PART III — PRACTICES
From the very beginning, the Coptic Church was, and still is, essentially a church of Prayer. The tendency towards mysticism so marked within the Egyptians, found an ardent expression in Christianity. Hence, the numerous paths taken by the Fathers: Paths of devotion, adoration, gratitude, conversing and petitioning. These paths are:
THE LITURGY: esteemed the summit of prayers, because it is the Ritual through which the Holy Spirit descends on the Bread and Wine turning them into the actual Body and Blood of the Christ, that is transubstantiates them. This conviction of the factuality of transubstantiation is emphatically expressed by the officiating priest at the end of each Liturgy, and just before he communes he and the people. He declares: “Amen. Amen. Amen. I believe - I believe. I believe; and I confess to the last breath that this is the Life - giving Body which Your Only - Begotten Son our Lord, our God and our Savior, has taken from our Lady and our Queen all of us the mother - pf - God, the Saint the Pure Mary He has made It one with His Divinity without mixing nor fusion nor change...
The Liturgies extend in the Coptic Church are:
THE KYRILLIAN: according to tradition it was handed orally by St. Mark himself, and continued to be orally legated until Abba Kyrillos I wrote it down, putting it in its present form hence its name. It is so spiritual that it is chanted specifically during Lent and sometimes during Advent too.
THE GREGORIAN: written by St. Gregory the Theologus (or speaker of things divine). He was Bishop of Sazima (Asia Minor) towards the end of the fourth century. This is used on diverse occasions and according to the desire of the officiating priest.
THE BASILIAN: written by St. Basil Bishop of Cappadocia and contemporary with Gregory. It is the one most commonly used.
And because the Liturgy is held in such high esteem, it is preceded by prayers termed “The Lifting - up of the Incense ", which is chanted at two different times: one in the evening and one in the morning. These prayers comprise petitions for the departed, the travelers and the offerings, followed by incensing and praying preliminary to reading the Gospel. After that, prayers are offered for peace, the fathers and all places wherein the Faithful assemble, the Nile, the plants, the wind and the fruits.
It should be noted that all prayers are commenced by the Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer of Thanksgiving (recorded at the end) , and Psalm 51. Also, before beginning the Liturgy, set portions from the Epistles (Pauline and general) , the Acts and the Gospel are chanted in Coptic and read in Arabic. Preceding the Gospel, the priest reads from the Synaxarium the resume of the biography of the saint or (and) the martyr commemorated on that day, the sermon is delivered immediately after the Gospel.
All these prayers and readings are considered the means for climbing towards the height of the summit which is the Liturgy.
THE HORLOGION: (or the Seven Canonical Hours) No one knows the exact date on which they were first used, but we know that the desert Fathers used them as far back as the third century, telling us that they received them from their forebears. These are seven prayers set for certain hours of the day. The Prayers are:
Mattins, said at dawn in commemoration of our Savior's Resurrection.
Terce or Morning, said on waking - up in commemoration of Pilate’s verdict condemning our Lord; also the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and Disciples at this hour;
Sexte or midday, said in commemoration of the hour of the Crucifixion..
None or about four in the afternoon, said at the hour when our Redeemer commended His Spirit into the Hands of the Father;
Compline or evening, said' at the hour in which the Body of our Lord was taken down from the Cross;
Sleep, said to commemorate the burial of the Christ, and also as a reminder of the end of life;
Midnight, said on three parts, half an hour separating each to commemorate our Savior's agony at Gethsemane and His going thrice to see His disciples. ln addition, the nuns and monks say a specific prayer for their inward peace called "The Prayer of the Curtain”, recited after the Prayer of Sleep'.
Each of the seven prayers is begun as usual by the Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer of Thanksgiving and Psalm 51. Then each. comprises twelve selected psalms; a set portion from the Gospel; petitions relevant to the hour; Lord have Mercy (forty one times) the number of beatings our Lord endured; the three "Holies”, the Lord’s Prayer and a prayer of absolution also relevant to the hour. There is a special petition said at the end of all these prayers.
KYAK: This is the Coptic month ending on the eighth of January. According to Coptic reckoning, the Nativity took place on the 29th of Kyak. Consequently, there are prayers chanted on the eves of each Sunday of this month, the bulk of which is in praise of the Blessed Virgin. These prayers are called “seven and four”, because on each Sunday evening, seven hymns are chanted in honor of the Mother - of - God, and four in praise of the saints or (and) 1 the martyrs whose commemoration falls on that week. In these prayers, the Copts express their gratitude anr their glorification of Her Who laid: '“from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed”. (Luke I: 48).
PASSION WEEK: Lent is highly esteemed among the Copts; it is a time for meditation, and for all those who are - able, a time of abstinence from sunrise to sunset. Usually, very frugal meals are served, even for those who cannot keep abstinence. There are additional chants in the Liturgy, and specific songs sung during Communion. The climax of the Lenten devotions is the Passion Week beginning on the afternoon of Palm Sunday and ending on Good Friday. During this week, the pillars of the churches are drapped1 in black ribbons, while the vestments of priests and deacons have violet belt and shoulder straps. These are but the least signs of sadness, for the very tunes of the prayers express the deep sorrow of the Church for the Agony, Her Lord endured. Prayers are chanted every single day during two services: morning and evening. No Liturgies are chanted because the Savior Whose Body and Blood are partaken of at the end of this Ritual is in the throes of His Agony which He voluntarily endured for the Redemption of mankind. The exception is Maunday Thursday on which the Lord Himself has pledged His Body and His Blood for our ransom. And as Passion Week is the summit of Lent, so Good Friday is the zenith of Passion Week. It is designated by two other names: Great Friday, and Sad Friday. The prayers during this very special day are held from morning till evening unbrokenly. The very last hour of the prayers is spent in taking down the Body of the Christ (represented by His Icon) from the Cross and burying It (on the altar) together with spices, incense and rose petals dipped in rose water.
Yet, when the Church has buried Her Redeemer, She does not go away and leave Him. The faithful go home at six and eat after the day’s abstinence, then they con relax for the space of five hours. After which they go back to Keep Vigil. ’ During this superb night, the whole of the Psalms and the Revelation are read, together with all the prayers recorded in the Old and the New Testaments, as well as that section of Daniel recounting the Story of the three youths, in the fiery furnace. All these readings alternate with church prayers of praise and glorification. For the Coptic Church never chants the sad tunes alone, or the joyful ones alone rather in the midst of Her deep sorrow rings a note of joy, and at Her highest exultation rings a note of sadness. So the extremely rad tunes of Passion Week are intercepted with notes of jubilation. Accordingly the Saturday whereon the Church keeps vigil beside her buried Lord is called “The Saturday of Joy”. This night vigil ends with the Liturgy which finishes about seven in the morning. The chanting of the Liturgy is resumed because the work of Redemption is consummated.
As for the Easter Service, it begins at seven in the evening and ends about two after midnight. In this grand Ritual, the Church expresses all Her joy and exultation. And during the fifty days, until Pentecost, the traditional greeting among the Copts is “Christos Anesti: Alithos Anesti” (or Christ is risen: He is risen indeed). At such is the joy at the resurrection that there is no fasting at all not even on Wednesdays and Fridays until Pentecost is celebrated.
On Pentecost Sunday, there are specific prayers chanted in the evening called “The Prayer of Genuflection” which comprises^ in addition to the gratitude and glorification, a special prayer for the Departed. It should be noted here that the Departed are mentioned even during the Christmas Service and the Wedding Ritual. Its significance is that the Church Triumphant is closely knit to the Church Militant, or as the saints expressed it: The Church is like unto an army whose vanguard stands before God, and whose rear is on this earth.
Our Blessed Savior fasted before - beginning His ministry. His command on fasting is clear: “when thou fasted anoint thine head and wash thy face. ” (Matt. VI: 16 - 18). He told His disciples when they were bewildered at their inability to cure the lunatick vexed boy: “This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Mark IX: 29; Matt. XVII: 14 - 21). Throughout the Scriptures, fasting is practiced preliminary to repentance, in anticipation of a feast, or before carrying out a specific mission. Besides, the very first command issued by God to Adam implied fasting; He said to him: “of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou. Shall not eat of it”. (Genesis II: 16 - 17). And the fall of Adam and Eve was due to their inability to abstain from eating the forbidden fruit. Consequently, when our Savior incarnated to redeem mankind, the first temptation attempted at Him by the devil was the temptation to eat: “If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread”. And the Lord of Life shamed the tempter by His reply that man shall not live by bread alone (Luke IV: 3 - 4). In obedience to the Divine Command and the Divine Example, the Coptic Church practices fasting; Site offers five reasons, they are:
It is a means for purifying the body from heavy food * and sparing it gluttony;
It is a practice in controlling bodily appetite (self - discipline) ;
it is a striving to recapture the state which Adam and Eve enjoyed before their fall;
It is a spiritual preparation by which a person tries to make himself fit for coming near God in this it can be considered an expression, of man’s love for God.
It is the means by which to sympathize with the hungry by experiencing hunger and being bound by fasting to limit satisfying it.
Since fasts are a spiritual preparation, they invarially precede any feast, that the festive joyousness may be really felt. Hence, the fasts of Coptic Church are:
ADVENT: preceding Christmas (forty three days) then the three days preceding epiphany;
LENT: (fifty five days) — the forty fasted by our Lord, the Passion Week, and an extra week to make up for no abstinence on Saturdays;
Three days in commemoration of Ninevah’s accepted repentance;
fast following immediately after Pentecost called Apostles' Fast, because the Apostles fasted as soon as they were filled with the Holy Spirit in preparation for their ministry and in remembrance of our Lord s answer to the Pharisees: “Can the children of the bride chamber fast... the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them and then shall they fast in those days”. (Mark II: 18 - 20). this fast is variable depending on Easter date.
Fast ending with our Lady’s Assumption, lasting: fifteen days, hence, it is called “The Virgin’s fast”. In addition, every Wednesday and Friday of the year (with the exception of the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost) , are fast. days. Because the Jews plotted against the Christ on Wednesday * and crucified Him on Friday.
Fasting among the Copts means restricting their diet to the produce of the earth only. Even those who practice anstinence, eat either vegetables or fruits when they do eat, and no butter is used in cooking it.
With prayer and fasting comes:
C. BIBLE READING
The Copts are enjoined to read the Scriptures each morning, and each evening, or at least once a day. They, also have a custom of setting aside a special corner wherein an icon is hung, and a wicklight burning in front of it. This is to give the household members a chance for meditating, if but for a few minutes daily; or at least a constant reminder of the world of the spirit to which we belong.
Another custom is "The Agape” or love - meal It was widely prevalent in the early days, then fell into disuse in the big cities but continued in the small towns and the villages. Now, it is being practiced once more in the cities during Lent only. This custom means that, since the people go to church without having breakfast, they agree among themselves that a family (or group of families) supply the whole congregation with a meal at the end of the Liturgy. They take it by turn. The meal is served in a half (or room) adjoining the church. And because it is a communal sharing, it is called the love - meal.
In the first century, when Christians were not allowed to pray in churches, they prayed in the cemeteries. This, they did, to declare to the pagans their conviction that those who have gone on ahead are still alive though unperceived physically. They called the departed “The Church Triumphant”, and those still here “The Church Militant”. This firm conviction led them to two concommittant activities:
Belief in the intercession of the saints;
Prayer for the departed.
Intercession, to them, is the inevitable outpouring of love.
People, here on earth, who love one another pray for one another; that is, they intercede for one another. If then intercession is practiced by those still bound within the body, how much more will it be practiced by those who have become free spirits? And if it is practiced by those still under temptation and in trials, how much more effectively will it be practiced •fay those “just men made perfect”? (Hebrews XII: 23). And in the Liturgy, prayers are not offered on behalf of the sinners only, but on behalf of the saints as well. At the end of praying for the latter, comes a prayer which says: “We, O our Master,. are not worthy to intercede! For the bliss of those saints; but they who stand before the Throne of They Only Begotten: Son intercede for us because of our weakness and servility. Be a Forgiver of our sins, O Lord, by their intercession, for the sake of Thy Holy Name by which we are identified. May their holy blessing be with us. Amen”.
The belief in intercession is naturally linked with having icons, or pictures of saints. We say picture, because an icon is not a portrait, rather is it an endeavor to portray a spiritual embodiment The icon of a saint or martyr is to be regarded as a focus of a spiritual presence; it is a window opened on heaven; it is a reminder of a human dignity in its reality as it lifts the eyes of the onlooker from the earthly to the heavenly, and endeavors to make him live (even for a fleeting minute) in the world beyond to which he ultimately belongs.
The Church, desirous to guide Her children towards spiritual summits, ordered the reading of the “lives” of saints and martyrs after reading the Acts of the Apostles. These “lives” are compiled in “The Synaxarium” which is considered the continuation of the Book of Acts this book being the only in the New Testament which does not end with the word “Amen” implying its continuousness. Each day of the year has its saint or (and) martyr. The Church named after the saint or martyr to be commemorated holds a Liturgy on the day of his (or her) remembrance. Certain commemorations are celebrated widely such as the day on which the Holy Family set foot on Egyptian soil when they fled from Herod’s wrath; or the day of St. Mark's martyrdom.
In addition, should any family de ire to commemorate the departure of any of their members, they ask a priest to chant the Liturgy in his (or her) name. This Liturgy is sung when the church is. free, and is attended only by this family and their friends, hence, it is called a “private” Liturgy. Such private Liturgies are also chanted for the bride and groom prior to their marriage ceremony that they may commune together and thus, give themselves the chance for receiving added Grace before embarking on their wedded life. They can also be chanted for those about to undergo examinations, operations, long journeys, new jobs, etc. Whenever anyone feels the need for specific spiritual sustenance, he has but to go to a priest and decide, with him, on the day and hour for a private Liturgy.