Coptic Liturgy

views updated


The Coptic liturgical forms, derived from the original Greek liturgy of Alexandria, have undergone much influence from monastic and Syrian circles. This article treats the Eucharistic Liturgy, buildings, vestments, Sacraments, and the Divine Office.

Eucharistic Liturgy. The Coptic Liturgy may be divided into two principal parts: the pre-Anaphora and the Anaphora. The pre-Anaphora includes a rite of preparation at which the gifts of bread and wine are made ready and then actually offered, and the reading service comprising the Epistle, the Trisagion, the Gospel, and various prayers of petition, followed by a profession of faith (the Nicene Creed in the plural form, i.e., "We believe"). The Anaphora is divided into the Sacrifice Action and the Communion service. In the former are contained a prayer for peace, the Preface, Sanctus, Consecration, anamne sis, and reading of the diptychs together with the Ostension, a ceremony in which the celebrant turns toward the congregation and points with his left hand to the Sacred Species as he imparts with his right hand the blessing of the Holy Gifts on the assembled faithful. The Communion service opens with a consignation: the celebrant dips his right index finger into the chalice and then moistens the Host with the Precious Blood, tracing upon it the form of a cross. Then follow the Fraction, the Lord's Prayer, an Elevation; the ceremony continues with a second consignation, the commingling of the two Species, a second Elevation, the Communion by the priest and the faithful, thanksgiving prayers, and a final blessing bringing the entire Liturgy to a close.

In general the Coptic Liturgy is a form of the original Liturgy of Alexandria. There are three Anaphoras of which that "of St. Basil" is the most frequently used. The rite of preparation used in the Coptic Liturgy is an importation from the Byzantine, no such ceremony being found in the early Alexandrian. Throughout the service incense is used profusely. Cymbals, triangles, and flutes are commonly used to set the rhythm of the chant, the congregation taking a very active part in the whole Liturgy. For some of the prayers, the celebrant holds small veils on his extended hands. After the offering of the gifts at the pre-Anaphora, the priest carries the bread, wrapped in a veil, around the altar, accompanied by a server carrying the wine. Importance is attached to the many veils used throughout the Liturgy as manifestations of reverence. Before receiving Communion, the priest kisses the consecrated bread. Before distributing Communion, the priest blesses the congregation with the consecrated Species saying at the same time "Holy Things for the Holy." Arabic is used for the most part in the Divine Liturgy, though a few of the more familiar prayers, such as the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, may be said in Coptic. Remnants of the early Greek can still be found in the Trisagion and some of the shorter directives given by the deacon together with the short responses of the faithful.

Buildings. The older Coptic churches, rectangular in form, differ from the normal Christian church in that they have little to mark them off, exteriorly, as church edificesa relic of the days of persecution. The interior, devoid of chairs and benches, is sometimes divided by three screens into four sections (sanctuary, choir, nave, narthex), though many have but one screen, often of open latticework, to set off the sanctuary.

Vestments. Except for the chasuble, which is open down the front like a cope, the vestments of the Copts are similar to the Byzantine vestments. Most of the altar vessels also are Byzantine in style. Ripidia, metal liturgical fans, are carried in procession and a Coptic hand-cross, having no corpus, is used to give the blessings during the Mass. Altar breads are leavened, thick, and round. Several veils, large and small, are used in the ceremony to cover the Holy Gifts, and at times, the hands of the celebrant.

Sacraments. Among the Copts, Baptism is a lengthy ceremony involving many prayers, many anointings, and professions of faith. Chrismation immediately follows and includes an additional 36 anointings. The Eucharist, as mentioned earlier, may be received in a variety of ways. In the Anointing of the Sick there is a very lengthy service administered by seven priests, though one is sufficient when seven are not available. Each of the seven lights an oil lamp after reading an Epistle, a Gospel, a psalm, and a prayer. This service, called the Office of the Lamp, is by no means restricted to the dying, but may be given to those with ordinary illnesses, and even to the healthy as a preventive. In Holy Orders a ceremony of investiture is climaxed by the imposition of the right hand of the bishop on the head of the ordinand. Two distinct ceremonies make up the administration of the Sacrament of Matrimony: the betrothal, during which the wedding garments are blessed; and the crowning, which includes an anointing on the head and wrists of those about to be wed. The Sacrament of Reconciliation contains a drawnout formula of absolution, the first part of which is deprecatory in form, followed by a generic accusation of sin on the part of the penitent ("I have sinned.") accompanied by a request for forgiveness ("Please forgive me."), to which the priest responds "God absolves you."

Divine Office. The Office, called al-Agbieh, has seven hours: at sunset, at retiring, at midnight, at dawn, at nine, twelve, and three o'clock. The night service contains three nocturns with 12 psalms and a Gospel in each. The other hours also contain a large number of psalmsthe dawn service, 19; each of the others, 12. Since 1906 Arabic has been used in almost the entire Office.

Bibliography: d. attwater, The Christian Churches of the East, 2 v. (rev. ed. Milwaukee 1961) v. 1.

[e. e. finn/eds.]