Coptic Easter Mass

Cairo, Egypt

One of our program administrators invited a group of CASIC students to the man Coptic church in Giza with him this evening for Easter Mass. I love to visit services in other religions, and I’m collecting exotic Easters (at the Vatican with Pope John Paul II, on Mt. Nebo at sunrise), so I was quick to accept the invitation.

Like a traditional Greek Orthodox mass, it’s a long affair, starting at 7pm and going till at least midnight (we lasted almost 3 hours), and people come and go throughout. Women sat on the right, men on the left. Some women wore veils draped symbolically over their heads, many of them embroidered with crosses or images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary, but as in modern Catholicism, covering one’s hair has become optional.

I wish I had understood more, but most of the chanting was done in Coptic. Like modern Hebrew, Coptic is a language revived from old texts, the Rosetta Stone, and a lot of guesswork about its pronunciation and more mundane vocabulary that didn’t make it into written form. I understood at one point from the text on TV screens around the sanctuary that they were praying for the martyrs of the January 25 Revolution and their families. The rest was pretty, but not particularly meaningful.

The Bible readings I definitely did recognize, because they were read in plain Arabic, and were about the Virgin and the Magdalene opening the tomb and finding Jesus’ body gone, and then being spoken to by the ascended Jesus.

By far the most dramatic part was the blessing of the Host. The lights were turned off all across the sanctuary, and the curtains were drawn between the priest at the altar and the congregants in our pews. By that time, incense hung heavy in the air. There was a great deal of chanting and singing, and then a great crescendo as the curtains parted, the lights came up, torches were lit in the courtyard outside, and the Host was paraded with all its robed attendants 3 times around the entire sanctuary.

At one point, there was a good deal of commotion as a number of military personnel and men in suits were ushered in. During the sermon, also in Arabic, we learned that these were representatives of the Giza Governorate, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the local division of State Security, and the Egyptian Army. The Army got resounding applause from the congregants. The sermon talked about Egyptian unity, and standing with our Muslim brothers, and honoring the sacrifices of the revolutionaries. Apparently we were at the most important church in Giza.

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