THE COPTIC CHURCH
THE SPIRITUALITY OF RITE
FR. TADROS Y. MALATY
THE RITE OF HEAVEN
God is Spirit, and His heavenly Creatures are spirits with-
out bodies. Nevertheless, the book of Revelation tells us
about a rite of heaven; for it has specific hymns (Rev. 4:8)
and certain worship (Rev. 4:10); there we find the 24
incorporeal priests with golden crowns on their heads and
hold golden censers (Rev. 4:4). St. John also describes the
heavenly Jerusalem, its gates, foundation, walls and temple
etc.. (Rev. 21). Therefore, it is not surprising that the Al-
exandrian Church established her rites since her conception.
A RITUAL CHURCH
The holy Scriptures emphasise that our God is "not the
author of confusion" 1 Cor. 14:33, hence He establishes His
heavens with splendid spiritual rites. The church of the Old
Testament carried out a rite which was "the copy and
shadow of the heavenly things" Heb. 8:5. The word of God
dedicated some books of the Old Testament to declare in de-
tail and exactitude the rites of priesthood, sacrifices, the
structure of tabernacle and its tools, and rites of worship. For
God wants "all things to be done decently and in order 1
It is not in vain that the Lord - in the New Testament -
when He was about to feed the multitude, said to His
disciples: "Make them sit down in groups of fifty" Luke
9:14. He rather emphasised the necessity of order to grant
His heavenly gifts. The Lord did not take a hostile stand
towards the Jewish rite, but He subjected Himself to the Law
with its rites; He was circumcised and entered the Temple to
transfer the Jews to the spiritual rite with its heavenly
concept. However, He criticised the literality and the
formality of rite. The disciples also followed their Lord's
footsteps and attended the daily temple worship (Acts 3:46),
besides their meeting together to break the bread without
attacking the Jewish rite. They sought its completion through
announcing the mystery of the cross and the sacrifice of
Christ. When they were dismissed from the temple and from
the Jewish synagogues as individuals and groups, the church
did not live without rite or order. On the contrary, the
apostles emphasised the necessity of "order" and "decency"
to the Church of God (1 Cor. 14:40, 1 Thess 5:14; 2 Thess
3:6), declaring that orders and rites were handed out orally
(1 Cor. 11:34; Tit 1:5; 2 John 12:14).
THE AIM OF THE COPTIC RITES AND CHARACTERISTICS
The Coptic rite is not an aim in itself, that the Church
practises it literally without understanding. It is rather the
Church's language, uttered by the holy congregation as a
whole, and by every member, that they may enjoy the pledge
of heaven through the rites. Therefore, St. Clement of
Alexandria states that the church is the icon of heaven.
1. Any rite in which the believer does not practise his
communion with God the Father, in His Son by the Holy
Spirit and has not the experience of the joyful evangelic life
as a heavenly one, is strange to the Coptic Church. For
example, the rite of the sacrament of holy matrimony in its
prayers concentrates on the heavenly crown and the spiritual
marriage between God and His saints. This can be un-
derstood if the couple practise this sacrament spiritually and
comprehend that this marriage is an image of the greatest
mystery: the Union of Christ with His Church (Eph. 5:32).
2. The rite has its educational role, since the Coptic
Church presents all the Christian dogmas, the concepts of
faith, and the spiritual thoughts in very simple style. The
child understands it, the theologian is satisfied with it, the
priest who is burdened with pastoral work finds his comfort
in it, and the spiritual ascetic finds it very nourishing to his
soul. For example by making the sign of the cross children
acknowledge the Trinitarian dogma and the divine in-
carnation, and through venerating icons they understand the
extension of the church as the body of Christ.
3. The Coptic rites is characterised by harmony and
oneness of spirit. Thus the church building with its splendid
rite is in accord with the liturgical rites so that believers live
under the guidance of the Spirit of God in a joyful pious life.
4. In the Coptic rite, the body shares with the soul in worshipping God, whether in congregational, familial or private worship. A sign of Church belief in unity of the human being as a whole without ignoring the role of the body in the spiritual life. In other words the church emphasises the sanctity of the soul and the body together through the Holy Spirit of God.
The Coptic rite which contains hymns, standing piously
for praying, stretching hands, kneeling, offering incense etc.
does not present restricted bodily movements, but it
represents a support of the body for the alert soul. In a
similar way, every evil bodily action is capable of destroying the soul and hindering her union with God.
The rite is the language of man as a whole, which uses all
man's capabilities to express his innermost which common
language can't realize. Rite is an expression which comes out
of the body interacting with the depths of the inner soul.
5. In the Coptic rite not only the whole body participates
in worshipping God, but also the creation shares in glorifying
the Creator. In other words, the believer, realizing the
sanctity of the creation, appears before God offering incense,
wood (icons), bread, wine etc. to God, declaring that all
creation glorifies God. This concept is in accordance with
the words of the "Psalmody": [Praise the Lord from the
earth... fire, hail, snow, clouds etc. (Ps. 148)]. Thus the in-
animate creatures are not evil, nor do they hinder worship,
but are good tools, which the believer can use them to
express the sanctity of all creatures.
6. We may state that rite is an integral part of Church life.
It touches our worship, our faith, our spirituality and our as-
ceticism, if it is practised spiritually and with understanding
under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If it is practised as a
duty or as a routine work, performed literally without under-
standing, it becomes an obstacle to the evangelic spiritual
life. In other words the rite is not mere order, an outer
organisation, or sets of laws which rule church life, but it is
in its essence a living spirit we have received throughout the
ages. The rite has its body, i.e., the visible order, and has also
its spirit, i.e., the innermost thought. Whoever accepts the
body of the rite without its spirit accepts a corpse, a burden,
which should be buried. If we accept the body with the spirit
we enjoy a life which has its effect on the congregation and on every individual.
1. The author: The Rite between Spirituality and Formalities, 1980 (in Arabic).
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