There are seven major feasts celebrated by the Coptic church.
The Annunciation is one of the seven major feasts of the Coptic church; it commemorates the announcement of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she should conceive and give birth to Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah.
According to the Coptic SYNAXARION, this festival, which has been observed since the early centuries of Christianity, falls on 29 Baramhat, nine months before the nativity of Jesus on 29 Kiyahk. As this occurs during the Great Lent preceding Easter, it is celebrated with due rejoicing but without breaking the fast, though it is a major feast. If, however, it coincides with Holy Week, it is commemorated without altering any of the solemn observances.
The account of the Annunciation as related in Luke 1:26-38 reflects the humility and willing submission of the Virgin Mary to God’s will, in clear contrast to Zechariah’s skepticism in reaction to the angel’s identical message concerning his wife Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist.
- Jugie, M. “La Première fête mariale en Orient et en Occident; l’avant primitif.” In Echos d’Orient 26 (1923):130-52.
The feast of the Nativity of Christ is kept by the Coptic Church on 29 Kiyahk.
The obligation to observe this feast was stipulated in the Apostolical Constitutions 5.13: “Brethren, observe the festival days; and first of all the birthday which you are to celebrate,” where it is described as a public holiday to all, including slaves and servants: “Let them rest on the festival of His birth, because on it the unexpected favour was granted to men, that Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, should be born of the Virgin Mary, for the salvation of the world.”
Many references to the feast of the Nativity occur in the writings of various fathers. ORIGEN (c. 185-254) speaks of the cave at Bethlehem where He was born: “this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith” (Against Celsus 1.51). He also refers to the festivals kept in commemoration of the Nativity, Epiphany, the Resurrection, and Pentecost (Against Celsus 8.22).
During the first three centuries of the Christian era, it seems that the celebration of Christ’s nativity and the Epiphany took place on one and the same day, 6 January. Thereafter, from the fourth century onward, the two occasions have been celebrated separately in all churches of Christendom except the Armenian.
There is no indication in any of the Gospels as to the exact day of the week or time of year on which Christ was born, and, therefore, the time could not be determined with any accuracy. Referring to the lack of agreement on the subject, CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (c. 150-215) states: “. . . there are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus, and on the twenty-fifth day of Pachon. . . . Further, others say that he was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharamuthi” (Stromata 21).
The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, however, strike a note of certainty: “Brethren, observe the festival days; and first of all the birthday which you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth of the ninth month.” The month in question here is the ninth of the Hebrew calendar.
The difference of opinion also applies to the year of Christ’s nativity. To Irenaeus (c. 130-200), it was the forty-first year of the reign of Augustus, A.U.C. 751 or 3 B.C., an opinion shared by Tertullian (c. 160-200). Other historians held the view that Christ’s birth took place in the forty-second year of the reign of Augustus, the twenty-eighth year after the conquest of Egypt, A.U.C. 752 or 2 B.C. To this school of thought belongs Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-236), EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA (c. 260-340), and EPIPHANIUS, bishop of Salamis (c. 315-403).
Another ecclesiastical writer, Dionysius Exiguus, the Scythian monk who lived in Rome toward the end of the fifth century and in the first half of the sixth and was the first to introduce the system of using the year of the Incarnation as the beginning of the Christian era, fixed the year A.U.C. 753 or 1 B.C. as the year of Jesus’ birth.
- Botte, B. Les Origines de la Noël et de l’Epiphanie. Paris, 1932. Duchesne, L. Origines du culte chrétien, pp. 247-54. Paris, 1889.
This is one of the most popular feasts celebrated by the Copts (on 11 Tubah), for whom it must have been a Christianized form of the ancient Egyptian festivities associated with the Nile as one of their principal dynastic gods. The Coptic Synaxarion states that the Messiah appeared on that day as the Son of God and the Sacred Lamb to obliterate the sins of the world, hence the paramount importance of that feast in the Coptic calendar. On that day, the faithful are purified from sins by the holy water in a way equivalent to baptism.
This feast is preceded by a vigil and a nocturnal mass, one of the three-night celebrations, the other two being the Nativity and the Ascension. The chief purpose of this function is the sanctification of the water, which in bygone days was brought to the middle of the nave in a large receptacle with two candles on the sides. Prior to the celebration of mass, special prayers are offered for the sanctification of that water with incense, hymns, and reading from the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels. After the completion of the Liturgy, the receptacle is moved to the narthex where the continuation of the offices ends with the faithful plunging into the holy waters. This practice was suppressed in modern times to avoid the confusion ensuing therefrom and did not exist in the primitive church; when its original performance on the banks of the Nile was forbidden by the caliphs after the advent of the Arabs, it was transferred to the churches.
Under early Muslim rule, however, this feast was celebrated with great pomp, and the Muslim historian al-Mas‘udi gives a lively description of the occasion under Ikhshid Muhummad ibn Tughj in the year 941. The bank of the Nile was illuminated by endless torches, and the Egyptians—both Copts and Muslims—emerged in their best apparel. Many plunged into the Nile in the belief that its sanctified water would heal them from all ailments. This is reminiscent of an ancient Egyptian legend when people reenacted the search of Isis in the waters of the Nile at the place where Seth had killed her husband Osiris and scattered his limbs. In those days, Egyptians also illuminated the Nile bank and plunged into its waters.
Copts used to visit their deceased relatives in the cemeteries on the following day. This tradition has been established among Copts and Muslims alike. The food on that day consists of a special vegetable known in Latin under the name Colcasia antiquorum, in Arabic as qulqas. It grows in the soil like potatoes. The fruit of the season also is used and distributed to the poor at cemeteries. This includes oranges and mandarins.
- Blackman, S. Les Fellahs de la Haute-Egypte, trans. J. Marty. Paris, 1984.
- Butler, A. J. The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, 2 vols. Oxford, 1884.
- Coquin, R.-G. “Les Origines de l’Epiphanie en Egypte.” In Noël, Epiphanie, retour du Christ, ed. A. Kniaziff and B. Botte. Paris, 1967.
- Fenoyl, M. de. Le Sanctoral copte. Beirut, 1960.
One of the most popular feasts among the Copts, this occurs on the seventh Sunday of Lent and has been celebrated by the Coptic church from early Christian times in order to commemorate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. This begins Holy Week, which is called the week of suffering (Jum‘at al-Alam).
The Copts throng their churches from early morning carrying with them plaited palm leaves in the shape of crosses or a round cake of holy bread, or both, decorated with olive twigs and flowers. Religious services on Palm Sunday begin at daybreak and last until the afternoon, although nowadays some curtailment is practiced in town churches. The celebrations include seven processions: three within the sanctuary beyond the iconostasis around the altar, three around the interior of the church, accompanied by censers and a great wooden cross decked with branches of palm and three candles. The procession halts briefly before icons and relics. The seventh tour takes place around the altar, while the choir chants hymns. Members of the congregation join in the three central rounds of the procession within the church. After the reading of the Gospel and the office of matins, the Liturgy of either Saint Gregory or Saint Basil is reiterated until the time of communion, when the office of the dead is held at the ninth hour of Palm Sunday. This traditional office among the Copts is especially practiced in behalf of those whose death might occur between Palm Sunday and Easter Monday, for no regular funerary functions are allowed for private individuals whose death falls in the course of Holy Week. Once the celebrations are completed with the aspersion of holy water and the benediction, the faithful withdraw with their palm crosses and their holy bread.
As a rule, they break the fast on meals consisting essentially of fish, as this happens to be the only day of Lent when fish is permitted.
In the early centuries of Coptic history, a special procession is said to have been conducted outside the church through the city or town headed by the clergy and followed by the community of the faithful. This tradition remained in force until it was forbidden by the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim at the turn of the tenth century.
- Burmester, O. H. E. The Egyptian or Coptic Church. Cairo, 1967. Butler, A. J. The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, 2 vols. Oxford, 1884.
- Lane, E. Manners and Custom of the Modern Egyptians, 2 vols. London, 1842.
- Wassef, Cérès Wissa. Pratiques rituelles et alimentaires des coptes. Bibliothèque d’études Coptes 9, pp. 195-96. Cairo, 1971.
Easter is the greatest and earliest festival of the church, at which Christians celebrate the anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His victory over death.
The observance of Easter started as early as the apostolic age. Writing to the Corinthians, probably at or near the Passover season, Saint Paul declares, “Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7,8).
In the course of their celebration of Easter, the fathers gave it various designations. Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) called it “the paschal feast.” To CYRIL OF JERUSALEM (c. 315-386) it was the “holy day of salvation.” GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS (323-389) called it “the queen of days, the feast of feasts, and the solemnity of solemnities.” After the waves of persecution had subsided, and Christianity became the official religion of the empire, Easter was celebrated on a grand scale. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, described the participation of CONSTANTINE THE GREAT who “changed the holy night vigil into a brightness like that of day, by causing waxen tapers to be lighted throughout the city; besides which torches everywhere diffused their light, so as to impart to this mystic vigil a brilliant splendor beyond that of day.”
During the first three centuries, there was divergence among the churches about the date of celebrating Christ’s resurrection. In Asia Minor, Northern Syria, and Mesopotamia, the church used to commemorate the crucifixion on 14 Nisan and to celebrate the resurrection on 16 Nisan, irrespective of the day of the week on which these two dates fell. The churches of Egypt, Italy, Greece, Palestine, and Africa were particular about commemorating the crucifixion on Friday and celebrating the resurrection on the Sunday following 14 and 16 Nisan, respectively.
In Egypt, Patriarch DEMETRIUS I (189-231) devised the Epact method of calculating the exact day of Easter Sunday, so that it would always follow the Jewish Passover, in close adherence to the first Easter.
The controversy, nevertheless, continued. There was also a difference of opinion regarding the interpretation of the concept of the crucifixion. To the Asian churches, it was an occasion of rejoicing, on the grounds that it heralded man’s release from bondage, while the other churches, including Alexandria, observed Good Friday as a day of mourning and strict fasting. This state of affairs was tolerated by the church, as it was acknowledged that there was an apostolic authority for both attitudes, the former deriving from Saint John and Saint Philip, and the latter from the Apostles Peter and Paul.
The difference was settled in the Council of NICAEA (325), which decreed that Easter should be celebrated on the Sunday that followed 14 Nisan, after the full moon of the vernal equinox. The church of Alexandria, the city that was famous for its expert astronomers, was entrusted with the task of computing the date of Easter and it became the province of the Alexandrian patriarch to proclaim the date of Easter to all the churches of Christendom, in a paschal letter issued on the occasion of the Epiphany.
The following are the main features of the Easter Sunday service:
- The celebration of the Liturgy starts late on Holy Saturday evening, and ends in the early hours of Sunday, in conformity with the New Testament (Mk. 16:2, 9; Lk. 24:1; Jn. 20:1).
- As in the case of the feasts of the Nativity and the Epiphany, the Psalms appointed for the third and sixth hours are omitted, in view of the fact that their contents are not compatible with the joyful occasion of the feast.
- An impressive feature of this service is the enactment of the Resurrection. After the lection from the Acts of the Apostles, which follows the Pauline and Catholic Epistles, the sanctuary door is closed. A priest or a deacon holds the icon of the Resurrection, and the rest of the clergy and deacons, carrying candles, crosses, gospels, and censers, sing the hymn of the Resurrection. Then the priests, together with two or three deacons, enter into the sanctuary, while the rest remain outside in the choir, and the sanctuary doors are then closed (representing the sealed grave from which Christ rose, as well as symbolizing the closure of Paradise as a result of the fall of Adam). All lights in the church are extinguished, and two deacons, standing outside the sanctuary, chant in Coptic “Christ is risen” three times, each time the chief priest responding from within: “He is risen indeed”; this is then repeated in Arabic. The two deacons exclaim, “Lift up your heads, O gates, and be ye lifted up, o ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in” (Ps. 24:7). This is said three times, without a response from within the sanctuary. After the third time, the chief priest asks, “Who is this King of glory?” to which the deacons answer, “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle” (Ps. 24:8-9). Then they knock on the sanctuary door violently, at which the door is pushed open, and the lights are put on.
- The clergy and deacons go in procession three times around the altar, carrying the icon of the Resurrection, banners, crosses, candles, and censers, and then, coming out, they go thrice around the church singing in Coptic and Arabic the Resurrection paralex. Finally, the procession enters the sanctuary again and goes around the altar once. Thus, it will be noted that the number of circuits made in the procession is seven, symbolical of the seven circuits made by Joshua, son of Nun, around the gates of the city of Jericho, which finally fell down. This also alludes to the collapse of the gates of Hades upon the death and the resurrection of Christ.
This day commemorates the ascension of Christ to heaven from the Mount of Olives. Luke 24:50-53 seems to imply that the Ascension occurred during the evening of the day of the Resurrection, but it is stated in Acts 1:3 and Mark 16:19 that this event took place in presence of the apostles forty days later. Further implicit references to this are found in John 6:62 and 22:17; Ephesians 4:8-10; Hebrews 4:14 and 7:26; 1 Peter 3:22; and 1 Timothy 3:16. The forty-day tradition is accepted by the Copts and this seems to have been their practice from early times. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, Etheria, and SOCRATES refer to the celebration of the feast in the course of the fourth century.
This feast is solemnly celebrated by the Copts on the fifth Thursday after Easter Sunday, that is, the fortieth day after Christ’s Resurrection. It is always accompanied by the same liturgy as the Resurrection, and a procession commemorates the journey of Jesus to the Mount of Olives from which he went to heaven. Among the Copts, this service seems to have taken the form of a simple church function without the popular celebrations of Easter.
- Benoit, P. “L’Ascension.” Revue biblique (1949):167-203. Burmester, O. H. E. The Egyptian or Coptic Church. Cairo, 1967. Milligan, W. The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord.
- London, 1891; 2nd edition, Greenwood, S.C., 1977. Swete, H. B. The Ascended Christ. London, 1910.
This major feast in the Coptic Church commemorates the descent of the Holy Ghost on the apostles on the fiftieth day after the Resurrection (Acts 2:1-4). This was in fulfillment of the promise made by Jesus before His crucifixion: “The counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). Saint Mark explicitly mentions the promise to enable them “to speak in new tongues” (16:17). These and similar pledges were all fulfilled ten days after the Ascension, that is, fifty days after the Resurrection, equivalent to the Jewish feast of weeks that occurred on the fiftieth day after the Passover (Dt. 16).
In the Acts of the Apostles the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples is described as “tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each of them” (Acts 2:3).
The Coptic translation of the Bible clearly distinguishes between the term “Holy Spirit” when it is used to indicate the HYPOSTASIS and the term when it indicates the gift or grace bestowed upon those who are blessed by the Holy Spirit.
- Burmester, O. H. E. The Egyptian or Coptic Church. Cairo, 1967. Jurgens, William A. The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1. Collegeville, Minn., 1970.
- Wassef, Cérès W. Pratiques rituelles et alimentaires des Coptes. Cairo, 1971.