This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for April 13, 2017, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
I am writing this on Palm Sunday evening after celebrating the Festival of Palm Sunday at my church in Wallis and hearing news reports on the bombing of two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, with 44 dead, many wounded, and ISIS claiming responsibility for the massacre. Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week, and you will read my column on Holy Thursday (Maundy Thursday) when the paper comes out. Just a few days before Palm Sunday, the United States retaliated to Syria’s use of deadly gas on its citizens. For many of us Christians, Holy Week is the most spiritually meaningful week in the Church Year, a fact which makes the news reports doubly disturbing.
The devastating events at this time in Lent, on the way to Good Friday and Easter Sunday raise our awareness of the dangerous trouble spots for Christians in the world today. As we reenact during Holy Week Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem by waving palms on Palm Sunday and observe Maundy Thursday and Good Friday with monologues about the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, the geography and topography experienced by Jesus and His followers are opened to us with greater awareness.
The Coptic Christian Church in Egypt is the oldest Christian denomination in the world. It was closely connected to the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople (at one time a great Christian kingdom but taken over by Muslims in 1453). Tradition holds that St. Mark was the Apostle who was responsible for taking Christianity to Egypt and founding what became the Coptic churches. We cannot help but recall how Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, and how St. Joseph took St. Mary and the Holy Child to Egypt for safety from Herod. The Orthodox Coptic Church in Egypt helped to spread Christianity throughout the area in the earliest of times.
When the crowds praised Jesus during the Triumphal Entry with their voices joyfully shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest,” the Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,” Jesus replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out!”
Like we did this morning at my church, the two Coptic churches in Egypt were celebrating the joy of the Triumphal Entry, no doubt waving palms and singing great Palm Sunday anthems. What seems so sad is that Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, a Jewish symbol of peace, not on a horse, the symbol of war. The Prince of Peace led a peace parade to bring peace to people’s hearts through the forgiveness of their sins, and peace with God Almighty, a relationship restored by Jesus’ sacrifice. My heart cries out at the horrific murder of my Christian brothers and sisters in Egypt.
What has happened in Syria also deeply touches my heart. Christians have so many Syrian connections. St. Philip preached in Syria, and so did St. Thomas. Mt. Hermon in Syria was the mountain on which Jesus was tempted by Satan, and some Bible scholars even believe Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount on Mount Hermon. St. Paul, who was originally a Roman citizen from Syria had his famous blinding light experience on his way to Tarsus, which is in Syria, where he was going to persecute more Christians. We know that there was already a Christian community established in Syria, at that time, as God sent Saul/Paul to Ananias, a Christian leader in Syria. Ananias baptized St. Paul, who thus became a Christian while in Syria.
In Paul’s day there were two Antiochs, Antioch of Pisidia (in Turkey) and Antioch of Syria (on the border of Syria and Turkey). The disciples were first called “Christians” in Antioch, -- no doubt Antioch in Pisidia, but both Antiochs played important roles in First Century Christianity, as Paul would have traveled to both Antiochs, and so did Barnabas, Luke, Mark, and other Christian evangelists.
These ponderings come to me on Palm Sunday evening with a heavy heart. When Jesus came to us as a tiny baby in Bethlehem, a sky full of angels declared (no doubt sang) to the world, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” similar to what the crowds were shouting on Palm Sunday.
Christianity is a religion of peace, of good will, of love, of hope, of sacrificial giving, -- ideally all the beautiful things Jesus wants us to be. I don’t understand why non-Christians would want to brutally hurt us or destroy us. In our sadness, it’s tempting to want to retreat from the world; like the Amish, yet, that’s not what God would have us do. Like Jesus, we come in peace. Tonight I weep for my Coptic Christian brothers and sisters. Yet, even if all Christians are silenced, the stones will cry out, “Peace on earth and good will toward men!”
Ray Spitzenberger serves as pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wallis, after retiring from Wharton County Junior College, where he taught English and speech and served as chairman of Communications and Fine Arts for many years.