POST #7: A REFERENDUM AND AN EPIPHANY
Two unique and distinct events here, with no convergence between them intended. I expect that only the most artistically creative will be able to find any. My intention is not to try and find some proof-text to bring these two events, one religious and one political, together. If you, gentle reader, are able to, then I admire your creative understanding of Scripture.
So, first of all to the referendum. As some of you will know, Egypt’s political life in recent times has, to put it mildly, been interesting. A popular uprising to oust dictator Hosni Mubarak from a deeply entrenched dictatorship in January, 2011, was followed by the election of a Muslim Brotherhood-led government led by Muhammed Morsi. Following this government’s attempt to lead the country down an Islamist path and, some would say economic catastrophe, a second popular uprising in July, 2013, led to his ouster and the setting up of a military-led interim government led by Field Marshal Al-Sisi. Promises have been made to the Egyptian people that this government was, and is, interim and that new elections will be held in 2014. In the meantime, a constituent assembly, consisting of 60ish prominent public figures, including representatives from all religious segments of Egyptian society, presented the country with a new, revised constitution, which has been hailed as an improvement on the previous one. Christian churches have not only endorsed it, but done so enthusiastically. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, on the other hand, left the assembly and have refused to participate in the referendum process. Instead, due to violence in the streets of Egyptian cities blamed on the Brotherhood, it has now been placed on the “terrorist” list of the government and, with the arresting of its leaders, has suffered serious organizational setbacks.
On January 14th and 15th, the nation went to the polls to vote on accepting the revised constitution. It was accepted with a 98% majority of the 38% of the registered voters who cast ballots. The Brotherhood and its allies, boycotted. Walking the streets of Cairo on those days, one sensed an air of excitement in casting their votes. Flags were in more prominent display, there were stories of singing, there were crowds at the polling stations (men on one side; women on the other), people proudly showed off their painted pinkies (evidence that they had voted), our Arabic teacher, visibly moved, talked with emotion about her right to vote—the first time in 30 years where she actually felt it might make a difference. Politics was in the wind and it was on the mouth of every Egyptian those days. Now Egyptians hold their collective breaths to see if, indeed, the government will deliver on the next promise—elections for President and a Parliament. Truly interesting stuff. A message to all Canadians who take their democracy for granted—-don’t. Vote. It counts. It may not seem important, but it is.
Epiphany—to Canadians, it is the religious day commemorating the coming of the Magi, who guided by the star, came to the house where they found the infant king and presented him with their kingly gifts. In Egypt, as with so many Christian “holydays” in the Orthodox tradition, it is different. It is the day that commemorates the baptism of Jesus and the descending dove announcing Jesus’ sonship to His heavenly Father. Before the arrival of Islam in Egypt, this was commemorated by Christians in Egypt (remember, Egypt was, between 200 CE and 650 CE, the centre of the Christian world) by the placing of a candle-lit cross into the Nile River. That tradition remains, in some form or other, in place 1400 years later! Remember, that in Egypt, traditions only mean anything once they are defined in terms of millennia, not centuries! So on January 18th, we met with other Orthodox Christians at the Anafora Retreat Centre, on the desert road between Cairo and Alexandria, to celebrate Epiphany. As always, the afternoon had sung vespers by a small group of “sisters” for a couple of hours. This was followed by an evening Mass, starting at 6 p.m., which ended at about 9 p.m., followed with a short procession from the chapel to the local swimming pool to set the lit cross into the water—a remembrance of a tradition almost 2000 years old. It has been held alive through many, many years of suffering, turbulence, persecution and endless uncertainties. At poolside, joyous (for Orthodox, anyway) hymns were sung, not only for the Lord they serve, but also for Egypt. In the cold darkness of the desert evening, candles were lit all along the poolside, creating a magical effect. Worshippers all carried lit candles. Young people were enthusiastically involved in the preparations and the worship team. The evening, by this time easily 10 p.m., was closed off with a feast—worshippers had “fasted” since noon that day. Bedtime for many would not have happened until well after midnight. Jane and I have been part of a number of Orthodox services and we have marveled at many things: such different musical and liturgical traditions, such endurance under continuous persecution, such a deep commitment to being followers of Jesus in word and deed, such an embrace of the mystical and the miraculous, such attention to the meaning of symbols in all things spoken, sung, written and visual. We can’t understand much of the liturgy yet, but it remains fascinating at so many levels. Such a privilege to be part of this religious experience!