It began on the eve of Tuesday, April of 1968. Everything was normal. Then all of a sudden there she was walking among the domes on a Coptic Church. Eyewitness accounts speak of a silent lady bathed in light. Although we do not know for certain what the full significance of her appearance is, it should inspire Christians to pray for Mary's intercession for unity between Christians and Muslims, for the conversion of Muslims and for peace throughout the world.
KNOXVILLE, TN (Catholic Online) - It began on the eve of Tuesday, April of 1968. Everything was normal. Then all of a sudden there she was walking among the domes on a Coptic Church. The church is located on the main street in Zeitoun, Egypt. This made the apparitions highly visible, and they continued for over a year. Consequently, an estimated million people from different faiths and walks of life are reported to have witnessed them. Then the apparitions stopped as abruptly as they began.
At the time of the apparitions, Zeitoun was a suburb of Cairo. Zeitoun has since been swallowed up by the Egyptian capital city. However, the memory of the apparitions will never disappear from the minds of those who witnessed them. And while the world has changed over the past forty-two years, the significance of the apparitions remains to this day. Perhaps if we examine these apparitions, we can see their relevance to the current events in Egypt and the surrounding region.
Eyewitness accounts speak of a lady bathed in light. They call her by many names: Our Lady of Light, Our Lady of Zeitoun or El-Zeitoun. She never spoke or uttered a sound. During the apparitions, she moved about the domes. She bowed and knelt down before the cross. She would also face the people in the street, nod her head and bless them with her hands. On one or more occasions she held an olive branch in her hand. Sometimes she was accompanied by luminous, dove-shaped bodies which moved about at high speeds. And the apparitions lasted from a few minutes up to a couple hours.
You are probably wondering if the apparitions are real or some sort of hoax. It seems the local government wondered the same thing. According to an article written by Amargi Hillier, the local police searched a fifteen mile radius surrounding the site in an attempt to locate any kind of device that could have projected the images onto the dome of the church. They found nothing. In addition, Anba Kyrillos VI, the Patriarch of Alexandria at the time, sent a delegation of priests to investigate. They stayed at the church for several nights and witnessed the apparitions for themselves. The Coptic Church has since declared that the apparitions are authentic.
However, social scientists have offered their own explanations for the apparitions. One called the apparitions a case of mass delusion. Another referred to them as luminous phenomena correlated to the occurrence of seismic activity in the region. However, the first explanation explains nothing. It dodges the question. The second, while more credible than the first so-called scientific explanation, does not appear to explain the order and complex structure of the apparitions. I would expect "luminous phenomena" to exhibit randomness or chaos. But eyewitness reports of her movements and numerous photographs taken over an extended period of time by many different photographers reveal the distinct and recognizable form of a lady. This is order and structure, not randomness or chaos.
So who is the lady? According to tradition, Zeitoun is on the route that the Holy Family took when fleeing King Herod's efforts to murder the infant Jesus (Mat 2:13-14). Furthermore, the Coptic Church was built at this location in response to this belief, and it was named Virgin Mary. Consequently, the woman in the apparitions is believed to be the Blessed Virgin Mary. There are other reasons why the woman is believed to be Mary as well. For instance, her appearances were accompanied by numerous miracles. Many of these miracles involved healings which were apparently investigated by medical doctors, who confirmed that the healings were not a result of natural causes.
Since our Blessed Mother did not speak, people have tried as best they could to discern the significance of the apparitions. Some people have noted that Mary appeared at a time of great difficulty for the Egyptian people. Others have sought meaning in the olive branch that Mary sometimes held. Traditionally, an olive branch is used as a symbol of peace. These speculations make sense, but I believe there is greater significance to her appearances than these speculations suggest. I believe this because Mary is revered by both Muslims and Christians.
Before we can explore this idea further, it will help if we recall who Mary is to Christians and Muslims. For Christians, Mary is the Mother of God. In a very real sense, Mary brought the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, to the world, and, according to the Fathers plan, she was, and remains, totally united to His redemptive work. From this flows our understanding of Mary, and it largely explains why Christians revere her. Likewise, Muslims revere her as well, but not as the Mother of God.
So who do Muslims say Mary is, and why do they revere her so highly? Mary is mentioned more than any other woman in the Koran, and she is one of a handful of people who have a chapter named after them. She is held in esteem as an example of submission to Allah and as one who accepts truth, who has faith, is purified, is chosen, and who fasts. Muslims also derive certain prayer postures, such as prostration, from Mary. Although Muslims do not believe that Jesus is God, they still believe in the virginal birth of Jesus and that Mary was immaculately conceived.
The fact that Muslims do not believe her Divine Son is God may explain why Mary did not speak during her apparitions in Zeitoun. What could she say? She has always led us to her Son. That is the role God has given her. Yet, perhaps in her silence that is exactly what she was doing. Perhaps that is all she could do and, at the same time, respect the freedom and dignity of the people in Egypt. Perhaps, too, it was enough at that time for her to remind them by her presence that she is with them, that they are not alone, and that they share a common bond in their reverence for her.
Given the reverence that Muslims have for Mary, we should not be surprised if God plans to unify Christians and Muslims and convert the Muslim people through His mother. Thus, Mary's appearances at Zeitoun may be a step toward that end. We may have seen evidence of this when Christians and Muslims united against the bombing of Saints Coptic Church in Alexandria at the New Year's Eve Mass and when they demonstrated together in Cairo over the past few weeks.
Of course, we cannot know for certain what the significance of her appearances is, but based on what we do know, her appearances should inspire Christians to pray for Mary's intercession for unity between Christians and Muslims, for the conversion of Muslims and for peace throughout the world.
----- Michael Terheyden was born into a Catholic family, but that is not why he is a Catholic. He is a Catholic because he believes that truth is real, that it is beautiful and good, and that the fullness of truth is in the Catholic Church. However, he knows that God's grace operating throughout his life is the main reason he is a Catholic. He is greatly blessed to share his faith and his life with his beautiful wife, Dorothy. They have four grown children and three grandchildren. -----
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