The word “Liturgy” refers to the Christian remembrance and celebration of Jesus Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice of His body and blood. Also known as the service of the Eucharist, the Liturgy is central to any Christian order of worship. “And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you'” (Lk 22:19-20).
At the present time there are three Liturgies used in the Coptic Orthodox Church:
- The Liturgy according to St Basil, bishop of Caesarea
- The Liturgy according to St Gregory of Nazianzus, bishop of Constantinople
- The Liturgy according to St Cyril I, the 24th Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church
The Liturgy according to St. Basil is the one used most of the year; St. Gregory’s Liturgy is used during the feasts and on certain occasions; only parts of St. Cyril’s Liturgy are used nowadays.
The Liturgy was composed by the Apostles as taught to them by Jesus Christ, who after His resurrection appeared to them: “to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).
It is worth noting here that the Liturgy was first used (orally) in Alexandria by St. Mark and that it was recorded in writing by St. Cyril I, the 24th Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt. This is the Liturgy known as St. Cyril’s Liturgy and from which the other two liturgies — referred to above — are derived.
St. Mark, as we know, was one of the seventy disciples of Jesus Christ. Also, he accompanied St. Peter and St. Paul and shared the Apostolic work with them. St. Mark came to Egypt around the year 40 A.D. and established the Coptic church in Alexandria and used the above-mentioned Liturgy there. This Liturgy is one of the oldest liturgies known to the Christian world. Versions of St. Mark’s Liturgy exist in Ge’ez, the ancient language of Ethiopia, which ceased to be a living language in the 14th century A.D., but has been retained as the official and liturgical language of the Coptic Church of Ethiopia.
The sections and divisions of the three liturgies follow the same order and subject matter as taught to us by the Lord Jesus Christ: “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.'” [Matthew 26:26-28] This sacrament has also been mentioned by St. Paul: “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.” [Corinthians-1 11:23-26]
The Coptic Liturgy has the following main sections, which are also characteristics of almost every Liturgy all over the Christian world:
- Prayer of Thanksgiving
- Prayer of Consecration
- Prayer of Fraction
- Prayer of Communion
The Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea
As we mentioned before, the Liturgy of St. Basil is the one most commonly used in the Coptic Orthodox Church. It is also widely used in the other Orthodox Churches around the world. The Basilian Liturgy was established at the end of the 4th century, and drew heavily on the Liturgy of St. Mark the Evangelist. The Basilian Liturgy is addressed to God the Father, as is St. Mark’s Liturgy (better known as St. Cyril’s Liturgy), whereas the Liturgy of St. Gregory is addressed to the Son. Vespers and Matins prayers always preceede the service of the Basilian Liturgy (the same is done with Gregory’s Liturgy or Cyril’s Liturgy).
We have to assume that the present Basilian Liturgy is somewhat different from the original one, in that certain sections (e.g. Intercessions) must have been added to it. The Basilian Liturgy, as prayed in the Coptic Orthodox Church, includes the following as its main subsections (within the 4 sections mentioned above):
- Offertory: Offering of the bread (Lamb)
- The Circuit
- The Prayer of Thanksgiving
- The Intercessions: St. Mary, the Archangels, the Apostles, St. Mark, St. Menas, St. George, Saint of the day, the Pope and bishops.
- Readings: 3 Passages from Pauline Epistles, Catholic Epistles, and Acts
- Synexarium: The Saints of the day
- The Trisagion
- The Holy Gospel with an introductory prayer and Psalm reading.
Supplications for the Church, the fathers, the congregations, the president, government, and officials.
- The creed (Nicene creed of St. Athanasius, the 20th Coptic Pope)
- The Prayer of reconciliation
- Holy, Holy, Holy
- Crossing the offerings
- Prayer of the Holy Spirit invocation and outpouring.
- Supplications for the Church unity and peace, the fathers, the priests, the Place, the (Nile) water (or the vegetation or the Crops), and the offerings.
- Memory of the congregation of Saints
- Introduction to the sharing of the Holy Communion
- The fraction of the bread
- The profession and declaration of Orthodox faith
- The Holy Communion
- Psalm 150 and appropriate hymns (concurrently with the offering of the Holy Communion).
- The Eulogia
- The sermon (usually offered by the presiding priest) is given (if at all) right after the reading of the Gospel or at the end of the service. The Sermon, which is not an integral part of the Liturgy, offers explanations and contemplations on the Gospel.