The Coptic Orthodox Church
How it came to be
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria was established in 42 A.D. by St. Mark the Evangelist when the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Church (which the Coptic Orthodox Church leads) were one Church body. Each major Christian province was reigned by a Patriarch, these provinces where Alexandria, Rome, Jerusalem and Constantinople.
A heretic from Alexandria named Arius began to spread that Christ is only human and not divine. In addition to that he also stated that the Son of God was not eternal and was subordinate to God the Father. Arius had the support of 25 bishops in Alexandria.
Another heretic named Nestorius who was at the time the Patriarch of Constantinople went to the other extreme claiming that Jesus was not at all human but only divine and also attempted to remove St. Mary of her title of Mother of God (Greek=Theotokos) and instead make her Mother of Christ (Greek= Christokos) claiming that a God cannot be born from a mortal and that Christ once baptized transformed into God leaving no traces of Humanity.
The Coptic Orthodox Church never followed either Arius’ or Nestorius’ heresies although many people of Christendom believed their claims. The Patriarch of Alexandria at the time St. Athanasius is famously quoted when an associate said to him “Your holiness but the whole world is against you on this matter” he replied “If the whole world is against me then I am against the whole world”. The Patriarch is venerated a Saint by the Oriental Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church for his opposition to Arianism and Necorism.
The Coptic Orthodox Church became an individual church in 451 A.D because of a misunderstanding between the main Christian provinces about Christ’s nature. Another heretic named Eutyches, claimed that Christ had two separate natures: a Divine nature and a Human Nature; he was immediately branded a heretic by the churches, at a gathering of Churches called the Council of Chalcedon. There was a theological misunderstanding between the churches and the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church left the Coptic Orthodox Church because they believed that the latter followed Eutyches’ heresy when to this day the Coptic Church professes that it does not and never has supported the heresy. This is reinstated during “The Confession” near the end of every Holy Liturgy, which is just before the partaking of the Holy Communion; the priest says “Truly I believe that His Divinity did not part from His Humanity not for an instant or a twinkle of an eye.” One analogy for the Great Schism of Christianity is that of a tree trunk where the other denominations branched away from the Coptic Orthodox Church. Since then The Churches have never managed to unite.
The union of the churches was one of the prior aims of the 117th Pope of the See of Saint Mark, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III (1973 - 2012). His Holiness in 1973 made a historic visit to the Vatican and held a meeting with Pope Paul VI this was the first time a Coptic Patriarch has visited a Catholic Pope since the great schism of 451 A.D both popes signed a common declaration of faith. Moreover in 1987 His Holiness visited the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury signing a mutual agreement of unity. Under the leadership of His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, this ecumenical work has continued.
Christianity’s Arrival and Progression within Egypt
|St. Mark the Evangelist|
Before the death of Jesus, Egypt was a pagan country, however approximately 10 years after the death of Jesus in A.D 42; St. Mark the Apostle, Evangelist and the writer of Mark’s Gospel entered Egypt and began to preach about Christ’s Gospel to the people of Egypt. He managed to convert some of the people of Egypt into Christians although still in a minority they established a church and a Papacy. The Christians were persecuted in Egypt and eventually the pagan’s martyred him for turning people away from the idols. St. Mark’s evangelic sign of recognition is a lion; this came to be after people were told that St. Mark performed a miracle where he managed to tame a wild lion that was going to kill him and his father, as illustrated in the icon of St. Mark there is a lion’s head on the Gospel he is holding. Since then there have been 117 successor Popes to St. Mark.
Since his death Christianity in Egypt became wide spread and it became the biggest religious faith in Egypt. For almost 2000 years until 1955 Egypt was under foreign rule and Christians were constantly being tortured, martyred and oppressed by all the foreign rulers who were infuriated by their refusal to worship their gods and idols. In the west the dates start from the birth of Christ “Anno Domino” the Coptic Calendar starts from A.D 284 when Emperor Diocletian killed masses of Christians “Anno Martyrum” (the years of the martyrs). The Coptic people are very proud of their Apostolic foundations and are also keen to point out the prophecies in Isaiah that relate to Egypt; for example,” 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.”(19.19) “Blessed is Egypt my People” (19:25)
Coptic Orthodox Churches
Coptic Churches in every part of the world are very elaborate and ornate. The churches are very archaic and try to imitate almost exactly how the Church acted from the beginning of Christianity it achieves this by passing down traditions such as old hymns and teaching the youth how to serve in the altar. Icons are found almost everywhere within the church the Coptic Icons have a very specific style of Coptic art that is used universally within the churches, they are deliberately made to look unrealistic and out of proportion to some extent “cartoony” this is to differentiate the icons from idols making sure nobody worships it or prays to the imagery directly.
In between the congregation and the altar lies a large iconostasis, representing a line between Heaven and Earth along the top row of the iconostasis are icons of the twelve disciples six on the left and six on the right in between the icons of the disciples is an illustration of the Last Supper and on top of the Last Supper is Jesus on the cross next to St. John and St. Mary. Underneath the disciples and the Last Supper are a few illustrations which vary from church to church it usually consists of a picture St. Mark, St. Mary with an infant Jesus, Jesus’ baptism, Archangel Michael and Archangel Gabriel’s Announcement to St. Mary about her conception. Where the Altar stands there is a large painting of God Almighty or in Greek and Coptic “Pantokrator” with the four heavenly beasts as told in the book of Revelations. In the Church when there are images of God the Father or God the Son it is usually accompanied by the Greek letters Alpha “A” and Omega “W” because in the Gospels Jesus said he was the Alpha and Omega and this phrase also appears in revelation. In the image of God Almighty you can see two angels holding up a circle with these to letters in it.
The Clergymen who are performing the Divine Liturgy will still use a censor which contains incense made up of myrrh which is being burned by charcoal to create a fragrant smoke, when the priest is raising this smoke incense in the air it is representing people’s prayers and supplications to God, also during the mass the priest shakes the censor towards the saints’ icons representing a pleading for intercessions. Men and women are aligned at separate parts of the church and when someone needs to go past the iconostasis they must take off there shoes. The Church always takes conservative views when it comes to controversial contemporary issues; in much the same way as the Roman Catholic Church they take hostility to homosexuality and fornication.
Clergy and Monasticism
Monasticism according to Coptic tradition, St. Abba Antony who was born in 25 A.D heard a voice from the Gospel saying “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor and you will have treasures in Heaven: and come follow me” (Matthew 19:21). So he went to the outskirts of the city living an ascetic life praying in solitude. The Church says he established a monastery when more and more men came to worship with him. Until this day Monasticism is central to the church with hundreds of monasteries set up around Egypt. To become ordained a priest in The Church if you are unmarried you will usually go to the monastery. Once you have lived there for a few years you are eligible to be ordained a priest.
The Liturgy used in the Coptic Orthodox Church was devised By St. Basil who lived in the eighth century. The Church strongly believes that when a liturgy is being performed the altar becomes Heaven and according to the Church a few people have been blessed to see what is really happening in the altar and they can see the altar full of Angels, Martyrs and Saints. The Holy Liturgy officially starts the night before at the evening raising of incense. The Liturgy usually lasts between 2 and 3 hours, it is split to several sections.
The Offertory of Oblation, the bread and wine are chosen and prepared for the Eucharist. In Coptic Tradition all members of the Church as long as they are baptised are given both bread and wine.
Listening to the Word of God: First a reading from one of Paul’s Epistles, a reading from an Epistle other than St. Paul, a reading from the Book of Acts, a reading from the Synaxarium (biography of Saints) then a reading from the Gospel. The readings of the Epistles and Acts are read normally but the Gospel is read in a special tune. Straight after the readings a sermon is said about the Gospel.
The Reconciliation and the Anaphora, which is read by the priest with various Deacon Responses, is about the Story of Christianity from the Old to the New Testament and how the world became reconciled with Christ after the Crucifixion and Resurrection.
The Transubstantiation: this is the part where the Church believes the bread and wine transform into the Body and Blood of Christ. After this is a Commemoration of Saints remembering the saints. Then the Confession where the priests confesses our belief in Christ. Next is the partaking of Holy Communion then the Liturgy has finished.