Introduction to Coptic Church Lectionaries
It is truly amazing, that the Church should offer us those readings, within a framework of reverence, and sublime, yet venerable, melodies, imparting to us the Holy Spirit's fervour and ardency. Lectionaries, as much as they drive the soul to repentance, they also bestow on it the spirit of praise of God, and envelop it within the shroud of incense, rising to the celestials' fellowship. During the readings, incense represents the rite of repentance - holy books open the soul's eyes, preparing it for repentance. For this reason, the priest proceeds around the church with the censer, gathering repentants' confessions with the prayers of the saints. When the priest offers the censer, each person confesses his/her sins, and repents before God - in the meantime, the priest recites an inaudible prayer of submission saying: "Jesus Christ yesterday, today, and forever, is unchangeable ... ; He gave Himself up on the Cross, an acceptable atoning sacrifice, for our race. His righteous Father savoured Him at Calvary in the evening. He opened the gates of Paradise and restored Adam once more to his initial dominion ..." Christ's sacrifice, offered to the Father at Calvary, is an atonement for a repentant congregation; the Lord savours the aroma of satisfaction - incense rising with the prayers of the saints. The priest then proceeds to the sanctuary, where he offers the congregation's confessions before the throne of grace, and recites inaudibly the "Mystery of the Congregation's Confession" or the "Mystery of Restitution," so named since the priest has returned with a contrite congregation, who confessed their sins. Christ's sacrifice intercedes and atones, and the clouds of Christ's sweet-smelling aroma provide a cover, so that "... we should be holy and without blame before Him in love." (Eph. 1:4) In this way, the Church ensures that all our senses participate in our spiritual worship and in praising God.
The Liturgy of the Word concludes with the three major litanies which, today, have been neglected. Litanies conclude the word of God with prayers and petitions; our prayers are Biblical readings, and our gospel reading is prayer. Those lectionaries were developed so that we might read them together, collectively (liturgy), in church, in a spirit of prayer; together, as a unified Church, we should understand them with an awareness that fosters our growth in, and knowledge of, the word of God, with one accord. Its life-giving breath flows through our veins - leading us to eternal life. Through its fragrant incense, we breathe one Spirit, sanctifying our hearts in truth, and unifying our souls in righteousness, thus taking us to the fellowship of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church - the indivisible body of Christ.
All Churches, be they Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, have awarded much importance to lectionaries; many theological colleges dedicated departments to church readings, in recognition of their scientific and pedagogical significance. Scientific studies, conducted to compare various Churches' traditional programs, and their effects on education, identified many similarities, especially for readings during church observances; suggesting that they were instituted during pre-schism times. It is also worth noting that, for all Churches, the church cycle starts the beginning of September; this is true even for the Church of Rome which, during the Twentieth Century Second Council of the Vatican, had changed the start of its ritual year to the beginning of November. In this regard, Father Alexander Schmemann said(1): "Since the olden days, the beginning of September marked the start of the cycle of the Church's calendar. Most likely, nobody either knows or remembers this. Nevertheless it is befitting that the advent of Autumn heralds our meditation on the meaning of Church celebrations." Prior to the Gregorian adjustment, the Coptic year started around the end of August or the beginning of September. This leads to speculation that organization of the Church's calendar started in Egypt, and was later adopted by all the other Churches. Such speculation is not far-fetched since, during the first four centuries, Egyptian culture consistently spilled over to the entire Christian world, through her universities, monasteries and Theological direction.
Although our Coptic Church's program is among the richest and deepest-rooted, and could even qualify as the most ancient, it never received its deserved scientific study, and never attracted due attention. This cultural wealth was never presented to the world, since western scholars were not alerted to its existence and value. One French-language book, though, authored by the Belgian scholar Ugo Zanetti, and entitled "Les Léctionnaires Coptes Annuels - Basse Egypte," was published in 1985 by the "Université Catholique de Louvain." (another German-language reference may exist, but could not be located). Otherwise, there are no scientific references probing this subject in either the Arabic or English language. To-date, there has been no initiative, at the Coptic Church's level, to commission a scientific study of the Church's lectionaries, despite the dire need for such work, given its extreme educational importance in the religious and pedagogical contexts.
One book, discussing Church readings, was published in six parts during the twentieth century fifties. Authored by archdeacon, the late Banoub Abdou, it was entitled "Konooz Al-Ne'mah" (The Treasures of Grace). The author expended a significant, well-acknowledged, effort to publish it, especially at a time when patristic studies and scientific research capabilities were unavailable for the Coptic writer. That publication certainly filled a vacuum in those days. How great is our Church's need these days, for specialized researchers and language scholars, dedicated to the study of this virgin and fertile topic, that absorbs much varied and specialized research!
A study of Church lectionaries should encompass several levels:
A vertical study of lectionaries: Such a study addresses all the readings for a particular day, in order to arrive at the common thought covered by that day's readings.
With very few exceptions, studies of that nature have identified marvellous concordance in spiritual and theological thought across readings for a given day. Some readings, though, have been shown to be inconsistent with the general theme of the day; follow-up investigations are therefore necessary to enable the introduction of modifications that would serve the purpose.
Assembling all the lectionaries is a formidable task which went through many changes over the ages. It is thus imperative that old manuscripts be examined, against present versions, to understand the changes which took place over the years, and to determine the best remedial action.
A horizontal programmatic study of lectionaries: This study covers the horizontal relationship between readings of successive Sundays and feasts, year round, in order to formulate academic curricula, set by the Church, for the purpose of shaping its comprehensive annual program, from the spiritual, theological and educational perspectives. In this way the Church's spiritual thought is enriched, and the Church's Faith is transmitted to successive generations.
A historical study of lectionaries: It is necessary to study the old manuscripts in order to understand the readings' genesis, the background behind their development, the changes which took place over time, and the circumstances which led to those changes. Churches over the world have taken care to record the history of their respective liturgies, as well as the biographies of those who instituted each segment and melody therein; the Coptic Church, on the other hand, has not undertaken analogous studies. The likely reason is that authors of those texts preferred anonymity by way of self-denial. I do believe, though, that the time is ripe for a scientific, historical, study of the Church's liturgies, ritual books, hymnology, and especially the biblical readings. We need to know their history as well as their authors' biographies. This effort requires a focused scientific study of manuscripts available in various languages.
A patristic study of lectionaries: These lectionaries were put together by our Church fathers across the generations; we thus need to understand their perspective in interpreting the Holy Bible, in order for us to rationalize the goal of assembling the readings in this form, and to know the deep spiritual and theological dimensions inherent in each day's readings. We would thus develop an appreciation of the essence of these daily readings, from instruction to coherent themes, based on a patristic foundation.
A comparative study of lectionaries: From time immemorial, Churches all over the world paid much attention to church lectionaries; a close scrutiny will identify convergence or divergence between those lectionaries and the readings of the Coptic Orthodox Church. For this reason we must study other Churches' programs, especially traditional Churches, and compare them against the Coptic Church's program. This study would be vital in determining the readings' timing. It should also be noted that many feast readings, especially in traditional Churches, are common - which could imply that they were instituted prior to the schism. In his book discussing the Russian Church's lectionaries, in the context of the Church calendar, Father Alexander Schmemann wonders, "Why do we not try to understand the amazing fabric of feasts which recur each season with their distinguishing colours and unique depths? ... the Nativity Feast's lights, the grief characterizing the Great Lent which transforms practically into the joy of Resurrection, the summer filled with the Feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, and the pre-Autumn August Feasts of Transfiguration and Dormition (of the Virgin)." It would then seem that the general framework of the Russian Church's timing and lectionaries for feasts, resembles that of the Coptic Church; this is despite the fact that the Russian Church, founded in the eleventh century, never crossed paths with the Coptic Church at any point in history.
The book you are holding offers a combined horizontal and vertical programmatic study of the lectionaries, for the purpose of revealing the programmatic organization on the basis of which our forefathers instituted those readings. The book also offers the spiritual values of this heritage, as well as its intrinsic theological thought. As I present this opus, I beseech God that it be of use, and that it encourage the initiation of a scientific study, focused on this important subject.
(1) The Church Year, sermon, Volume 2, by Father Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, New York, 1994, See p.13.