Dogma is what is believed, taught, confessed and practiced. Dogmas, to the Coptic Orthodox Church, are not merely theological concepts concerning God, man, the Church, eternal life, heavenly creatures, demons, and other such matters, which are to be discussed among clergymen, scholars and laymen. Rather, they are, in essence, daily experiences which each member of the Church should live. In other words, dogmas representing our faith in God have one message, namely, our communion with God the Father in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, by His Holy Spirit.
Church Sacraments, or Mysteries, are sacred actions by which the believers receive invisible graces, through material or visible signs. The Coptic Orthodox Church observes seven sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation, Repentance and Confession, the Eucharist, Matrimony, Priesthood and the Unction of the Sick.
Three of the Sacraments give permanent seals and thus are not to be repeated, namely, Baptism, Chrismation and Priesthood. The minister of the Sacraments, whether a bishop or priest, administers them in the name of Christ.
Baptism is the holy Sacrament in which the person is reborn by immersion in water three times, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Baptism has been given various names by the Early Fathers of the Church, including the ‘new birth’, ‘sanctification’, ‘washing’, ‘seal’ and ‘illumination’. Baptism is a sacrament established by our Lord Himself (Matthew 28:18,19), and is essential for salvation (John 3:5). The Coptic Church continues the Apostolic Tradition of infant baptism (Paedobaptism), which is implied in the Scriptures through the rite of circumcision, which was a type of Baptism. Infant Baptism was also mentioned by many of the early Church Fathers. The graces received in Baptism include new spiritual creation (John 3:3-8), forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), adoption as God’s sons (Galatians 3:26-29) and inheritance of eternal life (Titus 3:5-7).
In the Sacrament of Chrismation, the faithful receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This Sacrament was established by Christ (John 7:37-39) and is administered directly after Baptism (Acts 8:14-17). It was described as anointment by the Holy Bible (1 John 2:20) and also by the Church Fathers. The graces received in Chrismation include spiritual power (Romans 8:13) and the consecration of the soul to God.
The Eucharist is the Sacrament of all Sacraments in which the faithful receive the Body and Blood of Christ. The Coptic Orthodox Church believes that the bread and wine change into the Body and Blood of Christ by the descent of the Holy Spirit through the prayers of the Divine Liturgy. The Church continues to teach the Biblical and Apostolic Tradition of the actual presence of Christ in this Sacrament (John 6:5). Saint Justine, a martyr of the second century, writes, ‘We have been taught that the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic Prayer set down by Him, and which through its change nourishes our flesh and blood, is both the Flesh and Blood of the Incarnate Christ’.
Saint John Chrysostom says, “How many now say, ‘I wish to see His form, His clothes, His feet’? Lo! You see Him, you touch Him, you eat Him… He gives Himself to you not only to see, but also to touch and eat and receive within you… He mixed Himself with us, not by faith only, but also indeed makes us His body… That which the angels tremble when they behold, and dare not so much as look up at without awe on account of the brightness that comes thence, with this we are fed, with this we are commingled, and we are made one body and one flesh with Christ” (Homilies on Saint Matthew).
Besides being a Sacrament, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. It is the same Sacrifice of the Cross, present continually on the altar of the Church, as an intercession for all the living and the departed, and for all creation (l Corinthians 10:18-21). The Eucharist was described as a Sacrifice by the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, and by many Church Fathers. The Coptic Liturgy says, “Today, on this table is present with us Emmanuel our God, the Lamb of God Who carries the sins of the whole world”.
The Coptic Church has never departed from the tradition of administering both the Body and Blood of our Lord to all the faithful (John 6:53) and people of all ages share in the Eucharist. The Church also uses ordinary (that is, leavened) bread, for the offering as it has always taught, what most scholars now acknowledge, that the Last Supper took place one day before the Passover, and thus Christ used leavened bread.
Repentance and Confession
A Christian whose sins have separated him from the life in Christ is reconciled with Him in the Sacrament of Repentance and Confession. By the forgiveness of sins, and reconciliation with God, this Sacrament renews the baptismal graces of adoption, salvation and having the hope of eternal life. The Church Fathers have also called it reconciliation, absolution, and second baptism. Penance consists of a feeling of sorrow for sin, with a will to repent; it also needs faith in Christ, verbal confession to a priest, and the priest’s absolution. Verbal confession has been practiced since the time of the Apostles (Acts 19:18). Priests have received from Christ the power to absolve sins (Matthew 18:18). The priest may ask the repentant to observe certain disciplines, such as fasting, prayer, or delay of Communion. These are remedies for the soul and aid in its struggle for the spiritual life; they are in no way considered punishments or atonement for sins. Christ is the propitiation for all sins (1 John 2:2).
Anointing of the Sick
If spiritual healing is obtained through Penance, the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick was established in the Church for the healing of both spiritual and physical ailments. Many of the Church Fathers mentioned it and referred to its Biblical origin in the words of Saint James: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and Iet them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5: 14,15).
Marriage is a natural and sacred law established since the creation of man (Genesis 1:27,28 & 2:18-24). The Lord Jesus Christ attended the marriage at Cana where He performed His first miracle. Marriage is considered a mystery by Saint Paul (Ephesus 5:32). It is the Sacrament in which a man and a woman are united through the grace of the Holy Spirit, and which refers to the profound union of Christ and the Church.
Christian marriage is characterised by its unity (Matthew 19:4) and indissolubility except by death. Divorce, for any reason other than adultery, has been forbidden by Christ: “So, then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate…Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 19:6,9). The Church has followed these rules from the beginning.
The Sacrament of Holy Orders is the sacred action in which 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 when He gave the Holy Spirit to the Apostles (Matthew 28:18-20). Those called to the priesthood are ordained by the laying of hands and prayers of the bishops (Acts 6:6). By their Apostolic Succession, bishops have the power of guiding, teaching and celebrating the Sacraments, the three acts of Christ which He bestowed upon the Church. With the permission of their bishops, priests can guide the Church, teach and administer all Sacraments except for ordination (Acts 14:22). Deacons are consecrated to assist in the liturgy, serve the poor, and teach, but only with the permission of the bishop (Acts 6:1-8).
The Holy Bible and Church canons warn against the quick ordination of Church ministers. They must be qualified in every aspect of their lives; obtain good theological training and lead a virtuous life. Most importantly, they should be chosen by the people whom they are going to serve.
There are three main Divine Liturgies used in the Coptic Church, namely:
+ The Liturgy of Saint Basil, Bishop of Caesaria
+ 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 Saint Cyril’s liturgy is based on that used by Saint Mark in the first century. It was memorised by the bishops and priests of the Church, until it was translated into the Coptic language from the Greek. Today, these three liturgies, with some additions, are still in use; the Liturgy of Saint Basil being the most commonly used.
The Coptic Church has seasons of fasting matched by no other Christian Church. Out of the 365 days of the year, Copts fast for over 210 days. Fasting is abstaining from food and drink for a certain period of time, after which only foods 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 or weakness. Lent, known as the “Great Fast”, is largely observed by all Copts. It starts with a pre-Lent fast for one week, followed by a 40 day fast commemorating Christ’s fast in the wilderness, followed by the Holy (Passion) Week, the most holy week of the Coptic Calendar. Other fasts include Advent, the Apostles’ Fast, the Virgin Saint Mary’s Fast, the Fast of the people of Ninevah, and Wednesdays (commemorating our Lord’s betrayal) and Fridays (commemorating His Crucifixion) throughout the year, except for the 50 joyful days following the feast of the Resurrection.
The Veneration of the Saints
The worship of saints is expressly forbidden by the Church, however, asking for their intercessions, is central in any Coptic service. Coptic churches are named after saints. Among all saints, the Virgin Saint Mary, the Theotokos, occupies a special place in the heart of all Copts.
The Coptic Orthodox prayer book of the hours, the `Agpeya’ (Coptic for `Hours’) contains seven prayers to be said at various times of the day and night:
The First Hour (Matins) Rising
The Third Hour (Terce) 9 am
The Sixth Hour (Sext) 12 pm
The Ninth Hour (None) 3 pm
The Eleventh Hour (Vespers) 6 pm
The Twelvth Hour (Compline) 9 pm
- The First Hour commemorates the hour in which the Lord arose from the dead.
- The Third Hour commemorates the hour in which the Holy Spirit rested upon the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost. It is also the hour in which the Lord was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate on Good Friday.
- The Sixth Hour commemorates the hour in which the Lord was nailed to the cross at Golgotha.
- The Ninth Hour is the hour in which the Lord died for our redemption, and in which He accepted the Penitent Thief into Paradise.
- At the Eleventh Hour, the Lord’s Body was taken down from the Cross, wrapped in linen and anointed with spices.
- The Twelfth Hour commemorates the laying down of the Lord’s Body in the tomb.
- The Midnight Prayer commemorates the three prayers of our Lord in Gethsemane during Holy Week.
The Church Building: The Exterior
The Church building is usually built in one of the three following shapes:
- Cross – Symbol of Salvation
- Ship – Noah’s Ark, outside of which no one was saved
- Circle – Symbol of eternal life with God
The Church Building: The Interior
The church was originally divided into three sections: the narthex, the nave, and the sanctuary. The reason was that the people who participated in the public services of the church were separated into three distinctive groups: First, the clergy (bishops, priests, and deacons), who officiated at the services. Second, the laymen, the Christian faithful who attended the services; and third, the catechumens, the people who wanted to become Christians, who were being taught the Christian faith, but who had not been baptized. Each part was designated for one of the groups of participants in the Divine Liturgy and other church services: the nave for the Christian faithful, the narthex for the catechumens and the sanctuary for the clergy.