Ever wondered what the symbolism is behind the “Resurrection play” in the Coptic Rite. During the Feast of the Resurrection, there is this special moment where something that normally never happens happens. Although the Church is supposed to resemble heaven and therefore always have the lights on, during a particular segment the Liturgy of the Word of that feast, all the lights turn off (except for some or all lights inside the sanctuary), and the curtain (or door) of the altar is closed. Then the presiding clergyman, standing inside the sanctuary, engages in a melodic dialogue with two deacons outside (and yes, according to H.G. Bishop Youssef, it should be two, and he explains why). To understand the meaning behind all of this, let us first turn to the official source for liturgical text for the Coptic Diocese of the Southern U.S. (the Coptic Reader App), we learn the following:
“The enactment of the Resurrection represents a “scene” that takes place in front of Paradise [after Christ has descended to Hades and risen]: two angels stand at the gate of Paradise and call to the angel who is guarding it announcing the resurrection of the Lord. The angels then command that the gates of Paradise be lifted that the King of glory may enter.”
More specifically, the deacons outside the altar say, “Christ is risen” while the priest responds “Truly He is risen.” At the conclusion of several iterations of this hymned exchange, the deacons finally present their request (which, along with subsequent dialogue, comes from Psalm 24:7-10): “Lift up your gates, O rulers! And be raised up, O eternal gates! That the King of glory may enter.” The priest asks, “Who is the King of glory?” And with a powerful conclusion the deacons outside declare, “The Lord, the powerful, the strong, the mighty, victorious in battles: HE IS THE KING OF GLORY!” Then immediately upon finishing that last word the deacons make a loud thunderous noise (usually clanging symbols and banging on pews, to resemble the opening (more like breaking down, the way it sounds) of the gates of Paradise. It’s truly a powerful moment but many (or, I would say, most) of us do not understand the depth of this remarkable rite. To understand its details, read the following booklet which came from a sermon by H.G. Bishop Youssef, transcribed by a wonderful friend of mine (keeping her name anonymous so she doesn’t receive earthly glory [cf. Matthew 6:1-4]).
Update 4/30/2016: Here is a presentation we display at our church during the Resurrection Enactment to help people understand what is going on.
IMAGE CREDIT: The Resurrection of Christ. Mikhail Nesterov. end of the 1890s. Image edited.