How We Worship
If we can describe our church as rich in something it is in the prayer life. In all we do the focus is never lost that our aim is to lift our hearts and minds to be with Our Lord.
Candles are commonplace in our prayer. They are found in front of Icons and held by deacons at various times. The have several purposes: Firstly to glorify God who is Light and who brought us out of darkness and into Light. They act to remind us that a particular part of the prayers require extra attention such as the Gospel reading or Communion time. Usually at the back of the church is a place in front of an Icon of St. Mary and other saints to light a candle and offer a prayer the candle serves as a symbol of the flame alive in your heart for God that acts as a continuous prayer.
From when you walk into a Coptic church all the senses are engaged towards worship.
The Icons that line the church engage our eyes, aside from their beauty and deep teaching they instantly remind us that the Saints are alive and rejoicing in Paradise along side our loved ones, the angels and the Lord Himself. The result is a feeling that the church is a sanctified place resembling heaven. When we look towards the Iconostasis (the front panel of icons dividing the church from the altar) our thoughts are transported from this world and onto the Heavenly realms.
Incense is used regularly engaging our ears as we here bells on them ring and our smell as the fragrance fills the church. It reminds us that our prayers rise up to the Lord and He enjoys listening to us like a sweet smelling fragrance.
”And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand.” Rev 8:4
The Sign of The Cross
When seeing our prayers for the first time it might surprise you just how many crosses we have. We are all wearing them, and crossing ourselves constantly. Also the priest is holding a cross we regularly kiss. Understanding the cross in prayer and Orthodox life is a very big subject but just as a simple understanding: It serves a few purposes. Firstly it represents our duty to follow in Christ’s footsteps
“And He who does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me”Matt 10:38
Secondly it has great power as through it Our Lord claimed victory over death and sin and freed us from its slavery. So it is used by the faithful as a symbol of the saving power of the Lord made available to us and to remind us we live under the protection of the Lord. Given this power it is used in blessings regularly in the Coptic Church and used in prayer as a sign of devotion.
Beyond the Iconostasis lies the Alter; this is where the priest conducts the sacrament of the Eucharist (Holy Communion or Liturgy). The Holy Communion is the center of all Orthodox worship and is the single most important practice in every Orthodox Church in the world. It is the closest we can physically get to God without dying and going up to Heaven. Following the prayers of the communion service we believe that the bread and wine actually becomes the body and blood of Christ in an invisible mystery. It is a communion of love and thanksgiving where we all become truly united together through the blood of Our Lord and Savior. To those not familiar with such a prayer it may seem strange and hard to believe. But it is not so strange for a God who deeply loves and is intent on building a strong bond with His children to find a very personal and meaningful way to show His divine presence actually with us and in us. It is a sacramental prayer understood from the scriptures and from the practice of the Early Church, as such 1.5 billion Catholics and almost 600 million Orthodox worldwide accept it as a vital part of Christianity. (To learn more about this sacrament click here)
To get our minds and hearts engaged the prayers of the Eucharist have been very carefully written in the 4th Century with very little change to them. There is a harmony to the Liturgy and it is all sung and chanted in all languages (English, Arabic and Coptic) so that all attending can understand.
The Liturgy prayers last between 2-3 hours, this may seem like a long time, but when followed, understood and then prayed carefully, you become aware of the presence of the Lord. When your spirit is in harmony with the spirit of the Mass it will feel like a new experience every time it is prayed and can even feel too short.
To ensure that this Blessed Sacrament is taken seriously and with the right preparation you are required to be baptized before actually eating the Body and Blood of Christ, but all are welcome to attend the prayers.
As you learn to pray the Liturgy feel free to attend parts of the mass and to sit down at any stage you feel like.
Whenever you walk into the church you can instantly tell if we are celebrating one of the many feasts (seven major and seven minor feasts of the Lord, plus many others) or if we are in a time of fasting (Great Lent, Advent, or Holy Week)
As a church believing in the joyful resurrection of the Lord, we pay particular attention to celebrating the resurrection. As such we dedicate a full 50 days to the feast of the resurrection as well as every single Sunday of the year and every day during our morning prayers.
This must be balanced with the Christian struggle required to attain Salvation. We must be looking to constantly better our selves defeat our sins and repent when we fall. So our church also fasts two thirds of the year. Most important of the fasts is Great Lent. It is a spiritual journey we take that leads up to Holy Week the most important week of the year. In which we follow our Lords suffering in His last week of life. It is not a depressing time, nor do we re live the suffering in a state of hopelessness. Instead we aim to fully understand the glory of our Lord and His power as revealed on the Cross.
“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God”1 Cor 1:18
“That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death”Phil 3:10
It is fair to say that our Church loves the saints, none more than Our Lady St. Mary the Theotokos (Mother of God). The saints are considered alive and part of the church. This can be viewed by some as losing focus of worship towards God. However, we are not worshiping the saints, instead we are actually in prayer with them, just as praying in a community acts to strengthens and encourage each other this includes the community of worshipers currently in Paradise. We ask them to include us in their prayers. Also by remembering them we are given a wonderful example of how to succeed in this life to follow in their footsteps.
This is just a brief introduction as to what you can expect when walking into a Coptic Orthodox Church.
Outside of the Rites of the Church we are very keen to add and use any forms of prayer that contribute to the spiritual life, such as modern songs with instruments. Also this article has not covered personal prayer, which is crucial to a Christian life,
“But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly”Matt 6:6