As we celebrated the entry of the Lord into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter, a Coptic Church in the Nile Delta in Egypt was bombed and many killed. They left their homes to attend church, to begin the days of Holy Week leading to the Triduum. Those that did return home had experienced the shock of an indiscriminate terrorist attack that took the lives of their friends that Sunday morning. This, and a further attack later in Alexandria, was claimed by ISIS as their work, their way of spreading fear and uncertainty in a troubled world.
Why is it that so often the fabric of buildings where people gather for worship is attacked and in consequence many lives are lost? Mosques, Churches, Synagogues, all have been the subjects of outrageous actions. In my lifetime, the first occasion I remember was in the town of Birmingham in the Southern State of Alabama, the Cotton State. It was there, on September 15th 1963, that a Baptist Church was bombed during the Sunday service. Twenty people were injured and four young teenage girls lost their lives, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. Their names became widely known through a song written the following year and sung by Joan Baez, “ Birmingham Sunday.” It opens with these words.
‘Come round by my side and I’ll sing you a song.
I’ll sing it so softly, it’ll do no one wrong.
On Birmingham Sunday the blood ran like wine,
And the choirs kept singing of Freedom.’
A hauntingly beautiful song of tragedy, with hope repeated in the words ‘And the choirs kept singing of freedom’
The 16th Street church where the bombing took place became synonymous with the Civil Rights Movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King. It was only five years before his own assassination at the beginning of April in 1968. In 2006 the church was declared a US national historic landmark.
More recently the shooting of a group of parishioners at bible study in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, South Carolina, was an event of peculiar ferocity. It gave new impetus to the on-going discussion of issues of racial prejudice and the open access to guns in the United States. But little has changed.
It has been an all too frequent story in recent years. Yet out of pain have come significant markers of courage and commitment. People have not given up hope, their faith has been sustained, and they have remained constant in their belief.
The visit of Pope Francis to Egypt is planned for the end of the month. There has been no word of any alteration to his plans in the light of the attack on the Coptic Church. Nor would I suggest is there likely to be for he is a man of personal faith and courage who sees his mission at the margins of society, whatever the risks. His safety should be the matter of continual prayer by the Church.
We have once more followed the Lord through the days of Easter, the Thursday of Eucharist, the Friday of Calvary, the Emptiness of Saturday and the Amazement of a Sunday morning.
That evening, when two dazed and bewildered men set out for the village of Emmaus, they were joined by a stranger who in conversation pulled the threads together. They invited him for supper and there he showed himself in the breaking of bread, they recognised him in Eucharist. A simple story of a journey, a teacher and two listeners. Their story should also be our story, a continued exchange of listening and telling. In others we recognise the teacher from Nazareth and hopefully, in us, others have their first meeting with the same stranger.
Our times are unpredictable, the uncertainty between East and West is reminiscent of the Cold War years. In many ways the danger is greater now for the risk of indiscriminate attack is greater, striking in the heart of our cities where once we felt safe and secure.
In a few days time, on April 26th, we will mark the beginning of airborne terror with the 80th anniversary of the attack on the undefended town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. In those eighty years we have followed a rapid learning curve in the art of killing. ‘We shall overcome some day’ were the echoing words of the 60s anthem. It seems we still have some way to go in our pilgrimage of faith for that to be fulfilled. We should remember in our prayers those of faith who have died in their places of worship with no weapon in sight, their hands open in prayer to the one God who made us.