What Does it Mean to be a Coptic Orthodox Christian?

by M. Tadros and M. Berchtold

Coptic Church

As many people do know already, the Christian world has spread greatly throughout our world today. However, how many Christians appreciate this fact? Coptic Orthodox has remained constant and unchanged since the church first started. Many people ask, "What exactly is Coptic Orthodox? What main beliefs do they have? What goes on during their church services?" To many people, the religion seems very ambiguous and strange. After reading this work you will have the satisfaction of knowing the basic backgrounds of the Coptic Orthodox Christian religion.

Coptic is a Greek word for Egyptian which reflects the character of this ancient church. The Copts descended from the ancient Egyptians. These Egyptians were converted to Christianity in 100's and 200's A.D. Ever since the fifth century, Coptic Orthodox Christians belonged to a Monophysite church (recognized only one nature of Christ). Back then they simply called themselves the Egyptian Church. It wasn't until the 19th and 20th centuries that they began to call themselves Coptic Orthodox. They made this change in order to be distinguished from the Copts that converted to Roman Catholicism and from Eastern Orthodox. However, in the 4th and 5th centuries a conflict occurred between Copts and the German speaking Romans in Egypt over the Council of Chalcedon, which rejected Monophysite. The Coptic Church had a powerful ruling division. Eventually though, disputes concerning the nature of Christ split up Rome and Alexandria.

Coptic Orthodox Christians have many important values, however Coptic Orthodox has many of the same values as all Christian beliefs. Among those that are written in the bible, are a great number of values that all Christians abide by. In Matthew 5, Christ mentions few of them: "blessed are the meek; for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful; for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are they are in heart; for they shall see god" (Matthew 5:5,7,8.) Meekness, mercy, and purity of the heart are all very important values that Coptic Orthodox should keep in their minds and hearts as well. A meek and merciful person does not hate his enemies, nor does he seek sin, but loves his enemies and avoids sin in order to attain the purity he needs in his heart so that he may seek salvation from Christ (when he receives the Holy Communion). People who are merciful and meek seek peace as well as God says "blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of god." (Matthew 5:9) Coptic Orthodox Christians, understand life with a spiritual point of view, thus, making life much easier and enjoyable to experience altogether.

There are other important values that Coptic Orthodox Christians are most likely to apply in everyday situations. The importance of abstinence can't be stressed; as in every form of Christianity, sexual activity before marriage is not permitted, as it is viewed to be the ultimate form of lust.

Christ says that:

"Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time. Thou shall not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whatsoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matthew 5;28,29)

Christ is telling them that not only is adultery wrong , but just thinking of it is wrong. Coptic Orthodox believers take this matter very seriously, because they believe that the purity of the mind and heart can help them attain their salvation. Lust is a sin that only causes the mind and heart to be filled with earthly desires that can draw them further away from Christ and from their salvation, as result. Coptic Orthodox Christians also stress the importance of silence; their pope, who was located in Alexandria, Egypt, says that silence can be much more beneficial that words. He notes that in silence, there may be wisdom and strength, as well as nobility and dignity. He says that "sometimes we keep silent , there may be wisdom and strength, as well as nobility and dignity." As Van der Meer (1967) explains that "sometimes we keep silent in order that God may speak, for the word of God is more powerful than anything we might want to say." (p. 96) It is also written in the Bible "the lord will fight for you, you have only to be silent and still." (Exodus 14:14) So, a true Christian should speak at the right time and keep silent at other times. When that person is silent, he is letting his heart speak and, thus, God is speaking for him within.

The importance of humbleness is also very important to Coptic Orthodox believers; they should apply being humbled in whatever they do. As Were (1979) describes that: "many people can endure being isolated, but they cannot bear to be honored. For to be able to endure being honored is harder to put up with then with insults."(p 96) A person might ask, "Why is this?" If a person reflected upon this question carefully enough, the answer wouldn't be hard to find. Being honored might push people towards pride; as a result, these people might learn to become conceited as well as arrogant. However, for the person who is strong from the inside, like humble Virgin Mary, being honored cannot change him or her. Being strong from the inside means being strong from within your heart, because God is in your heart, he provides you with the strength through his holy grace.

The interior of a Coptic Church.

Also the belief in Jesus Christ is an important value. Copts believe that Jesus is far more than a great teacher or a leader. They accept Jesus' doctrine of the Blessed Trinity as one of His major teachings. This doctrine states that there are three Divine Persons-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-united in one God. As the Son, Jesus is equal with the Father. He has absolute authority for His teachings and absolute power to forgive sins and to give eternal live. The belief in the Holy Trinity is of a great importance to the Copts.

The altar set up for communion.

The Coptic Church, which dates back to the Apostles, culminates all of its rich tradition in the Holy Liturgy. During this roughly two and a half hour event, the entire congregation of the church participates in a cascade of events that will eventually lead to the climax of the liturgy which would be the Holy Communion. As Van der Meer (1967) explains that the Eucharist is considered to be one of the holiest sacraments in the Coptic Church (p. 103). Hence, weekly participation in the Liturgy is very common in the lives of the Coptic congregation. The Coptic Liturgy has many deep meanings that are involved with it, and thus is the most highly revered event in the Coptic Orthodox Church.

For such an auspicious event, there must be many steps of preparation that are involved with it. Therefore, preparation of the Liturgy starts with vespers (which is held the night before the Liturgy takes place.) During vespers, the priest offers up incense using a censor. Contained in the censor, is hot coal. The priest then places incense upon the hot coal allowing for it to burn. In the church the censor is considered to represent St. Mary and the incense represents the prayers of the congregation going up to heaven. Therefore, during vespers, many prayers are focused on asking God for our needs and asking the Intercessions of all the saints. One of the greatest saints that is highly recognized at this time is St. Mark. After vespers the midnight praises are said. These praises praise all the saints of the church. These prayers are traditionally held from about 12 am to 5 am. However, this tradition is followed mainly in the monasteries now. Then, the next morning the prayers of Matins are prayed. These prayers are similar to those of vespers. The censor is used in this prayer as well. The main focus of Matins is to prepare the altar for the actual liturgy. Following Matins, a section from the prayer book of the Coptic Church is read. Preceding the reading is a very important part preceding the actual start of the Liturgy. This part is called the Choosing of the Oblation Bread. During this the priest will choosing the Loaf of bread (called Korban.) which will become the Holy Eucharist. The priest chooses from seven other loaves, the most perfect one will be used for the Liturgy. After that a series of hymns and readings are said which are mainly intended to preach to the non-believers in the church. The Gospel is then read which are mainly intended to preach to the non-believers in the church. The Gospel is considered the Word of God and a section must be read before any Liturgy. After the Gospel the Creed of the church is said proclaiming what the Church believes in. Then, the Liturgy can begin.

St. Mark

The Liturgy starts with the prayer of Reconciliation. During this prayer the Copts are trying to reconcile themselves with God in order to make then worthy of the Holy Communion. Not only does one reconcile with God but also with one another therefore we greet one another with a greeting of peace in the church to signify that there is peace among the members of the congregation of the church. The next part is the Institution Narrative. During this part the Copts believe that the bread and wine that are placed on the alter are changed into the body and blood of Christ. The priest blesses them and recites the same words that were uttered by Christ himself at the last supper. After the body and blood of Christ are present with the congregation, seven prayers are said asking the Lord for the needs of the church. Proceeding the seven short prayers there is the Commemoration of the Saints. During this part, the saints of the church are remembered and the congregation asks for their prayers. The entire congregation then bows down before the body and blood of Christ. After that, the congregation is ready for participation in the Holy Communion.

In conclusion, all these values, beliefs and traditions have continued since the church began. Due to the amount of devotion of the Coptic Orthodox Christians the church has been able to stay alive. The church has stuck with the ancient traditions and has been a trademark through history.