A Long, Long Time Ago…

Sure it’s long, but is there any other experience like a Coptic liturgy in this whole world? OK, I’m a bit biased: I admit that. But the more I pray our beautiful liturgy the more does it steal away my heart.

 Here’s a little exercise you might like to try to see a little of what I mean:

 Imagine what it might have been like to have been an Alexandrian Christian in the First Century AD. Most likely, you would not have attended the liturgy in a purpose built church building. It would have been at someone’s house, or in a cave or underground tomb in times of severe persecution. No electricity or microphones – only candles and lamps and the human voices emanating from human hearts and minds; sharing together with their voices he experience of the presence of God among them…

 Before the liturgy, the gathered people would ask someone to read out the beautiful message in the copy of one of the apostolic letters that had reached Alexandria. One of the deacons respectfully pulls out a parchment and excitedly announces that he has gotten hold of a copy of a new letter from Saul of Tarsus, now known as Paul. The gathering murmurs with anticipation – he has quite a reputation, this Paul!

 After absorbing the exhortations of the apostle, the call is made to bring out the group’s chief treasure: a complete parchment of the Gospel left behind by the Apostle Mark, so recently and horribly martyred. A hush falls upon the little gathering as the elder slowly reads out words uttered only a few decades ago from the mouth of God incarnate. At the end of the reading, someone asks a question, and the elder takes a little time to explain, drawing upon all that he eagerly absorbed as he sat at the feet of Mark … in happier times. Then the Eucharist begins.

 Those who have offerings bring them out now, mostly offerings of money or clothing for the poor, or food for the Aghape feast that will follow the Eucharist. The designated deacons collect everything and carefully store it away, but two offerings they place on a special table: bread and wine. The elder prays, blessing the offerings and entreating God to accept them from the humble group. Then he turns to the people and exhorts them to lift up their hearts now to God, in prayer and contemplation. He re-enacts that fateful Supper, uttering the very words spoken by the Lamb of God on His way to being sacrificed for the sins of the world, repeating His very actions in blessing the bread and wine and breaking the bread. He winces as the fibres of bread split apart, thinking of how the fibres of Christ’s muscles tore apart as He was brutally stretched out upon that cross. Mark had been there…

 And now, the re-enactment is finished. They pray for their daily needs from God who gives all good things, and they remember not only the needs of the living, but also the souls of the dead who have departed in the hope of the resurrection. Finally, the elder turns to the people and invite them to come forward one by one to receive this most precious gift of God. They sing a hymn of joy, a hymn of victory, even though they are but a small and persecuted sector of Egyptian society. But they leave behind their worldly troubles and cares as for a few hours they are transported, first back to Palestine in the last hours of the life of the Christ, and then to heaven itself as the Kings of Kings comes to unite with them and to dwell within their bodies and souls.

 This joy they keep within them as they share the Love meal when the prayers are over. It is a joy that sustains them through the harsh reality of their lives, and brings them together as one community, one family, one body. With this joy in their hearts, they say their goodbyes to each other and disperse in little groups and knots to return to their daily lives.

 Can you recognise our liturgy in that little story above? That is exactly what the liturgy is, with a few embellishments and additions. How beautiful the experience becomes when one looks at it through the eyes of the first Church…

 Fr Ant

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