Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Pope of the Coptic Church passed away this morning. He was a man of vision, compassion and gentleness – and none of those traits ever faded in him, even when his Church was rocked by violence and tragedy. He achieved an awful lot for one man over his 40 year reign. One of his greatest legacies was his dedication to making the Church a place for the youth. A phrase of his that went ‘viral’ among Copts long before there was an internet was, “A Church without youth is a Church without a future.” He realised the importance of educating and engaging young people, and it may well be that the current, vibrant Coptic youth culture owes His Holiness immeasurably for its vitality, and perhaps even its existence. Some Copts have even begun to use the appellation, ‘Educator of the Generations’, when the Pope’s name is mentioned in the liturgy – a trend which I hope will continue.
Beyond that, he had an incredible personality – scenes like this bespeak not only an incredible humility, but an amazing, Christ-like love which made him able to treat children who barely knew who he was with the same amount of attention, honour and respect as the hundreds of important adults constantly clamouring around him, hanging on his every word. My mother recalls for instance, that when she and a friend were staying in his monastery, the Pope stumbled upon them during a late night stroll (they had drawn him by making too much noise). He took them both by the hand, giving them a guided tour of the grounds, and led them finally to the balcony of his cell where he personally made them milk tea (after which he asked them kindly to return to their rooms and stop making so much noise). There were no crowds present for whom he could have been showing off, no cameras or reporters. He simply saw two women who really should have been asleep, and wanted to make them feel welcome. There was no-one not worth his time, no-one whom he was too important to bother with – not even children. That sort of love, I am convinced, comes straight from the living Christ (Mark 10:14, Matt 19:14) – it’s the sort of love which makes a person so immune to self-absorption that no-one around them could possibly feel insignificant. He saw every single human being glowing with the glory of God’s image – and it showed in everything he did.
Naturally then, Copts and Christians all over the world are in mourning at the man’s passing. But of course, our grief is for our loss, not his. There is no meaningful sense in which His Holiness is ‘dead’ – as the Litany of the Departed says, “there is no death for your servants but a departure.” Christ destroyed death 2000 years ago, and not a single true Christian has ever truly ‘died’ since then. His Holiness knew this very well of course – this is a passage from what many consider to be his masterwork – “The Release of the Spirit”:
“Being the image of God, you are immortal and not liable to perish at all. For is it possible that a person created after the likeness of God, the Immortal, would perish?! See then how much greater you are than the high mountain, the great sea, the blazing sun and the shining moon! You are greater than the wide desert and the spacious plain, and even greater than the atom which destroys and all the power of nature! All these things pass away as the Holy Bible says, “Heaven and earth will pass away.. “, but you will not, for the Lord Jesus Christ promised you an eternal life (John. 4:14)” (Release of the Spirit, Chapter 5)
Love is so powerful in its resemblance of God that it simply cannot cease to exist. The Image of God is immortal – and we must remember that everything that we loved about His Holiness are ultimately properties of Christ Himself, and they cannot die. The men we love the most on this Earth are those who show us Christ most clearly in themselves – and just as Christ cannot die, those in his image cannot die either. The only parts of our Pope which truly died this morning where his frailty, weakness, sinfulness (no man is sinless) and mortality. His love and wisdom and compassion and care for his children are more alive now than they’ve ever been. No, if we are mourning, it is for ourselves! We needn’t mourn for him. His spirit has been separated from his body for a time, but it has been freed from the fallenness of the world (and as such, he is more accessible to all of us now as an intercessor than he was when bound to his flesh). His body too, though cold and lifeless now, will not always be so – it will be raised up in the last day.
As hard as it can be, we must remember, as Christians, that death is not the tragedy that it appears to the world to be. Pope Athanasius, who preceded Pope Shenouda on the throne of Alexandria by 1600 years said rather eloquently:
“Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection. But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead.” (On the Incarnation, V.27)
Of course, that doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier, especially given how much we’ve come to rely on Pope Shenouda’s wisdom over the past few years. The Pope was a rock of stability amidst a raging sea of troubles in Egypt and abroad. We must pray very hard for his successor – he will be inheriting one of the hardest jobs in the world.
It’s oddly fitting that His Holiness should pass on a Saturday evening; so that the first thing his children would do after hearing of his passing, would be to pray the liturgy together. Perhaps he wanted his children to be together when they mourned his loss. St. Basil, in the consolatory letter quoted in the caption above, says the following:
“Your boys have lost a father, your elders a brother, your nobles one first among them, your people a champion, your poor a supporter. … But whither are my words carried away by my tearful joy? Shall we not watch? Shall we not meet together? Shall we not look to our common Lord, Who suffers each of his saints to serve his own generation, and summons him back to Himself at His own appointed time?“
So that’s what we must do. We must meet together, and look to our common Lord. He has called back his servant Shenouda; blessed as we were to have him, he needed to rest. But we must never think of him as being ‘dead’ – he simply isn’t. I may be guilty of having referred to His Holiness in the past tense above; I probably shouldn’t have. It’s true that His Holiness loved his children, and made them feel special – but it’s equally true, (perhaps more true now) that he LOVES his children, and prays with them even now.