Mystery worshipper: Orthodox Christmas

ርሑስ በዓል ልደትን ሓድሽ ዓመትን።

Flight into Egypt (coptic icon
from the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus
(Abu Serga) in Cairo)
Smells and bells, indeed!

The semi-dismissive and half-affectionate description of high ritual churches came unbidden to mind as I stepped into the sanctuary at St Mark’s Coptic Church for the Feast of the Nativity, known in Winnipeg as Ukrainian Christmas.

We were a few minutes late for the beginning of the service, but so were the majority of the other worshippers, and the room was already filled with a haze of incense.

Stand, sit (mostly stand), while a crowd of male persons of all ages chant liturgy from the front. TV screens mounted at intervals around the sanctuary present the text in English, Coptic, and Arabic. (Or they try to. The person running the display seemed a bit lost for the first hour when perhaps he or she was replaced with someone better acquainted with the liturgy.)

I’m unfamiliar with the extra letters Coptic added to their use of the Greek alphabet and the text on the screen wasn’t very large, but after a few Kyrie Eleisons, I started being able to pick out words on occasion. And it turns out my Arabic quizzing is not all for naught, because I started being able to recognize discrete words in the stream of Arabic language, although identifying the pronoun “we” doesn't really get you very far with communicative competence.

Besides the boys chanting at the front, there was a stream of young guys headed to the back room, emerging with beautifully embroidered white robes and liturgical pikes. After about an hour of reading liturgy, the room seemed to empty of men (it turns out we were just sitting on the far end of the women’s half of the sanctuary) when the priests and all the robed ones went outside. With a cacophonous clanging of harsh bells and intoning more chanted liturgy, the robed boys and men processed back into the sanctuary and took their places for round 2. By now, the sanctuary had gotten much fuller.

Until this point, nothing seemed particularly “Christmas” about the liturgy. After, the focus shifted more, but not before first reading a crucifixion and resurrection passage – a proper way to put the event in context.

The congregation did sing along at points to the half-sung prayers interspersed with the similarly chanted readings. When English was the language of speech, the words on the screen did not always precisely match what was spoken. How much “error” or “creative word choice” is allowed for readers, I wonder? Or are there a versions of the text? The exact order and nature of adjectives did not always match from screen to ear.

The sanctuary had standing room only by the time we left at 10:30, somewhat frustrated by the constant stream of people in and out over the course of the service. We didn’t wait any longer for communion or the passing of the peace, though, indirectly, we experienced in it the hospitality of a woman in the foyer who offered to take our picture by the nativity when she saw us peering at it.

They projected this message from the Coptic pope in Alexandria who spoke beautifully of love being that which the lack of makes us empty, the hope of which Jesus birth fulfills. Take a moment to give it a watch yourself.

Hours later, my sweater still smells of incense, despite the fact the censor-swinging priest never pendulumed it our direction.

It is always a rich experience to observe the worship practices of other religious traditions. 


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