'Je suis Copte' is the latest slogan taken up by many people on the social media. It refers to the appalling murder in Libya of 21 Egyptian Christians at the hands of Islamic State. Most of the people alive in the world today have never witnessed such brutality as the brutality we have seen this group engage in over the past few months. It does not mean that such things were not happening before. What is different now is that they are happening for all the world to see. They are happening on our computer screens and television sets, and that means in our living rooms, in our bedrooms, in our offices, in our gardens. We have come face to face with great evil - except that this evil has no face.
The Christians who were murdered were given the grace, it seems, to be pure martyrs. The word 'martyr' has been hijacked by people who kill themselves, or have themselves killed, in the process of killing other people. But that is not what the word means. A true martyr is one who dies as a victim of violence, not one who dies carrying it out. A true martyr is one who does not return evil for evil but seeks to return good for evil. And a pure martyr, in the Christian sense, is one who dies for his faith in Christ. It seems that the Egyptians killed by Islamic State were given the choice of denying Christ or dying. They chose to die rather than deny Him, and that makes their martyrdom pure.
A striking thing in the photographs of this event is that the ones who were killed are human to us. We can see their faces, we can have some idea of their personalities, we can wonder what their thoughts and feelings were in those last moments of their lives. The men standing behind them have their faces covered. Even their bodies are camouflaged within long black robes. They are anonymous agents of a terrible evil which is loose in the world. An evil afraid to show its face.
Often in these first days of Lent we hear about living in the light and living in the darkness. We are children of the day when we belong to Christ, we do not belong to the night or to darkness. Good deeds are brought out into the open, there is no need to hide them, and no need to fear. Wickedness prefers the night and the darkness, the furtive shadows, places cold and cruel.
These men died in a desert place, something like the place where Jesus was tempted. He was tempted by Satan, and was with wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. It must be that the angels ministered also to those young Christians being put to death last week: how else could they have persevered, kept their eyes on the goal, endured what was done to them? Christ too was put to death in the flesh but was brought to life in the Spirit. And in the course of that journey from death in the flesh to life in the Spirit he descended into hell.
Hell is a place where spirits are in prison, and Jesus went to preach there. What did he preach there? He did not need to tell them that they were in trouble, that they were imprisoned, that they were lost. He preached to them the good news of his victory, told them of the shedding of his blood, taught them about the redemption of the world through that blood soaking into the dry sand and pleading more insistently than Abel's: innocent human blood, crying out to heaven, from the beginning of the world.
'Je suis Islamic State'. That will sound like a perverse joke, but we must try to stand beside these spirits in prison, try to understand what has brought them to such inhumanity. What humiliation, what fear, what mocking of their religion or nationality, what exclusion or rejection, what unnecessary pride, what distorted thinking, what sadness - what is it that closes the heart and cauterizes the conscience so that people end up doing such things to human beings? Too easy to say they are animals, less than human, barbarians and monsters.
Lent calls us to remove our own masks, to show our own true faces, to come out into the light of truth and goodness and love. Lent reminds us that human nature is capable of profound distortion and cruelty. All too easily we can turn away from the kingdom announced by Jesus to pitch our tents in the regio dissimilitudinis of which the Christian saints speak, a place of confusion and fear, of distortion and cruelty.
But the very same human nature is capable of extraordinary heroism and fidelity, of love and enduring compassion. Today's psalm points to where our strength really lies: 'the Lord guides the humble in the right path, and shows His way to the poor'. Those who belong to him, and remain faithful to him in this life, humble and poor, grow radiant in the light of God's face, they flourish, and blossom, and bear fruit in eternity.
Coptic martyrs of Libya, pray for us!