Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt. (Matthew 2:14)
As an Egyptian (Coptic) Catholic, the season of Christmas is always one of mixed feelings for me. Along with the anticipation of the birth of Christ and the time spent celebrating with family and friends, there is also the fraught anxiety about the religious persecution which this period historically brings across Egypt and the Middle East.
When the Holy Family arrived in Egypt, it was to escape the violence of King Herod. The spirit of violence lingers with Egyptian Christians even now, where Christmas brings not just the sound of cymbals and chants, but explosions and gunfire. The 2017 Christmas Eve mass bombing at St Mark’s Orthodox Cathedral in Cairo still casts a dark pall over the holy season across Egypt.
Yet during a year of such unprecedented global upheaval, which began here in Australia with bushfires that devastated the east coast of the country and was followed soon after by a global pandemic which has changed the way we live, the comfort of tradition still offers me a sense of solace and hope.
For Coptic-Catholics, Advent is known as the Nativity Fast. It is also loosely referred to by many as Kiahk – the fourth month of the Ancient Egyptian/Coptic calendar, in which Christmas occurs. To prepare for the birth of Jesus, our community abstains from consuming all meat and animal products, besides fish, for the two weeks leading up to Christmas Eve. This helps us to focus less on ourselves and the pleasures of life, and more on our connection with God. The fast is broken after the conclusion of the Christmas Eve liturgy, known in the Coptic Tradition as the Nativity Paramoun. Paramoun is a Greek word meaning “extraordinary preparation.”
For my community of Egyptian-Australians, abstinence is a choice, made easier by plentiful food and the easy comforts of Australian society. Yet the United Nations reports that 32 million Egyptians live below the poverty line. Christmas is a time of giving, and for our community, this often means giving back to Egypt, sending support to family and friends through overseas money transfers or by supporting Egyptian charities.
Working at Caritas Australia, the International Aid and Development Agency of the Catholic Church, this year’s increase in the global poverty rate, the first of its kind in over two decades (World Bank), forces me to take stock.
Christmas, more than any time of the year, speaks of this universal call to charity, which, during these times of global pandemic, Pope Francis has described as an ‘antibody of justice’ against indifference and apathy.
During the Christmas Mass, we call on these poor and holy figures, John the Baptist, Zacharias and Elizabeth his parents, as well as the Blessed Virgin Mary and her parents, St Joseph, Joachim and Anna, to intercede for us and the world.
The tone of our hymns change, becoming fast, melodious and joyful. The Christmas Eve Mass ends with a communion service and, shortly afterwards, a shared meal. Conscious of the significance of this joyous time, the feast is lavish and festive.
However, for me, the Coptic liturgy, where we pray for the sick, poor and hungry, is fundamentally connected to this call for justice. The gift which gives me the most satisfaction is the one I give myself by donating to Caritas Australia’s global gifts campaign which you can visit at www.globalgifts.org.au. Donations at Christmas time provide essential food and medical supplies to marginalised communities in need.
May Christmas bring you and yours the peace and satisfaction of togetherness, as we begin to realise our collective hope for a more just, peaceful and healthy world.
Daniel Nour is Marketing Content Producer for Caritas Australia and a parishioner of St Mark’s Coptic Catholic Church, Prospect.