“So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for Assuredly, I Say to You, if You have Faith as a mustard seed, you will Say to this Mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be Impossible for You.” ~ Matthew 17:20
COPTIC FAITH & PRINCIPLES
People, especially Copts, often ask why they need to study Coptic. The cause of their dilemma is that Coptic is rarely used even in its last stronghold, the Coptic Church. The answer to such a perplexing question lies in two distinct but closely related principles. The first is called the Ecclesiastical Principle and the second is referred to as the Coptic Principle. Both of these principles hold explanation for the importance as well as the necessity for keeping such language alive among people in general and Copts in particular.
THE ECCLESIASTICAL PRINCIPLE
The Ecclesiastical Principle is a 3-component concept that describes the Coptic Church in general terms. Its components are derived from the official name used by the Church but in reverse order.
These elements are as follows:
The first Component, the Church can be assumed to be the substance of Christianity, i.e., the Bible. This is due to the fact that the Coptic Church like any true Christian Church is build upon the Bible, the authentic Word of God.
The Orthodox component is understood as the authority of the fathers of the Church within the confines of the Coptic Church. An authority that is second only to the Bible because their writings are mere inspired explanation and expansion of the meaning of the Bible.
The last component of this trio is Coptic. The value of this component is embodied in the second principle to be discussed here, the Coptic Principle. It suffices to say here that this component is what gives the Coptic Church its identity and its distinctive flavor that sets it apart from any other Christian Church.
THE COPTIC PRINCIPLE
The Coptic Principle is an extension of the third component of the Ecclesiastical principle. It is in turn explained within the concept of a 3-component system. Such system will help explain the great benefits that can be achieved the Copts or others by the learning the language. These components are as follows:
2. Link to the past
3. Key to the treasures of the Coptic Church
The Coptic language provides a Copt with an identity that spells out an impressive commentary upon the character of such person. It exemplifies in him an unyielding spirit that was tried and came out victorious. A spirit that had to endure endless attempts by those that ruled Egypt for the past 2300 years to replace such language with that of their own. If such was achieved then they can subject the Copts to cultural and religious slavery that would forever made them subservient to such foreign rulers. It was attempted first by the Greeks, through their Hellenizing approach. Then it was continued along the same principles by the successive Arabic and Moslem dynasties that ruled Egypt since the 7th century AD. The significance of such character can also inspire the Coptic youth to fight off the many harmful pressures, whether in spirit or in body, that are facing them in this turbulent Society of ours.
2. Link to the Past
The Coptic language is the bridge that links the Copts with their ancient Egyptian roots. It provides them with a continuous written record of their civilization that span over 6000 years, the longest in existence. A civilization that is truly been considered, then and now, a marvel of human achievement. Their accomplishments encompassed most areas of human endeavors such as art, architecture, medicine, and of course their remarkable embalming techniques. A recount of such achievements and others will require many volumes. And to do them justice, it is best left for the experts who have already scratched the surface but has not yet gone deep enough. One last word that needs to be said about such link is that to successfully claim such lineage to greatness, a common language is needed. Coptic, of course, is such a language. It embodies the same Egyptian language of ancient times that was formerly written in the picturesque Hieroglyphs, the practical Hieratic, and the handy Demotic characters.
3. Key to the Treasures of the Coptic Church
This third and final category of the Coptic Principle has the most significant values that Coptic brings. By learning Coptic the hidden treasure of the church, the source of its greatness, will become accessible. This will make the Copt more rooted in his Church that has truly survived the test of time.
These treasures have come down primarily in literary form. They were left by the fathers of the Coptic Church over the centuries as the fruit of their labor of love for the Almighty. They cover many areas of Christian knowledge and experiences that are essential for the spiritual well-being of the Copts or anyone interested in learning about God. The discussion here will cover the basics of such treasures but only briefly. These treasures are as follows:
The language or rather the development of the script is a treasure in itself. Among the Christians, its appearance was a sign of Christian charity, for it was developed for the primary purpose of translating the Scriptures in order to preach the Gospel to the native population of Egypt.
The Coptic Version of the Bible is truly the greatest of all the treasures of the Coptic Heritage. Its value has been recognized by biblical scholars from every corner of the Globe. Many reasons contributed to such a high significance being attributed to it. First it utilized Greek originals that did not survive the winds of the persecutions nor the sands of time. Secondly it reflected the conservative, or orthodox, nature of the Egyptian Christians who translated such sacred texts in a method as literal as possible. They even made special adjustments in the grammatical system to project such a method. Thirdly they presented a better ancient understanding of some certain obscure verses or words in the Greek originals. This was due to the antiquity of the Version as well as the scholarship of those that contributed to it. Because of these factors and others, the Coptic Version is always used as an important witness in the scholarly publications of the Greek Scriptures, Old and New Testaments.
C. Writings of the Fathers
The Coptic language handed to us a great collection of the writings of the fathers of the Church. Such writings carry an authority in the Church second only to that of the Scriptures. In essence they are an extension to the Bible. Such collection that survived can be divided into two groups. The first one is a collection of translation from Greek originals of writings of Egyptian and non-Egyptian Church fathers. The second group is a collection of writings of Egyptian Fathers. Additionally the "Paradise of the Fathers" is a key teaching of the Coptic Faith.
The collection of translations from Greek originals are characterized either as being commentaries on the Bible or dealing with spiritual subjects that are suitable more to the monastic community who used them more. The collection of original Coptic writings featured a more variety of subjects. However they still projected the monastic flavor. In other words, most of the Coptic writings did not address the more theoretical aspects of theology as other Greek writings did.
The value of the first collection, that of translated texts, lies in either being an ancient witness to the Greek original or at times the only surviving witness to such writings. The Copts did not translate every thing that came into their hands. They rather translated only those of the more widely known or accepted fathers; and of course those which they considered to be pertinent to their ascetic nature. The most popular writer was St. John Chrysostom. The writings of Saints Cyril of Jerusalem, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory the Theologian were also popular but not as much as those of St. John Chrysostom.
The second collection that of the original Coptic writings is the more valuable one. It includes writings from Alexandrian fathers who usually wrote in Greek, like Saints Athanasius, Theophilius, and Cyril the Great. They also included the monastic writings of St. Pachomius and his disciples as well as those of bishops from the Pre-Arab invasion like Pisentius of Qift, Constantine of Asyut, Mina of Pshati, and Rufus of Shotep. However the greatest of them all is without a doubt the writings of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite, which was the most voluminous with a wider variety of subjects. Worthy of mention here are the substantial writings of St. Besa (Wissa), St. Shenouda's disciple.
The writings of St. Shenouda the Archimandrite are truly the crown jewels of Coptic Literature. Their style, their variety, and their subject matters make them worthy of such distinction. The literary style of St. Shenouda was a unique one. It blended many of the great feature of his time as well as his own added flavor. It dealt with more subjects that are not normally expected to be seen within the writings of a monastic leader. They addressed laymen, clerics, and even high government officials. Their subject matters dealt with what such a variety of people needs along Christian lines. However they presented the reader with a feature that is unprecedented. This feature was the simplification of St. Cyril the Great's theoretical theology into a practical one that the masses can understand and apply.
D. Lives of the Saints
The Coptic Church never had a shortage of saints throughout its long illustrious history. Though many of the acts of such saints have survived to this day, still many more perished as a result of the gradual loss of the language. The importance of the lives of the saints lies in the simple fact that they present to us portraits of the living Bible. They furnish proofs for the authenticity of the Bible teachings and the application of its teachings in people's life.
Lives of the Saints are available in many languages and churches other than those in use in Egypt and recognized in the Coptic Church, Coptic Lives however provide a unique brand. They consist of two major collections. The first are those of the martyrs who watered the flowering Church with their blood. The second are those of the monastic fathers who converted the desolate desert from an abode for demons to a haven for saints. There are also many acts of clergy as well as laymen that have reached this honored status.
The value of the Coptic lives lie in their antiquity as compared to the parallel ones available in Arabic and also in their exclusive presence in such language. The Coptic Synaxarium, being the most complete record of the saints of the Coptic Church, preserves only mention of names of some of these saints while their complete acts are preserved in Coptic. This category covers many of the saints of Upper Egypt who seem to have been forgotten by the compilers of the Synaxarium who lived mostly in Lower Egypt.
The collection of Coptic martyrdoms mostly includes those martyrs of the Diocletian Persecution (303-311 AD.) The most notable ones are those of St. Mina, St. Anoub, St. George, St. Theodore, and countless others. There are also acts of martyrs of earlier persecutions such as St. Mercurius, and those of later ones such as St. Macarius of Tkoou. There is even a 13th century Coptic martyrdom, that of St. John of Phanidjoit.
The collection of lives of monastic fathers includes those of the early fathers such as St. Antony the Great, St. Pachomius and his disciples, St. Macarius and his disciples, St. Onophrius, and St. Shenouda the Archimandite. It also includes those of the later fathers such as St. Samuel of Qalamun, St. Apollo, and many others.
Unfortunately the hand of man sometimes corrupts the natural beauty of such acts with unnecessary fabricated details. Such wild imagination distorts the saintly image of these acts and their value for the edification of the Christians as they were meant to be. However sorting the truth from fiction is not an easy task because what would sounds like a fabrication to some may still be factual. Careful study of these acts, God's willing, will yield desirable fruits. But caution should be exercised before deleting any details unless they are judged to be impossible to have occurred on historical, theological, and spiritual grounds. May God help those who undertake this worthy and blessed task.
E. Liturgical Services
The Coptic Church, in extension of its religious practices and beliefs of ancient times, regulated man's interface with God through an elaborate and comprehensive system of liturgical services. These services cover every aspect of human life in order to strengthen the tie between the Creator and His beloved creation and regulate man's life in accordance with what God has intended. Such services are made of selections from the Bible mixed the writings of the fathers of the Church and handed down by the saints of the Church. A powerful combination indeed!
All these services are made even more beautiful by their poetical arrangement and the magnificent Coptic music that accompanies them. The beautiful melodies that are collectively called Coptic Music has been determined, by the musicologists that studied it, as the richest in Christendom. If music moves the soul then Coptic music must makes it dance. The Church fathers used this powerful tool not only to beautify the words of the services but to vary and enhance their meanings. I would dare to say that in the case of the Coptic Liturgy, the music is responsible for up to 50 percent of the meaning being conveyed. Moreover, the varying tunes provide the believers with an instant way of sharing in the spirit of the Church commemorations. If what was just said is unclear, then one should only observe the services of the Holy Week and the Resurrection service that follows it for instant clarification.
The services include the three great liturgies, those of St. Basil, St. Gregory, and St. Cyril, where man is elevated to heaven to partake in the greatest gift ever given, the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. Other services include Baptism and Confirmation that make the person eligible to partake in the sacraments. Also there are services for the sacrament of Marriage and that of Unction to spiritually and physically heal, God's willing, man's afflictions. Also the Church consoles her members through the beautifully arranged funeral services. Every order in the Church, from a reader to a patriarch, its possessor participates in ordination services that vary in proportion to the rank being bestowed. There are also the magnificent services of the Holy Week, the Washing of Feet or Laqan, and the Genuflection among others.
F. Canon Law and Documents
To regulate man's relationship to God, the Church instituted many laws that were based on biblical principles as well as human needs. The Coptic Orthodox Church preserved the most ancient of the manuscripts of the Apostolic constitutions, which were last compiled in Egypt. Other collections in Coptic are those of the Councils of Nicea and Ephesus and those of St. Athanasius and St. Basil.
Another aspect of this treasure is the documentary evidence that Coptic has yielded. These documents include contracts such as those between individuals or between groups. It also includes a collection of private letters. These documents that survived were parts of archives of officials or towns. Their value lies in that they provide us with a window to observe regional history as well as to study the non-ecclesiastical common law that the people were practicing at the time. This provides a great help in studying the real history of the Copts, not only of Church dignitaries. These documents range in age from as early as the 4th century to as late as the 11th century. Such treasure has been nearly untapped by Copts not only because of its relative non-ecclesiastical nature but mostly because of the difficulty encountered in reading its script. To put it in perspective, its documents look like something that a doctor might have written!
THE COPTIC FAITH & TEACHINGS
Dogma is what is believed, taught, confessed and practiced. Dogmas, to the Coptic Orthodox Church, are not merely theological concepts concerning God, man, the Church, eternal life, heavenly creatures, demons, and other such matters, which are to be discussed among clergymen, scholars and laymen. Rather, they are, in essence, daily experiences which each member of the Church should live. In other words, dogmas representing our faith in God have one message, namely, our communion with God the Father in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, by His Holy Spirit.
The Holy Sacraments
Church Sacraments, or Mysteries, are sacred actions by which the believers receive invisible graces, through material or visible signs. The Coptic Orthodox Church observes seven sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation, Repentance and Confession, the Eucharist, Matrimony, Priesthood and the Unction of the Sick.
Three of the Sacraments give permanent seals and thus are not to be repeated, namely, Baptism, Chrismation and Priesthood. The minister of the Sacraments, whether a bishop or priest, administers them in the name of Christ.
Baptism is the holy Sacrament in which the person is reborn by immersion in water three times, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism has been given various names by the Early Fathers of the Church, including the ‘new birth’, ‘sanctification’, ‘washing’, ‘seal’ and ‘illumination’. Baptism is a sacrament established by our Lord Himself (Matthew 28:18,19), and is essential for salvation (John 3:5). The Coptic Church continues the Apostolic Tradition of infant baptism, which is implied in the Scriptures through the rite of circumcision, which was a type of Baptism. Infant Baptism was also mentioned by many of the early Church Fathers. The graces received in Baptism include new spiritual creation (John 3:3-8), forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), adoption as God’s sons (Galatians 3:26-29) and inheritance of eternal life (Titus 3:5-7).
In the Sacrament of Chrismation, the faithful receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This Sacrament was established by Christ (John 7:37-39) and is administered directly after Baptism (Acts 8:14-17). It was described as anointment by the Holy Bible (1 John 2:20) and also by the Church Fathers. The graces received in Chrismation include spiritual power (Romans 8:13) and the consecration of the soul to God.
3. The Eucharist (The Holy Body & Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ)
The Eucharist is the Sacrament of all Sacraments in which the faithful receive the Body and Blood of Christ. The Coptic Orthodox Church believes that the bread and wine change into the Body and Blood of Christ by the descent of the Holy Spirit through the prayers of the Divine Liturgy. The Church continues to teach the Biblical and Apostolic Tradition of the actual presence of Christ in this Sacrament (John 6:5). Saint Justine, a martyr of the second century, writes, ‘We have been taught that the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic Prayer set down by Him, and which through its change nourishes our flesh and blood, is both the Flesh and Blood of the Incarnate Christ’.
Saint John Chrysostom says, “How many now say, ‘I wish to see His form, His clothes, His feet’? Lo! You see Him, you touch Him, you eat Him… He gives Himself to you not only to see, but also to touch and eat and receive within you… He mixed Himself with us, not by faith only, but also indeed makes us His body… That which the angels tremble when they behold, and dare not so much as look up at without awe on account of the brightness that comes thence, with this we are fed, with this we are commingled, and we are made one body and one flesh with Christ” (Homilies on Saint Matthew).
Besides being a Sacrament, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. It is the same Sacrifice of the Cross, present continually on the altar of the Church, as an intercession for all the living and the departed, and for all creation (l Corinthians 10:18-21). The Eucharist was described as a Sacrifice by the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, and by many Church Fathers. The Coptic Liturgy says, “Today, on this table is present with us Emmanuel our God, the Lamb of God Who carries the sins of the whole world”.
The Coptic Church has never departed from the tradition of administering both the Body and Blood of our Lord to all the faithful (John 6:53) and people of all ages share in the Eucharist. The Church also uses ordinary (that is, leavened) bread, for the offering as it has always taught, what most scholars now acknowledge, that the Last Supper took place one day before the Passover, and thus Christ used leavened bread.
4. Repentance and Confession
A Christian whose sins have separated him from the life in Christ is reconciled with Him in the Sacrament of Repentance and Confession. By the forgiveness of sins, and reconciliation with God, this Sacrament renews the baptismal graces of adoption, salvation and having the hope of eternal life. The Church Fathers have also called it reconciliation, absolution, and second baptism. Penance consists of a feeling of sorrow for sin, with a will to repent; it also needs faith in Christ, verbal confession to a priest, and the priest’s absolution. Verbal confession has been practiced since the time of the Apostles (Acts 19:18). Priests have received from Christ the power to absolve sins (Matthew 18:18). The priest may ask the repentant to observe certain disciplines, such as fasting, prayer, or delay of Communion. These are remedies for the soul and aid in its struggle for the spiritual life; they are in no way considered punishments or atonement for sins. Christ is the propitiation for all sins (1 John 2:2).
5. Anointing of the Sick
If spiritual healing is obtained through Penance, the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick was established in the Church for the healing of both spiritual and physical ailments. Many of the Church Fathers mentioned it and referred to its Biblical origin in the words of Saint James: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and Iet them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5: 14,15).
6. Matrimony (Marriage)
Marriage is a natural and sacred law established since the creation of man (Genesis 1:27,28 & 2:18-24). The Lord Jesus Christ attended the marriage at Cana where He performed His first miracle. Marriage is considered a mystery by Saint Paul (Ephesus 5:32). It is the Sacrament in which a man and a woman are united through the grace of the Holy Spirit, and which refers to the profound union of Christ and the Church.
Christian marriage is characterised by its unity (Matthew 19:4) and indissolubility except by death. Divorce, for any reason other than adultery, has been forbidden by Christ: “So, then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore - what God has joined together, let not man separate…Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 19:6,9). The Church has followed these rules from the beginning.
7. Holy Orders (Priesthood)
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is the Sacred action in which priests and ministers of the Church obtain the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the authority to act in one of the three clerical degrees, bishop, priest or deacon. This Sacrament was established by our Lord when He gave the Holy Spirit to the Apostles (Matthew 28:18-20). Those called to the priesthood are ordained by the laying of hands and prayers of the bishops (Acts 6:6). By their Apostolic Succession, bishops have the power of guiding, teaching and celebrating the Sacraments, the three acts of Christ which He bestowed upon the Church. With the permission of their bishops, priests can guide the Church, teach and administer all Sacraments except for ordination (Acts 14:22). Deacons are consecrated to assist in the liturgy, serve the poor, and teach, but only with the permission of the bishop (Acts 6:1-8).
The Holy Bible and Church canons warn against the quick ordination of Church ministers. They must be qualified in every aspect of their lives; obtain good theological training and lead a virtuous life. Most importantly, they should be chosen by the people whom they are going to serve.
There are three main Divine Liturgies used in the Coptic Church, namely:
+ The Liturgy of Saint Basil, Bishop of Caesaria
+ The Liturgy of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Constantinople
+ The Liturgy of Saint Cyril I, the 24th Patriarch of the Coptic Church
The bulk of Saint Cyril’s liturgy is based on that used by Saint Mark in the first century. It was memorised by the bishops and priests of the Church, until it was translated into the Coptic language from the Greek. Today, these three liturgies, with some additions, are still in use; the Liturgy of Saint Basil being the most commonly used.
The Coptic Church has seasons of fasting matched by no other Christian Church. Out of the 365 days of the year, Copts fast for over 210 days. Fasting is abstaining from food and drink for a certain period of time, after which only foods void of animal products may be eaten. These strict fasting rules may be relaxed on an individual basis by the father confessor to accommodate for illness or weakness. Lent, known as the “Great Fast”, is largely observed by all Copts. It starts with a pre-Lent fast for one week, followed by a 40 day fast commemorating Christ’s fast in the wilderness, followed by the Holy (Passion) Week, the most holy week of the Coptic Calendar. Other fasts include Advent, the Apostles’ Fast, the Virgin Saint Mary’s Fast, the Fast of the people of Ninevah, and Wednesdays (commemorating our Lord’s betrayal) and Fridays (commemorating His Crucifixion) throughout the year, except for the 50 joyful days following the feast of the Resurrection.
THE VENERATION OF THE SAINTS
The "worship of saints is expressly forbidden" by the Coptic Orthodox Church, however, asking for their "Intercessions & Blessings", is central in any Coptic service. Coptic churches are named after saints. Among all the saints, the Virgin Saint Mary, the Theotokos, occupies a special place in the heart of all Copts - as the Queen of Heaven.
The Coptic Orthodox prayer book of the hours, the `AGPEYA’ (Coptic for `Hours - Psalms’) contains seven prayers to be said at various times of the day and night:
The First Hour (Matins) Rising
The Third Hour (Terce) 9 am
The Sixth Hour (Sext) 12 pm
The Ninth Hour (None) 3 pm
The Eleventh Hour (Vespers) 6 pm
The Twelfth Hour (Compline) 9 pm
The First Hour commemorates the hour in which the Lord arose from the dead.
The Third Hour commemorates the hour in which the Holy Spirit rested upon the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost. It is also the hour in which the Lord was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate on Good Friday.
The Sixth Hour commemorates the hour in which the Lord was nailed to the cross at Golgotha.
The Ninth Hour is the hour in which the Lord died for our redemption, and in which He accepted the Penitent Thief into Paradise.
At the Eleventh Hour, the Lord’s Body was taken down from the Cross, wrapped in linen and anointed with spices.
The Twelfth Hour commemorates the laying down of the Lord’s Body in the tomb.
The Midnight Prayer commemorates the three prayers of our Lord in Gethsemane during Holy Week.
THE CHURCH BUILDING: THE EXTERIOR
The Church building is usually built in one of the three following shapes:
Cross - Power & Symbol of Salvation
Ship - Noah’s Ark, outside of which no one was saved
Circle - Symbol of eternal life with God
THE CHURCH BUILDING: THE INTERIOR
The church was originally divided into three sections: the narthex, the nave, and the sanctuary. The reason was that the people who participated in the public services of the church were separated into three distinctive groups: First, the clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons), who officiated at the services. Second, the laymen, the Christian faithful who attended the services; and third, the catechumens, the people who wanted to become Christians, who were being taught the Christian faith, but who had not been baptized. Each part was designated for one of the groups of participants in the Divine Liturgy and other church services: the nave for the Christian faithful, the narthex for the catechumens and the sanctuary for the clergy.