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Some Liturgical Questions - Fr Gregory - 24-05-2010 07:18 AM

Over the past year I received a large number of questions about liturgical matters - some from Church members, some from young members of the Coptic Orthodox Church and some from scholars. One interesting scholarly request for information related to the “altar tablet” used by the Coptic Orthodox – the request came from an academic writing a paper on altar stones and their Orthodox equivalents.

I thought some of my answers might be of more general interest, and so I’m posting a few of them here.

Fr Gregory

1. Why don’t the Coptic Orthodox (and therefore the British Orthodox) reserve the Sacrament as the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics do?

There’s no simple answer as to when the Copts ceased reservation (which they clearly practiced in the early centuries) or why, although I suspect concern about the Reserved Sacrament being profaned after the Moslem conquest is probably the answer. Theological explanations came later! Reservation was standard practice in the early Church, and lay people were permitted to take the Sacrament home so they could receive Communion during the week, the Eucharist only being celebrated on Sundays and major Feasts. Reservation in Churches came somewhat later and was to enable Communion to be given to the sick and dying (which is the purpose of reservation in the Eastern Orthodox Churches today). In the West, this also developed into reservation for the purpose of prayer and worship (which is the current practice in the Roman Catholic Church).

There remains a form of reservation in the Coptic Orthodox rite: when a portion of the Sacrament is retained after the Liturgy to be taken to someone who because of illness or infirmity (or because he or she is in prison) cannot attend the Liturgy. There are specific liturgical requirements (now often ignored) for this. Sometimes (although it is contrary to the rules) the Sacrament is retained from a Liturgy in the morning to be given to someone who is baptised in the afternoon, or even to a couple who are married in the afternoon. This is, strictly speaking, forbidden.

2. What prayer does a Priest use to bless water in the Coptic Rite?

The Priest makes the Sign of the Cross over himself, using his hand Cross and saying “In the Name......”. He then makes the Sign of the Cross with his hand Cross three times over the water saying: (1) Blessed be God the Father, the Almighty; (2) Blessed be His Only-begotten Son Jesus Christ our Lord; (3) Blessed be the Holy Spirit the Comforter. Amen He then again makes the Sign of the Cross over himself saying: Glory and honour, honour and glory be unto the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, the One God. Amen. He then breathes on the water in the form of a Cross; some Priests breathe on it three times in the form of a cross.

3. Are there special prayers in the Coptic Rite for the blessing of particular things?

For some specific objects (like Icons and liturgical Vessels) and places (like houses) there are specific blessings. These are found in “The Book of Consecrations”. For most things there are no specific prayers and the formula used for the blessing of water mentioned above would be used. There is no Coptic equivalent to, for example, the Russian Orthodox “The Great Book of Needs” which has numerous special blessings (for example, for ships, bees, and wells).

4. Do the Coptic Orthodox have holy oils like the Roman Catholics?

Yes, but not quite the same. The three oils used in the Coptic Rite are the following. (1) “ordinary oil” which is olive oil blessed by a Priest or Bishop and which is used for a range of purposes, including anointing the sick (when it takes the role of the Oil of the Sick in Roman Catholicism) and anointing in the Sacrament of Marriage. (2) Ghaliloun (“Oil of Gladness”) which is made using the residue of the Myron (or Chrism) and is used in anointing in Baptism (when it takes the role of the Oil of Catechumens in Roman Catholicism). (3) Myron (or Chrism) which is used in the Sacraments of Baptism and Chrismation and in consecrating liturgical objects. Ghaliloun and Myron are prepared and consecrated at Pentecost by the Patriarch, assisted by many Bishops, and are then sent to Bishops throughout the world who then distribute the oils to their Priests. There are some other oils blessed by Priests in special services on particularly occasions (like “Apocalypse Oil”) and then used for general blessings and anointings. Oil for anointing the sick is often specifically blessed during the Sacrament of Unction.

5. I know what the Synaxarion and the Agbeya are, but I’ve also heard of the Psalmodia, the Difnar, the Katameros and the Mayamer. What are these?

The Psalmodia contains the “Verses of the Cymbals” and the doxologies for various seasons used in the Raising of Evening and Morning Incense. There are two Psalmodies: that which covers the whole year except for the month of Kiahk, and that for Kiahk. The earliest known text of the Psalmodia is from the ninth century.
The Difnar (or Antiphonarion), like the Synaxarion, contains brief accounts of the Saints or of special events, with a glorification to the saint or the feast, and is used at the very end of the day's Midnight Praises (at the conclusion of the Theotoki).
The Katameros is the lectionary which contains the Psalm and Gospel of Evening Incense, the Psalm and Gospel of Morning Incense, the Pauline Epistle, the Catholic Epistle (Catholicon), the Acts (Epraxis) and the Psalm and Gospel of the Liturgy. There are five volumes: (1) Of the Year’s Days, (2) Of the Sundays, (3) Of the Holy Great Fasting (Lent), (4) Of the Holy Passion Week and (5) Of the Holy Fifty Days.
The Mayamer is now virtually unknown outside a few monasteries in Egypt. Like the Synaxarion it is a compilation of the lives of the Saints, and different versions of it exist depending upon which monastery compiled it (and which Saints they sought to commemorate).

6. Can you receive Holy Communion just by the Blood? I’ve seen a Priest use his finger to put a little of the Blood in a baby’s mouth.

To use Western theological language: the Real Presence of the Lord is present in each of the Species and in even the smallest quantity of each of the Species! So, yes Communion can be received in only one Form. This most commonly occurs with babies or those who are very ill and weak, or those whose illness may mean they cannot receive the Body without risk of vomiting. The Priest may touch the forefinger of his right hand into the Blood in the chalice, and touch this just inside the lip of the infant or the sick person. That person really, fully and completely receives the Body and Blood of the Lord.

7. Does a person have to be fully immersed in water three times to be Baptized?

As a general rule, yes. Orthodox (both Eastern and Oriental) teaching is the baptism requires triple full immersion, not pouring (affusion) or sprinkling. The word “Baptism” comes from the Greek βαπτίζω baptizo: "immersing". This was the universal teaching and practice of the ancient Church. However, there may be rare circumstances in which full immersion is not possible: for example, with a seriously ill infant or with a person with a disability or a person who is aged and infirm. In such cases, the closest practice to immersion will be sufficient. In the case of a critically ill infant in a humicrib, even the smallest drop of water with the words of Baptism will be all that is required. In His Infinite Love, God desires that all His children may receive the Grace of Baptism and thus be received into His Church. It would obviously be cruel and legalistic to deny the Sacrament of Baptism to someone who, through no fault of his or her own, could not undergo full triple immersion.
However, this does not apply to someone who “just doesn’t like the idea” of full immersion or finds the prospect embarrassing or inconvenient!

8. I’ve noticed that many Coptic Orthodox Churches have a large egg hanging in front of the Sanctuary: why?

Various people have written beautiful accounts of the symbolism of the ostrich egg – the egg representing the tomb from which the Lord bursts forth, the ostrich (supposedly) burying its head to exclude distractions during worship, and so on. The historical origin of the egg is somewhat less profound: eggs were sometimes used in the Middle East on the chains from which oil lamps were hung to prevent rats from climbing down the chain and consuming the oil! Ancient hanging oil lamps sometimes had metal or pottery disks fitted on the chains for the same reason. This is a good example of a common liturgical principle: things that begin with a purely practical purpose often come to be given symbolic interpretations when the practical purpose ceases to exist.


- Antony-Paul - 24-05-2010 10:02 AM

Dear Father Gregory,

Thank you so much for these details. As a recent convert from RCC there are so many tiny things that I notice, and promptly forget to ask about when next I see my priest. And also there are things he taught me that I have forgotten - my excuse is amnesia from advancing years!

This is exactly the sort of thing that must crop up constantly with newcomers and enquirers. Indeed, in my parish we have been considering producing an 'idiots guide' to Orthodoxy to explain such matters. Would you object to us using your answers in such a booklet, to prevent us having to re-invent the wheel?

You hint that you have more of this kind of thing, and it would be most interesting to have any further data and ideas if you can find time to add to your latest thread. I am thinking in particular of defining/explaining the terms used which obviously come from non-English origins for the benefit of those of us who are not educated in such languages. I know it is possible to ask one's priest, but in the BOC with our geographic sparcity this is not always convenient at the time when the question arises, and hence a written source of simple explanations would seem to have merit.


- Fr Gregory - 24-05-2010 10:38 AM

I am happy to receive any and all questions...with the single qualification that I may not be able to answer some of them!

I had the inestimable advantage of being trained by (I suspect he would object to the description!) an ultra-conservative, extremely traditionalist, former Abbot of an ultra-conservative monastery - and I took very extensive notes! And I have the text of his lectures on ritual theology....

If liturgy is to have any meaning, it must be explained. This is not the same as saying "I agree with the explanation". To engage in ritual without understanding comes close to "magic" and heresy.

So - feel free to ask! I will feel free to say "I don't know" or (as with the ostrich eggs and the rats!), I'll feel free to say "The official explanation is.....but historically....."

Fr Gregory