MASS OF THE CATECHUMENS
The eucharistic service comprising two distinct, inseparable, and complementary sections: the Mass (or Liturgy) of the Catechumens and the MASS OF THE FAITHFUL, so-called because catechumens, who could attend the first part of the service, were not permitted to attend the second until they had satisfactorily completed their course of religious instruction, received the sacrament of baptism, and were accepted into the Christian community of the faithful.
In the early church, the Mass of the Catechumens started with the bishop’s greeting, “Peace be with you,” to which the response was, “And with your spirit.” This was followed by readings from both the Old and New Testaments, after which the bishop or a priest authorized by him delivered a sermon expounding the word of God and the teachings of the church. Finally, a prayer for the catechumens was offered, and the bishop gave them his blessing. At this point, the deacon asked them to leave the church.
According to the Coptic rite, the Liturgy of the Catechumens consists of the three main parts that precede the anaphora: lections, followed by the sermon; intercessional prayers, followed by the creed; and the prayer of reconciliation.
Appointed readings from the scriptures, thematically arranged for each month of the Coptic year, are collected in a four-volume LECTIONARY. The readings fall under the general headings of the Pauline epistle, the Catholic epistle (Catholicon), the Acts (Praxis), the SYNAXARION, the Psalm, and the Gospel. The scripture readings are meticulously chosen to illustrate a certain theme, which runs through all the passages appointed for the day.
During the Mass of the Catechumens, while the appointed passages are being read by various deacons, prayers are said inaudibly by the priest on behalf of the congregation so that it may be endowed with readiness to listen, understand, accept, and act.
Following the Prayer of ABSOLUTION, the officiating priest goes up to the sanctuary, kisses the altar, and puts five spoonfuls of incense into the thurible. Inaudibly he says the Prayer of Pauline Incense to God the Father: “Eternal God, Who art without beginning and without end, great in counsel, and mighty in deeds, Who art in all places and with all beings, be with us, our Master, in this hour, and stand in the midst of us all. Purify our Hearts, sanctify our souls, and cleanse us from all sins which we have done willingly or unwillingly. And grant us to offer before Thee agreeable oblations, and blessed sacrifices, a spiritual incense to enter within the veil, to Thy Holy of Holies.”
Meanwhile, the congregation sings the following hymn to the Virgin Mary in Coptic: “This is the censer of pure gold, bearing the sweet spice that was in the hands of Aaron the priest while he offered incense upon the altar.” Then it sings the various intercessions in the names of the Mother of God, the seven archangels and the heavenly host, the apostles and disciples, Saint Mark the Evangelist, Saint George, the saints of the day, and the patriarch.
The priest continues with the Three Small Prayers: for the peace of the church, for the patriarch, and for the congregation. He goes round the altar thrice, with the deacon holding the cross and facing him. Coming down from the sanctuary, the priest makes a circuit around the church while offering incense to the people, touching their heads with his hand, and saying, “May the blessing of Paul the Apostle be with you.” Then he returns to the sanctuary and says inaudibly the Prayer of Confession of the People, called the Mystery of Return, starting, “God, Who didst receive the confession of the thief on the cross.”
The Pauline epistle is read in Coptic and in Arabic while the priest inaudibly says the Prayer of Paul addressed to the Son, beginning with the words, “O God of knowledge and Provider of wisdom, . . . Who of Thy goodness didst call Paul, who was sometimes a persecutor, to be a chosen vessel . . . an apostle and a preacher of the Gospel, . . . bestow on us and on all Thy people a mind without distraction and a purified understanding . . . and make us also worthy to be like him in deed and faith.”
The Catholic Epistle (Catholicon) is taken either from the Epistle of James, the two Epistles of Peter, the three Epistles of John, or the Epistle of Jude. In the meantime, the priest says inaudibly the Prayer of the Catholic Epistle, beginning, “O Lord God, Who through Thy holy apostles hath manifested to us the mystery of the Gospel of Christ’s glory, . . . make us worthy of their share and heritage.” Then, unless it has been already included in the morning offering of incense, the Intercession of the Oblations is also said inaudibly.
The people sing a hymn to the Virgin Mary, “Hail to thee, Mary, the graceful dove who bore for us God the Word,” and conclude with, “Blessed art thou, in truth with Thy Good Father and the Holy Spirit, for Thou hast come and saved us.”
While the appointed section of the Acts is being read, the priest makes the sign of the cross over the incense box and puts one spoonful of incense into the thurible, and while standing at the door of the sanctuary, he says inaudibly the Prayer of the Acts, beginning, “O God, Who didst accept the sacrifice of Abraham, . . . even so, accept at our hands the sacrifice of this incense.” He follows this again with the Three Small Prayers, and he goes around the altar three times and then incenses before the door of the sanctuary. Then he incenses the Gospel and the people in the inner choir only. Standing at the iconostasis, he says the prayer of the Mystery of Return.
Then follows a reading from the Synaxarion, a compendium of the lives of saints and martyrs arranged according to the months of the Coptic calendar. What is being commemorated is not the birth but the death of the saint: “The day of death [is better] than the day of birth” (Eccl. 7:1), and whereas the Pauline epistle, the Catholic epistle, and the Acts are read by deacons, it is usually the priest who reads an account of the life of the martyr(s) of the day or the memorable event attached to it, in order to give further importance to the place of martyrs in the daily practice of the Coptic church. S. H. Leeder is worth quoting here: “Another deeply impressive feature of the Coptic services is the reading of the lives of the saints in Arabic, according to a very ancient custom sanctioned in the fourth century; . . . they keep alive the miraculous traditions which the Coptic people still cherish with undoubted reverence” (1973, p. 194).
Following the Synaxarion reading, the congregation sings the Trisagion, the refrain of which is, in effect, the hymn sung by the Seraphim: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts” (Is. 6:3; Rev. 4:8).
Standing at the entrance to the sanctuary, with the deacon behind him holding the Gospel book and the cross, the priest says the Intercession of the Gospel, which begins, “Master Lord Jesus Christ our God, Who said to his saintly disciples and holy apostles, “Many prophets and righteous men have desired to see the things which you see and have not seen them, and to hear the things which you hear and have not heard them. But you, blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.’ May we be accounted worthy to hear and act by Thine holy Gospels, through the prayers of Thy saints.” Then both priest and deacon enter the sanctuary and go around the altar, while the priest says inaudibly, “Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy Word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Thy people Israel” (Lk. 2:29-32).
In the meantime, another deacon reads the appointed Psalm in Coptic, followed by the Gospel in Coptic and Arabic, while the priest says inaudibly the prayer of the Mystery of the Gospel, beginning, “O Long-suffering One to whom appertaineth abundance of mercy,” and prays, among other things, for the sick, for the safety of men and beasts, for the safety of the country, for the rulers, for the captives, for the fruits of the earth, and for the catechumens.
Then the priest inaudibly says the Prayer of the Iconostasis, which begins, “Maker of all creation, visible and invisible, and Whose providence is over all things, for they are Thine, our Lord, Thou lover of souls, . . . while I approach Thine Holy of Holies and handle this holy rite, grant me, O Lord, Thine Holy Spirit, the fire immaterial and incomprehensible which consumeth all feebleness and which burneth up evil intentions.”
The sermon that follows the lections is usually delivered by the bishop. According to AL-SAFI IBN AL-‘ASSAL, “following the reading from the Gospel, the bishop shall hold the Gospel-book in hand, and address the congregation, elucidating the contents of the section that has just been read. In the bishop’s absence, the priest shall deliver the sermon” (1927, p. 122). It is also normal to allow competent deacons to preach at the invitation of the bishop.
The priest then goes up to the sanctuary and says the following three Great Intercessions, standing at the altar with the deacon facing him on the opposite side:
- Intercession for Peace: “We pray and beseech Thy goodness, O lover of man, remember, O Lord, the peace of the One Only Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, which is from one end of the world to the other. Bless all the peoples and all the lands; the peace that is from heaven grant in all our hearts, but also the peace of this life bestow upon us graciously. The king, the armies, the magistrates, the councillors, the multitudes, our neighbors, our goings in and our goings out, order them in all peace.”
- Intercession for the Priesthood: “Remember, O Lord, our Patriarch, honored Father Abba [name]. Preserve him to us in safety many years in peaceful times, fulfilling that holy pontificate, . . . rightly dividing the word of truth, . . . with all the Orthodox bishops, presbyters, and deacons, and all the fullness of Thy One Only Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
- Intercession for the Congregation: “Remember, O Lord, our congregation, bless them; grant that they be to us without hindrance, that they be held without impediment after Thine holy and blessed will, houses of prayer, houses of purity, houses of blessing.”
Each intercession is followed by the response “Kyrie Eleison” from the people. Then the creed is recited aloud by the deacons and the congregation. The version in use in the Coptic church is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, drawn up at the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople (see NICAEA, COUNCIL OF; CONSTANTINOPLE, COUNCIL OF).
While the creed is being recited, the priest washes his hands thrice at the northern side of the altar, then turns to the west and wrings his hands before the congregation as a sign of his own absolution from the guilt incurred by those who dare to partake of the Holy Sacrament unworthily.
He then begins the Prayer of the Aspasmos to the Father (see KISS OF PEACE), at the end of which the deacon exclaims, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
This brings to an end the Mass of the Catechumens. After the catechumens have left the church, the Liturgy of the Faithful begins.
Some church historians, however, hold the view that the departure of the catechumens took place immediately after the bishop gave them his blessing, before the recital of the creed.
The Liturgy of the Catechumens is rich in biblical symbolic associations, including the following instances:
- During the Prayer of Pauline Incense, the priest, having made a circuit round the altar, leaves the sanctuary and goes all around the church incensing the congregation. This is meant to reflect the comprehensive outward nature of St. Paul’s missionary work in bringing the Gospel to the Gentiles. In the Acts Incense, however, the priest does not go beyond the inner choir of the congregation, thus representing the fact that the rest of the apostles concentrated their efforts upon Jerusalem and Judaea.
- After incensing for the Prayer of the Acts, the priest stands at the iconostasis, without entering into the sanctuary, which is symbolic of the fact that those apostles who departed from Jerusalem in the course of their missionary efforts did not finally return to it, as each of them was martyred in the region where he was chosen to spread the Word of God.
- The total number of circuits made round the altar during the Liturgy of the Catechumens is seven: three circuits after the Prayer of Pauline Incense, one after the Mystery of the Return, and three following the Prayer of the Acts incensing. These seven circuits reflect the equivalent number of circuits made around Jericho until its walls fell down (Jos. 6:12-20). The analogy expresses the idea of the imminent collapse of the stronghold of evil and iniquity.
- During the Catholicon, the priest remains inside the sanctuary to represent the idea that Christ commanded the apostles not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the promises of God the Father (Acts 1:4).
With regard to other ritualistic practices related to consecration or ordination, it is an established tradition in the Coptic church that the consecration of new icons, altar vessels, or instruments take place after reading the Pauline epistle; that ordination to the presbytery take place after the Prayer of Reconciliation; and that consecration of a new patriarch or bishop take place after reading the Acts and the Synaxarion, to indicate that their task is a continuation of the apostolic mission.
- Carrington, P. The Early Christian Church, Vol. 1, p. 269. Cambridge, 1957.
- Cummings, D. The Rudder (Pedalion), pp. 1, 4, 27, 59, 119, 190, 192, 539, 573, 637, 774. Chicago, 1957.
- Habib Jirjis. Asrar al-Kanisah al-Sab‘ah, 2nd ed., pp. 185-236. Cairo, 1950.
- Leeder, S. H. Modern Sons of the Pharoahs. Repr. New York, 1973. Mosheim, J. L. von. Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, trans. J. Murdoch. London, 1865.
- Safi Ibn al-‘Assal, al-. Kitab al-Qawanin, pp. 28-68. Repr. Cairo, 1927.
- Shaff, P. History of the Christian Church, Vol. 1, pp. 495-96, 500. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1955.