A primer on the liturgical and church life of Coptic Christians, prepared for the visit of a group of monastics of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the ancient monasteries of Egypt.
Monasticism and the ascetic traditions of the Church are rooted in the religious practices of Coptic Christians. Today, many Coptic monasteries still close for the Great Lent to let the monastics there concentrate and redouble their effort for prayer and worship. This is no doubt a worthy and admirable practice. Doctrinally, Coptic Christians adhere to the so-called monophysite tradition, but not to its more rigid versions. They are receptive and well-disposed towards members of the Russian Orthodox Church.
1. The attitude to icons and relics is generally less formal and ceremonious than we might expect. Any Coptic parishioner may enter the altar outside of worship hours and touch and kiss the altar table, something that only priests can do in our churches. Yet this informality does not come from impiety or lack of effort; rather, it is an expression of the desire for a living faith that flows from the heart, not from the mind.
2. In most Coptic churches, visitors must take off their shoes before entering. In some churches, this applies only to worshippers who come to the Soleum, including for taking Communion.
3. In almost all cases, worshippers come to communion with their own mats which they bring from their homes.
4. Most Coptic churches except the oldest have benches. Worshippers may remain seated during the greater part of the worship service.
5. In many respects, the everyday life of a Coptic Christian is similar to that of a Muslim. Beyond the language, this also applies to clothing, housekeeping, diet and other aspects of the lifestyle. Culturally, Copts are not much different from their Muslim neighbours.
6. Nearly all Copts practise circumcision of male infants, despite the teachings of the Apostle that the transformational power of the circumcision now rests in its symbolic form, the sacrament of the baptism, not the physical circumcision. The Church distances itself from the ritual of circumcision, saying that this practice is not a part of church life. However, the people still ascribe to circumcision an almost sacred meaning. This popular custom may have a hygienic and health benefit. It is also plausible that circumcision is being practised as a relic of the Old Testament tradition, or an influence of Islam.
7. It is a tradition among the Copts to put tattoos of the cross on the wrist or the forehead after baptism. One probable explanation of this tradition – common in Egypt and Ethiopia – is that the belief that the presence of the tattoo will free its bearer from the temptation to deny or renounce his faith if the prosecution of Christians begins. In other words, a tattoo of the cross on the wrist of the newly baptised is a sign of their readiness to become martyrs for their faith.
8. Notable differences exist in the order of the worship between Coptic and Russian Orthodox Christians. The Coptic Church follows the Alexandrian rite, and the Russian Orthodox Church the Byzantine rite.
9. Compared to the Russian Orthodox liturgy, the Coptic liturgy is more static. It has no little or great entrance, and consequently, no Cherubim chant before the liturgy of the faithful.
10. At each liturgy (liturgy of the word) four passages from the New Testament are read from an epistle of Apostle Paul, the Council Encyclicals, the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospels. The passage from the Gospel is read twice, first by a priest in the Coptic language, and then by a deacon in Arabic.
11. The prayers of the priest constitute a large part of the liturgy, and they are read aloud.
12. A Coptic liturgy is a conversation between the priest and the people, and having separate choirs for special occasions is a very rare practice in Coptic churches. The people play a proactive role in each liturgy.
13. The liturgy itself can be quite long, lasting up to three hours, or up to five hours together with all the sequences. Significant differences also exist in the daily cycle of worship.
14. Among the common rites of the Coptic liturgy, one of the most notable is the presentation of the Gifts, in which the priest blesses the faithful with the right hand and touches the Gifts with his left hand. Another noteworthy rite is the drawing of the cross. The priest puts his index finger in the cup with the sanctified wine and draws a cross on the bread.
15. In the Coptic rite, the Eucharistic bread is a prosphroron made with fermented dough bearing twelve images of the cross and the text of the Trisagion prayer. The Coptic Communion is of the body and blood of Christ.
16. Coptic services of the daily cycle are mostly ascetic, and the priests rarely change into vestments to perform them. Psalter reading constitutes the greater part of the sequences, and reading prevails over singing.
17. Eastern Orthodoxy follows the Jerusalem worship rules, while the Coptic Church abides by the old Egyptian tradition of monastic worship.
18. Coptic baptism is performed exclusively by full submersion. The male infant is baptised on the fortieth day, and the female infant on the eightieth day after birth in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.
19. The sacrament of Сhrismation is performed immediately after baptism by applying the Holy Myrrh 36 times.
20. Coptic Christians have separate feasts for the Dormition of the Theotokos (commemorated on 16 January), and of Her Assumption (celebrated on 22 August). Coptic Christians are the only church that celebrates the feast of the arrival of the Holy Family to Egypt (19 May). The Coptic Church venerates Pontius Pilate as a saint.
21. The Coptic Patriarch and Clergy cover their heads with a dark veil with one large and twelve smaller crosses, symbolising Christ and His twelve apostles.
22. In iconography, Coptic Christians would be expected to shun the realistic style and give greater preference to the more sophisticated approaches. This would follow from their adherence to a moderate form of the Monophysite doctrine. In ancient times, Coptic iconography could have been different, with greater dominance of asceticism. The conquest of Egypt by the Muslims and the rule of the Caliphs most likely put an end to this tradition. Before the conquest, the iconographic tradition might have borne greater resemblance with the Eastern Orthodox style. The icons seen today at most Coptic churches strike the viewer with their simplified outline and repetitive motifs that liken them to innocent children’s drawings. Big expressive eyes are the invariable feature of every icon.
23. Particles of the relics are wrapped in crimson velvet. Each wrapping displays an image of the saint, painted or embroidered.
24. Almost all churches have extremely massive altars, with a large vault in the middle and a cup inside. The asterisk is kept on a metal plate and covered with multiple blankets. Coptic altars do not have a prosthesis.
25. The patriarch and rank-and-file priests both carry small crosses in their hands. Their pectoral crosses are made of leather. The Coptic cross is equal-armed. Each arm ends with three points, representing the persons of the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Together, the ends represent the twelve apostles of Christ.
Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds