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The Spirituality Of Ritual In The Coptic Church
The Arabic word for ritual is derived from Greek and means a system or order. The word ‘ritual’ in the Church means the order of the holy service and its organization, that is, the prayers that are said whether verbally, through worshipful actions, or symbolically. Included in this is the shape of the church, its administration, the ranks of the priests and their clothes.
Every action in the ritual of holy mass in our holy church, which has a solid and apostolic faith, has a sublime spiritual meaning that is the ultimate in sublimeness and spirituality even though many do not see this. The rituals are molds within which are poured spiritual meanings to be experienced by the faithful during group worship.
The Importance God Gives to Ritual:
Since ritual means the order of the service, this is compatible with the nature of God Who loves order and organization in everything, especially in the worship offered to Him by man: "For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace" (1 Cor:14: 33). God is organization, beauty, and order.
Rituals have been followed from the beginning of time. We read that after the flood water dried, Noah left the ark and built an altar to the Lord; he took of the clean cattle and of every clean bird and offered them as a burnt sacrifices on the altar. And the Lord smelled a pleasing aroma (Gen.8:21).
We also read about the altar in the life of Abraham, the friend of God. He used to build an altar to the Lord, and call on His Name, making sacrifices and burnt offerings to the Lord in every place he went to (Gen. 12: 7,8; 13: 18). When God commanded him to offer his son as a sacrifice, he went to the appointed place, built an altar, piled the wood on it, and tied his son Isaac and placed him on the wood (Gen. 22: 9) in accordance to the ritual he followed whenever he offered animal sacrifices.
The same is true of Jacob and of Moses, for whom the Lord organized the way to be followed in worship with its rituals and which Moses recorded in the books of Exodus and Leviticus.
The Lord Jesus and Ritual:
The Lord Jesus respected (when He took the form of our humanity and came as a man) the Mosaic ritual greatly in spite of the fact that He gave the law and ordered the rituals. In this, He is like the director of traffic who puts the rules and regulations, issues them and requires people to carry them out, but is the first to comply with and submit to them.
We see the Lord Jesus submitting to the law of circumcision by being circumcised on the eighth day.
He observed the feasts and shared in celebrating them. He also observed the rituals of worship and meetings; we read of Him that: "Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did."(Jn.2: 13, 23).
The Apostles and Ritual:
The apostles determined the organization of the churches as they saw fit and as it had been entrusted to them by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. St. Paul received the rituals and the doctrine from the Lord Himself, for he says: ‘For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you"( 1 Cor. 11: 23). He reassures the believers about the rituals and traditions saying; "And the rest, I will set in order when I come." (1Cor.11:34). He advises his disciple, Bishop Timothy, about the necessity of passing on the traditions and rituals: "And the things you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Tim.2: 2). He also advises his disciple Titus, Bishop of Crete, saying: "For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you" (Ti. 1:5). He advises the believers in general saying: "Let all things be done decently and in order." (1 Cor. 14: 40) "For God is not the author of confusion but of peace" (1 Cor. 14: 33), and He is also the God of order, beauty, and organization.
Ritual and the Holy Bible:
The Coptic Church is a Biblical church that lives by the spirit of the Gospel at the highest level. Its ritual prayers are organized through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and its texts are taken from the Bible so that you find that every word is taken from some Biblical text. One glance at the big missal with references is enough to prove this; you see under each prayer a profuse number of Biblical references as evidence of this.
The Coptic Church a Prayerful Church:
The ritual of Holy Mass in our Church is a long, very satisfying and nourishing one. If the ceremonies are done thoroughly and meticulously, they will take six whole hours. For instance, in Sunday mass, the preparation begins on the previous day when the raising of incense is performed with its beautiful ritual and its worshipful chants. It is preceded by the psalms and Saturday praise. In the dawn of the following day, the worshippers begin with all three services of the midnight prayers in the quiet and beauty of dawn; then they begin the midnight praise with its beautiful chords and its approximately fifteen lovely tunes. Then as the sun begins to rise and send its golden rays on the world reminding us of the Sun of Righteousness, our Lord, the new day is greeted with matins, and we pray: "When the light of day came to us O Christ." This is followed by the Doxology of matins in which we greet the Virgin, the angels, the martyrs, and the victorious saints, feeling their presence with us in Church. Next we go in to raise incense with beautiful prayers which we will expound later. All these prayers are to prepare us for Holy Mass and for partaking of the Sacrifice for our salvation.
From the moment the priest enters church, he does not
stop praying, even during Holy Communion. The congregation only hears the
prayers that are said aloud whereas there are many other silent prayers that the
priest says during the tour of incense and during the reading of the epistles
and the gospel.
The Church tries to occupy all the mind and time of the priest with prayer, so that he is not distracted by other matters. For example, during the tour of incense, there are a number of short utterances that the priest repeats constantly without stopping until he ends the tour and enters the sanctuary.
During the incense of evensong and matins, he repeats: "The blessing of the incense of evensong, its holy blessings be with us, Amen."
During the incense of matins, he repeats: "The blessing of the incense of matins, its holy blessing be with us, Amen."
During the incense of the epistle of St. Paul, he repeats, "The blessing of the incense of the epistle of St. Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ, its holy blessing be with us, Amen."
During the incense of the Acts of the Apostles, he repeats: "The blessing of my lords, the apostolic fathers, that is, our father Peter and our teacher Paul and the rest of the disciples, their holy blessing be with us, Amen."
After the priest has finished the beautiful chant, and the congregation begins to say the Kyrie Eleyson, the priest is not silent. At that time, he raises the cross and has the candles lighted while he says St. Gregory’s second petition for the healing of the sick and for rest for those in need.
If we contemplate the midnight absolution for priests, we will find that it is inclusive and does not omit any great or small detail.
How great and profound is our Church in its ritual and spirituality; she still preserves these characteristics and therefore grows in beauty and spirituality.
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