An Introduction to the Coptic Orthodox Church

     by Subdeacon Anthony M. Aboseif

Founded by one of the four gospel writers, Saint Mark the Evangelist, the Coptic Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. Alexandria served as one of the major centers of Christianity in the early years of the church.

The Coptic Church has produced countless saints, martyrs, teachers, and clergy whose lives and writings continue to influence Christianity today.

Coptic

The word Coptic traces its roots to the age of the Pharaohs. The words Coptic and Egyptian are synonymous. Over time, the words Coptic and Christian have also become interchangeable. Coptic Christians are considered the descendants of the ancient Egyptians.

The Coptic language is still used today in the Church’s worship and hymns. The Coptic language evolved from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and currently bears many similarities with Greek. In fact, the Coptic alphabet is comprised of the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet and seven uniquely Coptic letters.

Orthodox

The word "orthodox" literally means straight opinion. The Orthodox Church has kept her same Christian faith and teachings since the time of Jesus Christ and His followers, the apostles. The Orthodox Church has a direct connection to the early Christian church.  The sources of Orthodox Christian teaching have passed from one generation to the next through oral and written tradition. These sources include:

  • The Holy Bible
  • The canons of the holy apostles
  • Creeds or statements of faith
  • Ancient liturgies, rites, and prayers
  • The acts of the Christian martyrs and saints
  • Ancient records of history
  • The writings of the early Church Fathers
  • The very spirit of the Church’s life

The Life of the Coptic Church

The goal of the Orthodox Church is to bring her members into communion with Jesus Christ as Lord, God, and Savior. The life and practice of the Church aim to produce change in the lives of the faithful. The Church offers many means for nourishing the spiritual life in order to lead her members to holiness and sanctity.

Liturgical Prayer

The Divine Liturgy is the form of communal prayer and worship. The goal of prayer is communication and unity with God. The word liturgy comes from two Greek words: laos, meaning people, and ergon, meaning work. Therefore, the Divine Liturgy is the work of God’s people and invites the participation of all. It is comprised of a system of rites and rituals that include prayers, supplications, chants, and scriptural readings. At the height of the Divine Liturgy is the consecration of bread and wine into the true Body and true Blood of Jesus Christ. The faithful partake of Holy Communion (Eucharist) to unite with Jesus Christ and with one another.

Coptic Hymns and Chants

All worship services in the Coptic Orthodox Church are chanted. The Copts inherited a very ancient musical tradition. Some melodies are said to date from the time of the Pharaohs, while others have a strong Byzantine influence. The purpose of these hymns and chants is to provide a heavenly atmosphere of worship. Although led by a choir of chanters, all people are called to participate in the hymns and responses of the Divine Services.

Coptic Icons

Coptic Churches are adorned with icons. Icons are images of Jesus Christ and the saints. Unlike pictures or portraits, icons are not meant to capture natural or physical characteristics, but rather the spiritual. Icons are used in worship and are often called "windows to heaven." The Orthodox faithful do not worship the icon itself. Rather, the faithful experience a spiritual connection with Jesus Christ and the saints through the veneration of icons.

Fasting

In addition to prayer, fasting is an important spiritual exercise in the life of the Orthodox Church. Fasting is the voluntary abstinence from eating certain types of food or, at times, from food altogether. The goal of fasting is to sacrifice the needs of the body in order to focus on the spiritual life. Therefore, prayer, worship, repentance, almsgiving, and other spiritual exercises accompany fasting. The Church sets aside days throughout the year of fasting.

Conclusion

At the heart of the faith and worship of the Coptic Orthodox Church is Jesus Christ Himself. The Holy Bible along with the Sacred Tradition of the Church point to Jesus Christ as God and Savior. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He desires that all people come into the saving knowledge of Truth. All are called to lead holy lives, according to God’s commandments, in order to receive the promise of eternal life.

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