The Coptic Church is an Orthodox Church and a national church, limited to Egypt. It has its own liturgy (in Coptic); ceremonial calendar; and clerical hierarchy headed by a patriarch. The Coptic language is a version of the ancient Egyptian language adapted to the Greek alphabet that was in use in Egypt during the early Christian period.
The Coptic church is superficially similar to the Orthodox church. Priests wear the same kind of robes. Martyrs and monks have traditionally held a high place in Coptic Christianity. Some of the martyrs honored on the Copts were among the estimated 144,000 Egyptian Christians killed in a wave of persecutions under the Roman Emperor Diocletian that lasted from A.D. 284 until 311. The Coptic New Year of Martyrs begins on September 11th with a tribute to martyrs who kept their faith in defiance of death.
Coptic monks are greatly revered. They occupy the highest positions in the church; are regarded as symbols of piety; and wield great power within the church. Saint Anthony, who is credited with launching the greatest monastic movement in religious history, lived in the deserts of Egypt and is greatly admired by the Copts. See Saints and Gnosticism
The Coptic church is headed by a Patriarch called a Pope. He presides over services at the grand Abbassiya Cathedral in Cairo. Many predominately Christian towns have bishops. Coptic priests perform baptisms, marriages and funerals and are generally given less respect than monks. Educated Copts have generally looked down on them and regarded them as inferior. Priests and monks have traditionally been recruited from the lower classes.
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Christian Denominations: Christianity.com christianity.com/church/denominations ; Christianity Comparison Charts religionfacts.com ; Difference between Christian Denominations Quoracom ; Holy See w2.vatican.va ; Catholic Online catholic.org ; Catholic Encyclopedia newadvent.org ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches oikoumene.org ; Wikipedia article on Protestantism Wikipedia ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org ; Nihov's Worldwide Coptic Directory! directory.nihov.org
Coptic Pope and Church Organization
The Coptic Church developed separately from other churches. The Coptic Church's clerical hierarchy had evolved by the sixth century. A patriarch, referred to as the pope, heads the church. A synod or council of senior priests (people who have attained the status of bishops) is responsible for electing or removing popes. Members of the Coptic Church worldwide recognize the pope as their spiritual leader. The pope, traditionally based in Alexandria, also serves as the chief administrator of the church. The administrator's functionaries includes hundreds of priests serving urban and rural parishes, friars in monasteries, and nuns in convents. [Source: Helen Chapin Metz, ed. Egypt: A Country Study, Library of Congress, 1990 *]
Amir Hanna wrote in Doctrinal Theology: “The Coptic Orthodox Church derives its spiritual authority to function from the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Such authority cannot be changed, altered, modified or revoked. His Holiness the Pope of Alexandria is the head of the said Synod.” Ordinary Copts can take part in church affairs through the Consultative Assembly of Lay Copts. [Source: Amir Hanna, Doctrinal Theology, 1998 [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]
“The Coptic Church is led by the Pope of Alexandria, who is based in Cairo. The current Pope, Tawadros II His Holiness Tawadros II (1952 - ), who was consecrated the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark in November 2012. He succeeded Pope Shenouda III. Pope Shenouda III was bearded gentleman. When performing ceremonial duties in 2007 he walked with a cane and wore in red and gold robe and headdress adorned with equal-armed Christian crosses |::|
“The Coptic Pope is not regarded as infallible or supreme. According to the BBC: “The Pope is elected by a complicated process. Candidates must be at least 40 years old and have been monks for at least 15 years. Following election, the names of the three candidates with most votes are written on pieces of paper and one of them is picked by a child. |[Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]
“The highest authority in the church is the Holy Synod, a body made up of the Patriarch, metropolitans, bishops, khoori episcopos, abbots, and stewards of the Patriarchate. The Holy Synod deals with spiritual, ecclesiastical, structural, management and financial matters. There are seven subcommittees which deal with pastoral affairs, liturgical affairs, ecumenical relations, monastic affairs, faith and ethics, and diocesan affairs.
“There are three ranks in the Coptic priesthood: Deacons, Priests and Bishops. 1) Deacons help priests and bishops in their ministry. There are five ranks of deacon: Epsaltos (hymnist), Ognostis (reader), Epideacon (subdeacon), Deacon (full deacon), Archdeacon (leader of deacons). 2) “Priests: There are three ranks of priesthood: Priest, Archpriest (hegomen) and Khoori Episcopos. Priests must be married. 3) Bishops: Bishops are drawn from monks, and so must be celibate and not have been married. A Metropolitan is the leader of group of bishops and the bishop of a large city. The Patriarch (Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark) is the highest rank in the church.” |::|
Blindfolded Boy Picks New Coptic Pope
In April 2012, a blindfolded boy, believed to be guided by the hand of God, chose a new Coptic pope, the leader of the Coptic Christian Church in a highly ornate and slightly unusual selection process in Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral. The Huffington Post reported, “Bishop Tawadros, 60, was selected ahead of two other contenders in the ceremony to replace Pope Shenouda III who died at the age of 88 in March. The three hopeful’s names were written on identically folded pieces which were then placed in crystal balls sealed with wax on the church altar.” [Source: Huffington Post, April 12, 2012]
“The blindfolded boy, one of 12 shortlisted, then picked a ball and handed it to Bishop Pachomius, the Coptic Church’s acting leader. Pachomius then unfurled the paper and showed the result to the congregation before proclaiming: “Pope Tawadros II is the 118th [leader of the church] blessed congratulations to you,” according to the Telegraph.
In November 2012, Pope Tawadros II was enthroned as Egypt's new Coptic pope. He succeeded Shenouda III, who had led the church for 40 years and died in March 2012. According to Al Jazeera, “The new pope of Egypt's Orthodox Coptic church was enthroned in an elaborate ceremony lasting nearly four hours, attended by the nation's Muslim prime minister and a host of cabinet ministers and politicians. The packed cathedral repeatedly erupted into applause as the ceremony progressed. The ceremony's climax came when the papal crown was placed on Tawadros' head before he sat on the throne of St Mark, the Coptic church's founding saint [Source: Al Jazeera, 19 November 2012].
Coptic Sacraments and Fasting
According to the BBC: “There are seven sacraments in the Coptic Church. 1) Baptism: A) The Church baptises babies and adults; B) Baptism is by total immersion three times - regardless of age; C) The Church teaches that baptism is essential for salvation; [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]
“2) Confirmation/Chrismation: A) This sacrament takes place immediately after Baptism. The person is anointed with oil of Myron with 36 signs of the cross on their joints and sense organs. An appropriate prayer is used for each place of annointing; B) Oil of Myron is made by adding spices and perfumes (including those used to anoint Jesus after the Crucifixion) to pure olive oil. |::|
“4) Eucharist: A) This is the most important sacrament; B) The Church accepts the doctrine of transubstantiation; C) Children of any age can take communion; D) Women may not take communion in church during their period (nor may people of either sex who are bleeding); E) People are expected to receive communion immediately after the sacraments of Baptism, Confession, F) Adults must fast for 9 hours before communion, should dress appropriately, and abstain from sex on the day and eve of communion. |::|
“4) Confession/Repentance: Regular confession is necessary if a person wishes to take communion; 5) Unction of the Sick; 6) Matrimony; 7) Priesthood. |::|
“Fasting is an important spiritual element of Coptic life. While it is regarded as an important spiritual practice, it is a voluntary spiritual sacrifice and the Church does not insist that people fast. Fasting is excused for those who are unwell. Fasting requires not eating at all for a period, and then abstaining from meat, fish, dairy products and cooking fats or oil derived from animals. There are 210 days of fasting each year. Fasts include the Fast of the Nativity (43 days), the Fast of the Apostles (duration varies), the Fast of the Virgin Mary (15 days), the Fast of Nineveh, and the Great Fast (Lent), which lasts 55 days. Many Copts also fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.” [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]
Coptic Bible, Sacred Texts and Language
The Bible is the basic scripture of the Coptic Church. According to the BBC: “The first translation of the Bible into Coptic script is thought have been around the 2nd century, although few early manuscripts survive. Copts don't believe that God actually wrote the Bible, but that God and the Holy Spirit inspired the men who wrote down the words. Pope Shenouda III said that 'the Holy Bible does not mention everything'. For example, not everything Christ taught was in the form of words — much of his teaching was contained in his actions and his life. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]
But the Bible isn't the only source of faith for Copts. Pope Shenouda III wrote in “Comparative Theology”|: 1) The other sources are the sayings of the saints, the authenticated creeds of the holy councils, and what was recorded in the Church books, especially the ritual books. 2) All these are in accord with the Holy Bible and are called as a whole 'Church Tradition'. The Book of Psalms in Coptic script Page from the Mudil Psalter, discovered in the Coptic cemetery of Al-Mudil in 1984, is the earliest complete psalter in the Coptic language.|::|
Tradition is particularly important because it guided humanity from the time of Adam, long before the first texts of the Bible. Amir Hanna wrote in “Doctrinal Theology”: “Holy Tradition then is the part of our Holy Coptic Orthodox Church and Her teachings which are not found in written form in the Holy Bible but which are genuine and have equal authority and truth....In order to be part of the Holy Tradition, a teaching must come from God and belong to the teachings of Christ and the Holy Apostles, it must have been continuously taught and practiced and kept alive by the Church, confirmed by the Ecumenical Councils and still exist today. [Source: Amir Hanna, Doctrinal Theology, 1998 }|::|
“The original language of Christians in Egypt was Coptic, which itself is a development of the language of the ancient Egyptians. |Coptic was the main language of the Church until the 11th century and then resurrected in the 16th century. Coptic is written with a mix of the Greek alphabet and Egyptian characters. Coptic is no longer used in everyday life, but still has a place in Coptic liturgy, although Arabic has become widely used. Coptic churches outside Egypt incorporate their local languages as appropriate. |::|
Coptic Churches in Egypt
According to the BBC: “Coptic churches are built facing East so that the congregation faces East in prayer. The sanctuary of the church, where the altar is found, is divided from the nave by an iconostasis – a screen made of icons. Only priests, and deacons assisting at a service, are allowed through the iconostasis. The nave of a Coptic church is usually in two parts: the chancel or choir, and the nave itself. The chancel is a raised area with seats for deacons, candle stands and reading desks. Part of the nave is usually reserved for men. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 ]
Al-Mu'allaqah Hanging Church (north of the Coptic Museum in the Coptic Quarter of Cairo) is a 10th century basilica built over the south gate of the Fortress of Babylon, built by the Romans in the 1st century B.C., and replacing a Coptic church built in the late 3rd century. Its name refers to the churches unusual design: the floor of palm-wood floor beams hangs in the air supported only by three Roman columns.
The church doesn't have any domes but it features a wooden roof shaped like Noah's Ark, representing salvation. It is decorated with coins carved from ebony and ivory and features three chapels guarded by wooden screens. They are dedicated to Christ. St. George and John the Baptist. In the late 1990s, the church underwent a $6.7, two-year restoration to shore up the walls, deal with ground water seepage, drive away bats, and repair damage caused by the 1992 earthquake and a botched restoration job in 1983, when a chapel ceiling collapsed to the floor after an engineer ordered a column removed.
Reporting from about 100 kilometers south of Cairo, Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Fakhri Saad Eskander leads me through the marble-tiled courtyard of the Church of St. Mina and St. George in Sol, Egypt. We pass a mural depicting St. George and the Dragon, climb a freshly painted staircase to the roof and gaze across a sea of mud-brick houses and date palm trees. Above us rises a white concrete dome topped by a gold cross, symbols of Coptic Christianity. The church—rebuilt after its destruction by an Islamic mob four months earlier—has a gleaming exterior that contrasts with the dun-brown townscape here, two hours south of Cairo. “We are grateful to the army for rebuilding our church for us,” says Eskander, a lean, bearded man of 25 who wears a gray abaya, a traditional Egyptian robe. “During the time of Mubarak, this would never have been possible.” [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011 \~\]
“Eskander, the church custodian, was on the roof the night of March 4 when some 2,000 Muslims chanting “Death to Christians” arrived at the compound in fevered pursuit of a Coptic man believed to have taken refuge inside. The man had been involved with a Muslim woman—taboo throughout Egypt—setting off a dispute that ended only when the woman’s father and cousin had shot each other dead. The pair had been buried that afternoon, and when a rumor spread that another Christian was using the church to perform black magic against Muslims, “the whole town went crazy,” Eskander says. \~\
“He leads me downstairs into the chapel. As the sun filters through stained-glass windows, he and a Muslim acquaintance, Essam Abdul Hakim, describe how the mob knocked down the gates, then set the church on fire. On his cellphone, Hakim shows me a grainy video of the attack, which shows a dozen young men smashing a ten-foot log against the door. The mob then looted and torched the homes of a dozen Christian families across the street. “Before the January 25 revolution there had always been security,” Eskander tells me. “But during the revolution, the police disappeared.” \~\
Coptic Worship and Music
According to the BBC: “Coptic Church rituals use very ancient words and music. Local languages are also used, in order to allow the congregation to play a full part in the worship. Sunday is the main day for services, which can last for over four hours. Candles are used a great deal in services. Incense is used during worship. Music |::|
“Music is almost entirely vocal; the only musical instruments used are the cymbals and the triangle (other instruments are sometimes used in non-liturgical Coptic events). The music of the church has been transmitted orally over the centuries because the church didn't use any system of music notation. 300 hymns have survived and are still in use.” |::|
Martha Roy, a expert on Coptic music, said: “Coptic music, is second to no other religious music. It is unique. Its melodies are within only a five-tone range; all melodiously manipulated to give this wide range of melodies. I think it is miraculous, having so little melodic matter to deal with, and still Coptic music can express praise and worship to God. I find it restful and it gives me the sense of the presence of God: His grandeur and His assurance of His existence.” [Source: Martha Roy, Expert on Coptic music, Al Ahram 2000] |::|
Deacon Nabih Fanous told the BBC: “Coptic hymns are deep, harmonic and exactly defined songs meant to express the innermost emotions of the praising spirit. They do not follow musical notes or dedicated rhythm but rather they translate the pulses of the spirit. [Source: Deacon Nabih Fanous, Brief Notes on Coptic Hymns] |::|
Coptic Service and Liturgies
Coptic services use the very ancient Coptic language (which is based on the language of ancient Egypt used in the time of the Pharaohs), together with local languages. The liturgy and hymns remain similar to those of the early Church. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]
According to the BBC: “In a typical service: 1) The service is composed of four parts. The first is the preparation prayer, called in Arabic the early morning prayer. This lasts only 30 minutes...the alter boys go around with incenses while chanting in the Coptic language. 2) The second part is for offering, at which point a prayer is said over the holy bread. This lasts for 20 to 30 minutes. 3) The third part consists of the preaching mass. Here, the priests read sections of the Old and New Testament, as well giving a sermon. 4) The fourth part is the reconciliation prayer. This only lasts for 10 minutes when the priests give the people Christ's forgiveness and the people do so to each other. |::|
5) The fifth part is the Believer's mass and it lasts for the rest of the service. This is when the congregation has communion, and is supposed to be only attended by those who have been baptised and who have confessed. This strict rule is now more found in small villages in Upper Egypt, but in Cairo, one must only hear the Bible reading to be able to have communion, meaning that one cannot enter very late to the service. 6) During the service women and men don't mix, they sit separately on each side of the church. Also during communion, they go to different chambers on the sides of the altar where the women cover their hair in respect of the ceremony. |::|
There are three main liturgies: The liturgies of St. Basil, used throughout the year; St. Gregory, used at Christmas, Epiphany and Easter; and St. Cyril (or St. Mark). John Gillespie wrote: “The sung liturgy is a solemn drama involving at least four participants: celebrant, deacon, cantor and choir. The celebrant - either priest, bishop or patriarch - performs the Eucharist, the thanksgiving and sacrifice, with some freedom within fixed limits... Often he will vocalise for minutes on one syllable, especially on feast days or when eminent guests are present.” [Source: John Gillespie, The Egyptian Copts and their Music] |::|
Monophysitism-Miaphytism has traditionally been an important element of the coptic faith and was one of the reasons why the church split from of ther churches in the 5th century. According to the BBC: ““The Coptic belief which defined the church at an early stage is called monophytism (technically it would be better called miaphytism, but most documents use the former word). To put it simply this is the belief that Jesus Christ has only one nature; that his divine nature and his human nature are composite and totally united - the nature of the incarnated Word, as opposed to two natures united in one person. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]
“This single nature was formed 'from the first moment of Holy Pregnancy in the Virgin's womb' (Shenouda III). The dispute over monophytism at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) caused the Coptic Church to separate from other Churches. Other Churches also split, and became known as the 'Monophysite Churches' or 'Non-Chalcedonian Churches'. Nowadays these churches are usually called the 'Oriental Orthodox Churches'. In modern times Christian Churches have come to a much closer understanding of the nature of Christ, and this dispute is no longer so divisive. |::|
The Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern USA said: Our church... believes in 'Miaphysis' which means the unity of the two natures of Christ (the Divine and the Human Natures) into one nature of the incarnate God. The two natures never separated and never changed each other. The Lord Jesus Christ is God Himself, the Incarnate Logos Who took to Himself a perfect manhood. His Divine nature is one with his human nature yet without mingling, confusion or alteration; a complete Hypostatic Union.” [Source: Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern USA]
“Pope Shenouda III, The Nature of Christ, 1999 said : “As this union is permanent, never divided nor separated, we say in the liturgy that His Godhead never departed from His manhood for a single moment nor even for a twinkle of an eye. [Source: Pope Shenouda III, The Nature of Christ, 1999 |::|
According to the BBC: “One of the Coptic Church's greatest contributions to Christianity was the development of monasticism. Egypt was the birth place of Christian monasteries. Saint Anthony (c. 251-356 AD), is credited with inspiring the first monastic community. He didn't intend to found a monastery: originally he set off to live a solitary spiritual life in the Egyptian desert; other men eventually came to live near him - creating the idea of religious people choosing to live close to an especially holy person. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]
“Monasticism developed further under Saint Pachomius (died c. 346 AD), an ex-Roman soldier of Egyptian origins, who laid down the first rules for a collective community of hermits and developed the concept of combining spiritual devotion with learning and routine work. The monastic movement gained extra fame through the work of members of Pachomian communities known as the Desert Fathers, whose teachings have been a source of inspiration to Christians throughout history. Monasticism has revived in the last few decades, and significant numbers have chosen the monastic life; not only within monasteries but as hermits too. |::|
On monasticism Pope Shenouda III, said: “We don't oblige any monk to lead a certain life. For he who wants to live in the monastery as part of the congregation, that is all right. If he wants to lead a life of solitude inside the monastery, that is all right. If he wants a cell of solitude outside the monastery or on the near hills, that will be all right. He who wants to live in a cave will have the permission to live in a cave. We have all kinds of monasticism.” [Source: Pope Shenouda III, Monasticism] |::|
Coptic monks are called Father. They typically wear a full black robe with a large cross around his neck and headscarf or skullcap and sport a short or long beard.
The Monastery of St. Anthony (250 kilometers southwest of Cairo) is a desert redoubt near the Red Sea in Egypt. Regarded by many as the world's first monastery, it was founded by disciples of St. Anthony, one of the earliest and most influential hermits, in A.D. 356. Located in the Zararana mountains, St. Anthony's Monastery, was established in the 4th century near where St. Anthony spent years mediating alone in the desert. It consists of chapels, churches, monk cells, bakeries, work shops and other buildings. On a mountain about 1,500 feet above St. Anthony's Monastery is St. Anthony's Cave. Monks living here make a vow of poverty, obedience and chastity. Some have lived for years in caves on nothing but bread and water.
Situated in jagged barren mountains, Monastery of St. Anthony is so isolated that it receives supplies from a monthly camel caravan. Visitors used to be are pulled up by a rope in a basket over a wall there to keep out Bedouin bandits. Now there is a two-lane road that leads there and some guest houses. Visitors see churches, a flour mill, garden and spring. Not many tourist visit monastery, which is run by the Coptic Church and reached by dirt tracks that lead off the coastal road between Cairo to Hurghada. To stay overnight in the monastery you need permission from the Coptic Church in Cairo,
The Monastery of St. Paul (80 kilometers from the Monastery of St. Anthony) was built around the same time as the Monastery of St. Anthony. It too is located in Zararana mountains, and consists of chapels, churches and other building. It is more isolated and harder to get to than St. Anthony's. To stay overnight you need permission from the Coptic Church in Cairo.
The Monastery of St. Simeon (near Aswan on the west side of the Nile) lies on the top of a barren hill near the ferry stop. It is regarded as one of best-preserved ancient Coptic monasteries in Egypt. Frescoes of the Apostle still remain in the roofless Basilica. The monastery was built in the 7th century, rebuilt in the 10th century used until the 13th century as base for missionary monks to convert Nubians to Christianity. Its Arabic name is Dayr Amba Samaan. It can be reached by camel or a steep half-hour hike that can be difficult in the mid-day sun.
St Bishoy Coptic Monastery
Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “After my visit to Coptic Cairo, I drove 70 miles northwest to Wadi Natrun, the center of monastic life in Egypt and the desert valley in which the exiled Holy Family supposedly took refuge, drawn here by a spring. In the middle of the fourth century, anchorite holy men established three monasteries here, linked by a path known as the Road of Angels. But after most of the monks abandoned them, the monasteries fell into disrepair, only to flourish again in the past two decades as part of an anchorite revival. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011 \~\]
“I drove past scraggly acacia trees and date plantations through a sandy wasteland until I arrived at the mud-walled Monastery of St. Bishoy, founded in a.d. 340, and the place where Shenouda spent his years in exile. A sanctuary of baked-mud-brick monastic quarters and churches, linked by narrow passageways and topped by earthen domes, the compound has changed little over the past 1,500 years. Boys were sweeping the grounds and trimming hedges of oleander and bougainvillea in the monastery’s garden. (The youngsters are laborers’ sons, who receive a free education as recompense for their work.) As I turned a corner, I walked into a monk wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses. He introduced himself as Father Bishoy St. Anthony and offered to serve as my guide. \~\
“He escorted me into the original, fourth-century church, and showed me the bier containing the remains of St. Bishoy, who died in Upper Egypt at age 97 in a.d. 417. We crossed a wooden drawbridge to a sixth-century fortress of thick stone walls and vaulted corridors, built for protection from periodic attacks from Berbers. From the rooftop, we could see a huge new cathedral, guesthouse and cafeteria complex built on the orders of Pope Shenouda after his release. “At the time [of Shenouda’s exile], the economy of the monastery was very bad, most of the monks had left,” Father Bishoy said. Today St. Bishoy comprises a community of 175 monks from as far away as Australia, Canada, Germany and Eritrea. All commit themselves to remain here for life. \~\
Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian Magazine: “Like many monks, Bishoy St. Anthony, 51, turned to the spiritual life after a secular upbringing in Egypt. Born in Alexandria, he moved to New York City in his 20s to study veterinary medicine but found himself yearning for something deeper. “I had this thought in America day and night,” he said. “For three years, I stayed in a church in Brooklyn, to serve without money, and the thought stayed with me.” After taking his vows, he was assigned to small St. Anthony Coptic Monastery outside Barstow, California—from which he took his name—then was dispatched to a church in Tasmania, off Australia’s southern coast. He spent two years there, serving a mix of Eritreans, Egyptians and Sudanese, then lived in Sydney for four years. In 1994, he returned to Egypt. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2011 \~\]
“Now Bishoy St. Anthony follows a daily routine nearly as ascetic and unvaried as that of his fourth-century predecessors: The monks wake before dawn; recite the Psalms, sing hymns and celebrate the liturgy until 10; take a short nap; then eat a simple meal at 1. After the meal, they cultivate beans, corn and other crops on the monastery’s farms and perform other tasks until 5, when they pray before taking a meditative walk alone in the desert at sunset. In the evening, they return to their cells for a second meal of yogurt, jam and crackers, read the Bible and wash their clothes. (During the fasting periods that precede both Christmas and Easter, the monks eat one meal a day; meat and fish are stricken from their diet.) “There is no time for anything here, only church,” he said. \~\
“Yet Bishoy St. Anthony acknowledged that not all of the monks here dwell in complete isolation. Because of his language skills, he has been entrusted with the role of liaison with foreign tourists, and like the monks who purchase fertilizer and pesticides for the monastery’s agricultural operations, he carries a cellphone, which brings him news from the outside world. I asked how the monks had reacted to Mubarak’s downfall. “Of course, we have an opinion,” he said, but declined to say more. \~\
Holy Days and Feasts in Coptic Christianity
According to the BBC: “The Coptic calendar is possibly the oldest in the world, being based on the calendar of the ancient Egyptians. It has 13 months and is divided into 3 seasons; Inundation, Sowing, and Harvest. The Coptic Christmas is celebrated on January 7 (or 29 Kiahk - the fourth month of the Coptic calendar), which has been declared an official holiday in Egypt. The list of festivals is adapted from the Sunday School Curriculum of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern USA. It gives dates in both the Coptic and Western Calendars for fixed festivals. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]
The seven Major Feasts of our Lord
The Annunciation (Paramhat 29, c. April 7)
The Nativity of Christ (Christmas, Kiahk 29, c. January 7)
The Theophany or the Baptism of Christ (Tuba 11, c. January 19)
The Feast of the Resurrection: It is preceded by the Great Lent (55 days) and is considered by the Coptic Church as "The Feast."
The seven Minor Feasts of our Lord
The Circumcision of our Lord (Tuba 6, c. 14 January)
The Entrance of our Lord into the Temple (Amshir 8, c. February 15)
The Escape of the Holy family to Egypt (Pashans 24, c. June 1)
The First Miracle of our Lord Jesus at Cana Galilee (Tuba 13, c. January 12)
The Transfiguration of Christ (Messra 13; c. August 19)
Thomas' Sunday: The Sunday after Easter |::|
The Church celebrates the commemoration of the Annunciation, Nativity and Resurrection of Christ on the 29th of every Coptic month
The commemoration of St. Mary is celebrated on the 21st
The feast of Archangel Michael is celebrated on the 12th of every month |::|
“Weekly feasts: Every Sunday stands as a true Sabbath (day of rest). There is no abstention from food on Sundays after the celebration of the Eucharist, even during Great Lent. Religious icon of St Macarius among plants and carrying a tall two-headed staff Icon of St Macarius at the monastery bearing his name Feasts of the Saints |::|
“Every day of the year is a 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: |::|
The Feasts of St. Mary:
The annunciation of her birth (Messra 7, c. August 13)
Her Nativity (Pashans 1, c. May 9)
Her Presentation into the Temple (Kiahk 3, c. December 12)
Her Dormant (Tuba 21, c. January 29)
The Ascension of her body (Paona 21, c. June 28)
Her apparition over the Church of Zeitoon (Paramhat 24, c. April 2)
The apparition of her body to the Apostles (Messra 16, c. August 22)
The Apostles' Feast (Abib 5, c. July 12)
The Nayrouz Feast (1st of Tute, c. September 11)
The Two Feasts of the Cross:
The first feast is on Tute 17 (c. September 27)
The second feast is on Paramhat 10 (c. March 19) |::|
Coptic Easter falls on the Sunday following the full moon that comes after the vernal equinox (usually March 21). It is one of the two most important holy days for Egyptian Christians, the other being Coptic Christmas on Jan. 7. Coptic Easter marks the end of the 55-day Lent, commonly known as the Great Fast, where all animal products - including milk, cheese and butter - are prohibited.
Sonia Farid wrote in Al Arabiya News, “On Easter eve or Holy Saturday, Coptic Christians start their Easter Vigil, also known as The Great Vigil, which lasts until the dawn of Easter. It is preferable for those who can to fast completely - that is, abstain from food and drink - on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and break the fast upon the end of Mass. The Easter Eve ceremony includes a symbolic reenactment of Christ’s ascension, also called the “resurrection play.” The play shows the gates of heaven closed following Adam’s sin and his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Lights are turned off to symbolize the darkness humanity lived in before the advent of Christ. The light that follows indicates that Christ has risen and was able to open the gates of heaven, thus cleansing humanity from the original sin. “The prayers are recited in Coptic and Arabic. All Egyptian Christians, including those not familiar with the Coptic language, know by heart the sentence repeated on that night: “Ekhrestos Anesti, Alisos Anesti” (Christ is risen! Truly He is risen). [Source: Sonia Farid, Al Arabiya News Sunday, 9 April 2017 /*/]
“Easter day is known for the banquets that Coptic families prepare to break their long fast. The food served is not very different from that commonly consumed during the two main Islamic holidays. Like the Lesser Bairam, cookies and biscuits are purchased or home-baked, and like the Greater Bairam, meat and Egyptian fatteh (rice with crispy flatbread). Buying new clothes is also a tradition shared by Coptic and Islamic holidays as well as family reunions. Easter day is followed by Spring Day, also known as Sham al-Nessim in Arabic, which is celebrated by all Egyptians but has a special place in Coptic culture. The Arabic name is originally Coptic: “shoum in nissim,” meaning “the garden of crops.” Spring Day is an ancient Egyptian festival celebrated at the beginning of spring. /*/
“When Egypt became Christian in the fourth century BC, Spring Day used to fall in the middle of the Great Fast, making Egyptians unable to enjoy the feast linked to the ancient holiday and the accompanying festivities they are supposed to abstain from during the fast. They therefore decided to celebrate Spring Day the day after Easter. Ever since, Spring Day has become the Monday following Easter Sunday. Although Copts treat Spring Day as an extension of Easter, the former is marked by special rituals more linked to the ancient Egyptian celebration such as eating salted mullet, green onions and lupin in public parks. The coloring of eggs is similarly ancient Egyptian, with the hatching process being a symbol of life coming out of a lifeless object, which was then analogous to the growing of crops and spring as the season of fertility. In the Christian tradition, eggs came to be associated with the rising of Christ from his tomb, and red became the preferred color for painting eggs to symbolize His blood, a tradition still followed by Copts. /*/
Coptic Christians don’t celebrate Christmas Day on December 25th but on January 7th (or 29 Kiahk - the fourth month of the Coptic calendar), the same as Orthodox and Ethiopian Christians. The Coptic month leading to Christmas is called Kiahk. People sing special praise songs on Saturday nights before the Sunday Service. Coptic Christmas on January 7 is an official holiday in Egypt.
According to whychristmas.com: “For the 43 days before Christmas (Advent), from 25th November to 6th January, Coptic Orthodox Christians have a special fast where they basically eat a vegan diet. They don't eat anything containing products that come from animals (including chicken, beef, milk and eggs). This is called 'The Holy Nativity Fast'. But if people are too weak or ill to fast properly they can be excused. [Source: whychristmas.com =|=]
“On Coptic Christmas Eve (6th January), Coptic Christians go to church for a special liturgy or Service. The services normally start about 10.30pm but some chapels will be open for people to pray from 10.00pm. Many people meet up with their friends and families in the churches from 9.00pm onwards. The services are normally finished shortly after midnight, but some go onto 4.00am! When the Christmas service ends people go home to eat the big Christmas meal. All the foods contain meat, eggs and butter - all the yummy things they didn't during the Advent fast! One popular course if 'Fata' a lamb soup which contains bread, rice, garlic and boiled lamb meat. On the Orthodox Christmas Day (7th) people come together in homes for parties and festivities. People often take 'kahk' (special sweet biscuits) with them to give as gifts. =|=
“Even though not many in Egypt are Christians, a lot of people in the country like to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. Christmas is becoming very commercial and most major supermarkets sell Christmas trees, Christmas food and decorations. Hotels, parks and streets are decorated for Christmas. In Egypt, Santa is called Baba Noël (meaning Father Christmas). Children hope that he will climb through a window and will leave some presents! They might leave some kahk out for Baba Noël.” =|=
History of Coptic Christmas
Fr. John Ramzy wrote on copticchurch.net: “The first Church did not celebrate the birth of Christ. And the actual date of his birth was and still is unknown. The earliest known indication to such a celebration comes in a passing statement by St. Clement of Alexandria who mentions that the Egyptians of his time celebrated the Lord's birth on May 20. At the end of the 3rd century, the Western Churches celebrated it in the winter, and this was only accepted in Rome in the middle of the 4th century. [Source: Fr. John Ramzy, copticchurch.net] Around that time it was agreed by the Church all over the world to celebrate the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ on 25 December (29 Kiahk in the Coptic calendar), most probably to take the place of a pagan feast that even Christians continued to celebrate until then. [Source: Fr. John Ramzy, copticchurch.net +++]
“At that time, and until the sixteenth century, the civil calendar in use the world over was the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in the year 46 B.C. This calendar considered the year to be 365.25 days 4 and thus had a leap year every four years, just like the Coptic calendar. Therefore, until the sixteenth century, 25 December coincided with 29 Kiahk, as the date of the celebration of the Lord's nativity. +++
“Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Pope Gregory XIII of Rome took interest in studying astrology, dates and feasts. He noticed that the vernal equinox, the point at which the sun crosses the equator, making day and night of equal length, starting the spring, used to fall on 21 March (25 Baramhat) around the time of the council of Nicea (A.D. 325) which set the times for the ecclesiastical feasts. The vernal equinox at his time however fell on 11 March. +++
“After consultation with scientists, he learned that the equinoctial year (or solar year), which is the time the earth takes to revolve around the sun from equinox to equinox, was slightly shorter than the Julian year. It was 365.2422 solar days (approximately 11 minutes and 14 seconds shorter). This makes a difference of a full day every 128.2 years, hence the difference of 10 days in the beginning of spring between the fourth and sixteenth centuries. +++
Pope Gregory XIII decreed the following: In A.D. 1582, October 5th will be called October 15th. The Julian calendar should be shortened by 3 days every 400 years, by making the centenary year a normal 365-day year, not a leap year, except if its number is divisible by 400. Thus the year 1600 remained a leap year as usual, while 1700, 1800 and 1900 had only 365 days each and the year 2000 was a leap year of 366 days. This new calendar came to be known as the Gregorian calendar, and is the common civil calendar in use in our world today.
Following these decrees, as the Church of Rome celebrated Christmas 25 December 1582 A.D., the Eastern Churches still fasted as they showed 15 December or 19 Kiyahk on their Julian and Coptic calendars. As the Church of the East celebrated the feast of Nativity, it was already 4 January 1583 A.D. on Pope Gregory's new calendar. That gap widened by 3 more days over the next 4 centuries. This is why the Churches who still celebrate on 25 December according to the ancient Julian calendar (such as most of the Byzantine Churches and the non-Chalcedonian churches, except the Armenians) find themselves, in the 21st century, celebrating the Nativity on 7 January of the civil Gregorian new calendar. This will become 8 January after the year 2100 A.D.
Now the questions present themselves: 1) Is it necessary that the liturgical calendar be adjusted to a scientifically correct solar year? 2) Why did Pope Gregory correct the calendar to its status at the fourth century? 3) Why not we do it to resemble the status at Christ's birth or at the beginning of the world? 4) Should we, as Christians, take the liberty to change a calendar established and recognized by our fathers of the ecumenical councils to be the basis of our liturgical life, just because of mere scientific data? 5) Should we adjust our calendar to coincide with the western calendar, or should the Catholics go back to the calendar of the fathers? 6) Is it important to have one Nativity day the world over or is it preferable to unite really in doctrine first, and then look at these secondary issues? Isn't it better, now that the Western Christmas has been so commercialized and paganized, that we have a separate date where we worship in spirit and in truth, away from the noise, drunkenness, gluttony and immorality of the December Christmas practices? Many of our children and youth, born and raised here, have voiced this opinion. May the ever-renewed birth of the Lord of glory in our hearts, every day of every year, be unto our salvation to eternal life. Amen
Coptic Views on Marriage and Women
According to the BBC: “Coptic marriages are monogamous. Copts marry within the faith - non-Coptic partners are required to convert. Copts undergo a ceremony of Betrothal in advance of marriage during which the couple exchange rings engraved with their partner's name; the betrothal is not a final commitment and can be renounced. “Divorce and remarriage is only permitted for the innocent party in cases of adultery or conversion, although this is currently (2008) a controversial issue after Egypt's Higher Civil Court ruled that Copts who had been through a civil divorce had the legal right to remarry. “Marriages can be annulled in cases of deceit, such as bigamy. |::|[Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]
“Al Ahram said: Among Copts the annulment of conjugal unions had been permitted on the grounds of adultery, abandonment, obvious evidence of ill treatment, mental disability and impotence. Things changed radically after Shenouda III ascended to the Coptic Papacy. He promptly rejected divorce on any grounds except adultery and extremely cruel treatment. [Source: Al Ahram, March 2008] |::|
The Coptic Church does not permit women to be priests. Pope Shenouda III wrote in “Homosexuality and Ordination of Women”: “There are many things in the work of the priest which may not be suitable for women, for example, baptising men. How can a woman baptise men? It is not easy. If she is a bishop and ordains priests, that means that these priests will be subordinate to her, under her authority, under her hierarchy or jurisdiction. This is contradictory to the teaching of the Holy Bible. [Source: Pope Shenouda III, Homosexuality and Ordination of Women, 1993] |::|
The BBC says: “The role of women is somewhat restricted: they don't read scripture aloud in church, and they can teach children or other women or girls in Sunday School, but they do not teach men. Besides being teachers of Christian Education in the Sunday School, women can be nuns, members of parish councils, counsellors, administrators, and contribute to church publications. The early Church had women deacons but abandoned this in the 13th century. The Church resumed the ordination of women as deaconesses in 1981 and there are now at least 400 consecrated deaconesses in the Coptic church. Traditionally, a deaconess is either a virgin or a widow.” |::|
Coptic Views on Social Issues
According to the BBC: “The Church believes that homosexual acts are wrong. In August 2003, the Coptic Orthodox Church issued a formal declaration against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The Church does not permit the ordination of gay priests. Pope Shenouda III said: Homosexuality is against nature because sexual relations are permitted only within the confines of marriage, and marriage is only permitted between a man and a woman, male and female. [Source: Pope Shenouda III, Homosexuality and Ordination of Women, 1993
“Abortion: The Church believes that life begins at the moment of conception and regards a foetus as a living being who has the right to both life and dignity. The Church states that "once a pregnancy has occurred, than it is a sin to abort the baby, even if its age is only one hour". However, abortion can be allowed if it is the only way to save the mother's life. [Source: BBC, June 25, 2009 |::|]
“Contraception: The Church accepts birth control methods that don't amount to abortion. Sexual ethics: The Church expects its members to avoid any form of sexual immorality. Any form of physical intimacy should be avoided outside marriage. |::|
Drinking: The Church bans spirits (alcoholic drinks made by distillation) and the misuse of alcohol. Wine is permitted, but not in excess.
“Suicide: The former pope, Shenouda III, said suicide is a crime of murder, as people do not own their souls. Euthanasia: The Church does not permit euthanasia. Organ transplants: The Church accepts organ transplants, whether from dead or living persons. |::|
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons except the blindfolded boy, Catholic.org, and the nativity play, The Age
Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018