When I tell people I am Coptic Orthodox, what follows is usually a blank stare or a polite head nod. Some people hear the word Orthodox and assume Jewish whereas others suppose since I am a second generation Egyptian American that I must be Muslim. I usually say Copts are like the Greek Orthodox, only Egyptian. That typically yields an enthusiastic “ohhh I see.”
Being a Coptic Orthodox Christian is part of my identity yet in many ways, it is difficult for me to explain my faith. My parents always found it especially important to make sure we were faith-filled people. I have a vivid memory of when I was 6 or 7 telling my mother that I was going to be especially good that year. When she asked why, I answered because I wanted nice gifts from Santa. She immediately responded with an irritated, “You should be good for Jesus, not Santa.” Although she didn’t know it, those words weighed on me. I wondered whether it was possible to be good for both Jesus and Santa. This struggle to balance spiritual with popular culture has stayed with me long past the days of believing in Santa.
My faith is difficult to explain not because people usually have no idea what Coptic Orthodoxy is but because navigating centuries-old traditions in a modern fast paced world is a challenge. Many of the practices and traditions in the Coptic Church may seem outdated, antiquated, or quite frankly, unnecessary. Why do men and women sit on opposite sides of the church? Why do women cover their heads? Or take, for example, the length of our liturgies.
Sunday liturgies are three hours long. Gasp. There I said it. How can people possibly be expected to sit (or mostly stand) through a two to three-hour-long service in this day and age? (You don’t even want to hear how long holiday services are.) It is hardly feasible to assume that people do not have busy lives and full schedules that demand attention. I work full time as well as pursue my master’s on a full-time basis so setting aside one hour of the day is hard enough. Setting aside three sometimes feels impossible.
But what if I framed it differently? What if I told myself I was fortunate enough to set aside three hours during the week where I disconnect from my hectic life and plug into a different world—a much slower and deliberate kind of place? This is a place where I can leave all my stress, worries, doubts, and fears at the door. This is a place where I can think, reflect, and share in something with others that is bigger than myself. Three hours to simply think and pray. When I frame it differently, I begin to appreciate the gifts my faith brings me that technology cannot.
That’s not to say it is easy. Most days, it is very hard to find a balance. I don’t believe that technology or our culture is the enemy. In fact, I am a full blown iPhone using, Game of Thrones watching, wine sipping, lip gloss wearing kind of girl. I blend in with everyone else attempting to navigate adulting in our mid-twenties. However, by incorporating little acts of faith my life, like a three-hour liturgy on Sunday or even a daily morning prayer, I realize that, yes, it is possible to have both Jesus and Santa, in that order.
Sarah Shanoudy is a graduate student at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. where she is pursuing a degree in Communication, Culture, and Technology.