This a draft of the first half of a small book I am working on, once more for visitors, enquirers, youth, and non-Christians.
What is the Coptic Orthodox Church?
The Coptic Orthodox Church is the ancient Christian Church of Egypt. It is one part of the worldwide Orthodox Church, established by the Apostles in the first century. Now it can be found throughout the world, and even here in the West. The word Coptic derives from the Greek word for Egyptian. It is a Christian community which has its roots in Egypt, where ten million members are found. But now perhaps two million members of this Church are living and worshipping outside Egypt, and especially in Western countries, and many thousands of British, American, Canadian, Australian and other ordinary people from the West are finding a spiritual home in this ancient Church.
If you have seen a church building with a sign using the words ‘Coptic Orthodox’, it is because there are an increasing number of local congregations outside Egypt which belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church. If you have noticed Christians online speaking about Coptic Orthodoxy it is because we are experiencing a way of living the Christian life, in common with other Orthodox Christians, which we wish to share as a great treasure.
Though the Orthodox Church often takes on a particular cultural atmosphere, through centuries of practice in a certain place, that does not mean that it ever loses that sense of being the Church for all people in all places. In the 21st century this is what is slowly being experienced by many who have found something of great value in Orthodox Christianity.
Increasingly, the services of the Coptic Orthodox Church are celebrated in English, by people whose family perhaps came from Egypt, but who were born and grew up here in the West. There are now priests and bishops who were born outside Egypt, and there are even priests, with no family connection to Egypt, who are both Orthodox and Western.
This introduction will describe briefly the history and teachings of the Coptic Orthodox Church, as part of the wider Orthodox Tradition, and it will hopefully explain why it is that this spiritual way of life is becoming so attractive to more and more people who are discovering it during their search for a deeper relationship with God. The Coptic Orthodox Church may perhaps appear to be a recent introduction to the West, but as we will see in this Introduction, it represents the earliest and original Christianity, Apostolic Christianity, and it is a renewal in the West of a way of life that was once shared by all Christians in the past.
How it all began…
The Coptic Orthodox Church can trace its history all the way back to the first century, and to the preaching of the Christian faith by St. Mark, the Evangelist and Apostle. He was the author of the Gospel which bears his name, and which he wrote down from the account of the life of Jesus Christ which he heard directly from St. Peter. In the years after the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ, and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the Church in Jerusalem, the Apostles and their followers spread the Good News of life in union with God by Jesus Christ in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit in all directions. St. Paul travelled through Asia Minor towards Rome, while others travelled East even as far as India, but St Mark, while also serving with others, found his way to Alexandria, the great city of Egypt.
St. Mark arrived at the harbour, since Alexandria is built on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, at the delta of the River Nile. As he was entering in through the gate of the city, the strap of his sandal snapped. He looked around and saw that there was a cobbler sitting at the side of the road, and he went over and asked him to mend his shoe. The cobbler started to work on fixing it, but he slipped and stabbed the awl, the sharp tool he was using, into his hand. He cried out and said, God is one!
St. Mark believed this was an opportunity to speak about Jesus Christ, and he spat on the ground, made some mud, and spread it over the cobbler’s wounded hand. He prayed, saying…
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the One living and eternal God, may the hand of this man be healed at this moment, so that your holy name may be glorified.
At that moment, the cobbler’s hand was completely healed. He was astonished at the miracle which had taken place, and this gave St. Mark an opportunity to speak about the Christian faith, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The cobbler’s name was Anianus, and he became a Christian, and was baptised by St. Mark, together with all of his household, and many of his neighbours, who had come to hear the message that St. Mark was preaching.
The number of the believers grew, and after a while the priests of the pagan religions began to oppose St. Mark, and even to threaten him. So, he appointed Anianus as the first bishop or leader of the Orthodox Christian community in Alexandria, and ordained three priests and seven deacons to help him in serving the Church, and he set off on a missionary journey further down the North African coast. He was away from Alexandria for two years, and when he returned he found that the Orthodox community had continued to grow and prosper, and had now established a simple church on the edge of the city at a place called, the ‘Cattle Pasture’.
The Orthodox Christians in Alexandria were happy to see St. Mark again, but the priests of the pagan temples renewed their efforts to harm him. They found him worshipping in the church on the Feast of the Resurrection, or Easter, and took him, put a rope around his neck, and dragged him through the streets. They kept him in prison and repeated the same brutal punishment the next day, during which he gave up his spirit to God and reposed. His body was taken by the faithful believers and buried in their church at the ‘Cattle Pasture’. Anianus continued to lead the Church in Alexandria until he also passed away, and the succession of leaders of the Church of Alexandria continued and continues until the present time.
A little more history…
This small community of Orthodox Christians, established by the preaching of St. Mark in the first century, has continued to grow. The present senior bishop is Patriarch Tawadros, or Theodore, and he is the 118th such leader of the Church of Alexandria, in a direct and unbroken continuity through almost two thousand years. The Coptic Orthodox Christians call him Pope Tawadros, which means father. The use of the word Pope, not as a rank or title, but to describe the relationship of Christians with their bishop, was first used in Alexandria, and only much later adopted by the bishop of Rome.
From an early period, the Church in Alexandria developed an important and leading role in the wider Orthodox Church throughout the world. Orthodox is a word which Christians used from the beginning to describe themselves in comparison with other groups who corrupted and misrepresented the truth about Jesus Christ. Orthodox means ‘right belief’, and the Church of Alexandria, with the other Christian communities that were following the faith of the Apostles in the first centuries, understood their way of life as being Orthodox, as being the right faith.
By the second century there was a well-established school in Alexandria which taught theology, Christian philosophy, Biblical studies and other more secular topics. We know the names of the first teachers there. They were Athenagoras, Pantenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria. Some of the most famous early thinkers and writers in the Church studied and taught there, including Origen and St. Basil the Great. Alexandria became an important place of Christian study and theological enquiry and remained so over many centuries.
But it also suffered at the hands of persecuting Emperors, and especially in the 3rd and early 4th centuries when Diocletian came to the throne. Throughout the 3rd century Christians had sometimes been required to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods and had shown that they were willing to face death rather than abandon their faith. In 303 A.D. laws were passed which again required Christians to offer sacrifice to the gods. Many bishops, priests and church members were arrested in Egypt so that the prisons became full, and ordinary criminals had to be released. It is recorded that 660 Christians were martyred in Alexandria alone between 303 and 311 A.D., and Egypt seems to have borne the brunt of the persecution at this time. The leader of the Church was Patriarch Peter, and it was with his death, in 311 A.D., that persecution finally came to an end in this period. For this reason, he is known as St. Peter the Seal of Martyrs, and the severity of the persecution at this period is reflected in the calendar of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which counts from this persecution. The year 2017, for instance, is 1733 in the Orthodox calendar of Alexandria which begins from the date that Diocletian, the persecuting Emperor, ascended to the throne.
Egypt was part of the Roman Empire, and when Constantine became Emperor, and granted freedom to Christians to follow their faith in the 4th century, the Church in Egypt also prospered. But this was also a period in which the Orthodox Church, including the community in Alexandria, had to oppose various false ideas about God. These false ideas, or heresies, often developed in Alexandria because it was one of the main centres in which reflection on the Christian faith took place.
Almost all of these early controversies were about Jesus Christ himself. At first it was whether the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit of God were truly divine. Then the controversy turned to how the Son of God could also be human. Some thought that he had joined himself to an existing human being. While others thought that he only appeared to be a man. Yet others insisted that he was a mixture of divinity and humanity in some new manner. But the Orthodox Church of Alexandria preserved the teaching that it had received from the Apostles, which is that Jesus Christ is the Son of God made truly man, without ceasing to be always and truly God, in a union which has taken place without any mixture, but also without creating a separation of the humanity and divinity into two beings. It is God the Word who is both human and divine. His humanity is just like ours, without any sin, and he remains divine as the Son of God.
Of course, this is beyond our comprehension. How does this happen? We cannot say, but we believe that Jesus Christ is truly God, truly the Son of God who has become a man to save us, without ceasing to be God even while becoming truly man.
These important controversies led to one of the most significant divisions in the history of the Church. At a meeting of Church leaders in 451 A.D., in Chalcedon, outside of Constantinople, the Church of Alexandria resisted the demand that it should adopt a description of Jesus Christ which seemed to open the way to a false understanding of Jesus Christ. This led to a serious disagreement between the Orthodox Church of Alexandria which wanted to use its traditional language and speak about Jesus Christ being a union of two – a union of humanity and divinity without mixture, and those at the council who wanted to use language previously associated with some of those who taught error and say that – Jesus Christ was in two. This seems a little thing now perhaps. But the preservation of the truth about Jesus Christ was at stake and even small differences in what was said about him mattered and still matter.
The idea that Jesus Christ was – in two – had been used by others to suggest that he was just a man in whom the Word of God was present. It was for this reason that this phrase was rejected by the Orthodox Church of Alexandria, and others, even though it produced a controversy that eventually led to division. The Church of Alexandria was doing no more than holding fast to what it had received. It was only insisting that Jesus Christ was God the Word who had become truly human, while remaining truly divine, and that therefore he was one – one being, one subject, one identity – who was God and man without change or confusion, separation or division.
Over the next few centuries this controversy continued to have a harmful effect on Christians in the East. Conferences were held to try and resolve the difference of view. But even though it was clear that both sides believed the same things about Jesus Christ, it seemed impossible to discover how unity could be re-established. This is why, in modern times, there are two groups of Orthodox Churches – those who think the council of Chalcedon should be accepted as an authority, and those who think that it introduced more problems than it solved. The Greek Church is one of those which support the council of Chalcedon, while the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is one of those, together with the Armenian, Syrian, Eritrean, Ethiopian and Indian Orthodox Churches, which do not consider it authoritative. Sometimes those who accept the council of Chalcedon are called Eastern Orthodox, while those who reject the council of Chalcedon are called Oriental Orthodox. The words Eastern and Oriental have the same meaning, but this is a way of distinguishing between two communities whose histories stretch back to the Apostles but who are still formally separated by the controversy of the 5th century.
In the middle of the 7th century, disaster struck the Roman Empire in the East, when the first Muslim invasions took place. Egypt fell to the Islamic armies in 641 A.D, and then most of the civilization along the North African coast was swept away in violence. This changed everything. The Church in the Middle East, including the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, now had to survive under the difficult conditions of Muslim government. When the invading Muslim armies had entered Egypt, they had given the Christian inhabitants three choices – convert to Islam, pay tribute as a sign of their humiliation, or fight.
The Orthodox Church of Alexandria and Egypt has therefore been subject to an increasingly Islamic government and society for over 1350 years. In the centuries before the conquest it had supported the missionary expansion of the Orthodox Church into Ethiopia and Nubia, and had played an important and leading role in the wider life of the Orthodox Church. But after the Muslim invasion of the 7th century this became impossible.
Of course, these past centuries have not been always equally difficult, but periods of outright persecution, and the second -class character of Christians in a Muslim society has led to the Christian community being reduced to only about 10 million of Egypt’s population of 80 million. Likewise, the languages of Egypt had been Greek and Coptic, but now Arabic has replaced these outside of Church services. One example from the history of this period illustrates how the Church had to adopt an attitude of preservation and endurance, which naturally affected the life of the Orthodox community in Egypt in a variety of ways.
In the 10th century, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church was Patriarch Abraam. The Muslim Caliph al-Muizz commanded the Patriarch to perform a miracle of moving a mountain, as it is written in the Gospel, when Jesus says – Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you. He promised that if the miracle was not performed within three days then he would kill all the Christians in Egypt.
Patriarch Abraam went directly to the Church of St Mary, and with many bishops and priests fasted and prayed for the duration of those three days. Before the dawn of the third day the Virgin Mary came to him in his sleep and inquired: “How is it with you?” “My lady, you know what is happening,” he replied. Then she comforted him and told him that if he went to the market, he would meet a one-eyed man carrying a skin filled with water. This is the man who would move the mountain, she said.
The Pope went out that very morning to do as he had been told and he met Simon the Tanner, just as the Virgin Mary had described. He asked Simon what he was doing at that early hour. To which Simon replied that he was carrying water to the sick and the elderly who could not fetch water for themselves. The Patriarch explained his need, and Simon though reluctant at first, placed himself at his service. Simon told Patriarch Abraam to go out with his priests and all his people to the mountain with the Caliph and all his soldiers. Simon then told Abraam to cry out “O Lord, have mercy” three times and each time to make the sign of the cross over the mountain.
They led a large procession of the faithful to the Muqattam Mountain outside Cairo. With them was the Caliph. Patriarch Abraam celebrated the Liturgy and the multitude chanted after him Kyrie Eleison, asking for God’s mercy. They knelt down three times as the Patriarch made the sign of the cross with a sweeping gesture extending from one end of the mountain to the other.
The mountain shook violently as if a strong earthquake had hit the land. Then it began moving upwards. Every time the worshippers rose from their prayers, the mountain lifted itself upwards. When they knelt down, it also came down with a loud sound. Three times this took place and each time the mountain moved upwards, the light of the sun, which was behind it, became clearly visible to the assembled crowd underneath the mountain.
At this miraculous sight, Al Muizz declared, “God is Great!” Then, turning to Patriarch Abraam, he said, “This is enough to prove that your faith is true.” When order was restored, Abraam looked for Simon, who had kept himself hidden behind the Patriarch, but he was nowhere to be found.
This is such an important event in the life and history of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Coptic Orthodox Church, that it is still commemorated each year in three days of fasting. This account is very well known and the mountain of Muqattam can be visited. It represents one of the periods of greatest threat and danger to the Orthodox Church in Egypt, and at the same time, is a reminder of the miraculous provision of God, who has saved his Church to the present time, even in the face of persecution.
One further historical characteristic of the Church in Egypt needs to be described. The desire for a deeper spiritual life first drew men and women to seek a life of solitude in Egypt. Even in the Apostolic age, there were those who lived a life of quiet, prayer and humble service, following the example of the Lord Jesus Christ and of St John the Baptist.
At first these seekers after God lived quietly in towns and villages. Then they began to move to the edges of the populated areas of Egypt. Even as early as the second century there were many men and women living such a simple life. And then, under the influence of pioneers such as St Anthony the Great, there was a movement out into the deserts and mountains in a desire to find solitude, and in a commitment to abandon all worldly desires and to seek God only.
The first monastery in the world was established at the foot of the mountain in the south of Egypt where St Anthony had made his home in a cave. Those who wanted to learn the way of prayer from him settled at the bottom and provided him with food and water, and he celebrated the Liturgy with them each week. This monastery continues in existence, an active and important feature of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.
But it is just one of what became hundreds of monasteries, populated by thousands of monks, men and women in their own establishments at the height of the monastic movement in Egypt. Nor were these monasteries entirely separated from the wider life of the Church. Not only did large numbers of Christians visit the monasteries for spiritual advice and renewal, but on occasion the monks themselves, and especially the great leaders of the monasteries, were called upon to come to Alexandria in defense of the Orthodox teaching of the Church.
During the Muslim invasions, and then under assault from persecution and violent desert tribes, many of these monasteries were destroyed, left ruined and empty. But those which remained had a profound effect on the life of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, and the monastic desire for life in union with God through prayer has become a central aspect of the spiritual way which is encouraged for all members of the Church.
In recent times, there has been a renewal of the monastic life, and now many of the ruined monasteries have been rebuilt and re-established. There are many thousands of monks, male and female, and no shortage of those seeking to enter into this way of life. These monasteries, still found in their ancient locations, are now easier to reach, thanks to modern road networks, and hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians visit them every year to find peace and spiritual renewal.
In modern times…
There are new Orthodox monasteries being established outside of Egypt. The monastic spiritual element of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is so strong that almost as soon as churches are established there is a desire for a monastery to be founded as well. In the USA, in the UK, in Italy, France, Germany and other European countries, even in Australia, Coptic Orthodox monasteries are now to be found and are visited by faithful members of this Orthodox community, while other Orthodox communities have also established monasteries in almost every place as well.
In the last 50 years, driven by migration, congregations of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Coptic Orthodox Church, have been established around the world. The first communities in the United States and Canada were formed in the 1960s, and now there are perhaps one million Coptic Orthodox in North America, with several hundred congregations, hundreds of priests and many bishops, together with monasteries in several states. Likewise, in Europe there are hundreds of congregations, many priests and bishops, and monasteries in many countries.
While the first generations of these congregations were Arabic speaking migrants, increasingly the population of Coptic Orthodox Christians in the West is represented by second and third generations, who speak Western languages as their first language. There are also increasing numbers of Western converts to Orthodoxy, and those who have married into the community and adopted the Orthodox Faith of their partner.
Orthodoxy in general, and the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in particular, are no longer strangers in the West. Indeed, there are perhaps two million members of the Coptic Orthodox Church outside of Egypt, both those born in Egypt and those born in many other countries that are now called home. After 1400 years, the Coptic Orthodox Church is also finally free to engage in mission again. In over 30 countries around the world, certainly on a small scale, mission is taking place, and local people are being supported and encouraged in their own experience of Orthodoxy.
Even the historic controversies with other Orthodox groups, and other Christian communities, are being discussed, and as far as is possible fruitful relationships are being developed as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is able to look outwards, and share this ancient Apostolic Faith in different places and with different people.
What do we believe…
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, together with the other Orthodox Churches, uses the Creed, or statement of Faith, which was authorised by the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 A.D., and then modified at the second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D. An Ecumenical Council was a gathering of many of the bishops, from as many different places as possible, to discuss and resolve some of the most pressing theological issues of the time. One of the most important figures in the preservation of the Apostolic faith, and its expression in the Nicene Creed, was St Athanasius, known as the Pillar of the Faith, who was the bishop of Alexandria, and the Pope of the Orthodox Church in Egypt, from 328 A.D. to 373 A.D.
The Nicene Creed, with additions made at the Council of Constantinople in 381 A.D, says…
We believe in one God, God the Father, the Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages.
Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not created, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit, and of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried, and on the third day He rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures. He ascended into the heavens. He is seated at the right hand of His Father, and He is coming again in His glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.
Yes, we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father, who, with the Father and the Son, is worshipped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.
And in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come. Amen.
This ancient statement of faith remains important to the life of the Coptic Orthodox and other Orthodox Churches. It is not an historical text with only academic value, but it is repeated as an expression of our own faith every day in our private prayers, and in the services of the Church.
It was not the creation of a new faith, but it represented a clear statement of what had been believed from the Apostolic times, and it still represents the basis of Orthodox teaching today.
In the beginning, God created…
The Coptic Orthodox Church, together with the other Orthodox Churches, believes that this universe had both a beginning, and that it is the expression of the loving intention of a creative God to bring into existence creatures with whom he could generously share his own life and love. One of the great teachers of Orthodoxy, and leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the 5th century, St Athanasius, says of the creation of God…
For God is good—or rather, He is the source of all goodness, and it is impossible for someone who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is so good, or rather the source of all goodness, that in his goodness he called creation into existence, in whatever way he chose, so that all creation could share in this wonderful experience and expression of his love. There is no sense in our Orthodox Faith that the creation of the material world is somehow separated from the life of God. The world and our material existence is not something wicked that we must escape from. On the contrary, it was made by God himself out of his goodness, and when he saw all that he had made we find that it is written, in the first chapter of the Bible…
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.
This sense that the material world is good, and the place where we experience life with God, fills the Orthodox expressions of worship. Orthodox churches are places of Christian art and iconography. The services of the Church are sung rather than said, and our Orthodox worship is essentially both poetry and drama. Indeed, the Liturgy, the sacrament of the Eucharist, is a representation in movement, hymns, and prayer, of the whole of the history of salvation and of the Gospel message. There are no bare walls in an Orthodox church because we believe that the whole of creation is to be renewed and is being renewed and restored to that state of goodness in which God first made it, and this work of renewal especially begins in the material world in which we worship God.
Orthodox Christians hold a variety of views about the way God has brought the universe into existence. It is possible to accept or be critical of currently expressed scientific explanations. But the theological truth which Orthodoxy teaches, that God is the source of the creation and that he created it with intelligent purpose and in love, is the basis of all our thinking about the world.
We believe in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit…
Orthodox Christians do not simply believe in God, but we believe that God has shown himself to be Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We find this idea that God is a plurality, and not just one divine person eternally alone, in the Bible itself. The account of the creation of man in the book of Genesis says…
Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.
This is just the first of many references to God as being three divine persons who are one God. Not three gods. And not one God who appears in different ways. But a God who is essentially and eternally a communion of love. Orthodox Christians understand that this truth about the Holy Trinity, about the three persons in God, reveals to us that God is truly always love and that he did not wait until he had created the universe to begin to express this love, but outside of time and space the love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is eternal, without beginning or end, so that eternally, God is love.
In the New Testament, in the account of the baptism of Jesus Christ, we see the Holy Trinity working together for the salvation of mankind.
When Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and settling on him; and there was a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”.
The Father speaks from heaven and acknowledges Jesus Christ as his Son, while the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove upon him. Elsewhere Jesus tells us that he and the Father are one, and we read of the Holy Spirit being also the Spirit of the Son and the Spirit of the Father. Even the last words that Jesus Christ spoke on earth before he ascended into heaven express the truth of the Holy Trinity when he says…
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.
The earliest Christians, those taught by the Apostles themselves, continued to speak about God as being a Holy Trinity of three divine persons who are one God. One of the earliest, St Ignatius of Antioch, had known St Peter and St Paul and had become the leader of the Church in Antioch in 67 A.D. He speaks about the Holy Trinity, saying…
Study, therefore, to be established in the teachings of the Lord and the Apostles, so that all things, whatever you do, may prosper both in the flesh and spirit; in faith and love; in the Son, and in the Father, and in the Spirit.
The Orthodox Church has always rejected the error of saying that there are three gods. This is not what the teaching of the Trinity means. And it has always rejected the error of saying that there is just one god who sometimes appears as the Father, sometimes as the Son, and sometimes as the Spirit. Orthodoxy teaches only what has been revealed by God himself, that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equally God and are one God in three divine persons.
And he took and ate…
God had created the universe out of his generous love as something good. The greatest of all his creations was man because he had made Adam and Eve to be like him, to share his character in a material form, and to be able to seek after a greater union with God. He placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where all their material needs were fulfilled, and the Bible tells us that God was present with them. He had even breathed his divine life into Adam and Eve so that the Holy Spirit raised them up above all the rest of creation and preserved them from the natural weakness and mortality which is our own. What went wrong?
In this perfect place, God provided just one rule. And a rule is necessary for us to become mature. It was not enough for Adam and Eve to enjoy what God had freely given them. They needed to positively make a choice for God, and following the one, simple rule, allowed them to choose God. This rule was…
You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.
Orthodoxy does not believe that God was making a violent threat to mankind. On the contrary, this is a warning of what will take place if a choice to reject God is made. And it is not surprising that death will be the outcome. If God is all life and light and love, then to choose other than God is to choose death and darkness and despair, however attractive the temptation might be.
This was the wrong choice which we learn that Adam made. He turned away from God, and in doing so he discovered that he had rejected the divine life which had been given to him as a gift. He found himself left to his own natural mortality. He was in a body that was slowly growing old and subject to illness and weakness and finally death. But he was also experiencing a worse state of spiritual death in the separation from God and the loss of the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
The Word became flesh…
The Orthodox Church believes that when Adam sinned against God he lost the presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit, he began to experience his mortality, and he found himself separated from God. This is the situation into which each of us finds ourselves born, as children of Adam. We are born mortal and without the indwelling Holy Spirit, and we are separated from God. We find ourselves subject to death, and easily overcome by temptation and the movement of our disordered passions.
What was God to do? His creation had fallen under the domination of death, and was no longer able to live in union with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit. He could not simply forgive Adam for his sin, because its consequences had already changed everything for the worse. But in his love, he could not abandon mankind to death and corruption either.
The Orthodox Faith and the Holy Scriptures teach us that from the very beginning, God intended to come into the world, and become a man so that he might repair the damage that Adam had caused, and renew mankind in life and in union with God.
Throughout the history of mankind, God was preparing for the time when he would enter his own creation. At last, he sent an Angel, a heavenly messenger, to announce his coming to Mary, the young Jewish woman who was the flower of all humanity, and the best that mankind had to offer God, pure and devoted throughout her life. We find the words in St Luke’s Gospel which the Angel said to her…
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.
The birth of Jesus is announced by an Angel, and is brought about by the Holy Spirit, not by normal relations between a man and a woman, because the one who will be born is the Son of God, and he will reign as a King forever. After Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, an angel appeared to shepherds in the fields, and said…
I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.
This is the substance of the Orthodox Faith, that the coming into the world of Jesus, the Son of God, is a cause of great joy for everyone, because he is both Lord of all, and our Saviour. What else does the Bible and the Orthodox Faith say about Jesus? The Gospel of St John says…
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made… He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name.
The Bible teaches Orthodox Christians that the one who made the world, the Son and Word of God, God himself, came into the world, but he came in a humble and hidden manner. Those who do receive him as Lord and Saviour may become what God desires for all mankind, children of God.
What does Jesus Christ say about himself? In the Gospel of St John, it is written…
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
Adam had abused and misused the gifts he had received from God. And each one of us, living with a disordered humanity continues to turn away from God. But it was in love that God came into the world, and is truly Jesus Christ, and he came for the salvation of mankind.
In St Luke’s Gospel, we read…
Then they all said, “Are You the Son of God?” He said to them, “You rightly say that I am.”
This is what Coptic Orthodox Christianity teaches. That Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and is God himself made man, without ceasing to be God. But what did he come to achieve? How did he intend to save mankind and restore man’s union with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit?
Crucified for us…
From the moment of the incarnation, when God the Word became man in the womb of the Virgin Mary, Orthodox Christians believe that our salvation was being worked out. It is St Athanasius again who explains why the Son and Word of God became man for us. He says…
Taking from our bodies one of the same nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death He gave it over to death in the place of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, out of His loving-kindness, so that, firstly, all being considered to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone, and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and raise them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.
The Orthodox Faith teaches us that the Word of God became man so that in our own humanity he could die in our place, and having died for us, the consequences of Adam’s sin, and our own, death and separation from God, are fulfilled and lose their power over mankind. More than this, as we are united with this humanity of Christ, we are also able to experience our own union with God, and our own Resurrection.
A careful reading of the Gospels shows us that Christ is restoring in himself, as God made man, all that mankind had lost. He is born as a man like us, but without sin, and in himself renews that union with God which was the purpose of our creation in the beginning. He lives a life of obedience, where Adam had been disobedient. He is baptised on our behalf and receives the Holy Spirit which Adam had lost. He resists the temptations of Satan, when Adam had submitted to them.
Then he experiences death, the separation of the soul and body, when he was guilty of nothing himself that deserved death. There was no sin in him at all. Having experienced death, and descending in his soul to Hades, the place of the departed, he resurrects in his divine power, because death cannot hold him in its grasp. As man, he is mortal, and able to die for us, as God he is life itself and destroys the power of death by experiencing it.
This is the basis of the Orthodox spiritual life. As we share in the life of Christ, so we are able to share both in his own death, and in his resurrection, in the union with God and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
And in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church…
It is impossible for Orthodox Christians to imagine living the Christian life without the Church. This is not a later development in Christianity, but the creed, in describing this One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, is expressing the Scriptural conviction that the Church is both the community of the faithful followers of Jesus Christ, and is his own Body, of which he is the Head.
From the beginning, from the time of the Apostles, the Church was a visible community of those who had been baptised into new life in Christ, which was served by the leadership of the bishops which the Apostles consecrated as their successors. We have already spoken of St. Ignatius of Antioch. He was the second bishop, given the care of the Christian Church in Antioch in 67 A.D., and he remained the bishop of the Church in Antioch until 107 A.D., when he was martyred in Rome. We know the name of the first bishop. He had been consecrated by the Apostle Peter. His name was Evodius, and he became the leader of the Church in Antioch in 53 A.D., while most of the Apostles were still alive.
There is a similar history across the early Church. We can name the bishops of the Church in many towns and cities from this earliest period, when the Apostles, and the Seventy who had been sent out by Jesus Christ, were establishing the Church in many places. There were not many different Christian Churches, there was only one, in all places and among all peoples, and to be a Christian meant to be baptised into the life of Christ by the Holy Spirit in this one Church.
We have already learned that when St. Mark brought the Orthodox Christian Faith to Egypt, he established the Church in Alexandria, and made Anianus the first bishop. But we know the name of the second bishop of the Christian Church in Alexandria. He was called Avilius, and he was bishop from 85 A.D., when Anianus passed away, until 98 A.D. when he also reposed in the Lord. After him came Kedron, and Primus, and Justus, and more than a hundred other men, one after the other, who have cared for the same Church of Alexandria. We know their names, we know something of their lives. For almost 2000 years this succession of bishops, following after the Apostles, have cared for the one Church which Jesus Christ established by his Apostles.
The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of which the Creed speaks, is not a human organisation or community, as if any group of people can call themselves the Church. The Church has been established by Christ and continues to exist to the present day, it is shepherded by the bishops of the Church who follow in a clear and historical succession through the centuries in the one Church.
If we consider even a handful of the other Christian communities which exist in the modern times, we can ask when they came into existence. The Anglican Church in 1534. The Methodist Church in 1784. The Baptist Church in 1609, and the Lutheran Church in 1530. The majority of groups are less than 100 years old. But the Orthodox Church has an unbroken continuity and life which stretches back to the Apostles. If a Christian group was not established by the Apostles, then it cannot be the Apostolic Church. If it has been established apart from the Church of the Apostles, then it cannot be the one Church of the Scriptures and the early Christians.
Of course, this is not a criticism of any other groups of Christians. But it is an historical fact that the Church of the Apostles has not ceased to exist, and it is the Orthodox Church of our own times, including the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, which is this same Church. Orthodox Christians have never believed that the Church is either a human gathering together of people in whatever way they prefer, or that it is only a spiritual reality without a visible existence. The Church is the Orthodox Church, and there are wheat and tares growing within it, as Christ taught, but this is the Church he formed and appointed the Apostles to lead and teach into the Truth.
He will guide you into all truth…
The Orthodox Church believes that this promise, made by Jesus Christ to the Apostles, has been fulfilled, and continues to be fulfilled in his Church. It is not a promise made to every believer, as if we can have our own personal form of Christianity. But it is a promise that the Church of Christ will be guided into truth. And we believe this is so.
What does this mean? It means that the Church of the Apostles, the first generations of Christians, received the fruit of this divine promise, and that the Orthodox Church was established in the truth. We can believe lots of things, and can be sure that the Bible teaches what we believe, but the promise is given to the Church, and the Church has established this truth from the beginning.
It is reasonable to believe that when St. Ignatius was made the bishop of Antioch, having known and been taught by the Apostles Peter and Paul, he would himself teach this truth. And it is reasonable to believe that St. Polycarp, another famous bishop of the early Church, a disciple of the Apostle John, would also teach what he had heard from the Apostle.
The written testimony of so many early Church leaders, preserved to our own times, reveals that those things they had learned from the Apostles and taught themselves, are still the doctrinal basis of the same Orthodox Church today.
The Orthodox Church has an unbroken historical continuity with the Church of the Apostles, and it has an unchanged doctrinal and spiritual continuity with the Church of the Apostles. It is the same Church of Christ, preserved as Christ promised.
His body, which is the church…
Why do Orthodox Christians insist that the Orthodox Church is the same Church of Christ, established by the Apostles? It is because Orthodox Christians believe that the grace and life of God is given within his own Church, and that it therefore matters that we belong to the Church which Christ established, and which the Scripture says is his own body.
This does not mean that God is not active in the life of all those who are seeking to follow him, and indeed in the lives of all those he has created in love. But Jesus Christ, our Lord God and Saviour, established a Church, a community which is his own Body, and which has always taught and preserved the same Apostolic teachings, and one of these Apostolic teachings is that it does matter that we join ourselves to Christ in this Church.
What does Christ promise to give us in his own Church? It is his own life, by the indwelling Holy Spirit, through Baptism and the Eucharist, in the care of those men who are Bishops, Priests and Deacons, and in communion with all others united with Christ in the Church. Why must these be performed in the Church? It is because Christ only promises to his own Church that he will give his life, and all that is needed for Salvation. St. Paul says…
Christ is head of the church; and He is the Saviour of the body…. Now you are the body of Christ.
To whom is St. Paul speaking? It is to those who are members of the Church, and he knows only one Church, guided and led by the Apostles and the Bishops who succeeded them in every place. The Orthodox Church teaches and believes that in a unique manner, it is the Body of Christ, not through any great merit of itself, but because the Church, of which the Coptic Orthodox Church is a part, is this one Church which Christ established as his body, knowing no other beginning and origin than in the preaching of the Apostles.
Whoever eats my flesh…
The Orthodox Church believes that it is established by the act of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in renewing humanity so that it can be reborn into union with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit. The basis of the Church is the incarnation of God the Word. By becoming man, and taking our humanity without change or confusion, he makes it possible for us to share in his own life by the Holy Spirit. This experience of life in the Holy Spirit is the communion of the Orthodox Church, a sharing of life between God and mankind, and between all those made new in Christ.