Jesus Christ blessed with both hands, when he took the children in his arms, laying his hands upon them (Mk. 10:16); when he ascended into heaven, he lifted up his hands and blessed the apostles (Lk. 24:50, 51). The apostolic traditions are silent about a particular manner with which Jesus Christ blessed the people.
In the Coptic church the priests have used several variants for extending the benediction. The blessing with the index finger of the right hand is a typical Coptic practice. For the Copts, the one finger represents the unity of the Holy Trinity and the unity of the natures of the person of Jesus Christ as formulated by the first three ecumenical councils (325, 381, 431). Moreover, on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony were written with the finger of God (Ex. 31:18, Dt. 9:10), and it is by the finger of God that demons are cast out (Lk. 11:20).
Toward the end of the twelfth century, the blessing with the index finger became a controversial theological issue between MURQUS IBN QANBAR, who, for the sake of ecclesiastical union, attempted to introduce the blessing with two fingers, as the Melchites do, and MIKHA’IL, bishop of Damietta. The belief was that the eternal truth of the Holy Trinity is expressed by the three joints of one finger, the fact that one joint ends in the fingernail being a constant reminder of the incarnation of one of the three divine persons.
The same arguments for the use of one finger for the blessing were advanced in the thirteenth century by the author of the Order of the Priesthood, a work attributed to SAWIRUS IBN AL- MUQAFFA‘. Iconographical illustrations of the “one-finger blessing” by Jesus Christ are found in the altar-dome of the Church of the Holy Virgin in HARIT ZUWAYLAH, Cairo (nineteenth century), and on an icon of the enthroned Christ in the Cathedral of Saint George in Suhaj by Raghib Ayad.
In spite of the medieval condemnation of the use of two fingers for the blessing, the “two-finger blessing” with the index and the middle finger is also shown in Coptic churches in the altar-dome of the Church of Saint Mercurius (ABU SAYFAYN) in Old Cairo. The “two-finger blessing” was also used in the Byzantine church, and in Ethiopian and Nubian ecclesiastical art Jesus Christ is shown blessing with the index and middle finger. Coptic priests explain the mode of using two fingers for the blessing by referring to the two natures of Jesus Christ, which are, nevertheless, part of one hand.
The blessing with three fingers, symbolizing the Holy Trinity, was the common blessing from the fourth century in the Eastern and Western churches. Two practices are known. The thumb, index, and middle finger are extended for the blessing as stipulated by Pope Innocent III of Rome (1198-1215), or the blessing is extended with the index, middle, and small finger while the thumb and the fourth finger are joined together, symbolizing the mystery of the Holy Trinity and the two natures of Jesus Christ.
The fact that this manner of blessing is also used by the Copts is evident from the iconographical representations showing Jesus Christ with the three-finger blessing in the altar-domes of the Church of the Holy Virgin in Babilun al-Daraj, the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, and the Church of the Holy Virgin in Old Cairo. Over the centuries the Copts have adopted several modes to extend the blessing.
- Assfalg, J. Die Ordnung des Priestertums. Ein altes liturgisches Handbuch der koptischen Kirche. Publication du Centre d’études orientales de la custode de Terre-Sainte. Cairo, 1955.
- Butler, A. The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt. Oxford, 1884.
- Fehrenbach, E. “Bénir (manière de).” Dictionnaire d’archéologie chrétienne et liturgie, Vol. 2, 1, pp. 746-58. Paris, 1910.
- Graf, G. Ein Reformversuch innerhalb der koptischen Kirche im zwölften Jahrhundert. Collectanea Hierosolymitana, pp. 114, 115, 152-54, 192, 193. Paderborn, 1923.
- Meinardus, O. “Der Segensgestus Christi im koptischen Altarziborium.” Archiv für Liturgiewissenschaft 19 (1978):106-13.
OTTO F. A. MEINARDUS