Coptic Sanctuary

The Sanctuary, as viewed by the Orthodox Church, represents heaven itself or God's residence place among His heavenly creatures and saints.

Sanctity of the Sanctuary

The following traditions are observed by the church to indicate its reverence:

  • Laymen are forbidden to take part in the Communion inside the Sanctuary area, and sometimes they were not permitted to enter it at all. 
  • We can only step into the Sanctuary bare-footed, in response to the divine commandment to Moses "Take off your shoes ... for the place whereon you stand is holy ground" (Ex 3:5). Taking off the shoes indicates the feeling of unworthiness to be present in such a holy place according to Origen, taking off the shoes bears a few other fascinating points: 
    • In the past, shoes were made of the leather of dead animals. Subsequently, in observing this commandment of God, we put aside our earthly attachments to dead things. 
    • In the Old Testament, if a man refused to marry his brother's widow to raise up children for his dead brother, the widow would pull out the shoe from his feet, in the presence of the elders, and the man's house would be surnamed "House of the Unshoed" (Deut25:5-10). Thus, every time a Bishop, a Priest or a Deacon takes off his shoes upon entering the Sanctuary area, he admits to himself that he is not the bridegroom, but a friend and a servant to the Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. 
    • The church ordains that: "No talking is allowed in the Sanctuary, except for urgent matters".

Inside the Sanctuary

The Altar

The English word 'Altar' is derived from the Latin word 'Altare', which means the place or the sculpture upon which sacrifices are slain. However, they occasionally used the word 'mensa' to refer to the same thing, although it was more specifically applied to the slab, on which the holy Elements were placed. Other names for the Altar eg table (the Table of the Lord) and 'Mazbah' in Arabic.

The Altar can be made of:

Wood: Mainly during the first four centuries, timber Altars are still used in temporary church buildings in Egypt, till the final construction where stone, marble or brick Altars are erected. The majority of the Altars in our churches in America and Australia in the early days were wooden, once again for practical feasibility.

Stone: From a very early date stone Altars were in use, and it is almost certain that there is a very close connection between them and the tombs of martyrs.

Metal: When Christianity was declared as the official religion of the Roman Empire, it became natural that more expensive materials were used for making Altars for example; Silver, Gold and precious stones.

The Coptic Altar

The Coptic Altar takes the shape of approximately a cube, which resembles the Tomb of the Lord. In that, it varies considerably from western Altars, which till recently consisted of a board set upon one pillar, and sometimes four or five pillars.

It is invariably detached from the wall and stands clear in the middle of the Sanctuary, a practice that has been copied from the Heavenly Altar as mentioned in the Book of Revelation ( Rev. 9:13).

Often it is made of stone, marble or brick, but exceptions exist. For example, in the new Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo, a bronze Altar is in use, which was presented to our church by the Russian church. Other wooden Altars appear overseas and in some temporary Alters in churches within Egypt.

It must be hollow so that relics of saints can be kept inside or beneath it. Nevertheless, recent trends tend to keep these relics in a container next to the icon of the saint to enable the people to kiss it and receive their blessing. On the eastern side next to the Altar there exists a small opening showing an interior recess or cavity, which was used during persecution to hide the Holy Gifts when necessary.

In the Coptic Church, the choir is usually raised three steps above the rest of the Nave, while the sanctuary is often raised one step above the choir. Yet the Altar is never raised above the sanctuary, but is fitted directly on its ground, as directed by the divine commandment (Exod. 20 : 26).

It is known that Coptic Altars are bare of any form of engravings, even shapes of the cross, following the divine commandment that the use of tools will pollute it (Exod 20 : 25). All relevant ornaments appear at the Canopy that surmounts the Altar.

The Altar is consecrated by a Bishop anoints it by Chrism. The Liturgy of the Eucharist can be temporarily held on an un-consecrated Altar as long as a consecrated Altar-Board is placed upon it.

According to Fr. Theodore of Mesopotamia , the Altar coverings represents the linen cloth of the Lord's burial. The Altar must not be left without coverings, which often consist of three layers:

The first cloth covers the Altar completely from all sides, and is decorated with four crosses (one at each corner) or just a big cross in the centre. The most commonly employed material, in the Coptic rite, is the white linen as an indication of purity, but in recent times red cotton velvet is sometimes used.

A white linen cover is placed on the above, which hangs only about 15 cm from the Altar surface.

The third layer is used only during the celebration of the Liturgy of Eucharist to cover the Holy Gifts, and is called 'Prospharine' derived from the Greek word 'prosphora' or 'oblation'. It represents the stone that the angel rolled away from the Tomb of Christ. After the prayer of Reconciliation, the priest and the Deacon lift it up from its place and shake it so that the little jingles attached to its edges produce audible sounds. It resembles the earthquake that took place during the resurrection of Christ.

The Altar has held a distinct sanctity ever since the Early Church. Nothing is placed on it, apart from the Holy Elements, the sacred vessels and the Gospel. Even the relics of saints and martyrs are not placed on it. The standing of any object whatever, on the Altar, was entirely contrary to the devotional conventions of the Early Church. As for candlesticks, one is placed on the right side of the Altar, and the other on the opposite side. They refer to the two angels guarding the Lord's Tomb. At present, placing candlesticks on the Altar is not at all uncommon, but the trend is to return to the early practices.

On the surface of the Coptic Altar, an oblong rectangular slot is engraved to a depth of about 2.5 cm., in which a consecrated Altar-Board is loosely embedded. The Board is generally made of wood, or rarely of marble, upon which the following are painted: 

    1.   A Cross or a number of crosses.
    2.   The first and last Greek alphabetical, A and W.
    3.   Occasionally few selected psalms such as (Ps. 86 (87): 1, 2) or (Ps. 83: 3).

The Ciborium (The Canopy)

The majority of the main Coptic Altars, and sometimes the side ones, are surmounted by a wooden or stone canopy, which rests upon four pillars of stone or marble. It is known as the Ciborium, a term that is probably derived from the Greek word 'Kiborion', which originally meant the hollow seed case of the Egyptian water lily. Later, the term was applied to drinking cups because of the similarity in shape between them, and eventually it was adopted by the church for the above- mentioned canopy which takes the shape of the bowl of a cup.

More widely, this term is now commonly employed in the liturgical terminology to designate:

    1.    The structure that is mentioned above.
    2.    The covering suspended over the Bishop's throne.
    3.    The dome-shaped vessel that is used to contain the holy communion for the sick.

Although the Coptic Altar is bare, devoid of any ornament or painting, the Coptic Ciborium is generally rich in paintings on both the interior and exterior surfaces. The icon of the Lord, surrounded by the Cherubim and the Seraphim often occupies the centre of the dome, for it represents the heaven of heavens in which the Lord and His heavenly creatures dwell. Icons of the four Evangelists are painted on the four pillars; as if the four corners of the universe are sanctified by the word of the Gospel. On the top, a large Cross is mounted in the centre of the Ciborium and sometimes another four crosses are mounted on the sides, so that they all refer to the five wounds of the Lord.

The Tribune

Behind the Altar and around the eastern wall of the Sanctuary lies the 'Tribune'. It is often made of marble or stone and consists of seven semi-circular steps. Typical examples are the ancient Church of St. Menas in Marriout, near Alexandria, and the Churches of Old Cairo: the Suspended Church, Abu-Serga, Abu-Sefein and St. Barbara.

The Niche

The Niche is the apse that represents the eastern wall of the Sanctuary, which surrounds the tribune. It is often occupied with the icon of the Lord Jesus Christ coming on the cloud, carried by the Cherubim and the Seraphim, the four Living creatures, with the twenty four heavenly Presbyters offering incense. The Lord appears holding the planet Earth with one hand, for He is the Almighty one, and the pastoral rod with the other hand, for He is the Shepherd and Redeemer who liberates men from the captivity of sin. Thus in this sense, the Niche represents the bosom of God, for the Lord longs for His church, and she waits for His coming. In front of this icon, a sanctuary lamp that is permanently lit, is fitted. It is known as 'the Perpetual lamp' and represents the star which appeared to the wise men and guided them to where the Lord was born.

Sacred Vessels

God, as the loving Heavenly Father, who created the whole world on our behalf, asked Moses to offer some articles to be used in His House, being aware that they really belonged to God. He ordered him to anoint not only the Tabernacle but also the ark of testimony, the table and its utensils, the lamp-stand and its utensils, the altar of incense and so on, all with sacred ointment saying to him, "You shall consecrate them that they may be most Holy, whatever touches them will become Holy". (Exod. 30:29). The Church of the New Testament, as Christ's Bride, offers several special vessels to be used in God's House, being aware they are God's own. They are consecrated by prayers, the word of God and by crossing them by the anointment of Chrism. When consecrated, they are only to be used for God's service.

The Chalice

The Communion Cup, into which wine mixed with water is poured, is consecrated into the Blood of the Lord through the Liturgy of Eucharist. The Lord Himself used the chalice (Mt. 26:26, 27) and the Apostles imitated Him. St. Paul the Apostle calls it "the Cup of Blessing" and "the Cup of the Lord". (1Cor. 10:16,21). Tertullian refers to it as having the shape of lamb engraved outside it, to remind us of the Lamb of God Who purchased His Church and adorned her entirely with His Holy Blood.

The bowl of the Coptic Chalice has a bell-shaped form, the stem is long and rests on a circular stand. The Early Christian Chalices were commonly made from wood or glass. By the third and fourth centuries, precious metals became common, and valuable chalices of Gold and silver set with jewels, were offered by believers as a sign of their love.

The Paten

A small round tray, without a stand and having no engraving. It is usually made of silver or gold. This paten has a symbolic meaning, as it represents the Lord's manger and tomb.

The Dome (Star)

It is called in Arabic "Dome ", and consists of two silver arched bands, held by a screw, crossed over each other into the shape of a cross, usually surmounted by a small cross. It is said that St. John Chrysostom had introduced this article, which is placed upon the paten to keep the holy bread in a prescribed order, and to support the coverings. It represents the shape of the tomb and also reminds us of the star that appeared to the Wise men.

The Spoon

The Spoon in Coptic is called "Mystir" , In it the Blood of Christ is administered to the communicants.

The Cruets

Cruets are two vessels used in holding the wine and water for the Eucharist. They are mentioned in the inventory of gifts made by Constantine to the Churches of Rome. There are three other cruets used by the Coptic Church, they are as follows:

  • One is used to hold the Chrism (Myron), the sacred cruet which only the Priest or Bishop can hold. It is usually preserved in the Sanctuary, and sometimes on the Altar
  • A cruet contains the Oil of "Kallilion" or "Gallilon", used in the liturgy of Baptism.
  • A cruet contains the oil Of "Apoclypsis", that is the oil which is used on the last Friday of the Great Lent (in the service of the Sick); and is used in the service of the Saturday of Joy (before Easter) when all the book of Revelation (Apocalypse) is read. 

The Ark

In the middle of the Alter, there is a wooden box, called in Coptic 'pi totc' which means 'a seat' or 'a throne', and is used as a Chalice-Stand. Usually it is cubicle in shape, about thirty centimetres high and twenty-five centimetres wide, the top is closed with high flaps. The beautiful carving is inlaid with ebony and ivory and is decorated with four small icons. It can be only the Lord in the last supper, St Mary, Archangel Michael, St. Mark and then the patron Saints.

It is called 'the Throne' for it represents the presence of the Crucified Lord. Its name also corresponds to the 'Ark of the Old Testament', for it contained the Tablets of Law written with the finger of God to declare God's covenant with man. The new Ark now contains the true Blood of Christ, as the New covenant, that fulfils the Law and the prophets.

The Ciborium

The Ciborium or the Antophorion is a small vessel of silver, circular in shape and having a cover, with measures about six centimetres in diameter. Its height is about six centimetres. Its purpose is to convey the Holy Body moistened with a few drops of the precious Blood to the sick or prisoners, or to any person who cannot attend the divine liturgy and partake in the ceremony. However, this vessel is not used to preserve the Holy Communion for any other time than that required, for the Coptic Church rules forbid this custom. In particular circumstances, when the priest has to be late in holding this vessel to communicate a person, he places it on the Altar, kindles a candle and a Deacon wearing his service vestments guards. 

The Book Of Gospel

A copy of the New Testament covered with silver or gold and decorated by icons, has in the middle of one side, the icon of the Resurrection or Crucifixion and the other side, there is the icon of the Patron Saint or St. Mary and the Child Jesus. Sometimes on the corners, there are the four Evangelists with their symbols.

The Liturgical Fans

In Latin 'flabellum' and in Greek (hexa-ptergion) means 'six-winged', because the figure of the six-winged Seraph usually appears on it. The use of the liturgical fans during the consecration continued in the West until the fourteenth century, and has continued until now in some churches of Egypt, especially Upper Egypt. According to the Apostolic Constitution of the 5th century, two Deacons using fans of linen, fine skin or peacocks' feathers stand by the Altar to drive away insects and keep them from touching the sacred vessels. These fans now have a symbolic meaning. According to the Coptic rite, these fans are used during the recitation of the Seraphim's hymn as a sign of the presence of the Seraphim to participate with us in our praise to God. According to a Coptic manuscript in the Vatican, twelve Deacons carry fans during the procession for the consecration of the Chrism. In the Greek Church seven Deacons wave seven liturgical fan in the service of Good Friday and in consecrating the Chrism. It is interesting to note that some Orthodox Churches attached small bells in fans to give a sound on their waving, as a sign of the sound of the Seraphim's flying wings around the Glorified Christ. In the Coptic Church there are now only two metal fans in the form of a circle, somewhat like a hallo around a saint's head. Each fan has a long handle and in the middle of the circle a Seraph is represented. These fans are used in the church processions.

Censer and Censing

Under the Old Testament dispensation, the use of incense in divine worship was prescribed by God and controlled by the most Strict Regulation (Exod. 30:34-38). It was one of those ceremonies which belonged to the highly ceremonial rituals of Judaism; which took place within the holy place, and was upheld by the Priest alone.

One of the first gifts offered to Christ while He was yet an infant, was the frankincense, a costly gift of love which should be offered to Him by His people today. "For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same, My Name shall be great among the Gentiles, and in every place incense shall be offered unto My Name, and a pure offering" (Malachi 1:10, 11). Even in Heavenly worship, St. John the Divine, so incense being burned by an angle in a gold censer (Revelation 8:3, 4).

Symbolisms of Censing are:

  1. Censing is a symbol of the Presence of God among his people.
  2. It symbolizes praying (Exod. 30:1 - 8) as a sacrifice of love.
  3. Censing also symbolizes the purification of people when God said to Moses, "Get away from the midst of this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment, Moses said to Aaron: Take your censer and put therein from off the Altar, and lay incense on it, and carry it quickly to the congregation and make atonement for them, for wrath has gone forth from the Lord, the plague has begun."
According to the Coptic rite, burning incense has a strict order that the Priests and Bishops follow.

The Censers or The thurible is a brass or silver vessel in the shape of a cup, in which incense is burned. In the usual form of the censer the container is suspended on three chains from which it can be swung during raising incense. In our church, the censer symbolizes St. Mary who bore the "True coal burning with Fire", that is the Incarnate Son of God. Its three chains remind us of the Holy Trinity who participated in the Incarnation of the Son. For the Father sent His Son, the Son obeyed, and the Holy Spirit came upon the virgin for the Incarnation of the Son.

Other Articles

  1. A Small box for incense, usually of silver to carved wood. 
  2. The Ewer and Basin, are used for washing the hands of the celebrant during the liturgical services. 
  3. The Qurban (oblation) Basket is a small basket made from palm leaves in which the holy bread is placed, one of which the celebrant chooses as the 'Lamb'. This basket is decorated with crosses and sometimes with strings of silver or gold. 
  4. Musical instruments: the Coptic hymns depend in the first place, on the natural instrument (the throat). However we use some primitive instruments such as the triangle and the cymbals.