Introduction To Our Coptic Orthodox Church
The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the ancient churches of the world, having been founded by Saint Mark, the apostle. A conservative church, it has carefully preserved the Orthodox Christian faith unaltered and true to the apostolic doctrines and patterns of worship.
The Coptic Church is a deeply spiritual church emphasizing holiness and the divine Mysteries, holding faithfully to the canons of the Holy Scriptures, the apostolic and orthodox creeds and the teachings of the church fathers of the three ecumenical councils.
Name and Origin
The Copts are the native Christians of Egypt and the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians. The word ‘Copt’ is derived from ‘gypt’ that stems from the Greek word ‘Aigyptos’ meaning Egyptians. This in turn derived from ‘Hikaptah’, one of the names given to Memphis, the first capital of Ancient Egypt.
Egypt in the Bible
Egypt is the only land in the world that was blessed by the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Family other than His birth land, Israel, Palestine (Mt.2:14,15). This is to fulfill the prophecies of the prophets (Is.19, Hos.11:1).
Egypt is also blessed by the visits of many prophets like Abraham, Joseph, Jacob and his sons, the tribes, Moses and Jeremiah.
Isaiah the prophet, also prophesied about the Egyptian Church in Is.19:19 “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 in its borders”. The Lord blesses Egypt “Blessed Egypt, my people” in Is.19:25.
The Founder of the Coptic Church
Saint Mark the Evangelist, one of the seventy apostles (Lk.10:1) and the writer of the second of the four gospels, born in the City of Cyrene in Libya three years after the birth of Jesus Christ. His original name was John and his surname was Mark (Act.12:12). He was of Jewish parents (his mother is called Mary as in Act.12:12) who later moved to Palestine. It is believed that his father was related to Saint Peter’s wife. Saint Peter regards saint Mark as his son (1Pet.5:13). It is well known that Saint’s Mark’s house is the first Church in the world. It is in Saint Mark’s house that the Lord Christ celebrated the Passover and the Last Supper with His disciples (Mk.15:13-15) and appeared to the disciples in the Day of His Resurrection and eight days later (Jn.20). The Apostles gathered in his house when the Holy Spirit descended upon them on the Day of Pentecost (Act.1:13, 2:1) and when Peter was imprisoned as well (Act.12:12).
His First Mission to Egypt
When Saint Mark entered and walked through the streets of Alexandria, the most famous city in Egypt at that time, his sandals were torn, and thus sought to have them mended, but while Ananias (Anianus) the cobbler was mending the shoes, his finger was cut by the awl, and he cried out saying, ‘Eoc Theos’ which means, ‘O the one God’. After healing the cobbler’s finger, Saint Mark spoke to him about who the one God really was. Ananias invited Saint Mark to his home, after which, he and his household were baptized after having professed their belief in the Christian faith. Soon afterwards, many others believed, and Ananias’ house became the meeting place for the faithful. So it became the first church in Egypt. This mostly happened in the fifties of the first century. In the beginning, Saint Mark prayed the liturgy by the Greek language; later on it is prayed by the Coptic language.
Saint Mark decided to leave Egypt to visit the new believers he had preached in the Pentapolis, but before leaving, he ordained Ananias bishop.
His Second Mission and Martyrdom
When Saint Mark returned to Egypt in 61 AD, after the martyrdom of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, he found that the church there had grown so much that he ordained a further three priests and seven deacons to assist Ananias. Saint Mark preached for more than seven years against the local pagan gods with such vigor that the feeling of hatred from non-believers against him became intense.
At that time, Serapes was the god of the Greeks in Egypt, he was the god of Alexandria. On Easter Day in 68 AD, Saint Mark was administering the Holy Liturgy, and on the same day, the pagans were celebrating the feast of Serapes. Encouraged by the Romans perfect, the pagans rushed and attacked the church Saint Mark and the faithful praying. They captured Saint Mark, tied a rope around him, and dragged him through the streets of the city. At night he was thrown into the prison where an angel appeared to him strengthening and encouraging him. On the following day, he was dragged again through the streets and eventually died a martyr for the sake of God whom he had so faithfully served from a young age.
Saint Mark is the first of the unbroken line of Patriarchs of the Coptic Church, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the current Patriarch, being Saint Mark’s 116th successor- the 117th Pope of Alexandria. The full official title of the head of the Coptic Church is Pope of Alexandria, and Patriarch of the see of Saint Mark.
By the end of the second century, Christianity was well established in Egypt. In the days of Saint Athanasius, the apostolic, the 20th pope, Christians were present even in the small and large oasis.
Saint Mark also, founded the famous theological School of Alexandria, which played a great role in Christian theology. It produced famous scholars such as Athenagoras, Pantaenus, Clement and Origin who was considered as the father of theology. Saint Didymus, the Blind, the dean of the school of Alexandria in the Days of Pope Athanasius, learned to read and write using curved wood, fifteen centuries before Braille.
From the days of Heracles (230 – 246 AD), the thirteenth head of bishops of Alexandria, the church decided to distinguish him from the rest of bishops by calling him Papas or Pope. The Holy Bible was translated to the Coptic language in the second century.
Church of Martyrs
Historians have named the Coptic Church a ‘Church of Martyrs’, not only because of their great number, but also because of their desire for martyrdom. When they are prevented from worship, they did not hide but worshiped openly, and went from place to place, seeking the crown of martyrdom, not considering of death, but rather as entry into a new life.
The first wave of persecution took place in the first century, when Saint Mark the apostle, was martyred in Alexandria by the pagan Egyptians.
The church of Alexandria suffered waves of persecution under the rule of the Romans. The most famous of these waves are:
- Septimus Severus, starting from the year 202 AD and continuing for seven years. Consequently, the school of Alexandria was closed and the dean, Saint Clement, was compelled to flee.
- Valerian, leading to arrest and exile of Dionysius, the Pope of Alexandria.
- Diocletian, in 302 AD, he began his persecution of Christians; believing that if he could crush Christianity in Egypt, it would be easier to eliminate it from the rest of the world. Hence, about 800,000 men, women and children were martyred in Egypt in that time. As a constant commemoration of these martyrs, the coptic church started its calendar, the Calendar of Martyrdom, from year 284 AD, the year of Diocletian ascent to the throne, calling this year ‘Anno Martyrii’ meaning, ‘Year of the Martyrs’.
Persecution stopped by Milan’s Edict of Emperor Constantine the great in 313 AD. By this Edict Christianity became the State Religion.
The Coptic Church and the Christian Doctrines
The Coptic Church played a great role in the first three Ecumenical Councils which where held in “Nicea” in the year 325 AD, in “Constantinople” in the year 381 AD and in Ephesus in the year 431 AD.
Athanasius the apostolic, the 20th Pope of Alexandria attended the Council of Nicea while he was a deacon founded the Orthodox Creed of Faith.
In the fifth century, an archmandrite of a monastery near Constantinople named Eutyches began to spread a new heresy, denying the human nature of our Lord Jesus Christ, saying that His body was but an ethereal body, which passed through the womb of the Virgin Saint Mary. Subsequently, some local councils condemned Eutyches as a heretic.
Eutyches appealed to all bishops of Christendom, as well as to Emperor Theodosius the younger, with the result that a second council was convened in Ephesus in 449 AD, attended by 130 bishops, under the presidency of Pope Dioscorus of Alexandria, the 25th Pope. Eutyches submitted a full written confession, affirming the Nicene Creed deceiving the bishops and was acquitted. Eutyches proclaimed his heresy once again and at that time he was excommunicated by a local Coptic council.
In 451 AD, another council was convened by Emperor Marcianus at Chalcedon. This council was characterized by political factors, leading to prejudices and conspiracies against the church of Alexandria and against its Patriarch, Pope Dioscorus. At this council, the teachings of the Coptic Church were wrongly understood as being Eutecheal and the Patriarch of Alexandria was accursed of being Eutechian. At that time Pope Dioscorus gave his famous analogy ‘the piece of iron, heated to white heat and stuck by the anvil’.
When Pope Dioscorus’ Orthodoxy could not be questioned, other accusations were raised, focusing on political issues such as the issue of preventing the Egyptian corn from being sent to other parts of the Empire. Pope Dioscorus was summoned three times, but he did not appear in the council session because he was under house arrest by the order of the Emperor Marcianus. In the absence of Pope Dioscorus, the council excommunicated him. However Pope Dioscorus could neither be stripped of ecclesiastical honor nor excommunicated because of his proclaimed orthodoxy.
In a later session and in the absence of the Egyptian delegation, the council labeled the Coptic Church as ‘Monophysite’ because of its emphasis upon the ‘One Nature of Christ’; although the title was misinterpreted as covering either one of the Human or Divine natures of our Lord Christ and ignoring the other. This is based on the false assumption that the Coptic Church accepted the Eutychian heresy.
Historical facts, the liturgy and the doctrines of Church prove the true Orthodoxy of the Coptic Church. The Coptic Church is now being referred to as ‘Miaphysite’, that is recognizing both natures of our Lord Christ, being joined inseparably in ‘One Nature of God the Logos Incarnate’
For all these, the statements of the Council of Chalcedon are not accepted by the Coptic Church and the other Oriental Churches; the Syrian Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, the Ethiopian Orthodox, the Indian Orthodox and the Eritrean Orthodox Churches. Therefore the Council of Chalcedon resulted in the first major Schism of the undivided Christian Church.
Pope Dioscorus was exiled to the Island of Gangra, off the coast of Asia Minor, where he died. In his see in Alexandria, a Melkite (Greek) Patriarch was imposed, but was not accepted by the people of Alexandria. At that time, a wave of persecution arose in Alexandria, during which an estimated 30,000 people were martyred. The Coptic Church continued to suffer persecution at the hands of the Byzantine rulers for a period of almost 150 years and the rift between the Orthodox Churches widened.
Today, however, most scholars have agreed that the decisions of the council of Chalcedon were based on misunderstandings and misinterpretation of terms and words rather than a question of Orthodoxy. An agreement has now been reached regarding the nature of Christ between the family of the Oriental Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church as well.
The Arab Conquest
When Islam entered Egypt in the year 642 AD, Pope Benjamin I, the 38th Patriarch, has been away from his throne for 13 years.
Egypt is well known as the Motherland of Christian Monasticism. It is the gift of Egypt to Christendom. Monasticism started during the last years of the third century and flourished in the fourth century. Saint Anthony (251-356 AD) was the first Monk in the world; he was from Upper Egypt. There must have lived many hermits in the deserts of Egypt before Saint Anthony. However, the one that is well known is Saint Paul of Thebes who entered the deserts in about 218 AD. In a miraculous God fed him by means of a raven, which brought him half a loaf of bread daily. Saint Anthony took to heart the words of our Lord Jesus Christ to the rich young man “If you want to be perfect, go sell what you have and give to the poor .. and come and follow me” Mt.19:21. He began his life of asceticism in complete seclusion. The main motive of Coptic monasticism could be summarized in one word “LOVE”. Egyptian Monasticism entailed a life of prayers, contemplation, solitude, worship, fasting, vigil, celibacy and willful poverty. Within few decades, monasticism spread over the whole Christian world.
Saint Pachomius (290-346 AD) also from Egypt started the Pachomian Monastic Koinonia or Cenobitism. He established the rules and the regulations of Monasticism.
The Sacraments of the Church
Church Sacraments or ‘Mysteries’, are sacred actions by which believers receive ‘an invisible grace through visible means’. The Coptic Church observes seven sacraments:
In Baptism, the person is reborn by emersion in water three times, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. This Sacrament is established by our Lord Jesus Himself in Mt.28:18,19.
Chrismation (Holy Myron or Anointment)
In Chrismation, the baptized receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This Sacrament was established by the Lord Jesus in Jn.7:37-39 and is administered directly after Baptism (Act.8:14-17) and the Holy Bible describes it as the anointment in 1Jn.2:20.
It is the Sacrament of all Sacraments; in which the faithful receives the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Many details are mentioned about this Holy sacrifice in Jn.6 and 1Cor.10:18-21. The Church uses leavened bread for the offering as the Last Supper took place one day before the Passover and the Lord Christ used leavened bread in it.
Repentance and Confession
Through this Sacrament, the faithful receives forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. Priests have received from the Lord Christ the authority to absolve sins in Mt.18:18 and Jn.20:23. Verbal confession has been practiced since the time of the apostles in Act.19:18.
Unction of the Sick
This Sacrament is practiced for healing of both spiritual and physical ailments. It is mentioned in Jms.5:14,15. The fathers the apostles practiced it in Mk.6:13.
This Sacrament is established since the creation of mankind (Gn.1:27,28, 2:18-24). The Lord Jesus Christ attended the wedding at Cana where He performed His first miracle (Jn.2). Marriage is considered as a mystery by Saint Paul in Eph.5:32. Christian marriage is characterized by its unity and indissolubility except by death. No divorce except for sexual immorality as in Mt.19:6,9.
Priesthood and the Holy Orders
In this Sacrament, ministers of the Church obtain the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the authority to act in one of the three clerical degrees, bishop, priest or deacon. This Sacrament was established by our Lord Jesus Christ in Jn.20:20-23 and Mt.28:18-20. Those called to the priesthood are ordained by the laying hands and the prayers of the bishops (Act.6:6). The bishops and priests guide, teach and practice all Sacraments except for ordination, which is confined to the bishops. Deacons are consecrated to assist in the Liturgy, serve the poor, teach and perform social deaconical services.
There are three main Divine Liturgies used in the Coptic Church
The Liturgy of Saint Basil, Bishop of Caesaria. This Liturgy is the most commonly
The Liturgy of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Constantinople.
The Liturgy of Saint Cyril I, the 24th Patriarch of the Coptic Church. The bulk of
this Liturgy was used by Saint Mark in the first century.
Fasting is abstaining from food and drink for a certain period of time, after which only foods of void of animal products may be eaten. These strict fasting rules may be relaxed on an individual basis by the father confessor to accommodate for illness, weakness or other personal reasons. All fasting seasons are seen as periods of preparation, preceding a particular feast.
Lent is the fast that precedes the Easter.
Advent is the fast leading to Christmas.
The Fast of Apostles is the fast that precedes the feast of martyrdom of Saint Peter
and Saint Paul.
The Fast of the Virgin Saint Mary is the fast that precedes the feast of ascension of
the body of the Virgin Saint Mary.
The Fast of the people of Ninevah. It is two weeks before the Lent.
Wednesdays commemorating the betrayal of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Fridays commemorating the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Veneration of the Saints
The Church expressly forbids the worship of the Saints, but asking for their intercession however, is central in any Coptic services.