Ever wondered about the history of the Coptic Church? We would like to take this opportunity to serve as a resource to help you gain a better understanding of where the Coptic Orthodox Church started, our rich history, and believes.
The Coptic Church was established in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ by St. Mark the Evangelist in the city of Alexandria around 43 A.D. The church adheres to the Nicenen Creed.
St. Athanasius (296-373 A.D.), the twentieth Pope of the Coptic Church, effectively defended the Doctrine of the Lord Jesus Christ’s Divinity at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. His affirmation of the doctrine earned him the title “Father of Orthodoxy” and St. Athanasius “the Apostolic”.
The term “Coptic” is derived from the Greek “Aigyptos” meaning “Egyptian”. When the Arabs arrived in Egypt in the seventh century, they called the Egyptians “qibt”. Thus the Arabic word “qibt” came to mean both “Egyptians” and “Christians”.
The term “Orthodoxy” here refers to the preservation of the “original faith” by the Copts who, throughout the ages, defended the Old Creed against the numerous attacks.
The Coptic Orthodox Church believes that the Holy Trinity: God The Father, God The Son, and God The Holy Spirit. And that they are equal to each other in one unity. We also believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is the only Savior of the world. Fewer changes have taken place in the Coptic Church than in any other church in both ritual and doctrine aspects. Additionally, the succession of the Coptic Patriarchs, Bishops, Priests and Deacons has been continuous.
The Copts are the Egyptian Christians. They are the successors of the ancient Egyptians “The Pharaohs”. They played a vital role in the whole Christian world, especially during the first five centuries. The word ‘Copt’ is derived from `gypt’ which stems from the Greek word Aigyptos’ meaning `Egyptian’.
The Coptic Church or the Church of Alexandria is called “See of St. Mark”, one of the earliest sees: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Rome. The Coptic Church is headed by the Pope of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda III, the 117th successor of St. Mark.
The church faith is based on the teachings of Saint Mark the Evangelist, one of the seventy disciples, and the writer of one of the four Gospels, who brought Christianity to Egypt during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century, a few years after the Lord’s Ascension. When Saint Mark entered and walked through the streets of Alexandria, a famous city in Egypt, his sandals were torn. While Ananias the cobbler was mending Saint Mark’s shoes, his finger was cut from the awl and he cried out: “O the one God!” Saint Mark healed the cobbler’s finger and spoke to him about who the “One God” really was. Ananias invited Saint Mark to his home where he and his household were baptized after having professed their belief in the Christian Faith. Soon afterwards, many others believed and Ananias’s house became the meeting place for the faithful people.
In 62 AD, Saint Mark decided to leave Egypt to visit the new believers he had preached in the Pentapolis. Before leaving, he ordained Ananias as bishop. He also founded a church in the Crypt where the Holy Family had taken refuge, thus fulfilling the prophesy of Isaiah: “In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border… Then the Lord will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day” (Isaiah 19:19,21).
We believe in one God, God the Father, the Almighty, Who created heaven and earth, and all things, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not created, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us, men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnated of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. And on the third day He rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens; and sat at the right hand of His Father, and also He is coming again in His glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom has no end.
Yes, we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Life-Giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who, with the Father and the Son, is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke in the prophets. And in one holy, catholic and apostolic church. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the coming age. Amen.
The Coptic Church or the Church of Alexandria is called “Sees of St. Mark”; one of the earliest four sees: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome.
St. Mark, The Founder
The Copts are proud of the apostolicity of their Church, whose founder is St. Mark; one of the seventy Apostles (Mk 10:10), and one of the four Evangelists. He is regarded by the Coptic hierarchy as the first of their unbroken 117 patriarchs, and also the first of a stream of Egyptian martyrs. This apostolicity was not only furnished on grounds of its foundation but rather by the persistence of the Church in observing the same faith received by the Apostle and his successors, the Holy Fathers.
St. Mark was an African native of Jewish parents who belonged to the Levites’ tribe. His family lived in Cyrenaica until they were attacked by some barbarians, and lost their property. Consequently, they moved to Jerusalem with their child John Mark (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37). Apparently, he was given a good education and became conversant in both Greek and Latin in addition to Hebrew. His family was highly religious and in close relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. His cousin was St. Barnabas and his father’s cousin was St. Peter. His mother, Mary, played an important part in the early days of the Church in Jerusalem. Her upper room became the first Christian church in the world where the Lord Jesus Christ Himself instituted the Holy Eucharist (Mk 14:12-26). Also, this is the same place where the Lord appeared to the disciples after His resurrection and His Holy Spirit came upon them.
Young Mark was always associated with the Lord, who choose him as one of the seventy. He is mentioned in the Holy Scriptures in a number of events related with the Lord. For example, he was present at the wedding of Cana of Galilee, and was the man who had been carrying the jar when the two disciples went to prepare a place for the celebration of the Passover (Mk 14:13-14; Lk 22:11).
St. Mark and The Lion
The voice of the lion is the symbol of St. Mark for two reasons:
He begins his Holy Gospel by describing John the Baptist as a lion roaring in the desert (Mk 1:3).
His famous story with lion, as related to us by Severus Ebn-El-Mokafa: “Once a lion and lioness appeared to John Mark and his father Arostalis while they were traveling in Jordan. The father was very scared and begged his son to escape, while he awaited his fate. John Mark assured his father that Jesus Christ would save them and began to pray. The two beasts fell dead and as a result of this miracle, the father believed in Christ.”
Preaching with the Apostles
At first, St. Mark accompanied St. Peter on his missionary journeys inside Jerusalem and Judea. Then he accompanied St. Paul and St. Barnabas on their first missionary journey to Antioch, Cyprus and Asia Minor, but for some reason or another he left them and returned home (Acts 13:13). On their second trip, St. Paul refused to take him along because he left them on the previous mission; for this reason St. Barnabas was separated from St. Paul and went to Cyprus with his cousin St. Mark (Acts 15:36-41). There, he departed in the Lord and St. Mark buried him. Afterwards, St. Paul needed St. Mark with him and they both preached in Colosse (Col 4:10), Rome (Phil 24; 2 Tim 4:11) and perhaps in Venice.
St. Mark’s real labor lays in Africa. He left Rome to Pentapolis, where he was born. After planting the seeds of faith and performing many miracles he traveled to Egypt, through the Oasis, the desert of Libya, Upper Egypt and then entered Alexandria from its eastern gate in 61 A.D.
On his arrival, the strap of his sandal was loose. He went to a cobbler to mend it. When the cobbler – Anianos – took an awl to work on it, he accidentally pierced his hand and cried aloud “O One God”. At this utterance, St. Mark rejoiced and after miraculously healing the man’s wound, took courage and began to preach to the hungry ears of his convert. The spark was ignited and Anianos took the Apostle home with him. He and his family were baptized, and many others followed.
The spread of Christianity must have been quite remarkable because pagans were furious and ought St. Mark everywhere. Smelling the danger, the Apostle ordained a bishop (Anianos), three priests and seven deacons to look after the congregation if anything befell him. He left Alexandria to Berce, then to Rome, where he met St. Peter and St. Paul and remained there until their martyrdom in 64 A.D.
Upon returning to Alexandria in 65 AD, St. Mark found his people firm in faith and thus decided to visit Pentapolis. There, he spent two years preaching and performing miracles, ordaining bishops and priests, and winning more converts.
Finally he returned to Alexandria and was overjoyed to find that Christians had multiplied so much that they were able to build a considerable church in the suburban district of Baucalis.
In the year 68 AD, Easter fell on the same day as the Serapis feast. The furious heathen mob had gathered in the Serapis temple at Alexandria and then descended on the Christians who were celebrating the Glorous Resurrection at Baucalis. St. Mark was seized, dragged with a rope through the main streets of the city. Crowds were shouting “The ox must be led to Baucalis,” a precipitous place full of rock where they fed the oxen that were used in the sacrifice to idols. At nightfall the saint was thrown into prison, where he was cheered by the vision of an angel, strengthening him saying, “Now your hour has come O Mark, the good minister, to receive your recompense. Be encouraged, for your name has been written in the book of life.” When the angel disappeared, St. Mark thanked God for sending His angel to him. Suddenly, the Savior Himself appeared and said to him, “Peace be to you Mark, my disciple and evangelist!” St. Mark started to shout, “O My Lord Jesus” but the vision disappeared.
On the following morning probably during the triumphal procession of Serapis he was again dragged around the city till death. His bloody flesh was torn, and it was their intention to cremate his remains, but the wind blew and the rain fell in torrents and the populaces disperse. Christians stole his body and secretly buried him in a grave that they had engraved on a rock under the altar of the church.
His Apostolic Acts
St. Mark was a broad-minded Apostle. His ministry was quite productive and covered large field of activities. These include:
Preaching in Egypt, Pentapolis, Judea, Asia Minor, and Italy during which time he ordained bishops, priests, and deacons.
Establishing the “School of Alexandria” which defended Christianity against philosophical school of Alexandria and conceived a large number of great Fathers.
Writing the Divine Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist which was modified later by St. Cyril to the Divine Liturgy known today as the Divine Liturgy of St. Cyril.
The Christian school of Alexandria is the oldest Christian religion school in the world. The School of Alexandria started as a predominantly scientific and literary institution. It then developed into a philosophical and theological university. The Catechetical School of Alexandria came in direct succession to it. The school was the most important institution for theological education in Christian antiquity. Its deans, teachers, and graduates were responsible for what could be called philosophizing of Christian Creed. They defined Christianity in its final form for all generations to come. The first known dean of the school was Pantaenus (died 190 AD), followed by Clement of Alexandria who made a real effort to successfully convert educated Greeks to Christianity. Next, came Origen (about 215 AD) who was a biblical scholar and philosopher. He wrote lengthy commentaries on almost every book in the Old and New Testaments. His homilies are known to be the most ancient example of Christian preaching. Origen was succeeded by Dionysius of Alexandria (The Great) who later became the Patriarch of the Church (246-264 AD).. Many bishops of the Christian Church, both in Egypt and abroad, were educated at the school under such great theologians as Clement, Origen (called the “Father of Theology”) and Didymus the Blind. Under the supervision of Pantaenus and his assistant Clement the New Testament was translated from Aramaic and Greek into Coptic, the language of the Egyptian Christians. Didymus the Blind lost his sight when he was four years old. However, this handicap did not deter him from acquiring the vision of the mind and the soul. He mastered grammar, rhetoric, poetry, philosophy, mathematics and music. He knew by heart both the Old and the New Testaments. Among his pupils were St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Jerome, Palladius and Rufinus the historian. In his care for educating the blind, he became the first one in history to devise a system of engraved writing, thanks to a raised-alphabet system using carved wood, fifteen centuries before Braille. Therefore even blind students were able to attend and learn. By the fourth century, Coptic Alexandria had indeed become the seat of Christian Learning for the whole world.
The Coptic Orthodox Church played an important part in the first three Ecumenical Councils, which convened to put a stop to heresies, to formulate the Orthodox and postolic creeds and doctrines, and to document the Apostolic canons of the Church. After the Council of Chalcedon, the Emperors of Constantinople ordered the closing of the school as part of their persecution against the Egyptian Christians. However, the Coptic Church simply transferred its school to the Monastery of St. Macarius in the Wadi el-Natroun desert. Then in 1893 the Theological College of the Catechetical School of Alexandria was re-founded and today has campuses in Cairo, New Jersey and Los Angeles.
The Holy Bible concentrates on “Jerusalem” which means, “land of peace,” or “vision of peace” as center of the Promised Land, where God declares His dwelling among people. And a holy temple was established in it in His Name, where people worshipped Him, offered Him sacrifices and offerings, and celebrated many feasts as a symbol of the heavenly joy. This is Jerusalem, the symbol of heaven, that is called “Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Gal 4:26). On the other hand, we find Babel and Egypt; Babel represents disobedience to God, violence, vainglory (tower of Babel, Gen.11), opposing God through His believers (the Babylonian captivity), adultery and abominations (Rev. 17:5). Egypt was well known for its abundant cops, and its king (Pharaoh) to whom Israel and Jude used to refuge against Babylon. Therefore, Egypt was a symbol of loving the temporary things and trust in human hands (1 Kings 18:21).
Egypt was a refuge to many people, especially in famines. Abraham visited Egypt (Gen. 12:10). So did Joseph who became the second man after Pharaoh, offering crops to all the neighboring countries. Jacob and his sons came to Egypt where they lived as a family and grew as a nation. It was the birth –place of the nursery of the people of God. Their first leader, Moses, the great prophet and his brother Aaron the first chief-priest appeared in Egypt to grant them freedom. St. Stephen says, “And Moses was taught in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds” (Acts 7:22).
Among the prophets who visited Egypt was Jeremiah who implored people not to flee to Egypt, but in vain, for they forced him to accompany them in their journey to Egypt (Jer. 41:1, 43:7). He uttered his last prophesies in Tahpanhes of Egypt (Jer. 43:8-44:30). Thus, Egypt became a representative of the Gentiles to whom Christ came to establish His Church and form His new people.
Blessed Be Egypt, My People
Hosea, the Prophet, foresaw the Son of God going out of Bethlehem and fleeing to Egypt, where He found a welcome in the hearts of the Gentiles. Through Hosea, God the Father uttered this prophesy, “I called my son out of Egypt” (Hos. 11:1).
Isaiah the Prophet gave us more details, saying “Behold, the burden of Egypt, the Lord rides upon a swift cloud, He shall come to Egypt, and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at His presence. In that day there shall be an altar to the lord in the midst of the land of Egypt” (Isa. 19:1). St. Cyril the Great interpreted this prophecy saying: “The glittering cloud which carried the child Jesus to Egypt was His mother, St. Mary, who suppressed the cloud in purity. The altar which was established in the midst of the land of Egypt is the Christian church which had replaced the temples of paganism as the idols collapsed and the temples were deserted in the presence of the Lord Jesus.”
The Holy Family in Egypt
The Holy Family flight to Egypt, seeking refuge, is an event of the utmost significance in Egypt’s long history. It is mentioned in the Holy Gospel of Matthew “And when they [the wise men from the east] were departed, behold the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him. When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed into Egypt; and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matt. 2:13-15).
Egypt was a logical place to find refuge, as it was outside the dominions of King Herod, but both Egypt and Palestine were part of the Roman Empire, making travel between them easy and relatively safe. The Holy family passed thru Greater Cairo, Old Cairo, Southern Cairo, and Upper Egypt during their flight.
It is believed that the Holy Family stayed in Egypt for a period of four years
The Copts feel very proud and fortunate to have the privilege of having the Lord Jesus’ footprints printed in their country and their hearts.
The Church Sacraments are sacred actions by which the believers receive invisible graces, through material or visible signs. The Coptic Church observes seven sacraments:
The Sacrament of Baptism is the door by which the believer enters the church and has the right to partake in the rest of
the Sacraments. At Baptism, we are born again by being immersed in water three times in the name of the Holy Trinity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Sacrament of Baptism by being baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, when the Holy Spirit came upon Him as a dove. Then, Jesus assured it after His resurrection when He said to His disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew: 28:19)
The Sacrament of Confirmation is also known as the Holy Anointment of
Myron. The word ‘Myron’ is a Greek word which means ‘ointment’ or ‘fragrant perfume’. The baptized person receives the Holy Myron immediately after Baptism, so as to become a temple of the Holy Spirit. The Baptized is anointed with 36 signs of the cross on his joints and senses so that the Holy Spirit can dwell within them. By this anointment, God grants the grace of confirmation to the baptized as well as the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
3. Sacrament of Confession and Repentance
The Sacrament of Repentance and Confession is a holy sacrament, by which the sinner returns to God, confessing his sins before the priest to be absolved by the priest through the authority granted to him by God. By this absolution, the confessing person is granted the forgiveness of those sins which he confessed.
The Sacrament of Communion is a Holy Sacrament by which the believer eats the Holy Body and the Precious Blood of
Jesus Christ, presented by the Bread and Wine. This Sacrament has a special significance among the Seven Church sacraments. It is sometimes called the ‘Mystery of Mysteries’ or the ‘Crown of Sacraments’; for all the Sacraments are crowned by the Eucharist.
The Lord Jesus instituted the holy Eucharist on Covenant Thursday. After He celebrated the Rite of Passover of the Jews, He rose and washed the feet of His disciples, as a sign of repentance and preparation, then sat down and instituted the Passover of the New Covenant, which is the Sacrament of Holy Communion. “He took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat, this is My Body’, then He took the cup and gave thanks, and gave it to His disciples saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you, for this is My Blood of the New Covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins’” (Matthew 26:26-28)
The Sacrament of the Unction of the Sick is one of the holy Seven Sacraments of the church, through which the sick that
are faithful, are healed from psychological and physical diseases. The priest anoints the person with the holy oil from which they obtain the grace of remedy from God.
Matrimony is a holy sacrament, officiated by a priest, of uniting a man to a
woman. Through this holy sacrament, the man and woman become one, for as the Lord Jesus said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh. So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:5, 6).
The Sacrament of Priesthood is a holy sacrament through which the
bishop lays his hands on the head of the elected candidate, so that the Holy Spirit will descend on him and grant him one of the priestly ranks. He is then given the authority to officiate the Sacraments of the church, doctrines, and others. The word ‘priest’ is derived from the Hebrew word ‘Kohen’, meaning priest, and is designated to members of the clergy.
The Divine Liturgy or Eucharist was the heart of the Christian worship and prayers in the early apostolic church and is still nowadays in all traditional and apostolic churches including the Coptic Orthodox church. In Latin, it is called “Liturgy”. “Eucharist” in Greek means “Thanksgiving”.
“And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you'” (Luke 22:19-20).
About thirty years later, in his letter to Corinthians, St. Paul the Apostle mentioned this great sacrament: “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (Corinthians-1 11:23-26).
There are three main Liturgies in the Coptic Church:
1- THE LITURGY ACCORDING TO SAINT BASIL, BISHOP OF CAESAREA.
It is dedicated specially to the Person of the Omnipotent Father. It was established at the end of the fourth century. It is the one most commonly used in the Coptic Orthodox Church.
2- THE LITURGY ACCORDING TO SAINT GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS (THE THEOLOGIAN), BISHOP OF CONSTANTINOPLE.
It is dedicated to the Person of our Divine Redeemer. Our priests and bishops usually pray this Divine Liturgy in the great feasts of the church especially the Nativity, Epiphany and Resurrection feasts.
3- THE LITURGY ACCORDING TO SAINT CYRIL I, THE 24TH POPE OF THE COPTIC CHURCH.
It is dedicated to the Person of the Omnipotent Father. It is the Coptic version of the Greek Liturgy that was instituted by the Holy Apostle, St. Mark the Evangelist.
Monasticism was born in Egypt and was instrumental in the formation of the Coptic Church’s character of submission and humbleness. Thanks to the teachings and writings of the Great Fathers of Egypt’s Deserts. Monasticism began in the Coptic Church towards the end of the third century, and flourished in the fourth. By the end of the fourth century, there were hundreds of monasteries, and thousands of cells and caves scattered throughout the Egyptian hills. Many of these monasteries are still flourishing and have new vocations till this day.
Saint Anthony, the world’s first Christian monk was a Copt from Upper Egypt. Saint Pachom, who established the rules of monasticism, was a Copt. And, Saint Paul, the world’s first anchorite is also a Copt. Other famous Coptic desert fathers include Saint Makarios, Saint Moses the Black, and Saint Mina the wondrous. Saint John Cassian said that the traveler from Alexandria in the north to Luxor in the south would have in his ears along the whole journey, the sounds of prayers and hymns of the monks, scattered in the desert, from the monasteries and from the caves, from monks, hermits and anchorites. For the monks, monasticism was the life of prayer, contemplation, solitude, worship and purity of heart. They had nothing in their minds, hearts and feelings except God alone. They lived the calm and quiet life abiding in the Lord, detaching themselves from everything and everyone, to be attached to Him alone. The more contemporary desert fathers include the late Pope Cyril VI and his disciple Bishop Mina Abba Mina.
Effects of Coptic Monasticism on the World
Coptic Monasticism is considered the most profound spiritual revival in the history of the Church. The news of the spiritual life of the monks spread everywhere. They did not write about themselves- there is no Coptic history about the Coptic monks. But people came from everywhere in order to hear a word from one of the monks, and to take it as a word of spiritual guidance and benefit throughout their life. Saint Palladius visited many monks and wrote his famous book, the `Paradise of the Fathers’, from which we learnt about these holy fathers, who neither spoke nor wrote, but kept silent. They were not preachers but they were living sermons, they were examples of the true life, they were the image of God on earth. They influenced monasticism in the world.
The Saints are dear members in the One Body of Christ who have struggled like us on earth and have departed to Paradise. They are not dead, but are sleeping, as St. Paul called them “But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope.” (1 Thess 4:13).
The Saints in Paradise are the triumphant members of the same one church in which we are militant members. We, the triumphant and militants, are members of the Church, which is the one Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. They departed from earth, but did not leave the church; their love toward their brothers did not cease by their departure and dwelling in Paradise. The worship of Saints is expressly forbidden by the Church; however asking for their intercessions is central in any Coptic service. Their prayers for the salvation of the entire world never cease. They pray for us, and we honor them as they are our holy and dear friends.
Any Coptic Church is named after a Patron Saint. We esteem the icons of saints and put them on the iconostasis. Church walls and doors are hung with icons, also our homes, etc., as a sign of our communion with them in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Among all Saints, the Virgin Saint Mary (Theotokos) occupies a special place in the heart of all Copts. Other saints include martyrs like St. Mark, St. Mina, St. George, St. Mercurius (Known as Abu-sefein, or the one with two swords); monks like St. Anthony, St. Macarius, St. Bakhomious, Saints Maximus and Domitius, St. Moses the Black; Popes and bishops such as St. Athanasius the Apostolic, St. Dioscorus, St. Gregory, St. Cyril and many others.
The Coptic feasts have deep and sweet hymns, and splendid rites that inflame the spirit. Their aim is to offer the living heavenly and evangelic thought and to expose the Holy Trinity and Their redeeming work in the life of the church, in a way that is simple enough to be experienced by children, and: deep enough to quench the thirst of theologians.
In our Coptic church we celebrate 7 major feasts and 7 minor feasts. In addition, we also celebrate 3 monthly feasts, a weekly feast, and the feasts of Saints. The following is a list and brief caption denoting the different feasts.
The Seven Major feasts
1-The Annunciation In it we recall the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies, and the attainment which the men of God had longed for across the ages, namely the coming of the Word of God incarnated in the Virgin’s womb (Matt. 13:17).
2- The Nativity of Christ (Christmas) Its aim is to confirm the divine love, when God sent His Only – begotten Son incarnate. Thus, He restored to humanity her honor, and sanctified our daily life, offering His life as a Sacrifice on our behalf.
3- The Epiphany or the Baptism of Christ In this feast, the liturgy of blessing the water is conducted, and the priest blesses the people by the water on their foreheads and hands to commemorate baptism. This feast also reminds us that by His incarnation He became a true man while He still being the Only-begotten Son of God, and by baptism we became children of God in Him while we are human being.
4- Palm Sunday: It is the Sunday which precedes Easter. It has its characteristic joyful hymns (the Shannon – Hosanna (Matt. 21:9), and its delightful rite. The church commemorates the entrance of our Lord Jesus into our inward Jerusalem to establish His Kingdom in us and gather all in Him.
5- Easter (The Christian Pascha or Passover): It is preceded by Great Lent (55 days) and is considered by the Coptic Church as the Feast.” Its delight continues for fifty days until the Pentecost. Easter is also essentially celebrated on every Sunday by the participation in a sacrament of the Eucharist. For the church wishes that all believers may enjoy the new risen life in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:4).
6- Ascension: It is celebrated on the fortieth day after Easter Is on a Thursday. In this feast we recall Him who raises and lifts us up to sit with Him in heaven (Eph. 2:6).
7- Pentecost: It represents the birthday of the Christian Church. When the Only-begotten Son paid the price for her salvation, He ascended heaven to prepare a place for her. He sent His Holy Spirit in her, offering her existence, guidance, sanctification and adornment as the Heavenly Bride. On this day, the church conducts three sets of prayers, called “Kneeling,” during which incense and prayers are offered on behalf of the sick, the travelers, the winds, and it gives special attention to the dormant, as a sign of her enjoying the communion and unity with Christ that challenges even death.
The Seven Minor Feasts
1- The Circumcision of our Lord: It is celebrated on the eighth day after Christmas, by which we remember that the Word of God who gave us the Law, He Himself was subjected to this Law, fulfilling it, to grant us the power to fulfill the Law in a spiritual manner.
2- The Entrance of our Lord into the Temple: We remember that the Word of God became man and does not want us to be careless about our lives, but to set our goals early since childhood. Thus we have to work and fulfill our goals regardless of people related to us, in spite of our love and obedience to them (Luke 2:24).
3- The Escape of the Holy family to Egypt: The Coptic Church is distinguished among all nations with this unique divine work, by the coming of our Lord to Egypt among the Gentiles.
4- The First Miracle of our Lord Jesus at Cana: Our Lord changed the water into wine, as His first miracle, at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, confirming His eagerness for our attaining the heavenly wedding, and granting us the wine of His exceeding love.
5- The Transfiguration of Christ: The unity of the two testaments was manifested in this feast, for Moses and Elijah assembled together with Peter, James and John. The glory of our Lord was revealed to satisfy every soul who rises up with Him to the mountain of Tabor to enjoy the brightness of His Glory.
6- Maundy Thursday: This is the Thursday of the Holy week. In it we commemorate the establishment of the Sacrament of Eucharist by our Lord Jesus, when He offered His Body and Blood as the living and effective sacrifice, capable of sanctifying our hearts, granting us the victorious and eternal life. This is the only day of the Holy Week in which Sacrifice of the Eucharist is offered, and the rite of washing the feet is practiced in commemoration of what Christ did for His disciples.
7- Thomas’s Sunday: This is the Sunday that follows Easter; In it we bless those who believe without seeing so that all might live in faith through the internal touch of the Savior’s wounds (John 20:29).
The Monthly Feasts
The believers joyfully celebrate the commemoration of the Annunciation, Nativity and Resurrection of Christ on the 29th of every Coptic month, the commemoration of St. Mary on the 21st and the feast of Archangel Michael on the 12th.
The weekly feast
Every Sunday stands as a true Sabbath (rest), in which we find our rest in the resurrection of Christ. There is no abstention from food on Sundays after the celebration of the Eucharist, even during Great Lent
Feasts of the Saints
There is almost a daily feast, so that the believers may live in perpetual joy and in communion with the saints.
1- The Feasts of St. Mary: The Coptic Church venerates St. Mary as the “Theotokos,” i.e., the Mother of God, whom the Divine Grace chose to bear the Word of God in her womb by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). Since she is considered to be the exemplary member in the church, and the interceding mother on behalf of her spiritual children, she is exalted above heavenly and earthly creatures. Therefore, the church does not cease glorifying (blessing) her, and celebrating her feasts in order that we imitate her and ask her intercessions on our behalf Her main feasts are:
The annunciation of her birth
Her Presentation into the Temple
The Assumption of her body
Her apparition over the Church of Zeitoon
The apparition of her body to the Apostles
2- The Apostles’ Feast: This is the feast of martyrdom of the Apostles SS. Peter and Paul. It is preceded by a fasting period which starts on the day following the Pentecost. In this feast, the liturgy of blessing the water takes place, in which the priest washes the feet of his people (men and children) commemorating what the Lord did for His disciples. Thus, the priest remembers that he is a servant who washes the feet of the people of God and not a man of authority.
3- The Nayrouz Feast: The word “Nayrouz” is Persian, meaning “the beginning of the year.” The Egyptian calendar goes back to 4240 B.C. Copts restored the calendar with the beginning of Diocletian’s reign in AD 284, to commemorate the millions of Coptic martyrs. His reign is considered a golden era in which the church offered true witnesses to Christ, when the souls of martyrs departed to paradise and kept shining as living stars therein.
4- The Two Feasts of the Cross: The first feast is on Tout 17, (c. September 27). It commemorates the dedication of the Church of the Holy Cross which was built by Queen Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine. The second feast is on Barmahat 10 (c. March 19) and commemorates the discovery of the Holy Cross on the hands of the same empress in A.D 326.
During these two feasts the church conducts a procession similar to that of Palm-Sunday and uses the same tone in chanting (Shannon-Hosanna), to announce that the cause of her joy with the Cross is the openness of the hearts (the inner Jerusalem) to receive the Savior as the King who reigns within us.
The Coptic Church is an ascetic church that believes in the power of fasting in the life of the believers. Fasting is not considered a physical exercise, but rather it is an offering of inward love offered by the heart as well as the body. “man does not live by bread only, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord…” Deut. 8:3, Matt. 4:4.
The Lord, Himself, the Word Incarnate, fasted before undergoing trial and undertaking His ministry on our behalf. We therefore fast with Him to attain victory and blessings at work, and to be able to proceed in the spirit and not according to the flesh (Rom. 8: 1). The Lord fasted for forty days (Matt. 4:2) to transfigure in the midst of Moses and Elijah who also fasted for forty days (Exod. 40:28; 1 Kings 19:8). In this way He declared that fasting is not deprivation, neither is it a restraint upon the body. The church requires us to fast and abstain from food for a period of time to experience hunger. The Lord Himself experienced hunger (Matt. 4:2) though He is the source of all satisfaction, physical and spiritual. The apostles experienced hunger as they fasted (Acts 10:1; 2 Cor. 11:27).
PERIODS OF FASTING IN THE COPTIC CHURCH
The Weekly fast: Just as the church practices worship weekly, it also practices general fasting weekly. This has its origin in the Jewish Church. Jews were accustomed to fast on Mondays and Thursdays, as on these two days Moses went up to receive the commandments and descended the mountain carrying the two stone tablets. Since the apostolic age, the Church has been aware of the value of fasting and designated Wednesdays and Fridays as days for fasting. This is done in memory of Christ’s betrayal and crucifixion.
The Great Lent: The Coptic Church fasts for fifty five days (forty day [Lent]; eight days [Holy Week] and seven days instead of the seven Saturdays which are not observed with complete abstention. Fasting before Christmas: It is a spiritual preparation to receive the birth of Christ. It lasts for forty days plus three days in memory of the general fast observed by the copts in Egypt during the reign of Al Moiz when EI-Muqattarn Mountain was moved.
The Fast of the Apostles: This begins on the day following Pentecost and continues until the feast of the martyrs, St. Peter and St. Paul, on the fifth of Abib ( July 12th). The aim of this fasting period is to fill the soul with passion to preach the Word with an apostolic thought.
The Fast of Nineveh: This lasts for three days. It refers to Jonah’s fast, while he was inside the whale’s belly.
The Fast of the Holy Virgin: This takes place fifteen days before the celebration of the Holy Virgin Mary feast, from August 7 through August 22 (16th of Misra)).
Fasting on Epiphany Eve (Paramoun) this fast is observed immediately before this feast.
The Coptic Orthodox Church’s clergy is headed by the Pope of Alexandria. The Pope of the Coptic Church, although highly regarded by all Copts, does not enjoy any state of supremacy or infallibility. There are Metropolitans and Bishops who oversee the priests ordained in their dioceses. There are also General Bishops who are overseeing general aspects in the Coptic Church, i.e. Bishop of Youth or Bishop of Ecumenical & Social Services. The Pope, Metropolitans and Bishops must be monks; they are all members of the Coptic Orthodox Holy Synod (Council), which meets regularly to oversee matters of faith and pastoral care of the Church. The direct pastoral responsibility of Coptic congregations falls on Priests, who must be married and commonly have attended the Catechetical School before being ordained. Today, there are over 60 Coptic Bishops governing dioceses inside Egypt as well as dioceses outside Egypt, such as in the United States, England, France, Australia, West Africa, Jerusalem and many others. “Deacon” is a Greek word, meaning “servant” in Syrian. The deacon’s responsibility is to help the priest or bishop perform the religious ministry. The first church appointed seven deacons who were full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom to help in service, “The twelve summoned the multitude of disciples and said: ‘Seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom whom we may appoint over this business’” (Acts 6:2,3).
Outline of the clergy order:
- Patriarch (Pope)
- Hegumen (Archpriest)
- Archdeacon (Leader of Deacons)
- Epideacon (Assistan-Deacon)
- Ognostis (Reader)
The word “tradition” means, delivering something and receiving it, i.e., delivering a deposit of faith and receiving it along the generations (Jude 3).
In the apostolic age, tradition was the only source of Christian faith, doctrines and worship. Its role in the Church life of that period may be summarized in the following points:
1. The Early Church received from Christ and the apostles a new understanding of the Old Testament, which the Jews did not acknowledge. The early church received the Old Testament with a new concept.
2. Through tradition, Christians accepted the books of the New Testament as the inspired word of God, before they were canonized by the Church. . The books of the New Testament did not cancel the tradition, but these books command us to preserve the tradition (2 John 12; 3 John 13:14; 1 Cor. 11:34; Titus 1:5; 2 Thes. 3:16; John 21:25; 2 Cor. 11:23).
3. Tradition was the source of the Apostles’ teaching (I John 1: 1; John 19:35, Luke 1:2; Acts 1:21,22). The Apostle Paul considered what he received from the Church through tradition as if received from the Lord Himself (Gal. 1: 7; 1 Cor. 11: 23).
4. By tradition, the church practiced the active new life in Christ.
5. Church Tradition preserves the unity of understanding the Holy Scriptures throughout ages, so that no believer interprets them according to his own will.
6. Church tradition in faith, worship, behavior and practical life was delivered to us through the decisions of the Ecumenical and local councils, the patristic writings and also through the practical life of laymen who played a vital role in delivering the spirit of the new life to us throughout generations.
Tradition means giving attention to the past as a basis for the present, and to the present as a basis for the future. Tradition is the mystery of church growth and vitality and not of rigidity. We have to understand tradition in its spiritual depth and theological basis and not in holding fast its literality without understanding.