however, is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets, which St. Paul tells us served as a “schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.”[30] The Lord sets before us the pathway of that righteousness which surpasses the power of the Law. For He said Himself to the holy apostles, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”[31]

It is not so many weeks ago that we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church as the “new creation” – and we need to keep that image before us so that in the power of the Spirit we live and behave differently, so that as Christians we may show forth God’s better way to a fallen and broken world, offering a glimpse of a world transfigured by the power of divine love.

Repentance

In times of crisis or upheaval, whether resulting from political or natural disasters, people have often reflected on their actions and wondered whether these have been visited upon them by God as  what the psalmist calls, “The chastening of nations.”[32] When disasters befell the people of Syria at the end of the fifth century, one monastic chronicler noted, his “wish to leave in writing memorials of the chastisements which have been wrought in our times because of our sins, so that, when they read and see the things that have happened to us, they may take warning by our sins and be delivered from our punishments.”[33]

I was reading an article recently by an Eritrean exile who wrote “Eritrea’s life is ruled by paradoxes: the most peace loving people became the most embattled in the longest struggle for independence and freedom in Africa, paying the dearest human and material price.” He was especially critical of the ESA (Eritrean Studies Association) because at its annual meeting it had taken time to discuss the need for academic freedom in Eritrea. The writer asked, “What indeed is the point of talking about academic freedom in the absence of total freedom?”[34]

Just as those these criticisms may be, I do not think that Eritrea’s collective or individual sins are very different to the sins of other nations and it is too simplistic to take the view that people sin and so deserve to be punished, thus shifting the responsibility onto others, or even God. A country worn-down and drained economically by years of war has to face the social and spiritual consequences of such actions. For neighbours – especially Orthodox Christian ones – to go to war with each other is an admission of failure, whatever the provocation and as the children of God we must always desire to be called peacemakers[35] and yearn for the time when God “will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they train for war anymore.”[36]

These disasters, whatever their origins, provide an important opportunity for us as Christians to stir ourselves to support those in need. Chastening, whether deserved or not, can be a blessing if we are brought to repentance by a consideration of the situation in which we find ourselves. It is not a time to reflect on the sins of others. The prophet Isaiah reminds us that “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way”[37] so we all stand in need of repentance. However, we recognise that the innocent and helpless suffer too. King David said, “I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done ?”[38] This should remind us how much we need to consider those who are those caught up in catastrophe but who are not the objects of chastisement, though all may use such events for their spiritual benefit.[39] It is clear therefore that we have an absolute moral obligation to support our brethren who suffer: those in prison and their families; those impoverished and struck low by poverty, hunger and other trials; the refugees and exiles. Our support is unconditional whether it is in prayer or in practical assistance, but always motivated by our love. The apostle St. John warns us, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need and has no pity on him” – the Authorised version uses the powerful phrase “[who] shutteth up his bowels of compassion” – “how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”[40]

Scattering of seeds

Whilst preparing for this conference I stumbled across an impressively written article that refers to the Bible as the ultimate immigration handbook.[41] Its author, Joan Maruskin, the Washington Representative of the Church World Service Immigration and Refugee Program, draws our attention to the fact that “The Bible begins with the migration of God’s spirit and ends with John in exile on the Isle of Patmos – between those two events the uprooted people of God seek safety, sanctuary and refuge.” She identifies Adam and Eve as caretakers of creation at whose exile God clothes them with skins, “God’s concern for the sojourners in the world begins at this point and continues throughout the Bible.” Start looking at the history of Noah (forced to flee because of the flood, a “natural disaster”); Abraham (whose offspring were aliens in a foreign land but who offered hospitality to the Lord in the plains of Mamre); of Joseph (sold into slavery in a foreign country but able to welcome his father and brothers, who were fleeing from famine); of Moses (forced into exile with the huge responsibility of caring for his people but inspired by God to direct and lead them in a just and righteous way) right through to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who, with his family, fled persecution and became asylum seekers in Egypt.

I have quoted from events long ago, but we know that the Sacred Scriptures are more than mere historical records but offer us spiritual direction and nourishment which are for all time. What St. Peter says to those exiled Christian Jews has much to guide and instruct us today and speaks eloquently to Orthodox Eritreans living in North America.

The twentieth century saw the displacement of huge numbers of Orthodox Christians from their ancient homelands: the Armenian Genocide and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War; the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; Hitler’s dismemberment of Poland and the Second World War; the descent of the ‘Iron Curtain’ in Eastern Europe; displacement of Christians through the founding of the State of Israel and the Arab-Israeli wars which followed; the Turkish invasion and partition of Cyprus; the Ethiopian Revolution and the years of repression by the Dergue (1974-1991); Syrian migration during the Kurdish insurgency; the rise of militant Islam and now, in our own century, the American invasion of Iraq and the repression of Christians under President Isaias Afewerki. You are not alone in your experience, certainly not the first and sadly, not the last.

Vocation to evangelise

The Apostle St. Paul writing to the Hebrews reminds them that as the sacrificial lamb of the Mosaic Law, which was a type or figure of Christ, were burned outside the camp, so He suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through His blood. Following His example he says, “Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”[42] Commenting on this injunction to “go to him outside the camp” St. Ephrem the Syrian believes it is a command to go out and become evangelists and bear the abuse he endured.[43]

You may not have considered yourselves as missionaries. That seems more like a luxury for established churches to take up, not for emigrants still preoccupied with economic survival and longing for the day you can return home in peace and security to rebuild a broken society. However, as the old maxim reminds us, “Man proposes, God disposes.” The days have turned into weeks and the months into years and a generation has arisen which has never seen Eritrea. Already some who came to these and other shores as exiles have fallen asleep and their bones lie buried far from their native land. When, in the fullness of time this regime falls and justice returns to Eritrea, as it certainly will, not all will return. Some will have become so rooted and flourished in this “land of the free” that they will not turn back. Yet your origins, with ties of love and kinship, will remain. The Judaeo-Christian heritage which sustained the Eritrean people for thousands of years is what still binds you to your kinsmen whether in their ancestral lands or scattered in the world.

That faith, preserved through generations of trials and great tribulation, has been passed from generation to generation and is too precious a heritage to be discarded. Already the next generation is being taught the faith, intermarriage will bring conversions to Orthodoxy and where it is seen in its fullness and vibrancy it will draw others to it.

It is worth noting that St. Peter places great emphasis on being holy, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’ ”[44] The task of the Church is to nurture us in holiness and looking at the themes presented at the annual conferences of this American diocese assure me that the clergy have their priorities right. Through Bible Study, prayer, sermons, the singing of spiritual songs and in the Divine Liturgy and other rites and ceremonies of the Orthodox Church the clergy are guiding you in true holiness.

Although St. Peter wrote of wider issues of holiness and suffering, he also addressed specific issues in his epistle. He spoke of the need to be submissive to rulers; how slaves should behave towards their masters and wives to their husbands and counsels  that “all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.”[45]

Last month I participated in a prayer vigil outside the Eritrean Embassy in London attended by representatives of all Christian   traditions and those concerned with human rights. We came together to remember those persecuted for their faith in Eritrea today and of Abune Antonios in particular and through prayer and in the power of love we united with them in their suffering. What impressed me most, however, was the respectful way in which both the Ambassador and the President were spoken of. We know that they are oppressors and have blood on their hands, but they were upheld in prayer with the same fervour – if not more – than their victims. St. Peter teaches us to respect those in authority and if we are treated unjustly, to endure it “because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”[46]

I want to give you some examples of ministry and exile in our Orthodox Church which might inspiure you to see some purpose in what has happened to you. One is from early church history and the other from our own time.

After the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the supporters of that Council embarked on a systematic persecution of those who refused to accept its decrees or the Tome of Leo. For more than a century the supporters and opponents of that Council battled for control of the church until the Emperor Justin I and his nephew Justinian steadily consolidated the Chalcedonian hold on the major sees. Amidst all this upheaval and persecution two very significant things happened.

One is the arrival in Ethiopia of the Nine Saints
Their origins are obscure but church tradition recounts that they came from different parts of the Eastern Roman Empire such as Constantinople and Syria during the persecution of the Byzantine Emperors after the Council of Chalcedon. Around the year 480 they arrived in Axum and were warmly received by the King Ella Amida, grandfather of King Kaleb. Before their coming to Ethiopia, the Nine Saints had travelled to Egypt and lived some years in the monastery founded by St. Pachomius. They introduced monastic life to Ethiopia. The Nine Saints studied Geez and they became familiar with the customs of the people. The first dwelling place of them is found West of Debre Ela called “Bete Ketin.” Then they set out in different directions to evangelise and to introduce monastic life. Their activities are regarded as the “Second Evangelization” of the country. The company of Nine Saints consists of Abba Aregawi (Zemikael), Abba Tsahma, Abba Gerima (Isaac), Abba Alef, Abba Gubba, Abba Aftsie, Abba Likanos Yamaata and Abba Pateleon. Only this month it was announced that the Garima Gospels, traditionally written by the saint but actually thought to date from the 11th century have now been placed between 330 and 650 AD by carbon dating techniques. Not only does this make this the oldest illustrated Christian work in the world but it also confirms the traditions that Abba Garima himself wrote these.

Over the next few decades Patriarchs who refused to accept Chalcedon, such as Severios of Antioch (512-538), Dioscorus I of Alexandria (444-458), Timothy II Aelurus of Alexandria (457-477) and Theodosius I (535-567) of Alexandria were deposed and replaced by supporters of Chalcedon. Had it not been for the Episcopal consecration of the priest-monk Jacob by Patriarch Theodosius, with a roving commission to ordain priests and bishops, the apostolic succession of the Oriental Orthodox churches would have been lost.  Bishop Yacoub, disguised by his shabby attire made up of ragged, patched-up old saddle blankets (Baradaeus means literally “horse-blanket”) and humble manner, passed his ministry travelling on foot throughout the Middle East ordaining priests and bishops to minister to the Orthodox Copts and Syrians. Tradition credits him with ordaining some 102,000 priests and 89 bishops, including Patriarchs Sergius of Antioch (c. 542-562) and the Egyptian-born, Patriarch Paul the Black of Antioch (564-581).

In our own time the Russian Orthodox Church suffered the upheaval of the Communist revolution of 1917 which overthrew a government weakened by the strains and defeats of World War I. The atheistic regime imprisoned the newly elected Patriarch Tikhon and brutally murdered the Emperor and his family. Church property was confiscated, religion ridiculed, believers harassed and atheism taught in the schools. It is believed that twenty-one million Russian Orthodox Christians weremartyred in the gulags by the Soviet government, not including torture or other Christian denominations killed. In the first five years after the revolution, twenty-eight bishops and 1,200 priests were executed. During the 1920s and 1930s the attacks increased. Many priests and believers, were shot or sent to labour camps. Theological schools were closed, and church publications were prohibited. Between 1927-1940, the number of Orthodox Churches in Russia fell from 29,584 to less than 500. Between 1917 and 1940, 130,000 Orthodox priests were arrested. Between 1925-1943 there was no Patriarch.

After Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin, for completely cynical reasons, decided to revive the Russian Orthodox Church in order to ensure patriotic support for the war effort. By 1957 about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active, but in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches. By 1985 fewer than 7,000 churches remained active. Since the fall of Communism in 1991, after seventy-one years of persecution, the Russian Orthodox was free again.  Although sorely tried, the Orthodox faith had never been extinguished and just as the Christians emerged from the shadows as their ancestors had done when the Emperor Constantine declared toleration and the Peace of the Church after generations of persecution, so the Russian Orthodox Church arose again. Estimates of membership today are around 135 million faithful. Official figures released in February 2010 state that the Church has 160 dioceses including 30,142 parishes served by 207 bishops, 28,434 priests and 3,625 deacons. There are 788 monasteries, including 386 for men and 402 for women.

Those who were either outside Russia at the time of the revolution or who subsequently fled, maintained their own Orthodox hierarchy in exile. Over the years it preserved authentic Orthodox spirituality and produced many holy bishops and priests. In May 2007 the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia officially signed an Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchatewhich restored canonical links between the churches. This emigré community had over 400 parishes worldwide with an estimated membership of over 400,000 people under thirteen bishops, and also monasteries and nunneries in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and South America.

St. Athanasius the Apostolic, our common father and Pope of Alexandria, was exiled five times by five different emperors[47] Charged with cowardice by the Arian heretics, he published a defence of his flight[48] shewing that his own case was but part of a general system of expatriation directed against Orthodox bishops. After pressing the point that if flight be evil, those who persecute are the responsible cause, and hinting that the real motive for their mortification at his escape was not that he was a coward but that he was free, he defended his flight by the example first of the biblical saints, such as the Apostle St. Paul and secondly of the Lord Himself both into Egypt and when the Jews persecuted him.[49] From the latter, he returned to the conduct of the saints, who, unlike the Lord, were unaware of their appointed time, yet fled or not as circumstances and the direction of the Spirit required them to do. The saints if they fled were not moved to do so by cowardice, else how could their flight so frequently have been the occasion of divine communications, and how could such good have resulted from it?

Each of these groups of exiles have also carried with them their Orthodox Faith as a most precious possession to be saved when all else has been lost and in time this vibrant faith has been planted and flourished in foreign soil. The Greek word, diaspora, means literally, “a scattering of seeds.” We are all familiar with the parable of the sower, which is recounted in all the synoptic gospels.[50] We recall that the seed scattered on the path, rocky ground and among thorns was lost; but when it fell on good earth, it grew, yielding thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold.

Out of all this appalling suffering and human tragedy it is possible to see God’s Providential Hand in bringing the historic Apostolic Faith to a Christendom needing a renewal offered by a return to a Tradition which is dynamic, capable of energising and transforming our present condition rather than simply clinging to mere custom or a culturally static, backward-looking repetition of the past.

Returning to the scriptural blueprint for the life of the exile, there is the example of the Babylonian exiles in the time of the Prophet Jeremiah.  Leo Hartshorn, who is the Minister of Pace and Justice with the Mennonite Mission Network, offers Jeremiah’s exilic model of engagement as one which offers hope:

While the prophet Hananiah promised the exiles that they would return to their homeland, Jeremiah called upon the Judaeans to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce; take wives and have sons and daughters” (Jeremiah 29:5-7). “Build, plant, and marry” are a traditional formula of blessing within the land. The exiles are to participate in what blessings their new land has to offer. In Deuteronomy images of “building, planting, and marrying” are formulaic elements that construct reasons for military exemption from holy war (Deuteronomy 20). They symbolize nonviolent forms of engagement with the community. Jeremiah promotes a program of seeking the peace (shalom/welfare) of the city where they dwell in exile. Rather than a disengaged, isolated waiting for a return to the homeland, the prophet advocates a nonviolent engagement of the exilic community with the dominant culture. The exiles turn their captivity into an opportunity for self-preservation and corporate mission. They learn the language and interact with the dominant Babylonian culture, while living without sovereignty and maintaining their own religious heritage. The creation of the model of the synagogue, collection of the Hebrew canon, and the maintenance of a diasporic identity during the exilic period speaks of a thriving community amidst a foreign environment. It is through a balance of preserving peculiarity along with peaceful, constructive engagement with the dominant culture that the exiles recreate their identity as resident aliens within a foreign land.”[51]

Waiting on the Lord

We have already noted that for the Christians our true home is not here, “For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.”[52] Our whole life is a pilgrimage to the heavenly kingdom, but that does not mean that we should be indifferent or neglectful of our cultural heritage. From St. Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch to this present day we have almost two thousand years of Christian heritage. Kings and dynasties have come and gone, invaders and settlers have moved into the ancient Aksumite kingdom but the faith which shaped that culture is the same. Eritrea as an independent state is relatively young but its history and faith is venerable.

When you came to these shores, like millions before you, you brought with you your most precious possession: your faith, expressed in your language and culture. America appears to have respect for heritage and I have always been impressed how people from many and varied nationalities and religions maintain the delicate balance of treasuring their ancestral roots and traditions whilst becoming fully integrated as citizens of the United States. You have a rich hymnody and religious literature in Ge’ez and the struggle to extend this treasury into your demotic language, Tigrinya, is an important manifestation of your national and cultural identity. This is a laudable and worthy objective but I would warn you that the living Faith which you express through that language is more precious than any language.

Coptic history can teach us all something important in this respect. Some years after the Arab invasion, Arabic came into ever greater use in Egypt. The Church was then faced with either jealously preserving its ancient language or ensuring that the Holy Bible and the Orthodox faith were known to the faithful in a language they could readily understand, which meant translating texts and teaching in Arabic rather than Coptic. It must have been a hard choice because this was the language for ever associated with their oppressors but, with God’s grace, they made that choice. The Faith survived, but Coptic died as a living language and today is only known to scholars and to the clergy.

Anyone familiar with ‘ethnic’ Orthodox churches living in the West will know that the question of language always comes very high in the list of issues confronting those communities.  The same congregation often comprises both a first generation Church, as immigrants are still arriving, alongside a second or even third generation Church.  The latter watch the baseball with English commentary, order their McDonalds in English and read English papers or magazines, but are then required to worship in Greek, Old Church Slavonic, Arabic or Ge’ez which they don’t understand whereas the new arrivals want everything in the traditional language. I remember visiting a Coptic congregation in Sydney, Australia, where the clergy – recognising the pastoral needs of their flock – celebrated simultaneous services for both groups, although even then there were some among each group who weren’t very tolerant of the needs of the other.  I also remember the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul preaching his sermon in both Armenian and Turkish, although some visitors from Armenia strongly disapproved of him doing this. So treasure your language – it is important – but more important is the Faith which you have the duty to pass to new generations, born and raised far from Eritrea.

The Copts, and to some degree the Orthodox Syrians, the Suriani, as communities, whether still in their ancestral homeland or living abroad, have a lot to teach us about survival tactics. By holding firmly to their Orthodox Christian faith in a society dominated by Islam they resisted assimilation. Those who abandoned their faith became indistinguishable from their conquerors in the Syrian ArabRepublic or the Arab Republic of Egypt. To preserve that identity in a dominant culture they must either withdraw into their own inner world or ghetto or else engage with that culture in a creative and harmonious way.

The ghetto culture of isolation not only confines communities to the sidelines and reduces opportunities for witness to the dominant culture but ensures a damaging seepage of the young and enterprising, who too readily cast off the Orthodox faith as part of what they perceive to be their ethnic culture.  The late John Meyendorff (1926-1992), Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, himself born in France of Russian émigré parents, insisted. “The Church cannot and should not be identified with “ethnicity” unless she is also to be reduced to those superficial ‘cultural’ remnants and lose all existential value for both the old and the young.”[53]

Coming from a church with an essentially rural character and adapting to life in large cities confronts Eritreans with serious choices. Babylon and Rome were challenges not just because of their size but because of their multi-cultural society with its hedonistic temptations of materialism, self-indulgence, consumerism and affluence. The same sins, which are just as rampant in the United States, will easily seduce those who are not grounded in a mature Christian spirituality, but the Orthodox Church has to confront these secular challenges head-on rather than retreat from them. We mustn’t use this as an excuse for disengagement with the wider society,  “The Orthodox are unanimous in denouncing the western promoters of Christian ‘secularism’ which reduces Christianity to social causes, but they themselves do the same whenever they use the Church are a mere tool for the preservation of illusory ethnic interests.”[54]

Meyendorff was very far from advocating an abandonment of cultural identity and wrote, “Let us respect and cultivate everything which is precious in our ethnic cultures. But let us also remember that the Church is not an instrument or tool for earthly causes, but a foretaste of God’s kingdom for all men.” He believed passionately in mission and in the responsibility of the Orthodox Church to offer a powerful witness in the modern world. He also believed in Orthodox unity and wanted all the different ethnic Orthodox communities to co-operate with each other and to speak with a common voice. One very tangible legacy from his time as Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York was not only its close geographical proximity to St. Nerses Armenian Seminary but the fruitful collaboration between these two leading seminaries of the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox traditions. He did not believe that the Church should allow tribalism, feudalism or political and cultural issues in the mother country to dominate and direct the affairs of the diaspora to the detriment of its own spiritual responsibilities, “mission and unity do not imply abandonment of real ethnic cultural values, which must, on the contrary, be shared by all, but they do imply norms and priorities which recognise the universal goals of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church as decisively overriding the interests of immigrant groups, the political purposes of ethnic ‘Mother Churches’ beyond the seas and of the governments which control them, and the manipulations of emigré politicians.[55] His message is one we ignore at our peril:   “It is not ethnicity as such which is an evil, but the wrong and un-Orthodox attitude which places ethnicity above unity and limits the mission of Christ’s Church to one ethnic group”[56]

At the Feast of Pentecost 1994, I – an Englishman by birth and descent – was ordained a Metropolitan in St. Mark’s Cathedral by His Holiness Pope Shenouda. At that same service my late brother in Christ, Abba Marcos, a Dutchman by birth was ordained Metropolitan for France and the Eritrean abbots, of whom Abune Antonios was one, were ordained bishops. It was a profoundly joyful occasion and the ethnic and cultural mix of those who received their mission at the hands of a Coptic Pope seemed utterly appropriate for the Feast of Pentecost.  In the Book of Revelation the Apostle St. John received the vision of the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband, where “the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendour into it … The glory and honour of the nations will be brought into it.” [57]

At the beginning of this address I spoke of the spirit of hope which characterises St. Peter’s first epistle and how hope is the great motivation of our Christian life. I believe that the Eritrean Orthodox Church in the United States cannot simply live on the glories of its Christian past but needs to be informed by an ethos of fidelity to its history and theology, a living tradition re-articulated in the light of its contemporary circumstances and its location. Out of persecution and tragedy it has been refined in the fire and is now able to face the future in faith and with hope. This generation is a generation faced with the challenge of making new decisions which will have profound implications for the future, but taken carefully, deliberatively and prayerfully under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit the Eritrean Orthodox Church in the diaspora will rejoice in that living hope. “Now, the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope.”[58]

 

Abba Seraphim


[1] Psalm CXXXVII: 4 (CXXXVI: 4 Septuagint)

[2] Psalm CXXXVII: 4 (CXXXVI: 4 Septuagint)

[3] Beginning with those who were exiled with King Jeconiah and his court in 597 BC, followed by King Zedekiah and the rest of the people in 587 BC and a final deportation following the assassination of the Babylonian governor, Gedaliah, around 582 BC.

[4] 1 Peter I: 1.

[5] 1 Peter V: 12.

[6] 1 Peter 2: 11.

[7] 1 Peter 2: 1-10.

[8] 1 Peter I: 10-12.

[9] 1 Peter 2: 12.

[10] Rom. vii., 36; Psalm xliv., 22

[11] Psalm CXXV: 3.

[12] 1 Thessalonians V: 13.

[13] Matthew XVI: 24 & Mark VIII: 34.

[14] Luke XIV: 27.

[15] Galatians VI: 14.

[16] Aiden Wilson Tozer (1897-1963), The Old Cross and the New.

[17] 1 Thess I:6

[18] St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Thessalonians I.

[19] Luke XXI: 12-13.

[20] Philippians I: 12-13.

[21] Psalm CXVI: 15.

[22] Luke VI: 27.

[23] 2 Corinthians V: 17.

[24] Luke VI: 27-28.

[25] Luke XXIII: 34.

[26] Acts VII: 60.

[27] 1 Corinthians IV: 12-13.

[28] Luke VI: 29.

[29] Matthew V: 38-39.

[30] Galatians III: 24.

[31] Matthew V: 20.

[32] Psalm XCIV: 10.

[33] Wright, William, trans., The Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite,(1882) p.2.

[34] Ogbai Ghebre-Medhin, Eritrean Intellectuals’ Crime of Indifference! (2005).

[35] Matthew V: 9.

[36] Isaiah II: 4.

[37] Isaiah LIII: 6.

[38] 1 Chronicles XXI: 17.

[39] Father Peter Farrington, Natural disasters in the Sixth Century Chronicle of PseudoJoshua, online at

http://erkohet.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=180:

naturaldisasters&catid=22:subsmnufathersasaintsmenu&Itemid=17

[40] 1 John III: 17-18.

[41] Joan M. Maruskin, The Bible as the Ultimate Immigration Handbook: Written by for and about migrants, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers (2003).

[42] Hebrews XIII: 11-14.

[43] St. Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 13.

[44] 1 Peter I: 14-16.

[45] 1 Peter III: 8.

[46] 1 Peter II: 21.

[47] By Constantine the Great to Trier in 336, by Constantius II to Rome and Gaul 338-346, by Constantius II to Upper Egypt 356-361, by Julian the apostate 362-3 and by Valens in 365.

[48] Apologia de Fuga

[49] Matthew XII: 15, John XI: 53-54, John VIII: 58-59.

[50] Mark IV:1-20Matthew XIII:1-23, and Luke VIII:1-15.

[51] Leo Hartshorn, Strangers in a Strange Land: Exile, Immigration, Survival and Identity, Peace and Justice Support Network of Mennonite Church USA, http://peace.MennoLink.org

[52] Hebrews XIII: 14

[53] John Meyrondorff, Vision of Unity (1987), p.156.

[54] Meyendorff, op.cit., p. 156

[55] Meyendorff, op.cit., p. 67.

[56] Meyendorff, op.cit., p. 81.

[57] Revelation XXI: 24 & 26.

[58] 1 Romans XV: 3.




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