By Mounir Bishay
As they are accustomed, the congregation of the SAINTS Church in Alexandria, Egypt, came to their church to bid the past year farewell and to welcome in 2011. It is an occasion when they prefer to be in God’s House and in God’s presence.
The year 2010 was about to come to an end with all of its tragedies for the Coptic people of Egypt. The congregation in the Saints Church was looking forward to the New Year 2011. They were cautiously optimistic, hoping it would be better than the year before. The hands on the clock were racing towards the dividing moment between the two years. At that moment they usually heard the sound of a ringing bell ushering in the New Year. However, this year’s sound was completely different. A few minutes after midnight, the congregation heard a huge explosion. The whole building shook as glass windows were blown out and flew into the congregation. Everybody started to scream, it was heart wrenching to see the dead and injured with blood streaming from their facial and bodily wounds.
In the video clip that recorded that dreadful moment, we saw the building shaking from the blast and heard the disconcerting screams. We also heard the priest uttering a phrase to his people, saying: don’t be afraid.
I don’t know whether or not the priest had an opportunity to deliver his New Year’s message prior to the explosion. But, through the phrase, “don’t be afraid”; the priest gave his congregation the shortest, the timeliest and the most eloquent sermon they had ever heard. In just one short phrase they heard a full sermon on a subject that relates to the occasion of the New Year. The sermon was also meant to deal with problems that resulted from the terrorist attack. There is no more appropriate message to be delivered than that of triumph over fear. There is no better style than his three word message. Nothing beyond “don’t be afraid” could be better to calm the situation and to invigorate his parishioners’ hearts and minds to bravely face the New Year. That sermon will be remembered as long as they live.
Fear is a God-given instinct designed to protect us from impending dangers. Fear is a very strong feeling that is usually directed against the future and that which is unknown. But, preoccupations about past fears and the possibilities of future dangers can incite miserable bondage to fear. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that the commandment “fear not” was mentioned in the Bible 366 times, one for each day of the year. The Lord Jesus also included freedom from fear as one of the central themes of his teachings.
Regarding fear as a result of insecurities about life, Jesus said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows.” Matthew 10: 29 – 31
Regarding fear of being killed, Jesus said,” And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10: 28
Regarding fear from the life to come, Jesus said,” Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give the kingdom.” Luke 12: 32
However fear about real issues can turn into fear about imagined issues. Thus fear in itself becomes the problematic, and it turns into phobic with paranoia.
In his inaugural speech, president Franklin Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” The words were spoken in 1933 during the darkest economic crisis ever to face America and civilized nations worldwide. Roosevelt’s words became the motto to rescue the economy of America and the rest of the world from the brink of collapse. The motto of “there is nothing to fear, but fear itself” was credited for reviving the American morals and bringing hope back to the country.
Jesus wanted to treat that same malady in his disciples. He once ordered them to travel by boat to across the lake to wait for him to arrive later. Jesus purposely stayed behind. He went up into a mountain to pray and stayed there until the evening. In the mean time, the ship with the disciples was being wind and wave tossed by a sudden storm. The disciples were in great fear of dying, although some of them were experienced fishermen. Jesus delayed coming until the fourth watch of the night. In the midst of this grave circumstance, Jesus came walking towards them on the sea. When the disciples caught glimpse of Jesus, they cried out in fear that a ghost was coming to trouble them. Fear in itself was so dreadful that it made them scream. At that moment, the words of Jesus came in to cast away their fears. He assured them with the words, “Be of good cheer, it is I; be not afraid.” Matthew14:22- 27.
With those same words Jesus speaks to all that are suffering fear as a result of what happened in the first few minutes of 2011 in the Saints Church of Alexandria, Egypt. Those who were martyred are now with Jesus relieved from all pain and fear. Jesus has words for the physically and psychologically wounded; for the relatives and friends of the dead and for all Copts who live in fear of future persecutions. Jesus says “be of good cheer, it is I, be not afraid.” It is I who quieted the storm, who walked on water, who went through closed doors. It is I who raised the dead, healed the sick, wiped tears from those who wept. It is I who redeemed humanity on the Cross, who defeated death, who ascended to heaven, who sits at the right hand of God to intercede for his followers. Jesus says, I will come again to take all believers to myself and into heaven. That will put an end to all of their fears and suffering.
It is also the message that the faithful priest of the Church of the Saints spontaneously spoke to his congregation, in the most dreadful of moments: Don’t be afraid.