LITURGY OF THE EPIPHANY

The Epiphany, in the Coptic Church as in the Eastern churches, commemorates the Baptism of Christ. It seems that it was introduced into the Church calendar by the fourth century. The canons of Athanasius and the letters mention it for the first time. By the end of the fourth century it had become widely celebrated. John Cassian gave a detailed description of the festivities. Some scholars see in this feast a continuity of festivals, while others think that it was introduced to replace the Jewish feast of the Tabernacles.

In the Middle Ages, the Feast of Epiphany became one of the great national festivals in Egypt. Maqrizi, a Muslim historian, described this ceremony and blamed the for their misbehavior. The rite of these ceremonies was performed on the banks of the Nile. Later, due to the persecutions, the rite came to be performed in the church. In the 17th century, the Father Vansleb attended this ceremony in the Church of St. Mercurius in Old Cairo. He described it thus:

Then comes the benediction of the water, various prayers and lessons recited over it: moreover the pontiff censes it and stirs it crosswise with his pastoral staff, as do also other bishops present in due order. This benediction lasts about two hours, but when it was over, the patriarch blesses also all the clergy and the congregation, sprinkling them with the holy water. Originally the custom was for the people to rush tumultuously into the water, each striving to be one of the three whom the patriarch dipped thrice, and who were thus supposed to receive a special blessing.

Those who failed of that distinction dipped themselves: and when the men had finished, they retired to the choir, while the women came and disported themselves quite unclothed. After the immersion follows the ordinary office of matins and a festival of the qorban [Eucharist bread].

The actual rite in the Coptic Church consists of a liturgy over the basin (lakane). According to Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa‘ in his book The Order of Priesthood, in the Church, this basin represents the Jordan River. The liturgy has the same structure of the Eucharistic prayers. It begins with the prayers of thanksgiving, then readings: the prophecies, the Pauline Epistle, Trisagion, the psalm, and the gospel. The priest prays the prayers for the peace of the church, the patriarch, and the congregation, and the Creed, followed by a special prayer for the Epiphany.

Among the special hymns of this feast is a hymn praising John the Baptist, and this hymn makes allusion to a homily of the Patriarch Theodosius (sixth century), which survives in a manuscript in the collection of the Pierpont Morgan Library. Rufa’il al-Tukhi included the rites of the Epiphany in his edition of the pontificals of 1761. The first Coptic Orthodox publication was edited by Hegemon Bakhum al-Baramusi and ‘Arian Farag in 1921.

GAWDAT GABRA