Saturday, September 12, 2009

Vol. 3: Happy Coptic New Year

A Unique Way to Observe 9/11

Friday, September 11 was a special day for many reasons: for the United States it was a solemn day of reflection on the events of 2001. But for a small group of Egyptian-Americans and Egyptian immigrants, it had another special meaning: it was (as it is every year) the feast of Nayrouz, marking the beginning of the Coptic Orthodox New Year.

Even before I started studying the language of the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, I had always been intrigued by the fact that Coptic, the liturgical language of the Coptic Orthodox Church, is the latest form of ancient Egyptian. Although it supposedly died out as a spoken language in the 17th century, its use in the liturgy has continued to the present day. In an effort to bring a little life and context to my hieroglyphic studies at Trinity, this past September 11 I decided to attend a special New Year's mass at St. Mark Coptic Orthodox Church in Burr Ridge, Illinois, (southwest Chicago, about 45 minutes' drive from campus). There I hoped to catch a few faint echoes of the voices of the pharaohs.

Incense and Sensibility

When I entered the sanctuary at about 8:00 a.m. that Friday, I could see 20 or so worshipers through the thick clouds of heady incense (my lungs paid for inhaling all this smoke later, but the atmosphere was worth it.) The men were seated on the left side of the aisle, and the women on the right. Across the whole front of the church was a huge wooden panel covered with elaborate icons: Jesus, Mary and the Apostles were painted in bright colors and gold in a medievalizing style. The altar was in an alcove cut out of the center of this panel, and light from the windows above played through the incense, illuminating the altar in an unearthly way. I have always thought the mass was theatrical, but this is the first altar I have seen that actually suggested a proscenium stage: the priests moved in and out of the little holy alcove like actors in a play, their every movement "blocked." As I listened to their hypnotic chanting and watched them slowy dance through the smoke in their robes, gold chains, tall hats and full beards, my mind immediately ran to a picture of Aaron, fully decked out and ready to go into the Qadosh-haq-Qedoshim on the Day of Atonement. "The priestly mantle is resting right here, in northern Illinois!" I thought to myself.

My Personal Coptic Guide

I sat down in the back, and a little old man a few rows ahead of me turned around to see who it was. At first I assumed he was worshiping alone, but later I realized that his wife was seated across the aisle with the other women! After a few minutes, he turned around again, and motioned for me to sit next to him. "Shukran, shukran," I said as I joined him. "Thank you, thank you." He took it on himself to explain everything he could about the service to me, beginning by helping me negotiate the four different books required to follow the proceedings: a lectionary, two prayer books, and a Bible. He talked freely during the service in his regular voice and no one seemed to mind.

My new friend (I later learned his name was Muneer) taught me many interesting things about the ritual elements: the communion bread, for example, is referred to as "The Lamb." During a part of the Eucharist, The bread is covered up by a large silk cloth, and this reminded me immediately of the end of the Seder meal, in which a small piece of matzah (called the "afikomen") is hidden for a while in a pouch called the "tash." Interpreted through Christian theology, the afikomen represents Christ, the hiding in the tash represents his death, and the removal from the tash his resurrection. The connection seemed very striking to me, given that the Last Supper has always been supposed to be a Passover Seder meal.

Apparently styling himself as an arbiter of liturgical correctness, Muneer would often explain what he felt the priest was doing wrong. "I know how it's supposed to go better than some of them!" he chuckled to me. For instance, when the priest called everyone forward to receive a blessing called Korban (in the form of a small piece of bread to be shared in fellowship. I don't know how this connects to Mark ch. 7.), he said to me "This blessing is supposed to be given outside the church. You'll excuse me, but I won't receive it inside. It's not the way it's done." And with that, he got up and left the sanctuary, and presumably received some sort of less tangible blessing out on the sidewalk!

Our Father(s)

During one of his multiple trips spreading incense around the entire sanctuary, the main priest took a break between censer swings to stop and shake my hand. "I am Father Sam," he said, smiling. "We are so glad you have come." The blending of the informal and the liturgical in this interchange made me smile. I did indeed feel welcome. He and the assistant priest, Father Paulos (pronounced Pav-los) were referred to by the parishioners as "Abu-na Sam" and "Abu-na Paulos": "our father Sam," "our father Paulos." "There are two of them," explained Muneer, "because Christ sent out his Apostles in pairs. So every proper Coptic church has two priests."

Enchanting Music, Linguistic Whiplash

Almost the entire service was chanted beautifully, in an ornate Eastern style. Even the readings from the Old Testament, Epistles, Acts, and Gospels were chanted. There were no instruments except for some very interesting percussion during communion: bells and little cymbals kept a steady beat through the entire Eucharist.

The liturgy careened rapidly in and out of four languages: Coptic, Greek, Arabic, and English. This was done with no warning, giving me a sort of linguistic whiplash after a while. But the congregation seemingly had no trouble chanting the right response at the right time in the right language: surely the result of hundreds and hundreds of practice runs! Most of the recitation was conducted at a breakneck pace, so quickly that I am not sure even a regular could understand some portions. This probably significantly decreases the length of the service, which runs from three to three and a half hours as it is; but it made it difficult for me to follow especially the Coptic sections, which I was particularly interested in analyzing. I did eventually catch on to a couple of frequent words: Tchois, "Lord." Nouti, "God." As I have learned in class, nouti is derived from ancient Egyptian netcher.

So, why have a service in four languages? Here's the story, as I see it: when, as tradition holds, St. Mark the Evangelist brought the Gospel to the Egyptians, they were still speaking Egyptian and Greek, so a bilingual service was a practical necessity. When Egypt fell to the Arabs in the A.D. 600s and Arabic was introduced, Coptic and Greek proficiency began a process of decline. Arabic eventually had to be introduced into the liturgy to improve the churchgoers' comprehension, since it came to be the only mother-tongue. Thus Coptic and Greek became enshrined in the mass as special, cultic languages, much like Latin in the Roman Catholic Church. With Coptic communities established in other countries like the US, the older linguistic situation has been replicated: some older members only know Arabic, while a great many who know both Arabic and English; and some of the younger generation only know English. Incorporating English into the service has therefore become a new practical necessity. If the American Coptic communities assimilate fully to English, perhaps Arabic will come to be enshrined as a third cultic register in the liturgy--indeed, it may already appear so to some of the younger children. There you have an account of the linguistic soup I observed during my visit!

The Eucharist

The men are served communion first, and everyone (male or female) who goes up to the altar must remove their shoes. Each person receives a little white handkerchief to wipe their mouth with as soon as they swallow the bread and wine--apparently so none of Christ's body will fall on the floor? That the Coptic church teaches the doctrine of transubstantiation--the belief that the bread and wine are miraculously changed during the Eucharist into the literal body and blood of Christ--was evident from the language of the liturgy. Many of the women, especially the older ones, wore headscarves during the whole service. But the ones who came bareheaded had to put on a scarf provided by the priest before approaching the altar to take communion.

After everyone had received communion, the priests consumed all the remaining bread and wine. Muneer explained: "1000 years ago, they used to leave the leftovers in the church so they could administer communion to any sick people or shut-ins who needed it. But the Muslims kept breaking in and stealing the elements, so they stopped leaving them inside the church." I was skeptical of this account, since I am pretty sure Catholic and Episcopal priests do the same thing, and I am pretty sure the practice is not connected to theft by Muslims.

After communion, Abu-na Sam sprinkled the whole congregation with holy water. I was facing the middle aisle during the sprinkling, so I could see the women's faces. They looked so happy and grateful after the water hit them, and everyone, men and women, rubbed the water into their face and hair, so as not to lose any. Then the priests brought out a big basket full of bread, round loaves about ten inches in diameter and one inch thick. They summoned the whole congregation forward again, this time to get the "Korban" blessing--the one that Muneer refused to receive indoors. I was afraid to go down at first. I said to someone, "Are you sure I can go? I wasn't baptized Coptic." A pretty young woman smiled at me from across the aisle and said "It's all right. You are welcome to go." So I received my chunk of bread, which I was actually very grateful for, since my frosted wheat had worn off an hour ago. When we all had our blessing, we stood around eating it together and chatting at the front of the church. It was a special time, and I was glad to have the chance to meet a few people.

My Big Fat Coptic Wedding

The first man I met was named Mina, and we exchanged a few pleasantries over our Korban bread. "What's your name?" I asked a second man. "Mina," he answered. "Oh," I said, at somewhat of a loss. For a split second I thought maybe mina was a special greeting word whose significance I had failed to grasp. "Yes, we are both named Mina!" said the second man after a beat, noticing my confusion. The three of us smiled and laughed. I immediately thought of the scene in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the groom's w.a.s.p. parents meet the family, and there are about 10 guys named "Nick" or "Nicky." Later I learned that Mina was a famous Coptic saint, and thousands of Coptic boys are his namesakes.

We discussed the Coptic language for a few minutes, and one of the two Minas (would that be the Mina-aan, in Arabic? -aan is the dual ending) told me two families in Cairo are still fluent in Coptic. This struck me as the equivalent of the recurring report that flawless Elizabethan English is still being spoken in the Appalachians--i.e. something that can easily be cleared up by visiting But I found out that a 19th-century revival movement did renew interest in the language, and reportedly there are those who use this "Neo-Coptic" in their daily lives. Thus it would have the same relation to classical Coptic as Modern Hebrew bears to Classical Hebrew: revived after several centuries of disuse, hence only artificially connected to the original.

Muneer, the Guardian of Coptic Tradition and Heritage

As we filed out of the sanctuary, I noticed everyone else kissing the picture of the current Coptic patriarch, Pope Shenoudah. Muneer rejoined me in the foyer, and I talked with him a little more about my interest in Coptic. "I have written a book about Coptic," he told me. "In fact, I have written fifteen books." I was really impressed. "Are you a professor?" I asked. "No, I'm not a professor," he replied. "I'm a layman, like you. I am doing this to preserve our heritage. The language is our heritage. Come, I will give you a book." I followed Muneer to his car, where he rummaged in the trunk through an impressive stack of books. "Here," he said as he held out a paperback volume. "This has every word in the liturgy defined, and shows you what forms they are." I thumbed through it, and excitedly discovered that the handbook contained a guide to the Coptic alphabet and a grammar overview. I thanked him repeatedly. "I would like to give you the Gospel of Matthew too," he went on. "But I think that is enough for you. That is plenty for now!" I had to agree with him. This would be more than enough to chew on for the time being. Speaking of chewing, Muneer's smiling wife got out of the car and gave me some dried dates. Again, I was greatful since breakfast was ancient history. I took some pictures of the building (see above) and drove off, grateful for the richness that had surrounded me all morning.

Back for Another Round

My friend and fellow archaeology major Shawn and I decided to make the trek back to Burr Ridge the following Sunday. I had enthusiastically described the service to him, and he wanted to see it for himself. The Friday morning service, being a special feast day observance, had only lasted for two hours. But this one was a regular mass, and went on for the full three and a half. Abu-na Sam gave the homily, which contrasted John the Baptist with Herod, the king he dared to confront.

The service was not only longer, it was much better attended. I observed that there were many more women present than men, and that overall the women seemed to be more engaged in the service than the men. On the men's side, there was widespread confusion (or disagreement? or possibly apathy) over when to stand up, when to sit down, and when to bow low. The women made all the same gestures in concert. Some of the more "progressive" families sat together (men, women and children) on the men's side of the congregation, but no men dared to sit on the women's side.

This time during the Eucharist (which took almost an hour) there developed a regular party atmosphere in the congregation. There was much loud talking, laughing and socializing, so much so that one of the deacons twice had to pound on the microphone to restore order, hissing a stern "Please!" But the decibel level gradually climbed back up both times. People were just not going to sit through all that and not talk to each other! I could tell that these people really enjoyed being with each other. There was congregational singing on this occasion, and we sang four or five long hymns that told the story of the founding and persecution of the Coptic church. This proved to be a great history lesson for us non-Copts!

My Big Fat Coptic Premarital Class

After all was done, Abu-na Paulos gave the announcements. It seems that the six-week premarital course had kicked off the previous Saturday, but only two couples had attended. Abu-na Paulos was unequivocally firm: "I know zere are at least six or seven more engaged couples who need to attend. I assure you, if you do not go srough zis course, you will not get married in zis church!" After the announcements, Abu-na Sam repeated his homily in Arabic, apparently for the monoglots among the worshipers, who were mostly the older crowd.

Shawn and I ducked out at this point, and were invited downstairs to the parish hall where everyone was fellowshipping over coffee. We met several really nice people, including 'Imad, who was originally from Kuwait. He helped us pronounced the enigmatic letter 'ain, which is actually the first sound in his name. Hebrew has it too, and one of my text books described it as "resembling the bleating of a lamb." Essentially, it defies description, although linguistically it is a "voiced pharyngeal fricative." That's linguist talk for "this sound does not exist in English, and you'd better have a towel handy while you practice it!" (In my Army language school days, I used to walk around Monterey trying to pronounce 'ain, gurgling in the back of my throat like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings! I guess that explains all the funny looks I got from passersby!) Our new friend 'Imad told us about leaving Kuwait due to the persecution of Christians there. Not interested in being a martyr, he had left the country, then met his wife through the Coptic community in the US. The two had then raised a family together. "When you marry into the Coptic church," he told us, "it's like you marry the whole community. You are instantly connected to everyone. It is a very close-knit community." That was evident from the warmth and affection that was being displayed all around us, and which was unhesitatingly extended to us as well. Although we couldn't have looked less like we belonged in that group, I felt totally at ease with them. It was fun being "Coptic for a day," and I look forward to further involvement with this very special group!

Professional Development News

Couple of exciting things to share. I just joined two professional organizations that are important for biblical studies and Near Eastern archaeology: the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research. So I'll actually be getting some journals in the mail, and hopefully get a feel for what's going on in the field today.

I turned in my first paper at TEDS this week. It is a review of a book on archaeology. I am pretty happy with it, and I am very grateful to have chosen a book that I had such strong reactions to. I disagreed with the author on many points, most of them philosophical. And controversy makes for good writing, I think. I definitely had fun pointing up what I perceived as the weak points in his arguments. I sicced C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Ravi Zacharias on him! If interested, you can read my work here.

Also, I am very excited to announce that in March 2010, my collaborater Gemma Cooper-Novack and I will be presenting selections from our musical adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility at a meeting in New York City. I don't want to give too many more details until this organization has had a chance to finalize and publish its agenda for that meeting, but I can say that professional actors will be involved, and we are hoping to invite everyone we can think of in the NYC area (whether we know them or not!) Since I'm going to be the piano accompanist, this means I will be doing some serious keyboard practice. I will need to be able to pull off five or six of the songs confidently. (Just 'cause I wrote it doesn't mean I can play it! Luckily, as the composer I have the right to make mistakes--I mean, last minute changes--on the spot!) It is very gratifying and exciting to have someone interested in our work, and we are hopeful that this opportunity will result in some productive contacts and good exposure. I would invite everyone to listen to my homespun yet evocative demos here. (Better website in the works, to be unveiled soon!)

Oh, bother. I had promised to publish the "Top 10 Reasons why Indiana Jones is a Terrible Archaeologist" in this issue. With apologies for the suspense, I will have to postpone that feature until next time. It's time for bed!

In His Grip,


  1. Josh- Thank you for sharing this! I had never heard of Coptic or the Coptic Orthodox Church, so I feel like I learned a lot, both about the way Christ is worshiped in the American Coptic community and also about diversity in Illinois. Keep sharing the knowledge and spreading the Love!


  2. Hi Josh: I so enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing. I'll probably go back for another read through at a later time. What a rich experience and you had enough knowledge to guess at how much more there was to grasp. Blessings. Hope you have a good week in Christ. Alex