OVERVIEW OF THE COPTIC ORTHODOX CHURCH
The Term “Copt” – The term “Copt” and “Egyptian” have the same meaning as derived from the Greek word aigyptos. With the suppression of the prefix, the suffix of the word, the stem “gypt” has become part of the words for “Egypt” and for “Copt” in all the modern languages of Latin origin. The Coptic Church then is simply the Egyptian Church.
The Coptic Language – It is the last shape of the language of the ancient Egyptians. The earlier shapes represented in the Hieroglyphic and Hieratic and Demotic alphabet became inaccessible to the growing needs of daily life. After the spread of Christianity, Egyptian scholars trans-literated Egyptian texts into the Greek alphabet, and adopted the last seven additional letters of the Coptic alphabet from their own Demotic.
The Founders of the Church – The Copts pride themselves on the apostolicity of their national church, whose founder was none other than St. Mark, one of the four Evangelists and the writer of the oldest canonical Gospel. John Mark is regarded by the Coptic hierarchy as the first in their unbroken chain of 118 popes. He is also the first of a stream of Egyptian saints and glorious martyrs.
Church of Martyrs – After the martyrdom of St. Mark, the Coptic Church faced severe persecutions. The seventh persecution inflamed by Emperor Diocletian; his reign (284-305) is considered by the Copts as the age of persecution. Under Maximin Daia (305-313), his successor in the East, the massacre continued for eight years of systematic killing. This could account for tremendous number of martyrs. So profound was the impression of the persecution of Diocletian on Coptic life and thought that the Copts decided to adopt for church use a calendar of the martyrs, the “Anno Martyri”. The first year of that calendar was 284 A.D., the year of the disastrous accession of Diocletian. The Egyptian Church carried our Lord Jesus Christ's Cross throughout generations, bearing sufferings even from the side of Christians themselves. She continued to offer a countless number of martyrs and confessors throughout ages. Sometimes the people of towns were martyred and many struggled to win the crowns of martyrdom happily and with a heart full of joy.
Catechetical School of Alexandria – The school of Alexandria was undoubtedly the earliest important institution of theological learning in Christian antiquity. It was a college in which many other disciplines were studied from the humanities, science and mathematics; but its main discipline was religion. According to Eusebius, its founder was St. Mark who appointed Yustus as its dean, (later on, Yustus became the sixth patriarch). Most of the eminent leaders of Alexandria like Clement, Origen, Dionysius, Athanasius, Didymus the Blind, and Cyril were known to have been connected with it, either as teachers or students. The School of Alexandria taught Christendom the allegoric and spiritual methods in interpreting the Holy Scripture and was the leader in defending the Orthodox faith on an ecumenical level.
The Church of Monasticism – The Christian Church heavily indebted for the creation of monasticism which started in Egypt. Although St. Paul the Theban (died 340) is considered the first hermit, the origins of monasticism are ascribed to St. Anthony (251-356) whose fame was spread by his famous biography written by St. Athanasius. The Fathers of the Church from numerous parts of the world came to Egypt for training in the way of monasticism. Monasticism has survived in Egypt and has given the Coptic Church an unbroken line of 118 Popes beginning with St. Mark. Although most of the monasteries have disappeared under the Arab persecution there is a revival in the surviving ones. The Christian monastic movement in Egypt attracted the heart of the Church towards the desert, to practice the angelic inner life. This happened at the time when the doors of the royal court had been opened to the clergy, and this consequently endangered the church, as the quiet and spiritual church work was mixed with the temporal authority and politics of the royal court.
"Blessed is Egypt my people" (Isa 19:25) God's promise to His people is always fulfilled; He foretold that He would ride on a light and upon a swift cloud and come to Egypt (Isa 19:1); and in that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border (Isa 19:19). This promise was fulfilled by the flight of the Holy Family from the face of the tyrant Herod to find refuge among the Gentiles. Thus our Lord Jesus Christ came during His childhood to Egypt to lay by Himself the foundation stone of His Church in Egypt which has become one of the four primary "Sees" in the world, among the churches of Jerusalem, Antioch and Rome, and joined later by the "See" of Constantinople. The Coptic Church is rich with her evangelistic and ascetic life, her genuine patriotic inheritance, her heavenly worship, her spiritual rituals, her effective and living hymns, her beautiful icons, etc. She attracts the heart towards heaven without ignoring actual daily life. We can say that she is an apostolic, contemporary church that carries life and thought to the contemporary man without deviation. One finds in her life, sweetness and power of Spirit, with appreciation to and sanctification of arts, literature and human culture. The Church is well known for her numerous saints: ascetics, clergymen and laymen. She offered many saints throughout ages and is still offering the same today. For she believes that practicing the sanctified life and communion with God, the Holy One, is prior to satisfying minds with solid mental studies.
Adapted by: St Mary and St Mercurius Church of Greater Philadelphia