The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
Talk about Egypt and your mind's eye immediately turns to the pyramids at Giza or the slow moving Nile, to the great Mosque and University of Al-Azhar, centre of the Sunni Muslim world, or perhaps these days to the events of Tahrir Square and the so-called Arab Spring of 2011.
But travel to Cairo and it's possible to catch a glimpse of something quite different.
Nestled in between these two great epochs—the decline of the old pharaonic religions and the rise of Islam—Egypt was for many centuries a predominantly Christian country, deeply imbued with the culture and traditions of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The very name 'Coptic' comes from the Greek word for 'Egypt', so being 'Coptic' simply means being 'Egyptian'.
The roots of this take us back to the image we have in front of us and the flight into Egypt. To this day, in the south end of central Cairo, stands the ancient church of St Sergius and St Bacchus—now many metres below street level—which claims to have been the sheltering-place for the Holy Family in their flight from Herod.
The painting is taken from a series commissioned especially for Lent under the title 'In the Wilderness', and can be found next door in St Margaret's Church on Parliament Square. The artist featured in the exhibition is Adam Boulter, Chaplain to the Mission to Seafarers in the port of Aqaba in the very south of Jordan. From Adam's house, set on a hill above the town, it is possible to see the kingdoms of Saudi Arabia and of Jordan, the state of Israel and the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, the route across which the Holy Family fled.
Each of the images takes a text from scripture relating to a biblical experience in the desert—Abraham and Sarah at Mamre, Jacob wrestling with the Angel, the Flight into Egypt, the Temptation in the wilderness, and so on. Alongside the text and painting, there is a sonnet crafted by Malcolm Guite from Cambridge University, which I will read at the end of this address. If you are interested in the series, these sermons can be found on the Abbey website.
So what's the image about? What does this have to do with Lent?
Though our celebration of the nativity at Christmas now some months past, it is not too difficult on a spring morning to conjure up the texture and sentiment we usually associate with that season. The words spring to mind with ease: clear nights, shepherds on the hillside, angels shining against the dark sky, travelling magi mysteriously appearing from the East; steeple, bells, a crib.
But if we leave the baby there in the manger, we fail to turn the page, to read the next bit of the story, we literally infantilize the Christ-child. Because the very next verses bring us back down to earth with a shocking bump.
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, 'Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.' Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.
The new-born is ushered into a world of violence and terror, a world of refugees and asylum-seekers. Quite different from the world we would wish on every new-born child, this one is given a rude introduction to fear, brutality and instability, as Herod the Great is depicted taking the sword to the young children of Bethlehem.
Herod the Great was a Nabataean, an Edomite from over the Jordan valley, who then converted to Judaism but always felt his insecurity. He was brought to the throne of Jerusalem with the aid of the Roman Empire, and had a reputation for brutality and paranoia, killing both his wife and two of his sons.
But he also gained a reputation as a builder and architect of huge engineering schemes—the enlargement of the Second Temple in Jerusalem was his, so was the creation of the fortresses at Masada and Herodium. It was for this that he gained the epithet 'Great'.
But without doubt, he was a man of power and authority, one who would brook no challenge to his position and it was this that he perceived was under threat by the birth of the Messiah. Matthew 2 goes on:
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.
The Massacre of the Innocents.
Like lambs led to the slaughter, these innocents stand for all and every one of those children who have died in countless conflicts down the centuries. It is unbearably hard not to reflect on the profoundly modern resonances of this Flight: not to think of the nearly one million refugees from Syria alone who now live in Jordan, together with 1.5 million Palestinians from the 1948 and 1967 conflicts, and 800,000 from the Iraq wars.
By way of contrast: how may Syrian refugees has the United Kingdom received? Just 90. Perhaps perceived as a political necessity, but it is doubtless a moral travesty.
But Malcolm Guite's poem reminds us that the innocent lambs led to the slaughter are not the only ones in this picture.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, himself the sacrificial Lamb, given up for our sakes, even he becomes the Lamb who sits on the throne, and to whom we must all give account—whether we are Herod the Great, Joseph the Humble, Bashar al-Assad, or just plain you and me.
A sobering thought for Lent.