[sws_ui_toggle title=”The Coptic Church Tradition And Worship” closed=”true” jui_theme=”redmond” duration=”500″]
A Worshipping Church
The Coptic Church is known as being a worship-loving church. Her worship is rather incessant, her liturgies are rich with theology and rites, so profound and delightful. A child can participate with a cheerful heart. Her feasts are continuous every-day besides Sundays, the weekly feasts, the monthly and the yearly feasts. Its songs are diversified and enjoyable. With her calm, meek and effective spirit she is capable of reaching deep into the soul and she shakes the heart and emotions in credit of the Kingdom of God. Her joy is mixed with asceticism and her fasting exceeds half of the year.
Worship in the church represents a living part of the ecclesiastical life which reacts together with the enjoyment of the Holy Bible, doctrine faith, ascetic life and her sacred outlook to man and his entity. All that collaborates to lead to “life in Christ”.
This devotional life is not exclusive for the priests and monks, but it is for every member of the church. Everybody participates in worship and performs through organized church services without confusion. They worship collectively not individually, in spirituality and gentleness and not in the rigid deadly letter. The spirit of public worship can be practiced by the believer even in his bedroom, because he practices his personal worship as a member of the community, who thanks, praises, and asks in the name of the whole, as all are in the depth of his heart.
The Holy Bible And Church Worship
The Holy Bible and The Alexandrine Church
Since her inception, especially starting from the second century, the Alexandrine Church has been known for her School which concentrated on the study of the Holy Bible and was interested in its allegorical interpretation. This method of interpretation was received by Origen from his teacher, St. Clement, and from his predecessors. Origen had put its principals and bases and explored its aim, to the extent that the allegorical interpretation of the Bible all over the world is owed to him. Origen exaggerated in using this method but he had left many disciples, directly or through his writings, among church leaders, and his influence remained clear even over his opponents.
I do not intend here to enumerate Oirgen’s fault’s because they have been exposed before, but I wish to elucidate the role of the Holy Bible in the Alexandrine Church and her School, particularly as related to church worship.
1. The School of Alexandria paid attention to science and philosophy, and therefore did not show any hostility towards philosophers, on the contrary, for some of the churchmen were students in the philosophical School “the Museum” and they attracted many of its leaders–the philosophers–to Christianity. Yet at the same time the School of Alexandria did not look to the Holy bible with a philosophical view for mere satisfaction of the mind, or for the sake of arguments and debates. She looked at the Bible as the experience of meeting with the Word of God and a true enjoyment of the Holy Trinity’s work in the life of the community and in the life of each member therein. According to the Alexandrine thought the soul enters – through the spirit of prayer and piety – into the presence of God that He might raise her above the deadly literal meaning, ascends her to His heavenly chamber, and reveals to her His divine mysteries which cannot be expressed in human language. Thus the Holy bible in its essence is a discovery of the incarnate Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is hidden behind its words, who leads us to experience the communion with the Father through Him, by the Holy Spirit. In other words, studying and meditating on the Holy Bible is a spiritual worship and an enjoyment with the Holy Trinity, as we experience our sonship to the Father and His Fatherhood to us, our steadfastness in the Only Begotten Son and the attainment of the fruit of the Holy Spirit.
2. The Holy bible is considered as an encounter with God and an interaction with Him in a spirit of worship and piety, so worship, common or private, is an expression of the flowing love from hearts which have encountered God and yearned to enter into new depth in order to stay with Him, in His bosom, forever enjoying His mysteries and glories. In other words, worship is also an enjoyment of the evangelic life, understanding the Holy bible and a discovery of the words’ secrets.
Here we acknowledge church life which is inflamed with love, as one integral life, containing on one hand the spirit of studying the Holy Bible. Worship is a practical entrance to the Gospel, and the study of the Bible is a true experience of worshipping. Every worship outside the Bible is fruitless, and every Bible study without the spirit of worship distorts the soul.
Therefore, it is needless to say that church worship – common and private – is correlated to the Bible, not only because it includes excerpts from the scriptures, but also because it carries the spirit of the Bible, every breath of love to God through our worship. Worship is inspired by the spirit of the Bible and at the same time the Bible reveals the spirit of worship and the depth of its mysteries on a heavenly level.
3. All church liturgies, common, family, and private worship include readings from the Old and New Testaments, particularly from the Book of Psalms, the Epistles of St. Paul, the Catholic Epistles, and from the four Gospels. Such readings are included in the liturgy of catechumens, the liturgy of blessing the water, the celebration of Holy matrimony, blessing the baptismal water, funeral services, for blessing new homes as well as at the daily Canonical Hour. Thus the church offers thanksgiving to her God in every occasion in a spirit of worship through reciting verses of the Holy Bible, and at the same time she urges her children to sit with God’s word, enjoy and meditate on it.
4. Church life is not only a life of worship in an evangelic way or a biblical life in a spirit of worship, but it is one, inclusive and integral life, which includes the practical daily life with good behavior, the ascetic practice and the desire of the heart to witnessing and preaching. In other words, our Bible study is worship, practical behavior, asceticism and preaching. Truly some members may be gifted in depth with certain talents. For example, some my be involved in studying the Bible, others in practicing asceticism, and others in preaching etc… Yet all members have to live in the one whole spirit in order not to deviate from the aim of the bible and the spirit of the church.
5. Moreover, the Alexandrine Church recognized that the mystery of the Scriptures is uncovered through three essential and related matters:
1. Study and research: Origen collected the texts and translations of the Bible and arranged them in six columns (Hexapala). If a verse is obscure, the scholar may refer to other texts to elucidate it. Thus Origen from the second century – was ahead of his time.
2. Prayers and pious life: The Alexandrine students were men of prayer and asceticism. They believed in the need of the Divine Revelation to the soul through purity in Christ to understand the Bible.
3. Discipleship: The scholar cannot fully enjoy the biblical spirit through his own individual private studies. In order to deviate, he needs to be disciple of a spiritual father to attain the delivered biblical though, besides the need of being disciple of the Early Fathers through their writings.
The Liturgical Worship In The Coptic Church
The Word “Liturgy”
The word “Liturgy” in classic Greek means “a public service undertaken on behalf of the people” it comes from:
1. “Liaw,” meaning “People.”
2. “Ergia,” meaning “work.”
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, this word means “the service of the altar,” or “the priestly service” Heb. 8:6;9:21.
The church used this term since the apostolic age, to cover all that worship which is officially organized by her, and which is offered by all her members, or on their behalf. In the course of time, this term has come to be particularly applied to the performance of the service of Eucharist, although there are other liturgies as the liturgy of Baptism, liturgy of marriage etc.
Liturgical Worship And The Liturgical Life
Liturgy does not mean some hours spent by believers – clergymen and laity – in participating in the Eucharistic liturgy, performing on vesper or matin or baptism or marriage celebrations etc., but it is in its essence the true communion with Christ. This liturgical life is not lived only when a believer participates in common worship whatever it is, but it dwells within his heart even when he is alone in his room. In other words “liturgy” is a life which the church practices, through which she acknowledges her nature, realizes her message and attains her own existence which is life and growth in Jesus Christ.
In fact, we use the word “liturgy” for common worship, because the believer participates in this worship with the members of the community. This membership is alive and active and it represents a part of his entity. He is a member even when he is alone speaking with God in his own room. The holy community is in the heart of the real believer, and the believer is within the heart of the church community. In other words, when a believer prays in his room, he realizes that all the church is within his heart, praying in her name, calling God: “Our Father” and not my Father who art in heaven.” At the same time, when the community prays it endows its members, present and absent with love.
The Characteristics Of The Coptic Liturgies
1. The Coptic liturgies are known to be not monopolized by clergymen. They are the liturgies of all the church, laymen and clergymen. The people participate in the hymns, and prayers. Therefore clergymen should pray in the language of the people, clearly and with a pleasant tone, as the people take their turn in participating. Here the “people” means all the congregation: men, women and children. The Coptic Church does not exclude children during the liturgy, and this is one of the resources of our church in Egypt, for even the child feels his positive membership and acknowledges his right in participating in church liturgies. The beautiful rites and heavenly hymns encourage children in worship without feeling bored, In spite of the lengthy services.
2. The Coptic liturgies not only emphasize church unity, clergy and laity, young and old, men and women, but also aim at revealing that the heavenly life is near and realizable to us! All the Coptic liturgies have eschatological (heavenly) attitude. In the liturgies the church participates in the hymns of the heavenly creatures, its thoughts are attracted to acknowledge the hidden mysteries of heaven. For example, the liturgy of marriage attracts our thoughts to the heavenly marriage of our souls to Christ, and also to the crowns of the saints.
3. The Coptic liturgies are correlated to the church dogmas and doctrines. Liturgies’ rites and texts instruct even children in simple ways about Church faith, her concepts and dogmas concerning:
God; our relation with Him; our relation with the heavenly hosts and saints; our view of sanctity, of the world and our bodies, our struggles against the devil and his agent etc. Liturgies represent a school to the people, opening its doors to the children through its simplicity, and to the theologians through its depth.
Coptic liturgies clarify church dogmas without the need of any theological discussions, and at the same time gives genuine theological concepts that believers experience during their worship.
4. Coptic liturgies are correlated to the ascetic church life. Asceticism has its effect on our liturgies, as it appears in the long duration of the services and practicing kneeling during the services. Liturgies soothe and delight the ascetic person. For example, in the service of the Holy Week and Good Friday, although the believers fast for long periods and abstain from many kinds of food, they feel true consolation, which they rarely attain in other occasions during the year. The daily Eucharistic liturgies in Lent season grant the believers spiritual delight of particular character.
5. Coptic liturgies are biblical. Every liturgy declares the word of God and the experience of the evangelic life. They include readings from the Holy Bible, the Old and New Testaments, especially the book of Psalms, Epistles of St. Paul, the Catholic Epistles, and the Gospels. They also present prayers and hymns quoted from the Bible, carrying evangelic thoughts. Thus we can say that liturgies are totally presented in the spirit of the Bible.
6. Coptic liturgies touch the believers’ daily life and also their family life, for they are the “dynamic energy” which moves their lives. There is no separation between common worship and actual life. In other words, believers practice the common worship as a part of their lives as a whole.
To explain the correlation between the liturgical life of common worship and the daily life for Copts, we here give some examples:
a. The priest and the laity acknowledge the liturgy of Eucharist as a meeting at the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and as an entrance to Golgotha, so that they all might sit under the Cross’ shadow (Cant. 2:3). The priest puts his hand on the “Lamb” (Holy Bread) and prays for his family, his spiritual children and for all the people. He prays for the repentance of those who stray away and for the solution to church problems and family disputes, and for those who are in trouble that God may intervene through His Divine grace. He also prays for those who are travelling, for the sick and for those who departed in the Lord etc.
The Coptic people used to ask the priest to remember them and their problems on the attar of the Lord and they themselves participate with him in asking God. Thus, Copts find their comfort in the liturgy -of the Eucharist, as they find the precious Blood of Jesus Christ as the propitiation of their sins (I John 4: 10), and a source of their inner peace.
b. Through the various liturgies believers acknowledge the motherhood of the church and the fatherhood of the priest as a figure and shadow of God’s Fatherhood. Therefore, Copts flee to the church as their own refuge in the important and trifle matters, in sadness and in their happiness, because of their trust in her and their love for her. For Example, when God grants a family a baby, the church prays a special “liturgy” for washing the babe on the eighth day of his birth. The priest, deacons, the family and their friends participate in giving thanks and praise to God, asking Him to act in the baby that he might grow in the &race of God as a saintly member of the church. When a person succeeds in any work usually he asks for giving thanks to God by praying a special doxology through or after the Eucharistic liturgy. When a person falls ill he asks for praying the liturgy of the unction. When a person dies the church prays the funeral service, on the third day prays a common prayer at his house to declare God’s consolation through the resurrection of Christ on the third day, and in every memory the priest mentions the name of the dead person in Eucharistic liturgy (the diptych).
Thus, the church does not interfere in the lives of her children but through love, participates in all their aftirs, that they might feel her motherhood and her sharing in their feelings.
The Coptic Feasts
Feasts And Worship
Moses’ Law arranged seven major feasts (lev. 23), which had their rites and sanctity, as a living part of the common worship. These feasts are: the Sabbath or Saturday of every week, the first day of every month, the Seventh Year, the Year of Jubilee, the Passover (Pasch), the feast of the weeks (Pentecost), the feast of Tabernacles (feast of Harvest). After the Babylonian exile two feasts were added, i.e., the feast of Purim and the Feast of Dedication. The aim of these feasts was to revive the spirit of joy and gladness in the believers’ lives and to consecrate certain days for the common worship in a holy convocation (assembly) (Exod 12:16; Lev. 23); and to remember God’s promises and actions with His people to renew the covenant with Him on both common and personal levels. The feasts were a way leading to enjoy Christ, the continuous “Feast” and the Source of eternal joy.
When the Word of God was incarnate and became man, He submitted to the Law and attended and celebrated the feasts. However, He diverted the attention from the symbol to reality, and from the outward appearances to the inner depths (John 2, 5, 6, 7, 12); to grant the joy of the feast through practicing the secret communion with God and receiving His redeeming deeds.
Almost all the days are feasts to the Coptic Church. Although she is known for bearing the cross, she is eager to have her children live, in the midst of sufferings in spiritual gladness. She is capable, by the Lord’s help, to raise them above tribulations. In other words, the Coptic Church is continuously suffering and joyful at the same time, her feasts are uninterrupted, and her hymns with a variety of melodies are unceasing.
A Church Of Joy
One of the main characteristics of the Coptic Church is “joy,” even in her ascetic life. St. John Cassian described the Egyptian monks who spread from Alexandria to the southern borders of Thabied (Aswan) saying that the voice of praise came out perpetually from the monasteries and caves, as if the whole land of Egypt became a delightful paradise. He called the Egyptian monks heavenly terrestrials or terrestrial angles.
St. Jerome informs us about an abbot called Apollo who was always smiling. He attracted many to the ascetic life as a source of inward joy and heartfelt satisfaction in our Lord Jesus. He often used to say: “Why do we struggle with an unpleasant face?! Aren’t we the heirs of the eternal life?! Leave the unpleasant and the grieved faces to pagans, and weeping to the evil-doers. But it befits the righteous and the saints to be joyful and pleasant since they enjoy the spiritual gifts.”
This attitude is reflected upon church worship, her arts and all her aspects of life, so that it seems that the church life is a continuous unceasing feast. Pope Athanasius the Apostolic tells us in a paschal letter that “Christ” is our feast. Although there are perpetual feasts the believer discovers that his feast is in his innermost, i.e., in the dwelling of Christ the life-giving Lord in him.
The church relates and joins the feasts to the ascetic life. The believers practice fasting, sometimes for almost two months (Great Lent) in preparation for the feast, in order to realize that their joy is based on their communion with God and not on the matter of eating, drinking and new clothes.
The Coptic feasts have deep and sweet hymns, and splendid rites that inflame the spirit. Their aim is to offer the living heavenly and evangelic thought and to expose the Holy Trinity and Their redeeming work in the life of the church, in a way that is simple enough to be experienced by children, and: deep enough to quench the thirst of theologians.
Feasts Of The Coptic Church
1. The Seven Major Feasts Of Our Lord
a. The Annunciation (Baramhat 29, c. April 7): In it we recall the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, and the attainment which the men of God had longed for across the ages, namely the coming of the Word of God incarnated in the Virgin’s womb (Matt. 13:17).
b. The Nativity of Christ (Christmas) on Kayhk 29, c. January 7: It is preceded by a fast of 43 days. Its aim is to confirm the divine love, when God sent His Only – begotten Son incarnate. Thus, He restored to humanity her honor, and sanctified our daily life, offering His life as a Sacrifice on our behalf
c. The Epiphany or the Baptism of Christ on Tobah 11, c. January 19: It is connected with Christmas and the circumcision feasts. For on Christmas, the Word of God took what is ours (our humanity) and in the “circumcision” He subjected Himself to the Law as He became one of us, but in the Epiphany He offered us what is His own. By His incarnation He became a true man while He still being the Only-begotten Son of God, and by baptism we became children of God in Him while we are human being
In this feast, the liturgy of blessing the water is conducted, and the priest blesses the people by the water on their foreheads and hands to commemorate baptism
d. Palm Sunday: It is the Sunday which precedes Easter. It has its characteristic joyful hymns (the Shannon – Hosanna (Matt. 21:9), and its delightful rite. The church commemorates the entrance of
our Lord Jesus into our inward Jerusalem to establish His Kingdom in us and gather all in Him. Therefore a delighful is procession or the redeemed believers, starts -God’s plan for Christ’s self-oblation. The procession moves towards the nave of the church were it stands before the icons of St. Mary, the Archangels, St. John the Baptist, the Apostles, the marthe ascetics etc… and before the church doors and the baptismal basin, praising God who embraces all together in His Son Jesus Christ. The procession ends by re-entering the sanctuary, for the of God of the Old and New testaments meet with the heavenly in heaven (sanctuary) forever.
The end of the liturgy of Eucharist, a general funeral service is held over water, which is sprinkled on behalf of anyone who may die during the Holy week, since the regular funeral prayers are not conducted during this week. By this rite, the church stresses on her pre-occupation with the passion and crucifixion of Christ only. She itrates on the marvelous events of this unique week with its glorious readings and rites which concern our salvation.
e. Easter (The Christian Pasch or Passover): It is preceded by Great Lent (55 days) and is considered by the Coptic Church as the Feast.” Its delight continues for fifty days until the Pentecost. Easter is also essentially celebrated on every Sunday by participating A sacrament of the Eucharist. For the church wishes that all believers may enjoy the new risen life in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:4).
f. Ascension: It is celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter Is on a Thursday. In this feast we recall Him who raises and lifts us up to sit with Him in heaven (Eph. 2:6).
g. Pentecost: It represents the birthday of the Christian Church. Only-begotten Son paid the price for her salvation, He ascended heaven to prepare a place for her. He sent His Holy Spirit in her, offering her existence, guidance, sanctification and adornment as the Heavenly Bride.
In this feast, the church chants hymns, being joyful with the resurrection of Christ, His ascension and the dwelling of His Holy Spirit in her, thus she connects the three feasts in one whole unity.
On this day, the church conducts three sets of prayers, called “Kneeling,” during which incense and prayers are offered on behalf of the sick, the travelers, the winds, and it gives special attention to the dormant, as a sign of her enjoying the communion and unity with Christ that challenges even death.
2. The Seven Minor Feasts Of Our Lord
a. The Circumcision of our Lord: It is celebrated on the eighth day after Christmas (Tobah 6, c. 14January), by which we remember that the Word of God who gave us the Law, He Himself was subjected to this Law, fulfilling it, to grant us the power to fulfill the Law in a spiritual manner. Thus we enjoy the circumcision of spirit and that of heart (Col. 2:11), instead of the literal circumcision of the flesh.
b. The Entrance of our Lord into the Temple (Amshir 8, c. February 15): We remember that the Word of God became man and does not want us to be careless about our lives, but to set our goals early since childhood. Thus we have to work and fulfill our goals regardless of people related to us, in spite of our love and obedience to them (Luke 2:24).
The Escape of the Holy family to Egypt (Bashans 24, c. June 1): The Coptic Church is distinguished among all nations with this unique divine work, by the coming of our Lord to Egypt among the Gentiles.
d. The First Miracle of our Lord Jesus at Cana (Tobah 13, c. January 12): Our Lord changed the water into wine, as His first miracle, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, confirming His eagerness for our attaining the heavenly wedding, and granting us the wine of His exceeding love.
e. The Transfiguration of Christ (Musra 13; c. August 19): The unity of the two testaments was manifested in this feast, for Moses and Elijah assembled together with Peter, James and John. The glory of our Lord was revealed to satisfy every soul who rises up with Him to the mountain of Tabor to enjoy the brightness of His Glory.
f. Maundy Thursday: This is the Thursday of the Holy week. In it we commemorate the establishment of the Sacrament of Eucharist by our Lord Jesus, when He offered His Body and Blood as the living and effective Sacrifice, capable of sanctifying our hearts, granting us the victorious and eternal life.
This is the only day of the Holy Week in which Sacrifice of the Eucharist is offered, and the rite of washing the feet is practised in commemoration of what Christ did for His disciples.
On this day also an unusual procession takes place, starting from the south of the church nave, during which a hymn of rebuking Jude the betrayal is chanted as a warning to us not to fall like him.
g. Thomas’s Sunday: This is the Sunday that follows Easter; In it we bless those who believe without seeing so that all might live in faith through the internal touch of the Savior’s wounds (John 20:29).
3. The Monthly Feasts
The believers joyfully celebrate the commemoration of the Annunciation, Nativity and Resurrection of Christ on the 29th of every Coptic month, the commemoration of St. Mary on the 21st and the feast of Archangel Michael on the 12th
4. The Weekly Feast
Every Sunday stands as a true Sabbath (rest), in which we find our rest in the resurrection of Christ. There is no abstention from food on Sundays after the celebration of the Eucharist, even during Great Lent.
5. Feasts Of The Saints
There is almost a daily feast, so that the believers may live in perpetual joy and in communion with the saints. In addition there are other special fasts and occasions:
a. The Feasts of St. Mary: The Coptic Church venerates St. Mary as the “Theotokos,” i.e., the Mother of God, whom the Divine Grace chose to bear the Word of God in her womb by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). Since she is considered to be the exemplary member in the church, and the interceding mother on behalf of her spiritual children, she is exalted above heavenly and earthly creatures. Therefore, the church does not cease glorifying (blessing) her, and celebrating her feasts in order that we imitate her and ask her intercessions on our behalf Her main feasts are:
The annunciation of her birth (Misra 7, c. August 13);
her Nativity (Paschans 1, c. May 9);
her Presentation into the Temple (Kyahk 3, c. December 12);
her Dormant (Tobah 2 1, c. January 29);
the Assumption of her body (Paoni 21, c. June 28);
her apparition over the Church of Zeitoon (Baramhat 24, c. April 2);
and the apparition of her body to the Apostles (Mesra 16, c. August 22).
b. The Apostles’ Feast (Abib 5, c. July 12): This is the feast of martyrdom of the Apostles SS. Peter and Paul. It is preceded by a fasting period which starts on the day following the Pentecost. In this feast, the liturgy of blessing the water takes place, in which the priest washes the feet of his people (men and children) commemorating what the Lord did for His disciples. Thus, the priest remembers that he is a servant who washes the feet of the people of God and not a man of authority.
c. The Nayrouz Feast (I st of Tout, c. September 11): The word “Nayrouz” is Persian, meaning “the beginning of the year.” The Egyptian calendar goes back to 4240 B.C. Copts restored the calendar with the beginning of Diocletian’s reign in A.D 284, to commemorate the millions of Coptic martyrs. His reign is considered a golden era in which the church offered true witnesses to Christ, when the souls of martyrs departed to paradise and kept shining as living stars therein.
This feast, with its joyful hymns, continues until the feast of the Cross (Tout 17, c. 27 September). Thus the church announces her joy and gladness with the martyrs through bearing the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, the sufferings and martyrdom were turned into a source of joy.
d. The Two Feasts of the Cross: The first feast is on Tout 17, (c. September 27). It commemorates the dedication of the Church of the Holy Cross which was built by Queen Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine. The second feast, is on Barmahat 10 (c. March 19) and commemorates the discovery of the Holy Cross on the hands of the same empress in A.D 326.
During these two feasts the church conducts a procession similar to that of Palm-Sunday and uses the same tone in chanting (Shannon-Hosanna), to announce that the cause of her joy with the Cross is the openness of the hearts (the inner Jerusalem) to receive the Savior as the King who reigns within us.
The Coptic Church And The Spirituality Of Rite
The Rite Of Heaven
God is Spirit, and His heavenly Creatures are spirits without bodies. Nevertheless, the book of Revelation tells us about a rite of heaven; for it has specific hymns (Rev. 4:8) and certain worship (Rev. 4: 10); there we find the 24 incorporeal priests with golden crowns on their heads and hold golden censers (Rev. 4:4). St. John also describes the heavenly Jerusalem, its gates, foundation, walls and temple etc.. (Rev. 21). Therefore, it is not surprising that the Alexandrian Church established her rites since her conception.
A Ritual Church
The holy Scriptures emphasize that our God is “not the author of confusion” I Con 14:33, hence He establishes His heavens with splendid spiritual rites. The church of the Old Testament carried out a rite which was “the copy and shadow of the heavenly things” Heb. 8:5. The word of God dedicated some books of the Old Testament to declare in detail and exactitude the rites of priesthood, sacrifices, the structure of tabernacle and its tools, and rites of worship. For God wants “all things to be done decently and in order I Cor. 14:40.
It is not in vain that the Lord in the New Testament when He was about to feed the multitude, said to His disciples: “Make them sit down in groups of fifty” Luke 9:14. He rather emphasized the necessity of order to grant His heavenly gifts. The Lord did not take a hostile stand towards the Jewish rite, but He subjected Himself to the Law with its rites; He was circumcised and entered the Temple to transfer the Jews to the spiritual rite with its heavenly concept.
However, He criticized the literality and the formality of rite. The disciples also followed their Lord’s footsteps and attended the daily temple worship (Acts 3:46), besides their meeting together to break the bread without attacking the Jewish rite. They sought its completion through announcing the mystery of the cross and the sacrifice of Christ. When they were dismissed from the temple and from the Jewish synagogues as individuals and groups, the church did not live without rite or order. On the contrary, the apostles emphasized the necessity of “order” and “decency” to the Church of God (I Cor. 14:40, 1 Thess5:14; 2 Thess 3:6), declaring that orders and rites were handed out orally (I Cor. 11:34; Tit 1:5; 2 John12:14).
The Aim Of The Coptic Rites And Characteristics
The Coptic rite is not an aim in itself, that the Church practises it literally without understanding. It is rather the Church’s language, uttered by the holy congregation as a whole, and by every member, that they may enjoy the pledge of heaven through the rites. Therefore, St. Clement of Alexandria states that the church is the icon of heaven.
1. Any rite in which the believer does not practise his communion with God the Father, in His Son by the Holy Spirit and has not the experience of the joyful evangelic life as a heavenly one, is strange to the Coptic Church. For example, the rite of the sacrament of holy matrimony in its prayers concentrates on the heavenly crown and the spiritual marriage between God and His saints. This can be understood if the couple practise this sacrament spiritually and comprehend that this marriage is an image of the greatest mystery: the Union of Christ with His Church (Eph. 5:32).
2. The rite has its educational role, since the Coptic Church presents all the Christian dogmas, the concepts of faith, and the spiritual thoughts in very simple style. The child understands it, the theologian is satisfied with it, the priest who is burdened with pastoral work finds his comfort in it, and the spiritual ascetic finds it
very nourishing to his soul. For example by making the sign of the cross children acknowledge the Trinitarian dogma and the divine incarnation, and through venerating icons they understand the extension of the church as the body of Christ.
3. The Coptic rites is characterized by harmony and oneness of spirit. Thus the church building with its splendid rite is in accord with the liturgical rites so that believers live under the guidance of the Spirit of God in a joyful pious life.
4. In the Coptic rite, the body shares with the soul in worshipping God, whether in congregational, familial or private worship. It is a sign of Church belief in unity of the human being as a whole without ignoring the role of the body in the spiritual life. In other words the church emphasizes the sanctity of the soul and the body together through the Holy Spirit of God.
The Coptic rite which contains hymns, standing piously for praying, stretching hands, kneeling, offering incense etc. does not present restricted bodily movements, but it represents a support of the body for the alert soul. In a similar way, every evil bodily action is capable of destroying the soul and hindering her union with God.
The rite is the language of man as a whole, which uses all man’s capabilities to express his innermost which common language can’t realize. Rite is an expression, which comes out of the body interacting with the depths of the inner soul.
5. In the Coptic rite not only the whole body participates in worshipping God, but also the creation shares in glorifying the Creator. In other words, the believer, realizing the sanctity of the creation, appears before God offering incense, wood (icons), bread, wine etc. to God, declaring that all creation glorifies God. This concept is in accordance with the words of the “Psalmody”: [Praise the Lord from the earth… fire, hail, snow, clouds etc. (Ps. 148)]. Thus the inanimate creatures are not evil, nor do they hinder worship, but are good tools, which the believer can use them to express the sanctity of all creatures.
6. We may state that rite is an integral part of Church life. It touches our worship, our faith, our spirituality and our asceticism, if it is practiced spiritually and with understanding under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If it is practiced as a duty or routine work, performed literally without understanding, it becomes an obstacle to the evangelic spiritual life. In other words, the rite is not mere order, an outer organization, or sets of laws that rule church life, but it is in its essence a living spirit we have received throughout the ages. The rite has its body, i.e., the visible order, and has also its spirit, i.e., the innermost thought. Whoever accepts the body of the rite without the spirit becomes a corpse, a burden, which should be buried. If we accept the body with the spirit we enjoy a life which has its effect on the congregation and on every individual.
The Fasting Order In The Coptic Church
A Church Of Asceticism
God, who created all the trees in the Garden of Eden for the sake of man, His beloved; ordered him not to eat from just one specific tree. This was not to deprive man, or to impose His authority, but rather to make man worthy of His love through fasting and obeying His commandment; “man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord…” Deut. 8:3, Matt. 4:4.
The Lord, Himself, the Word Incarnate, fasted before undergoing trial and undertaking His ministry on our behalf We therefore fast with Him to attain victory and blessings at work, and to be able to proceed in the spirit and not according to the flesh (Rom. 8: 1). The Lord fasted for forty days (Matt. 4:2) to transfigurate in the midst of Moses and Elijah who also fasted for forty days (Exod. 40:28; 1 Kings 19:8). In this way He declared that fasting is not deprivation, neither is it a restraint upon the body; but it is rather a sublimation with our Lord on Mount Tabor which enables us to enjoy His Glory made manifest in us.
The Coptic Church (as well as the Ethiopian Church) is an ascetic church that believes in the power of fasting in the life of the believers. Fasting is not considered a physical exercise, but rather it is an offering of inward love offered by the heart as well as the body. Consequently, the Church requests believers to fast for over six months a year. Strangely enough, the Coptic Church desires – of its own free will to spend its whole life fasting, while most churches in the world increasingly tend to reduce the fasting periods from one generation to the next. In fact, during confession many of the Coptic youth request to increase the days of fasting… very few indeed complain of the many fasting periods.
The Concept Of Fasting
1. The church requires us to fast and abstain from food for a period of time to experience hunger. The Lord Himself experienced hunger (Matt. 4:2) though He is the source of all satisfaction, physical and spiritual. The apostles experienced hunger as they fasted (Acts 10:1; 2 Cor. 11:27). Moreover, we should not indulge in delicacies after abstention, but rather we should observe eating certain non-fat foods:
“I ate no pleasant bread, neither came flesh nor wine in my mouth” Dan. 10:3.
” Take you also unto your wheat, and barley, and beans, and lentils, and millet, and spell” Ez. 4:9.
“MY knees are weak through fasting, and my flesh fails of fatness” Ps. 109:24.
In spite of that, fasting is not merely abstention from food, drink, or delicacies. It is essentially an expression of our love to God who has given His Only-Begotten Son to die for us. If the Lord Jesus delivered Himself for my sake (Ephes. 3:20), then in turn I wish to die all day for His sake (Rom. 8:38). Thus fasting and abstention from food is closely connected with abstention from all that is evil or has a semblance of evil. It is moreover connected with continuous spiritual growth, thereby achieving an offering of fasting that is holy in the eyes of God.
That is what Pope Athanasius elaborated powerfully in his first letter: [When we fast, we should hallow the fast (Joel 2:15)… It is required that not only with the body should we fast, but also with the soul. Now the soul is humbled when it doesn’t follow wicked thoughts… And as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, being the heavenly Bread, is the food of the saints… so is the devil the food of the impure, and of those who do nothing which is of the light, but work the deeds of darkness… For not only does such a fast obtain pardon for souls, but being holy, it prepares the saints, and raises them above the earth].
2. God created our “good” bodies and souls to function together under His guidance and to carry out his will. Now if our souls succumb to the wicked desires of the flesh in disobedience, we become carnal (Rom.7:14), Through fasting we beseech God to subjugate our bodies by the Holy Spirit so that we might live in the spirit and not according to the flesh (Rom. 8:12). It is true that St. Paul preached the Gospel to many, but he warned against the flesh, which he mastered by fasting as he feared to be a castaway. (I Cor. 9:27).
3. While fasting, we pray to be liberated from our “ego.” Thus we fast and abstain from “selfishness” as much as we abstain from food. We practice loving God through loving our brothers and all humanity by His grace. Hence St. Paul says “Though I give my body to be burned and have not charity, it forfeit me nothing” I Cor. 13:3. Therefore fasting should be associated with the witness to God’s love through giving alms and striving for the salvation of souls. In the early church, many catechumens were baptized on Easter eve or the Christian Passover as a result of the great activity of church preaching during Lent besides the rest of the year doing so in a state of continuous prayer, fasting and practical testimony. Particularly that people were more prepared, while fasting, to receive the word of God and become members in the body of our Lord Jesus.
Until today, Lent is considered one of the richest periods of wholehearted devotion demonstrated by practical offerings to the poor and the needy. Believers undertake this in obedience to the Scripture: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? Is it not to deal by bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out to your house? ” Is. 5 8:3 -7.
In the first centuries of Christianity, praying and fasting (the direct love of God) were integrated with alms giving (our love to God interpreted by our love to our neighbors). This is explained in the book “The Shepherd” of Hermes, urging believers to offer their savings resulting from fasting to widows and orphans, Origen blesses those who fast and feed the poor, and St. Augustine has written a whole book on fasting, as he feels that a person, who fasts without offering his savings to the poor, has in fact practiced “greed” rather than fasting.
4. The days of fasting are days of repentance and contrition. At the same time, they are periods of joy and cheer as believers experience victory and power in their innermost self. Fasting does not imply fatigue, restraint, or irritation, but rather it inspires joy and inward gladness with the Lord reigning within the heart… This is the experience of the Coptic Church particularly during the Holy Week. At that time believers practice asceticism more than at any other time of fasting. The signs of real spiritual joy and consolation filling the heart are so clearly evident then.
Pope Athanasius of Alexandria has recorded this experience. He says: [Let us not fulfill these days like those that mourn, but by enjoying spiritual food, let us try to silence our fleshly lusts. For by these means we shall have strength to overcome our adversaries, like blessed Judith (13:8), when having first exercised herself in fasting and prayers, she overcame the enemies, and killed Olophernes
Fasting is not a situation which may be used as a pretext for anger. It is rather an opportunity to demonstrate a loving heart and power over the spirit of anger, selfishness, and all egocentricity.
Fasting And Church Order
While many Copts (as well as Ethiopians) spend most of their days fasting of their own free will, and while they do so by the motherly help and love of the Church (through the Church Order), Many westerners avoid the cross of fasting and put forward the following excuses:
1. Fasting is an individual worship to be practiced privately (in secret) (Matt. 6:17,18). The answer to this is that the same commandment applies to prayer and giving alms (Matt. 6:3,6). Besides, prayer and alms giving are practiced in all the churches of the world on a communal basis. In the Old Testament people observed communal worship in the form of prayer, hymns and Bible readings as well as fasting (Zech.8:19; Est. 4:3. 16; Ezra. 8:21; 2 Chorn. 203; Joel 3:5). In the New Testament the apostles fasted together (Act 13:2,3). Hence why should believers avoid communal fasting under the pretext of private observance? The secret of the Early Church being strong was its unified faith as well as communal participation even in fasting. History itself is a witness that ever since the apostolic age, both Eastern and Western churches fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays besides the Great Lent. To answer to the concept of fasting privately in order to avoid boastfulness, we find the apostle revealing that he fasted. He announces “with fasting,” and he practiced it with those who were on the boat (Acts 27:21).
2. Why are the days set for fasting specifically designated? If they are not indicated or organized by the Church, believers may be deprived of fasting all their lives. This is just what has happened in most Western Churches. In the Old Testament there were designated fasting days (Zech. 8:9) side by side with communal fasting or personal ones practiced in periods of hardship.
3. Some object to fasting designated by the Church by quoting the words: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink…” Col 2:16, and “What God has cleansed, that call you common” Act 10: 11- 15, and also the words: some shall depart from the faith. Forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats which God has created to be received with thanksgiving…” I Tim. 4:1-3. This can be explained as follows:
a. The Apostle didn’t say, “Let no man therefore judge you in fasting” but he said… “In meat or in drink.” Thus what is intended here is the abstention from certain forbidden food designated by the Law of Moses. As when St. Peter saw a great sheet cover with all kinds of food and abstained at first (Acts 10: 11 – 15). Therefore the Apostle meant here to fight the idea of reverting to Judaism.
b. Concerning those who forbid specific food such as the Manichaeans and the Donatists, who also have forbidden marriage as unclean and eating meat as defiling … those were excommunicated. During fasting we do not forbid certain food (as unclean) but we voluntarily subjugate and control the body (I Cor. 9:27).
It is noteworthy to underline that the first man was vegetarian (Gen. 1:29), and man continued to avoid eating meat until the period of Noah’s ark (Gen. 9:3). At that time his spiritual standard dropped. This explains why believers eat vegetarian food when they wish to create a suitable atmosphere for spiritual development. The same behavior was observed by Daniel and the three young men at the palace, and also by Ezekiel.
c. “Church Order” is essential to communal life, as it is indicated in 2 John. Besides, the church is known for its flexibility; believers can be allowed to increase, decrease or even stop fasting by their spiritual fathers, during confession, and according to their spiritual, physical, or health condition.
Periods Of Fasting In The Coptic Church
First: The Weekly fast: Just as the church practices worship weekly, it also practices general fasting weekly. This has its origin in the Jewish Church. Jews were accustomed to fast on Mondays and Thursdays, as on these two days Moses went up to receive the commandments and descended the mountain carrying the two stone tablets. That is why when Christ spoke about the Pharisee, He said he boasted about fasting every week (Luke 18:12). Since the apostolic age, the Church has been aware of the value of fasting and designated Wednesdays and Fridays as days for fasting. This is done in memory of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion.
Second: The Great Lent or “Tessaracoste (forty days fasting).” This is set to achieve a dual purpose: first, to be prepared to experience the joyful resurrection of the crucified Lord. Secondly, to prepare catechumens through teaching and guidance to practice worship together with practical repentance, so that they might receive the sacrament of baptism on Easter eve.
It is necessary to stop and reflect upon these two objectives. Although we celebrate the resurrection weekly on every Sunday, and practice the “resurrected life” every day through continuous renewal and unceasing repentance, yet we are in need of the fasting period of forty days (Great Lent) besides the Holy Week in order to become ready for the joy of the resurrection and the power it gives. Within this period we practice “mortification” in the Lord, that His resurrection may be transfigured in us, and to be able to say with the Apostle Paul: “If so be that we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified together” Rom. 8:17.
With regards to the preparation of the catechumens within this period, fasting is necessary for the performance of this task, and gives an increasingly deep significance. It implies an open loving heart towards human race. The whole church fasts, so that God may attract new children to Him, and prepare them for the blessings of His Fatherhood… Thus fasting is a sign of our faith in God’s power manifested in our ministry and preaching. On the other hand, fasting particularly the Great Lent should have the aim of witnessing to Jesus Christ and of unceasing prayer for the sanctification of mankind.
At every Lent, a believer used to remember how the Church fasted on his behalf and strived to gain him as a holy vessel and as an altar to the Lord. Similarly, it is his turn now to repay this love by working for the salvation of others.
Actually the observance of “Great Lent” dates back to the age of the apostles:
a. In the writings of St. Irenaeus in the second century – mention is made of believers who fasted for a day, besides others who fasted for two days before Easter, as well as others who fasted for longer periods. There is reference to some who counted forty hours in a day. This does not mean that St. Irenaeus negates fasting during Lent or the Holy Week, but he indicates the complete abstention from food which precedes the Easter Liturgy of Eucharist. For while some are satisfied to fast on Holy Saturday (and that is the only time when the Coptic Church fasts on a Saturday in the form of complete abstention), others abstain for two successive days: Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Concerning the calculation of forty hours in a day, this probably refers to a custom practiced in the second century, and which some Copts follow, wherein fasting starts on Good Friday and continues until sunrise on Easter Sunday i.e., until the celebration of the Easter Liturgy. This is equivalent to forty hours.
b. In the middle of the third century, there is strong evidence that fasting extended for six days (from Holy Monday to Holy Sunday). Some scholars comment on this as a clear indication of the distinction made between fasting during the six paschal (Holy) days as a whole and fasting on Good Friday and Holy Saturday which has specific significance 10. Actually, what occurred in the third century may be considered as complementary to what is mentioned by St. Irenaeus. This saint mentions complete long abstention preceding the Easter Liturgy, whereas what is mentioned regarding the middle of the third century refers to fasting during the Holy Week as a whole and which also has specific significance, especially that it is still observed by our Church with greater asceticism than the rest of Lent period.
c. In AD 325, the Council of Nicene mentioned Lent as a settled matter recognized by the Universal Church, and not as an innovation in the church or in some churches.
d. In the middle of the fourth century, St. Athanasius was greatly concerned with writing the “Paschal Letters,” even in his exile. The Popes of Alexandria have followed this custom at least ever since Pope Dionysius of Alexandria. These were written on the occasion of the Epiphany, not only to designate Easter time but also to designate the beginning of Lent immediately followed by the Holy Week and by Easter day.
It is noteworthy that in the letters that have come down to us, St. Athanasius integrated Lent with the Holy Week, although he stressed the clear distinction between them.
The Coptic Church fasts for fifty five days (forty day [Lent]; eight days [Holy Week] and seven days instead of the seven Saturdays which are not observed with complete abstention.
Third: Other Periods of Fasting: Besides the weekly fasting and Lent followed by the Holy Week, Copts observe the following periods of fasting:
1- Fasting before Christmas: Its win is spiritual preparation to receive the birth of Christ. It lasts for forty days plus three days in memory of the general fast observed in the reign of Al Moiz when EI-Muqattarn Mountain was moved.
2- The Fast of the Apostles: This begins on the day following Pentecost and continues until the feast of the martyrs, SS. Peter and Paul, on Abib the fifth (twelfth of July). The aim of this fasting period is to fill the soul with fervor and zeal to preach the Word with an apostolic thought.
3- The Fast of Nineveh: This lasts for three days. It starts on the Monday preceding the one before Lent. It probably refers to Jonah’s fast, while he was inside the whale’s belly.
4- The Fast of the Holy Virgin: This takes place fifteen days before the celebration of the Holy Virgin Mary feast. (It lasts from the seventh to the twenty second of August (16th of Misra)).
5- Fasting on the eve (Paramoun) of Christmas and on the eve of the Epiphany… this fast is observed immediately before these feasts, it is taken with great asceticism. If this occurs on a Saturday or Sunday, then fasting starts on Friday to allow complete abstention until sunset.
Notes on Periods of Fasting observed by the Copts:
1- Fasting is not observed on Wednesdays and Fridays occurring in the “Pentecostal Period,” i.e., the fifty days starts from Easter to Pentecost.
2- The sick and travelers may reduce the periods set for fasting by absolution during confession. As for those who observe asceticism, they many fast all their lives and follow no restrictions. Upon consecration, a bishop fasts for a complete year.
Church Readings In The Coptic Church
Man’s words proclaim his inner life, characteristics, personality, abilities and his gifts. Likewise church readings uncover her nature, thoughts, aims, and abilities.
Church Readings In The Early Ages
Jews used to pray daily liturgies besides the rites of the morning and evening sacrifices, especially on Saturdays and on feasts. The synagogue set certain readings especially for Saturdays.
We can summarize the contents of the daily Jewish liturgy in the days of Jesus Christ in the following points:
1. The president of the synagogue chooses one of the people to read the “Shema,” i.e., the Jewish Creed which contains Deut. 6:49; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41, and the 18 blessings (On Saturday there are only 7blessings).
2. A reading from the Pentateuch (five books of Moses) in Hebrew and in Aramaic.
3. A reading from the Prophets or other books.
4. If there was a suitable person or persons to preach, he (or they) did so (Acts 13:15).
5. The Christians who had Jewish origin participated in these Jewish liturgies till the year A.D 60 (Acts20:16).
6. The Christian Church inherited from the synagogue the readings from the Scriptures that were suitable to the Christian mind.
7. In the second century, St. Justin stated that the church admitted readings from the Gospels and the apostolic writings.
8. In the second century there were certain church readings especially for feasts of Christian Pasch and Pentecost. Afterward other readings were set as those of the feasts of martyrs and of Sundays. [Many of the church Fathers mentioned the use of the two testaments in the church readiness.]
9. Before the Council of Nicea, the church had one “Lectionary” or more.
The Features Of The Readings In The Coptic Church
First: Church readings can be divided into two kinds, each one revealing a side of the church nature:
1. Readings that present a general line throughout the year, starts with El-Nayrouz (the beginning of the Coptic year) and continue till the end of the year in a certain theological and spiritual manner. These readings throughout the whole year uncover the church curriculum and her spiritual ladder, and at the same time represent the church catholicity (universalism) and her unity.
2. Everyday readings, according to the feasts of the saints and other circumstances. These readings show the distinctive nature of a day and the other. According to us, this represents the distinction between church members, and the variety of their gifts. This distinction and variety complement the catholicity of the church and her unity.
We can call the first kind of readings: “The general line of church readings” while the other is called: “The special readings.”
Second: Church readings are considered as a part of church worship, these readings are recited with special tones (in Coptic) to declare the purpose of the choice of the church from these readings. Through church readings, worshipers offer to God hymns of love. In other words, church readings are prayers, through them we hear God’s voice and talk to Him secretly. These readings are a dialogue of love between God and His people, therefore there is no church worship without biblical readings. Church readings are used not only through the daily Eucharistic liturgy but also in evening (Vesper), and morning (Malin) offerings, also through different liturgies such as the funeral services. Even in the canonical hours, every time we pray, the Psalms are mixed with certain readings from the New Testament.
Third: Church readings in the Eucharistic liturgy are not set by distributing the chapters of the two Testaments throughout the year, but the church chooses by the guidance of the Holy Spirit certain chapters to present an integral spiritual and theological curriculum. This curriculum is in accordance with church occasions, hymns and rites throughout the year, aiming at the edification of the holy community.
Fourth: Besides the readings from the two testaments which are in accordance with the church hymns, there are other readings from the traditional and patristic writings, such as:
1. The “Synixarum”: It contains the biographies of saints and God’s actions with the church throughout the ages.
2. The “Difnar”: It contains doxologies to God who acted in the life of the saint whose feasts we celebrate. This book is no longer used in most of our churches.
3. Patristic sermons like those of St. John Chrysostom. Today most of our churches suffice with a sermon preached by one of the clergymen.
Church Readings Books
There are many “Lectionaries” that contain selected chapters from the Holy Bible, used in the Eucharistic liturgy, vespers and matins:
1. General Lectionary: contains readings for Sundays and ordinary days throughout the year. It is divided according to the Coptic months.
2. Lectionary for the Great Lent.
3. Lectionary for the Holy Week (Paschal Week).
4. Lectionary for the Pentecostal period (the period between Easter and Pentecost).
The General Line For The General Church Readings
Besides everyday readings (special church readings of the Days), the general church readings through the Coptic year present an integral church curriculum as an evangelic, ascetic, theological and eschatological (heavenly) one and at the same time it does not ignore our practical everyday life on earth.
The general church readings are for the followings periods:
1. From El-Nayrouz feast (the beginning of the Coptic Year) to the feast of the Cross (1:17 Tout): The readings of this period concentrate on joy, chanting hymns and the constant renewal; the first verse that is read in the eve of El-Nayrouz is: “Sing to the Lord a new song.” Truly, repentance is the way to the kingdom of God, but when repentance is mixed with hope, it is practiced through per petual inner joy.
The analogy between El-Nayrouz (Feast of Martyrs) and the feast of the Cross. Using a joyful (Farayhi) tone throughout this period confirms the joyful life of the suffering church, for she joyfully bears the cross together with her Heavenly Groom.
2. The preparation for Christmas (Nativity of Christ in Keyahk 29): The church fasts for 43 days before Christmas, and presents readings which concentrate on “God’s friendship with man” realized by the divine incarnation.
3. The correlation between the feasts of Christmas, Circumcision and Epiphany (The Baptism of Jesus Christ): The readings of these feasts announce that our Friend became like us, submitted Himself to the Law and was circumcised. He also entered with us into. the Jordan River, was baptized to lift us up to the spiritual circumcision, changing our friendship to Him unto the “Adoption to God”, that we might become “members of the household of God” Eph. 2:19.
In other words, the “divine friendship” (Christmas) can be realized through two integral actions: descent of the Word of God unto, us (His circumcision like us), and lifting us up to Him by His Holy Spirit (our spiritual circumcision or our baptism). He became like us, subjected Himself to the Law which He issued, that we might become like Him, children of His Holy Father!
4. “Jonah’s Pasch”: Our adoption to God is realized through “passing over” (Pasch), for we have to die with Christ, be buried with Him (as if we were in the belly of the great fish), that we might reign with Him and enjoy the new life [the word “Pasch” means “Passover”].
The readings of the fasting and of the “Pasch” of Jonah represent a call to believers that they might read the books of the Old Testament in a new concept, through the events of the Christian Pasch, i.e., the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
5. The readings of Great Lent, on Sundays and ordinary days in Lent. These readings, from the Old and New Testaments, have their particular features, for they urge us to accept the true and practical communion with Christ, our Pasch, who was slain for our sake.
6. The readings of the Holy Week, i.e., the readings of the period from Saturday of Lazarus till Easter. These readings are considered the center of all church readings, for through them the church follows all the events of salvation hour by hour, to declare the mystery of the redeeming divine love from the Old and New Testaments, so that believers might live in these events with all their hearts and senses and lastly enjoy the delight of Christ’s resurrection
7. The Pentecostal Period, with its readings and joyful (Farayhi) hymns reveal the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, which in its essence is the enjoyment of communion with the Risen Christ, who is in heavens.
8. The Feast of the Apostles (5th of Abib 12 July): It is the feast of preaching and ministering unceasingly, and the feast of the acceptance of the apostolic life.
9. The Feast of St. Mary (16 Misra 22 August): It declares the glories that a believer might attain by his unity with the Glorious Christ, revealed in a unique way in St. Mary as the excellent member among the believers. It also assures the communion of saints.
10. The preparation for El-Nayrouz: In the last two weeks of the Coptic year, church readings attract our sight and mind towards the events of the end of the world and Christ’s last advent. Church readings prepare the believers to sing: “Yes; Come O Lord Jesus.”
In brief, the frame of the general curriculum of the church is:
1. It starts with the spiritual joy in the Lord together with the desire of the continual renewal, as a base for our spiritual life (Feast of El-Nayrouz till the feast of the Cross c.II September up to c. 27 September).
2. This joy is based on God’s friendship and love towards men (Christmas or the Feast of the Nativity of Christ – 7 January).
3. God’s love and friendship were realized through His participating in our nature, that we may also participate in Jesus’ sonship by the spirit of adoption (Feasts of Circumcision and Epiphany – 19 January).
4. This sonship is realized by passing over from bondage through the Pasch, the center of the Old Testament (Jonah’s Pasch).
5. The Old Pasch is a symbol of our True Pasch, the Crucified and Risen Christ (The Great Lent).
6. We have to accept the practical communion with our Pasch by participating in His crucifixion so that we might attain the delight and power of His resurrection (The Holy Week).
7. We have to accept the eschatological (heavenly) thought, that we might not miss the inner kingdom (The Pentecostal period).
8. As we attain communion with God we must witness to Him by preaching (The Feast of the Apostles).
9. Our communion with God leads us to the communion with our brothers and unites us with His saints (The Feast of St. Mary).
10 Our experience of the communion with God and with our brothers inflames our desire for the Lord’s last advent, to enjoy the heavenly and eternal communion in the perfect glories (The end of the year).
Through the above mentioned summary we remark that the Coptic Church presents through the general readings an integral thought about God’s love and His redeeming work. It also presents our responsibility for the spiritual struggling, meditation on the heavenly glories accompanied by accepting sufferings joyfully, attaining the mysteries of the word of God together with preaching and witnessing, and attaining the communion with God and His son by His Holy Spirit through our communion altogether in Him.
Private Worship In The Coptic Church
One Worshipping Life
In his daily life, conduct and worship, the believer bears an integral indivisible life, either life “in Christ” or “out of Christ.” When he enjoys his life “In Christ,” his fellowship in public worship is complimented by practicing his unseen private worshipping; as both represent one devotional life. In other words, sharing the church liturgies with the congregation, a believer fortifies his spiritual life when he goes into his private room and shuts the doors of his senses. Thus when he is among the group physically, his heart, mind and soul are at liberty in heavens meeting and conversing intimately with God as though the universe embraces none but them both. And when he enters into his private room, closes the outer door and pours forth in front of God in a true spiritual worship he holds the whole world -in his heart; I mean the whole human race praying for them and seeking their prayers on his behalf While he is in his room he feels he is inside the church that unites a host of spiritual militants with the victorious including the heavenly hosts.
In the fight of this concept we cannot draw a dividing line that separates between church life and private worshipping life, because the church is every believer holding firmly together with his brethren in the One Head.
That is why in the present time, due to housing problems in Egypt, when a believer does not find a private room to pray in solitude, he stands or bows in prayer in the presence of the family members. He does not abstain from praying because he does not have a private locked room. His room is already inside him if he chooses to shut out his senses.
Private Or Individual Worship?
Individuality is non-existent in our Church’s dictionary. The spirit of individuality and isolation has been eliminated in the human loving Christ, that we might live in the spirit of collective love even if we were in our private rooms. This I have clarified frequently while talking about monasticism and monarchism. Hence monasticism is not an inner isolation from the community, or a practice of individual life, but it is a unity with God, the Lover-of-mankind.
In the Coptic Church, the believer practices many private forms of worships of which we mention:
1. The Canonical Hours (the Agbia prayers): The early church took after the Jewish Church the system of dividing the days into hours of prayers. Many of the Copts pray Matins and Compline and some pray Midnight. When they have the chance they pray other prayers.
We need to notice the following in the Canonical Hours prayers:
a. Every prayer is called “song of praise,” as though the church is calling on her children to lead a life of joy if possible all the hours of their life, day and night.
b. In every hour the church offers us the memory of a certain phase of God’s redeeming work. The “Matin” song of praise reminds us of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and our daily resurrection to begin a new life in Him. The Terce (praise of the third hour) reminds us of the coming upon the church of the Holy Spirit of God, the Giver of perpetual renewal and holiness. In the Text we remember the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, while in the None (ninth hour) we remember the death in the flesh of our Lord and the acceptance of the right hand thief, in Paradise. In the Vespers (sunset) we remember the removing of our Lord’s Body from the cross, giving thanks for concluding the day, and asking Him that we might spend the night in peace. In Compline we remember the burial of the Body of our Lord watching for the end of our sojourn on earth… yet in the three midnight prayers we await for the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ.
c. The hourly songs of praise begins with giving thanks to God after the Lord’s prayer, then submitting our repentance (Psalms 50 ), followed by praise with Psalms.
2. Besides the prayers or the praises of the Canonical Hours the believer practices his private talk with God; one time praising, another time thanking and a third time contending and a fourth time asking and pleading. It is worthy of the believer to be openhearted. He would not focus in his prayers upon his personal needs but ask for all if possible: for his beloved as well as his antagonists, for his acquaintances as well as for strangers, for believers as well as nonbelievers.
3. It is worthy of a believer also to practice “kneeling” (Metanias), as a sign of contrition and repentance. The believer trains himself to practice “kneeling” for the salvation of others.
4. Preoccupation with God through the day, that is “prayer of calling Jesus’ name”. Which is called the “arrow prayer,” in which the believer cries out from moment to moment with a short prayer calling the name of our Lord Jesus Christ as an arrow to strike with, the snares of our enemy Satan. This action, simple as it is, has its own effectiveness in the life and worship of the believer.
5. Praises, glorification and beatification: some believers practice church hymns daily or on feasts as a private worship in their bedrooms. Here we need to mention that some Copts prefer setting up a special corner for prayer. If this is not easy to do we find that many icons decorate their homes as a sign of their longing for holy life in God and fellowship with the saints.
[sws_ui_toggle title=”The Coptic Calendar And The Church Of Alexandria” closed=”true” jui_theme=”redmond” duration=”500″]
The Pharaonic Calendar And The Coptic Calendar
The Pharaohs knew their calendar from the year 4240 B.C. The famous Greek historian Herodotus mentions that the Egyptians excelled the Greeks in adjusting their solar year by appending 5 days to the total of 12 months.
Early Egyptian Christians used the Pharaonic systems of reckoning time, modified them a little bit, and adapted them to their Church life and their daily life, especially for agricultural system. The liturgical day of Christians in Egypt began, then as now, at sunset, like the Jewish, and Greek days. The seven-day week is used, with its first day (Sunday) made the Lord’s Day.
The Christian Copts still use the Coptic year, whose origin is Pharaonic. The year is divided into twelve months of thirty days each, plus five more days, called epagomenai, at its end, as well as the extra day whose intercalation at the end of every fourth year as a sixth epogomenal day was ordered by Ptolemy III Euergetes in 238 B.C., in order to rectify the old discrepancy between the calendar year of 365 days and the natural solar year.
The year was divided into three seasons of equal length, each comprising four months, the season of the flood, then that of cultivation, and thirdly the season of the harvest and fruits. This division is still used in the liturgical rites of the church in Egypt and overseas, until a synodical creed was issued for collecting the three litanies of water, fruits, and weather in one litany for overseas, as the circumstances there differs than that in Egypt.
The Pharaonic Calendar And The Julian Calendar
The Roman adaptation of the Egyptian solar calendar introduced by Julius Caesar, with the technical aid of the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes, in 46 B.C.
The Abakti And The Christian Pasch The Coptic Calendar
Since the fourth century, as many of the Copts were martyred, they considered the Era of Diocletian as the golden age, and chose the year of Diocletians’s military election as emperor in November 284 as the starting point of their calendar. The Era of Diocletian is usually called the “Era of the Martyrs,” and its abbreviation is A.M. (for anno-martyrdum).
We can understand why the Copts are interested in thus era from the writing one of the fathers of the Church who was contemporary of the reign of Diocletian: “If the martyrs of the whole world were put on one arm of the balance and the martyrs of Egypt on the other, the balance would tilt in favor of Egyptians.”
The Coptic Months
Although the exigencies of modern life have led to extensive use of the Gregorian calendar and of the Islamic calendar with years reckoned from the Hegira, the Coptic church also continues to observe Alexandrian years beginning on the Julian 29 August in an ordinary year, and to reckon the succession of years according to the Era of Diocletian or “of the Martyrs.” For twelve months of thirty days, the ancient Egyptian names introduced in the first half of the first millenium B.C. are retained, in forms that are copticized or arabized. In the Bohairic dialect, the epagomenal period added at the end of the year is called “the little month.” In Arabic the same period is called al-Nasi, “the extension (of time)” or “postponement.”
To convert a Coptic or Ethiopian date (day and month) to its Julian equivalent in an ordinary year (a year A.M. of Ethiopian not divisible by 4), add the numeral of the Coptic or Ethiopian month in question (which can be found in the accompanying table). For instance, to find the Julian date corresponding to the Coptic 15 Kiyahk in an ordinary year, add 15 (the numeral of the day of Kiyahk) to 26 November (the day before the beginning of the Julian period corresponding to the month of Kiyahk in an ordinary year). Thus,15 plus 26 November becomes 41 November, that is, 11 December.
To convert a year A.M. to the corresponding year(s) A.D. add 283 to the year A.M. from 1 Tut through 31December: add 284 to the year A.M. from 1 January to the end of the Coptic year. Thus, A.M.1700 equals A.D.1983/1984.
The Julian Calendar
The Julian year was extended to 445 days by intercalation in order to bring the civic year into line with the solar year. While the Egyptians divided the solar year of 365.25 days into 12 months of 30 days each, with5, or in every fourth year, 6, intercalary days added after the last day of the twelfth month, the Romans, in their Julian calendar, retained the 31 days of March, May, Quintilis (July), and October, and the 28 days of February, as they had been in the older Roman calendar, but increased the other months, which until then all had 29 days, by one day (June, April, September, November) or two days (January, Sextilis [August], December), in order to have an annual total of 365 days. The intercalary month previously inserted periodically, at the discretion of pontifex maximus, after 23 February was replaced by the intercalary day inserted every fourth year after 23 February, and in such a year the 24 February (ante diem sextum Kalendas Martias) was counted twice, the intercalary day being ante diem his sextum Kalendas Martias, hence the expression annus bissextilus for “leap year.” In the first thirty-six years of the Julian calendar’s use, the extra day was intercalated every three years instead of every four, by mistaden interpretation of the original prescription, and in 9 B.C.Augustus prohibited the inntercalation of the extra day until A.D. 8. The vernal equinox was placed on 25 March, and the year began on 1 January.
The Julian calendar remained in general use in the Western world until it was replaced by the Gregorian calendar, itself a reform of the Julian calendar, in various countries between 1582 and 1924. It is still used for the calculation of Easter and the movable feasts dependent on Easter in the Chalcedonian Orthodox churches.
Months Of The Coptic Calendar
Of all survivals from Pharaonic Egypt, the calendar is the most striking. Each of the twelve months of the Coptic calendar still carries the name of one of the deities of feasts of ancient Egypt. Without doubt, this reflects the conservatism that characterizes the inhabitants of the Nile Valley, who are reluctant to set aside their traditional way of life.
Documents from around the fifth century B.C., such as the Aramaic papyri from Elephantine, indicate that the great festivals held in honor of certain divinities gave their names to the month in which that particular celebration occurred. The Copts did not change the names of the Pharaonic months:
Tute: (September 11-12 to October 10-11). It was dedicated to Thoth, god of wisdom and science, inventor of writing , patron of scribes, and “he who designates the seasons, months, and years.” Thoth presided over the “House of Life,” where were composed and copied all texts necessary for the maintenance and replenishment of life.
Babah: (October 11-12 to November 9-10). During the second month was celebrated the ” Beautiful feast of Opet.’’ whose name Paopi signifies “that of Opet.” We see Amon-Ra traveling from Karnak to Luxor to celebrate the famous festival of Opet, from which the month Babah derives its name.”
Hatur: (November 10-11 to December 9-10). It commemorated Hathor, the “Cow of Heaven,” who gave birth to the sun and to all beings, gods, and men.
Kiahk: (December 10-11 to January 8-9). This month derives its name from a ritual vase that was probably used for meauring incense and was very important in the celebration of the funerary feast originally known as the Union of the Ka.
Tubah: (January 9-10 to February 7).
Amshir: (February 8-9 to March 9-10). It is related to fire and represented in the lists of festival objects by a brasier from which fire escapes.
Baramhat: (March 10 to April 8).
Baramudah: (April 9-10 to May 8).
Bashans: (May 9 to 7 June).
Baounah: (June 8 to 7 July).
Abib: (July 8 to 6 August).
Misra: (August 7 to 5 September).
Nasi: (6 September to 10-11 September).
[sws_ui_toggle title=”More About The Coptic Calendar” closed=”true” jui_theme=”redmond” duration=”500″]
The pharaonic Egyptians were the first in the world who measuredtime, who dated the years, and who divided the years into months. For their record keeping, they used a solar calendar. They knew that the year was approximately 365 days long, and they organized their calendar with precision, dividing it into months with 30 days alloted to each-and all this in the year 4240 B.C. In his writings on Egypt, the famous Greek historian Herodotus says that the Egyptians were led to this conclusion by means of the stars, and that they greatly excelled the Greeks in adjusting their solar year so that it should begin exactly on schedule. This they accomplished by appending an extra 5 days to the total of 12 months; these 5 days they called the “small month.”
At this point it is worth drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that it is this solar calendar of theancient Egyptians, based on sidereal calculations (i.e., by means of the stars), that has been adopted by all the rest of the world.
It is well known that the Coptic solar year used to be divided into three seasons rather than four as is currently the case. Originally, every season had four full months, with the season of the rising of the Nile coming at the head of all the seasons. After this came the season of planting and cultivation, and last came the season of fruit and harvest. Anyone familiar with the Coptic mass will probably notice that this tripartite division is still used in the liturgical rites of the church. The Church assigns an owshia, or special prayer, to each season. First is the owshia for the rising of the waters, next comes the owshia for the staple crops, and then comes the owshia for the winds and the fruit crops. Thus the Coptic year is first and foremost tied to the Nile, or in other words it is a Nilotic year.
As stated above, the Coptic year is based on precise stellar observation and minute calculations. This you can actually observe for yourself by looking up at the night sky just before the beginning of the Coptic New Year-namely, just before the beginning of the Coptic month of Tut (mid-September). At that time of the year, just before sunrise in the eastern sky, you will see a brightly shining star, known to the ancient Egyptians as “Stit” but now known to us as Sirius. This star is part of the constellation which the Romans called the Great Dog (Canis Majoris). Because the appearance of Sirius was always a portent of the Nile’s annual flood, the source of life and prosperity, this star was the object of adoration to the ancient Egyptians as is witnessed in their hymns. Sirius appears close to the sun, and only once a year, so for this reason the Egyptians called it the “flood bringer.”They thus adapted the Coptic year according to the course of the star, considering the moment of its appearance. Historians believe that the earliest recording of this star’s movements began in the days of the first consolidation of the pharaonic government in Heliopolis in the year 4240 B.C.
Egyptians have been numbering their days and months according to their solar calendar almost continually from the dawn of history up to the present day. This is because of the solar calendar’s relationship with the cultivation of the land, the main sourcre of life and livelihood. In contrast to this, Egypt’s civic-records have been markedly affected by whatever government or sovereign happened to be in power, whether native Egyptian or of a usurping foreigner. History was recorded according to power and conquest, as, for example, in the case of Alexander the Great.
The Roman ruler Diocletian came and horried the entire world, and Egypt in particular, with his violence and his persecution of Christians. None among the Christian countries escaped having its soil stained by the blood of martyrs. Diocletian even went so far as to shed the blood of the Coptic Patriarch St. Peter I, who became known as the “Seal of the Martyrs” since he was the last to lose his life during that sinister reign. As a result of all this, the Copts consider the year A.D. 284, the year of the tyrant’s ascension to sovereignity, as the beginning of their calendar. Thus the Coptic year can be calculated by subtracting 284years from the current year of the western calendar.
When we read from the writings of one of the fathers of the Church who was contemporary to the reign of Diocletian, we can understand why Egypt in particular was alone in adopting this painful and gory period as the beginning of her calendar: “If the martyrs of the whole world were put on one arm of the balance and the martyrs of Egypt on the other, the balance would tilt in favor of the Egyptians.”
It is estimated that the total number of death sentences pronounced by Diocletian against the Christians, sentences which were actually carried out, amounted to 800,000.
The parents of Emperor Diocletian were both slaves to Anulinus, a member of the Roman Senate. His mother named him after the city in which she was born. After an outstanding display of valor, young Diocletian was granted his emancipation; thereafter he worked within the Emperor’s palace. Gradually he was promoted through various offices until he became a consul, and later head of the palace guard. Diocletian fought in the Persian war and displayed such rare distinction that, after the death of Numerian, his rivals were obliged to elect him-a former slave-to ascend the imperial throne. Of the attributes ascribed to him by the English historian Gibbon, half relate to baseness, meanness, and hypocrisy; half to courage, sycophancy, and affected refinedness. Obviously, such contradictory attributes combined in one person render him one of the toughest and most dangerous sorts. Diocletian was a worshiper of Jupiter, the patron god of wealth. Gibbon also says: “Diocletian had astounding perseverance for realising his goals, with a flexibility for varying the means and great artistry in subserving his skills and the skills of others to the interests of his ambitions, and in disguising these amibitions with the strongest of pretenses, pretending them to be for the sake of justice and Gibbon.”
All these personal attributes will be readily grasped by anyone who reads the Coptic Synaxarium in which are described all the means of torture inflicted upon the Christians who were martyred during Diocletian’s reign.
For 21 years Diocletian held the empire in an iron grip; afterward he abdicated his power and retired to the city of Salona in Dalmatia. There he stayed for nine years, in the end dying an invalid.
The Commemoration of Martyrs
Every Christian must be aware that, from the first to the last, Christianity is a testimony to Christ: “Ye are witnesses unto me!” The word “martyr” means “witness.” It was first applied to the apostles alone as those who were witnesses to Jesus’ life, His death and His resurrection 7: “And ye shall be witnesses unto me” (Acts 1:3).
Yet it happened that the Lord Himself began appearing to all who, because of their faith in the Name of Christ, endured excessive suffering-especiallyHe appeared to those who voluntarily submitted themselves to death out of love and adoration for the Lord; and this at the moment of the soul’s release from the body. Thus all who accepted death in the name of Christ were called martyrs since they truly entered into an actual vision of the Beloved. In this way, death as the ultimate testimony to Christ came to be very highly regarded side by side with the honour accorded the Apostles.Indeed, in the Church’s liturgical commemoration of the saints, the martyrs are mentioned immediately after the apostles and before the great saints. This is so, even if they were only catechumens prior to their martyrdom, since the shedding of one’s blood as testimony to Christ was considered as baptism in the deepest sense of the word; as being an indelible dye, and as being a partnership in the death of Christ.
Splendid examples of the honours bestowed by the church on martyrs have been preserved for us in early church history. The Church has always considered the day of martyrdom to be the martyr’s true birthday, that is to say his heavenly birthday wherein begins his true and eternal life. To this day the Church continues to bestow honors in the extreme on her martyrs; on the martyr’s memorial day all the church services should be conduc-ted in commemoration of his martyrdom. Honour is paid in hymns, prayers, recitals and sermons, then Holy Communion, the highest degree of celebration and glorification, is offered.
Since the earliest time the Church has set up small sancutaries or chapels called “Martyria”, “meaning “places of testimony.” We read about this in the life history of St. Macarius the Great when he set up a small chapel to contain the relics of Maximus and Domadius:
When the fathers and visitors met with St. Macarius, he used to take them to their cell and say,”Let’s go and see the testimony (martyrium) of the young strangers.”
The reader will notice that the word “testimony” here is a litral translation of the Greek word “martyrium,” or chapel dedicated to the memory of the martyr. This chapel was the symbol of the highest veneration by which St. Macarius was able to immortalize the memory of these two bloodless martyr-monks. The Church still considers her martyrs to be those who intercede before God on her behalf, intercessors whose blood pleads before God better than the blood of Abel. The Church considers the remains of their bodies to be a treasure dearer than perishable gold, and more precious than any adornments, any beauty, or any splendor. Though it be small and poor, though its walls be of mud, a church should consider itself to be greater than, the most magnificent cathedral in the world if it possesses the body of a martyr. This pride is not from pride in a name, a race, a land, or in a language; it is rather the pride in a testimony of God that has been sealed in blood as it says in the Gospel: “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:31). Indeed, there was a time when the Church did not regard any altar worthy of consecration unless it contained some relic of a martyr. Moreover, the priest appointed to a martyr’s altar was considered to be of a higher rank than any other priest; he was called “Martyrarius,” meaning “servant of martyrdom.”
Feasts Of Martyrs And Their Liturgies
The early church in all its enthusiasm used to celebrate in honour of Christ twice a week with prayers and hymns on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the year. Vigils starting on Saturday would go on all night with a display of complete joy and a spirit of true festivity. On Sunday, the liturgical service would then culminate in the divine oblation.
Beyond these two days the Church used to congregate for an additional meeting one or two times every week. This we learn from St. John Chrysostom in his sermon number forty which was delivered during one of the occasions when a martyr’s feast day was commemorated with vigil, prayers, and hymns until daybreak, after which the solemn rite was brought to an end with the offering of holy communion, just as on Sundays. We also learn from his sermon number fifty-five, regarding the vigil held inside the church in honour of a saint: “You have kept vigil yesterday all night long, and have completed the requirements of sanctity, so that you havechanged night into day; so now do not change your day into night with drunkenness and dissolution.”
Among the very earliest documents describing the way in which martyrs were commemorated is the report written by the ancient historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, who describes the celebration of the martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, who achieved martyrdom in A.D. 168. Of the bishop’s church in Smyrna we are told by St. John Chrysostom that: They decided by the will of God to congrega te around his tomb to celebrate his birthday [i.e., the day of his martyrdom] with joy and jubilation to venerate his sufferings so as toexemplify that to the rising generations.
Tertullian also refers to the rituals used by the church of his day when celebrating a martyr’s feast day. He says: “The oblations are offered on behalf of those who have passed away on their birthdays as a perpetual commemoration of the day of their martyrdom.”
St. Cyprian also describes the Church’s interest regarding this, saying: “The Church offers the oblation on behalf of them when they set up to commemorate their suffering in the days of their martyrdom as a perpetual annual commemoration.”
It used to be that the liturgical service would always include a recital from the history of these martyrs. The writing of this was entrusted to the bishops themselves, or it was at least revised by them in order to meet ecclesiastical standards, and to acquire an official status. Indeed, the Church would not accept a history that had not been approved of by a bishop. The council of Carthage, for example, instituted a legislation regulating the writing and reciting of the martyrs’ histories.
Among the rare manuscripts in the library of the Monastery of St. Macarius, a text composed in the Bohairic Coptic dialect was found in which was written a preface that was to be recited by the patriarch or bishop before the reading of the life histories of the martyrs. It also contained instructions for the priest, should it be that the bishop were not present. Herewith is presented the English translation: “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, of true oneness, of no beginning, the perfectly great in His counsel, Omnipotent in His deeds, Omnipresentand utterer through the Law and the Prophets, I beseech His Benevolence to grant me grace and mercy and open the eyes of my heart and under-standing, so that I should understand His law and observe His commandments and His will and glorify His great name which is filled with glory forever. Amen. That I might inform you my beloved sons…” Then he says, “Bless me bless me…”
However, if the utterer of the benediction is a priest he should not recite what is written earlier, but rather the following: “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Bless me (he prostrates himself). Forgive me O my fathers and my brothers. Pray for me with love, so that the Lord, the benign philanthropic God, should give me some consciousness, an alert mind and a heart imbued with comprehension, so that I could read in His Law and observe His commandments and glorifyHis great name which is filled with glory forever. Amen. That I might inform you, my beloved sons…”
Lest it be thought by the naive that the Orthodox Church’s veneration of martyrs is actually a part of her worship, we present here the opinion of the early church concerning such an assump-tion. The representatives of the church of Smyrna requested the viceregent to give them the body of the martyred Polycarp (actually the burnt remains of his body) in order to venerate him.
The Jews of the city sarcastically exclaimed that the Christians were now going to abandon the Crucified and begin worshipping the body of Polycarp. The Church’s reply to this was: “We worship the Son of God. As for the martyrs, they are the disciples of the Lord who followed His tracks. So that we love them because they are worthy of that, by virtue of their incom-parable love for their King and Teacher. We wish we were also to become their partners, and companions to them in such discipleship.”
And when the centurion saw the contention of the Jews, he put the remains of his body in the middle and burnt them. This had become customary with them. We thus gathered his bones afterwards. They are dearer than the precious stones and more valuable than gold. We put them in a befitting place. We hope that the Lord would allow us to meet together in blissfulness and felicity to celebrate the memory of all those who previously struggled, and as a discipline and preparation for those who follow their example.
It is worth calling the reader’s attention to the fact that this lovely ecclesiastical celebration happened in A.D. 168. It is the most ancient account to come down to us concerning the commemorations of martyrs. The extract quoted above is from Eusebius of Caesarea, the bishop and eminent church historian. From it we realise that the veneration of martyrs had been an inseparable part of the religious life of believers; it has always enkindled their faith to the highest degree.
A testimony from the Church in the West is also worth noting. Bishop Austin (the original pronunciation of Augustine who died in A.D. 604) was the first archbishop of Canterbury who had been sent by Gregory the Great as a missionary to establish the Church in England. He tells us: “We used to revive the memory of our martyrs with official ecclesiastical rituals. This to elevate ourselves to the level of being able of emulating their behavior, and to count ourselves partners with them in this fate, and the merits they earned, and to obtain among ourselves some benefit through the prayers for them. Nevertheless, we did not present worship or oblation to any martyr under any circumstances except to the God of the martyrs alone. This despite the fact that we actually set up sanctuaries and altars in the names of the martyrs as a memorial to them exclusively. It never ever happened that the priest stood to present to the body of the martyr lying underneath the altar worship or oblation, saying to you anything like: “We present this oblation, O St. Peter and St. Paul or Cyprian!” Rather, what was presented of worship and oblation was presented entirely and solely to the Lord Cod who venerates his martyrs: “Precious Eusebius of Caesarea in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15).”
As for our Nairuz message, it is to shed further light on our Coptic calendar which is based from first to last on testimony to Christ; it is as if our entire history is a story of love toward Christ, a story stained with blood. Each year of the story is a prolonged chapter crowded with heroes whose memories are retold again and again, yet we do not get bored remembering them. As for our day, it is a touching scene in which we are crucified – for indeed in Christ we are crucified every day and resurrected every day: “for thy sake we are killed all the day long!” (Rom. 8:36).
[sws_ui_toggle title=”The Coptic Art of Egypt” closed=”true” jui_theme=”redmond” duration=”500″] Introduction
Coptic art, the distinctive Christian art of Egypt, includes works of a diverse character because there was no separation between “art” and “craft” in the early Christian era; the capital of a column or an illustrated manuscript were as much forms of creative expression as paintings and sculpture. From burial grounds, there are objects like funerary stelae, or tombstones, cartonnage sarcophagi and fragments of woven textiles from clothing in which the deceased were laid to rest. Monastic centers, churches and shrines provide stone and wood-carvings, metalwork, wall and panel-paintings, as well as a wealth of utilitarian objects like ivory combs, wooden seals for impressing sacred bread, pottery and glassware.
Early Sources Of Influence
The Coptic art — like ffb any other form of artistic expression — was influenced by two main sources: the classical (Hellenic) world and the ancient Egyptian world. Objects made in Greek style, or under the direct influence of classical art, include stone carvings of winged victories or cupids bearing garlands, the vine branches of Bacchus, Aphrodite, Leda, and Hercules. Monuments of mixed Greek-Egyptian character are relief slabs that were probably used as wall decorations in churches; they frequently feature pilasters surmounted by stylized Corinthian capitals, sphinxes or fish — the earliest symbol of Christianity. Ancient Egyptian influence is best seen in funerary stelae, which have survived in large number throughout Egypt. They are either square or rectangular in shape and are sometimes curved at the top, or have a triangular pediment. Many have a tiny square cavity, which penetrated to the back of the stele. Such cavities were common in Ancient Egyptian cemeteries (incense was burned in them in the belief that the spirit of the dead would enjoy its perfume). In the early Christian era stelae came from pagan and Christian burial grounds, and were usually inscribed with the name of the deceased, details of his/her life or titles, and the day of his/her death, written in the Greek language or the Coptic language (the last stage of the Egyptian language). The carvings on them included Greek-Egyptian motifs: a figure, often robed like an aristocratic Greek reclining on a bed and holding a drinking vessel or grapes, for example, might be flanked by the jackal-god Anubis and the hawk-heated Horus.
The persistence of ancient Egyptian symbolism in early Christian art is pretty much accepted among biblical historians. It is both easy and natural to recognize evidence of that influence in early Christian art. For example, it is accepted that the ansate cross, the “ankh” or Hieroglyphic sign for the word “life”, was intentionally adopted by early Christians. In fact, many relief slabs show both the “ankh” and the Christian “cross” together, frequently flanked by the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the Alpha (A) and the Omega (W), in an early form of what was to become the monogram of Jesus Christ the Lord for, in Revelation 1:8, He said: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.” Other examples of Egyptian symbolism in early Christian art are the Holy Spirit in the early church shown descending in the form of a winged bird, like the soul of the deceased, the “ba”, in ancient Egypt; the archangel Michael weighing souls in the balance, which is akin to the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth, weighing the heart of the deceased in the scales of justice; the portrayal of Christ triumphant over noxious beasts is evidently derived from that of Horus upon the crocodiles, as shown on the famous Metternich stele. And Saint George and the dragon also call to mind the god Horus depicted spearing Set, often portrayed as an evil serpent.
In addition to the classical, Egyptian and Greek-Egyptian heritages in Coptic art, there are also Persian, Byzantine and Syrian influences. Egyptian master weavers and artists were attracted to Persia in the third century with the rise of the Sassanian kingdom before the founding of Constantinople. When they returned to Egypt, a new Persian repertory of themes like opposing horsemen or two facing peacocks drinking out of the same vessel, was introduced to Egypt. Borrowing from one culture to another is a natural process of cultural growth. In the fourth century, when Christianity made a triumphal entry into the Roman world the art forms of ascendant Byzantium spread to Egypt, and continued even after the Coptic Church broke away from the Eastern Roman Church because Egypt remained, politically, a part of the Roman Empire. The Copts, however, began to turn increasingly towards the Holy Land, the birthplace of the Lord Jesus Christ; Syrian influence on Coptic art became apparent in the fifth century. And, rigidity came with it. Some motifs that made their ffb way to Egypt from Syria were ultimately of Persian origin, including animals and birds in roundels, and griffins.
The integration of contrasting configurations — classical, Egyptian, Greek-Egyptian and Persian pagan motifs, as well as Byzantine and Syrian Christian influence — led to a trend in Coptic art that is difficult to define, because a unity of style is not possible to trace. Unfortunately, early collections of Christian art were made without recording details of the sites from which they came, making it virtually impossible to trace artistic development through time. There is no way to tell, for example, how long classical and Greek-Egyptian motifs continued after the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire. All that can be said is that Coptic art is a distinctive art, and that it differed from that of Antioch, Constantinople and Rome.
Evolution of Coptic Art
Efforts have been made to classify Coptic art into epochs but this is somewhat artificial. While every culture has phases of cultural production, this is visible only when seen from an historical vantage. E.R. Dodds in his book (Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety) comments on this by saying: “The practice of chopping history into convenient lengths and calling them “periods” or “ages” has […] drawbacks. Strictly speaking, there are no periods in history, only in historians’ analyses; actual history is a smoothly flowing continuum, a day following a day”.
This is true of art in general and Coptic art in particular. Day by day, through the centuries of Ptolemaic rule, while the Greek culture became inextricable from the ancient Egyptian, a national heritage still remained. This apparent contradiction is best exemplified by referring to the literature of the Late Period, in which such syncretistic compilations as the Hermetic texts developed alongside a more or less consistent pattern of thought and behavior, as exemplified in the Instruction literature. In art, the diverse influences resulted in an admixture of motifs. Yet, despite this, distinctive “Egyptian” traits set Coptic art apart from any other.
The influence of the different powers on the development of Coptic art can be clearly seen by examining the famous monasteries of Wadi ElNatroun. During the fourth and fifth centuries, these monasteries were affected by factional disputes between the Melkites and Coptic monks. The Melkites remained in control until the Arab conquest when the Copts took over the area again. Then, in the eighth century one of the monasteries was purchased and restored by a Syrian. There were serious Bedouin raids from the eighth to the eleventh centuries. An essential part of any Monastery is a large stone “fortress”, where monks would hide in the event of a Bedouin raid. While “portable” precious artwork was easy to hide in these fortresses, a great deal of damage was done to the ancient churches and buildings of the Monasteries. In these raids, the Bedouins would rob the monsateries of treasures and staples, often killing any monks who would not have made it to the fortresses, and sometime burning most of the churches and buildings, along with whatever artwork, books, and records in there.
The Coptic monasteries in Wadi ElNatroun were restored in Fatimid times, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the Fatimids themselves used local craftsmen, who were mostly Copts, for enlarging and embellishing the city of Cairo; when Copts executed designs and motifs that were acceptable to their Arab patrons, they did this as competently as they had, in classical times, produced classical themes for their Greek patrons. In each case they adopted some of the motifs or designs for their own use. therefore, when one visits the monasteries of Wadi ElNatrun, it must be borne in mind that some wall-paintings were produced under the instructions of Melkites monks, others under the instructions of Coptic monks. Also, Ale ffb xandrine, Byzantine and Syrian-inspired art were produced there, as well as non-figurative metalwork, wooden sanctuary screens, cabinets and furniture, inspired by Persian art.
In studying the objects in the Coptic Museum of Cairo and in various Coptic Museums all over the world, as well as in the various monastic centers, it becomes clear that some sophisticated work must have been produced by highly talented craftsmen. At the same time, though, other work is characterized by folk simplicity. This can be seen in ivory work, tapestries, paintings and architectural decorations. There is a convincing explanation for this discrepancy in sophistication.
Egypt had a long tradition of master craftsmen of different trades who, throughout ancient history, worked under the direction of a supervisor who was a highly professional man: sometimes a High Priest (as in the Old Kingdom) or an Overseer of All the Works of the King (New Kingdom). The supervisor could recognize inferior workmanship, correct drawings and generally maintain the required standard, whatever that happened to be during different periods. If there were changes in the theme or style, this could only be brought about by the master craftsman who was empowered to execute the change. Naturally such a man had an experience in handling large groups of men. Throughout the period of Roman rule of Egypt there was a tendency for such master craftsmen to move around the Roman empire, gravitating towards the centers that could pay for their professional services. They worked in Alexandria and summoned by the emperors to Rome and Constantinople. There they sculpted classically draped forms as competently as they had the stylized Egyptian, and they carved languid reclining figures with no less devotion.
Scholars are not in agreement over which works of art can be safely regarded as Alexandrine — that is to say, executed by Egyptian craftsmen in Alexandria. Many such works, however, can be safely attributed to Egypt through consideration of subject matter and/or style. Examples of such works include a casket now in the museum in Wiesbaden that is sculpted with a sphinx and the allegory of Father Nile, a small box in the British Museum showing the squat, typically Coptic figure of Saint Mena in a niche, and three plaques from the side of Maximianus’ throne at Ravenna Museum that have been attributed by art historians to Egyptian carvers. Also, when the Copts separated from the Eastern Church, master craftsmen who had mastered the technique of deeper drill carving and supervised the execution of works of great sophistication, “vide” the stucco wall decorations to be found in the Monastery of the Syrians at Wadi ElNatrun and the friezes from Bawit in the Coptic Museum of Cairo.
Meanwhile, however, monasteries and churches that were built in Upper Egypt, especially in the fifth and sixth centuries, were adorned with carvings and paintings that show an expression of faith that was highly personal and authentic, executed by craftsmen who were not controlled by either the rulings of “religious authorities” (as was the case in ancient Egypt), or by a supervisor who maintained standards. There are stone and wood friezes, painted panels and ivory work that is crude and that depends for its appeal largely on qualities of design. This is especially apparent in the representations of the human figure, which are of strange proportion, being somewhat squat with large heads. Several explanations for this have been made. The most convincing of these explanations suggests that Coptic artists were producing work in reaction to the realism of ancient Egyptian and Greek paganism and that this, too, is the reason why early Christians did not encourage the production of statuary in the round. While the tendency seems, indeed, to have been a departure from Hellenistic Alexandrine tradition, towards an abstract two-dimensional style, this may not necessarily have been calculated. Rather, it ffb may be an example of free artistic expression: naive, unsophisticated, yet forceful. It is the simplicity of Coptic Art that gives it its unique flavor.
There are two art forms in which continuity of craftsmanship can be traced, namely the techniques of weaving and illustration. That is to say, Coptic textiles and manuscripts. While the motifs in the former, and the calligraphy in the latter, changed from age to age, the artistic execution of the work, as well as the techniques and the materials used, was of longstanding tradition.
Weaving in the early Christian era was, as in earlier times, mainly on linen although there is also some evidence of silkweaving. the techniques — the so-called tapestry-weave and loom weaving — were inherited from the ancient Egyptians. The width of the loom used in Coptic tapestries is the same as that in the time of the pharaohs, and the special “Egyptian knot” was used as well. in the fourth century wool was introduced and a variant was loopweaving, in which the waft was not pulled tight. Silk became popular in the sixth century and by the eighth century full clerical tunics were woven in linen and silk. The weaving of some are so fine as to appear more like embroidery.
Coptic textiles, which developed into one of the finest of all Coptic arts, included wall hangings, blankets and curtains in addition to garment trimmings. The motifs show great diversity and include classical and Greek-Egyptian themes: lively cupids, dancing girls riding marine monsters, or birds and animals woven into foliage. Fish and grapes were popular Christian motifs as well as biblical scenes such as the Virgin on a donkey holding the Child Jesus in front of her. After Constantinople became the capital of the empire, the weavers’ repertoire was increased and enriched with Byzantine and Persian themes. All the textiles show a great sense of liveliness in the stylized figures, and there was an eager market throughout the Roman world in late antiquity, especially for trimings for clerical robes; the most commonly woven were tunics of undyed linen onto which decorative woven bands were worked. In the tenth century, after the Arab conquest, Copts wove textiles for Muslim patrons and the Arab “Kufie” script was introduced into their own designs, especially after Arabic started to replace the Coptic language one century later.
Coptic manuscripts fall into five main groups: in Greek, Greek and Coptic, in Coptic, Coptic and Arabic and, finally in Arabic and transliterated Coptic. The art of illustrating texts dates to pharaonic times when prayers and liturgies were written on papyrus paper with reed pens and deposited in the tomb of the deceased. The mortuary texts were traced in black outline with catchwords written in red. They were illustrated with figures of Egyptian deities and protective symbols. These vignettes were frequently painted in bright colors with border designs at the top and bottom.
In the Christian era, religious writings were also written on papyrus paper and parchment. The texts were written in black, with red used for titles and the beginnings of the chapters. Many were decorated with designs in bright colors including figures of Martyrs, Saints, Apostles, and Angels, as well as birds, animals, foliage and geometrical designs. A medieval Arab writer, Omar Tussun, wrote about a group of copyists at the Monastery of Saint Makar in Wadi ElNatroun, who were capable of drawing Coptic letters in the form of birds and figures. This is still an art form in Egypt, and Arabic caligraphers still use the reed pen — an art that they inherited from their Coptic ancestors. Copts started to translate their religious literature into Arabic late in the twelfth century and decorated the opening page with lavish pictures and with border designs. It was not until the nineteenth century that Coptic texts transliterated using Arabic started ffb to appear.
No other early Christian movement has such an abundance of paintings of persons who received honour in their own country. Egypt’s martyrs, saints, patriarchs, hermits and ascetics, some of whom were honoured throughout Christian world, received special distinction in Egypt. Their heroic deeds, sufferings or miracles were worded in songs and pictured on the walls of ancient temples that were converted to chapels or churches.
The human figures, whether in paintings, carvings or tapestries, are in frontal position with serene faces and a depth of idealized expression. The outlined, almond-shaped eyes are strongly reminiscent of the painted wooden panels from Bawit and the Fayoum, dating back to the first and second centuries, which were placed over the head of the deceased and bound into the mummy wrappings. These panels themselves resemble “cartonnage” sacrophagi of the late pharaonic period. In fact, the Fayoum portraits, with the full face and large obsessive eyes — a feature of Roman medallions and much early Christian art — are now regarded by art historians as the prototypes for the Byzantine icons.
The Lord Jesus Christ was usually shown enthroned, surrounded by triumphant Saints and Angels, or blessing a figure beside Him. He was always depicted as King, never the suffering servant. Egypt was a land where leadership was idealized and kingship, both on earth and in the afterlife, was something the people understood. A triumphant Jesus — reborn, benevolent and righteous — is one of the most significant and continuous characteristics of Coptic art. Another is that Egyptians did not delight in painting scenes of torture, death, or sinners in hell; in the few exceptions where a holy figure is painted undergoing torture, it is implied rather than graphically depicted. This is in tune with ancient Egyptian artistic tradition which, in the words of Cyril Aldred (in his book Egyptian Art in the Days of the Pharaohs, Thames and Hudson,1980) “magnify only the heroic and beneficent qualities of divinities and kings, and not the horrific power of tyrants and demons”.
It is fitting to conclude this list of artforms with Coptic paintings, which is true art as against what we today call the crafts. The wall paintings reveal an unsophisticated, almost crude style, and a refined, highly developed one. The former may have emerged in the early years of Christianity when ancient temples were converted into churches. Pharaonic reliefs were covered with layers of plaster and Christian themes were painted on the stucco base. These wall-paintings survive “in situ” in some places in Egypt including Bagawat in the Kharga Oasis, Saint Simeon’s Monastery at Aswan, in the temple of Luxor, the White Monastery at Sohag, the Monastery of Saint Makar in Wadi ElNatroun, and the sanctuary of the Ethiopian Saint Takla Hemanout in the Church of AlMoallaka in Old Cairo. Early wall-paintings that have been transfered to the Coptic Museum include niches from the Monasteries of Bawit and Sakkara. the Copts loved bright, clear color and were extremely talented in mixing different dyes and powdered rock, often using the white of an egg to combine them.
Icons, or images of sacred personalities painted on wooden panels, that are themselves regarded as sacred, were a later development. When it was realized that the war on paganism launched by the emperor Theodosius had not stopped pious people from sanctifying holy relics, the church authorized the painting of religious themes that would aid the faithful in an understanding of Christianity, especially scenes depicting the Nativity, the Virgin and Child, the apostles and the lives of the saints. According to the Arab historian AlMakrizi, the Pope Cyril I hung icons in all the churches of Alexandria in the year 420 A.D. and then decreed that they should be hung in the other churches of Egypt as well.
In th ffb e earliest development of icon painting the artists worked directly on the wooden panel but later they began to cover the surface with a soft layer of gypsum onto which lines could be chiseled to control the flow of liquid gold. There is indication that more than one artist was involved in the production of a single work but the face was painted by the master. Such division of labor resulted in greater production, but it also brought an end to any personal expression of piety such as had characterized the wall paintings. When Egypt turned increasingly towards Syria and Palestine after the schism in the fifth century, her saints and martyrs began to take on the stiff, majestic look of Syrian art. There began to be an expression of spirituality rather than naivety on the faces of the subjects, more elegance in the drawing of the figures, more use of gold backgrounds and richly adorned clerical garments.
Painters were not, at first, constrained by a rigid code. They were free to experiment with their themes. Consequently, there is a variety of interpretations in the treatment of a single subject that is quite striking. By the fifth and sixth centuries the angel Gabriel, for example, was sometimes painted with a sword, another time with a cross, and on occasion, with a trumpet; he either wore a flowing robe or was clad in richly embroidered vestments. Such variations are especially notable in scenes of the Annunciation and the Nativity, which are seldom rendered twice with the same details.
Paintings produced in Egypt under Byzantine rule did not resemble the opulent frescoes and mosaics of the eastern Roman Empire, which was state-sponsored art between 550 A.D. and the conquest of the Turks in the fifteenth century. Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, however, a stronghold of the Melkite faction, was rebuilt in the Golden Age of Justinian and adorned with some of the finest Byzantine icons to be found in the world. Some were painted on site, and others were imported from the provinces of the empire and from Constantinople itself.
Few centuries after the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century paintings became successively less “Coptic” in character. This became even more apparent in the thirteenth century when the art of copying panels and miniatures started and Anba Gabriel produced exquisite and brilliantly adorned work. He set a standard for copyists. Little original work was produced. By the senventeenth and eighteenth centuries painters like John ElNassikh, Baghdady Abu ElSaad, and John the Armenian — who are among the greatest painters of icons in Egypt — turned to Syrian and Byzantine models for inspiration. Finally, Anastasy, a Greek artist, was commissioned by the Copts to paint many of the icons that today hang in the churches of Old Cairo.
Coptic Art History
The study of Coptic art and architecture was for too long a sadly neglected field. One of the reasons for this is that early archaeologists showed no interest in Christian antiquities. They focussed their attention on Ancient Egypt. For example, it is astonishing to us today to note that Champollion, the French scholar who deciphered Hieroglyphics from the famous Rosetta Stone, carried out excavations at Medinet Habu on the Theban necropolis, discovered a fine fifth century church there and did not even mention it in his official report. In places where ancient Egyptian temples had been converted into churches and the walls plastered and painted with Christian themes, these were removed as just so much debris obscuring the ancient Egyptian reliefs below. No effort was made to photograph the wall-paintings before removal, or record any architectural features. Vital evidence was consequently lost from numerous temples including Deir el Bahri, Medinet Habu and Karnak temples at Luxor, and those of Dendera and Edfu.
The first person to realize the value of the Coptic art and make an effort to preserve it was the French scholar Gaston Maspero. In 18 ffb 81, in his capacity as director of the Egyptian Antiquities Service (now Antiquities Organization) he set aside one of the halls of the Museum of Antiquities, then in the suburb of Boulac, for the first collection of Coptic art. He encouraged Egyptologists to undertake serious excavation, resulting in the preservation of the remains of the Monastery of Saint Apollo in Bawit, about 10 miles south-west of Assiut in Middle Egypt, and the Monastery of Saint Jeremias on the Sakkara plateau. Several scholars published descriptions of Coptic churches, carvings and crafts.
In 1910 the Coptic Museum was founded and in 1937 a new wing was added. The exhibits, which represent the richest collection of Coptic art in the world, have been separated according to media: stonework, woodwork, metalwork, ivory carvings, tapestries, pottery, glassware and manuscripts. It is extremely difficult to visualize them in context when one visits the museum. For example, patriarchal chairs in woodwork in the old wing are separated from patriarchal crowns and ecclesiastical vestments that are in the new. Wooden doors of ancient churches and monasteries are separated from their metal bolts and keys. Similar themes in different mediums, like the portrayal of the Virgin and Child, or the use of vine as a decorative motif in stone carvings, wooden panels and tapestries, cannot be compared. And wide variations in style that developed in different localities cannot be observed. Compounding the problem is the fact that the objects span fifteen hundred years, from the fourth to the nineteenth centuries!
Nor do the monastic centers and old churches of Egypt facilitate an understanding of artistic development because of the continuous stages of construction and renovation of the churches. This is mainly attributed to the fact that these sites are still used heavily by Copts for religious functions as a result of a 20-year Governmental policy of not granting Copts permits to build new churches or Coptic centers. Today, within the limited resources ]available to them, Coptic Christians are trying their best to preserve their treasures. A good example is the Monastery of Anba Makar in Wadi ElNatroun, which (unlike other poorly and unprofessionally restored monasteries) was miraculously dug out of the sand of the Western Desert! Thanks to the efforts and hardwork of its monks, the monastery of Anba Makar still possesses the largest doom in Egypt, built completely using self-supporting woven small red bricks.
Restoration of Coptic Heritage
Only a decade ago, French and Dutch archaeologists were among the few foreign experts who began restoring and preserving Coptic monuments. Before this, in view of the inaction and limited resources of Governmental agencies, Coptic monks alone used to fix haphazardly crumbling parts of their churches and monasteries. Many medieval Coptic churches are still in a miserable state of repair. Their facades are crumbling to dust and richly decorated walls inside have been damaged by incense-burning rituals over the centuries that required closed doors and windows. In addition, vacant monasteries have often been inhabited by nomads, shepherds and their herds.
Several international organizations have recently extended a helping hand to the Copts in order to self-preserve and record their heritage. For example, in August of 1991, the Dutch Ministry of Education has proposed a program whereby Dutch scholars will train Coptic monks in such fields as art history, scientific methods of preservation and care of Coptic monuments, usage of index systems and collecting data. In the summer of 1990, a group of three Coptic monks spent six months last year in the Netherlands for training in the history of Christian art and its preservation, and traveled to other European countries where they became acquainted with different Christian congregations.
The history of Coptic art and culture is not taught at any Egyptian University. In order to provide bcc those responsible for the preservation of Coptic art, in and outside museums in Egypt, with courses concerning this subject, Professor Paul van Moorsel (Professor of Coptic art at Leiden University, The Netherlands) has taken the initiative of offering such courses in Egypt. The project is Called the Egyptian-Netherlands Cooperation in Coptic Art Preservation (ENCCAP) and is executed by staff-members of Leiden University, sponsored by the Netherlands Ministry for Development Cooperation. In October of 1991, the first courses were given at the Institute of Coptic Studies at the Patriarchate in Abassiya, Cairo. In December of the same year, courses commenced at Deir Anba Bishoi in Wadi-El-Natroun. In Cairo, the lessons are given to students professionally involved with Coptic art and to all who are interested in these subjects. The lectures in the monastery, however, are given to monks from all over Egypt.
So far, six monasteries have been represented by almost 30 monks. Apart from the lectures which deal with Christian art in general and Coptic art in particular, the monks are given practical lessons. This has so far meant excursions to the monasteries in Wadi-El-Natroun to see the churches with their wall-paintings and icons and to discuss the problems concerning the preservation of this heritage for the future. The training aims at teaching the monks to do research in the field of iconography, history of architecture and other fields of history art.
There are many other efforts to record and learn about Coptic art. In the Cairo-based Institute of Coptic Studies, for example, students learn about Coptic Icons by painting their own reproductions using authentic dyes mixed with special oils and egg white. Even outside Egypt, in the United States, two Coptic artists in residence in the Church of St. Mary and St. Mena in Rhode Island, produce dozens of Coptic icons to embellish Churches and homes of Emigrant Copts.
Much more work remains to be done to save an integral part of Egypt’s history, culture, and art. This can be only done through a concerted effort by the Egyptian people with the help of national and international agencies. The first step is, perhaps, a better education, understanding, and appreciation of Coptic art among the public. [/sws_ui_toggle]