Just recently the priests of our church visited our new home, asking God to bless it. This is not just a Coptic custom, but an Orthodox one (and in fact, most religions include some sort of house blessing custom). As I intently listened to the prayers and read along as the service proceeded, I noticed a number of things that caught my attention. And I thought to myself, how does this compare with what the Eastern Orthodox do? Do they invoke the Holy Spirit? What do they declare as the purpose of this prayer? Do they pray over water even? Do they sprinkle water? Are the prayers themselves similar at all? I was fascinated with what I eventually found out.
WHAT IS SIMILAR, AND WHAT IS DIFFERENT
House blessings customary. The Copts as well as the Eastern Orthodox both retain the custom of house blessings.
Frequency of House Blessings—Eastern Orthodox yearly, Copts just once. Both the Copts and the Eastern Orthodox typically encourage house blessings to occur when someone moves into a new home, but for the Copts that is usually the only time the prayer happens.
While house blessings can be done any time, traditionally the Eastern Orthodox, however, from Theophany to the beginning of Lent, customarily invite the priest to bless the house every single year.
Why Theophany? Well, think about who blessed the water at Christ’s baptism, which is what Theophany commemorates (that, and the revealing of the Holy Trinity)? John the Baptist or Christ? Obviously, Christ made the water special. So too Christ is invited to make the water which is prayed over to be a special blessing when sprinkled throughout the family’s house.
Eastern Orthodox Pre-Sanctified Water; not among the Copts. There is a further correlation between the water of the Jordan which Christ entered and sanctified, and the water used in the Eastern Orthodox house blessing service. There are two water sanctification services related to Theophany in the Eastern Orthodox Church: one on the Paramon of Theophany (just before the feast day), and one during the Festal Divine Liturgy of Theophany itself. That second sanctification of the water is where, like among the Copts, people bring in their bottles of water and hope that the water is likewise blessed. That water that is blessed during that liturgy in the Eastern Orthodox Church is commonly called “Jordan Water” (because Christ was baptized in the Jordan).
From the large bowl of Jordan Water that is prayed on during that service, the Eastern Orthodox priest takes some of it and mixes it with water that is provided by the family when he visits their home for a house blessing.
In the Coptic Church, no pre-sanctified water is used; they typically just get some water from the house and put it in a cup, and that water is present and prayed over during the service.
Coptic prayers lengthier. The Copts, as usual it seems, have the lengthier prayer service, by far. From what I could surmise, the Eastern Orthodox have a very short version of the prayer (see here), as well as a lengthier one (here). Different jurisdictions and local rubrics may vary.
The correlation between the feast of Theophany and the house blessing are made clear in the prayers. For example, the Troparion hymn begins: “When You in the Jordan for Your baptism were come, O Lord, then was revealed unto us to worship the Trinity…”
Censer, candle, and water. Delving deeper into the rubrics of the service itself, you will find that among the Eastern Orthodox and the Copts a priest comes to the home, a censer and lighted candle are involved, and after some prayers made toward the east, water is sprinkled throughout the house. But see below for how differently the Eastern Orthodox treat this service.
Eastern Orthodox home preparation is much more extensive. Typically what I’ve found among the Copts is that the house blessing is relatively informal. The clergy will visit, sit and chat with the family (who usually offer something to the clergy, such as tea, or even a full feast/meal), and then everyone will find a suitable spot, face towards the east, and begin the prayers after some water is brought out for the priest (often just in a cup) and a candle is lit.
The Eastern Orthodox have a much more formal set of measures taken to prepare for the service. First, families often have a special family corner of prayer that commonly includes a censer and incense, as well as a lampada (an oil lamp of sorts), and usually you will find at least one or several icons there. If there is no icon corner, then the family may be asked to prepare the home by placing a small table near an eastern wall of the main room, covered with a white cloth with one or more icons placed aright, a candle, a hand-censer, and incense. They are also to bring out a bowl for the water that will eventually be sprinkled. Some parishes ask for the list of baptismal names of all the family members as well. Before all of that, it appears that it is customary also to clean the house extremely well before the priest arrives.
Priest Vestments—Copts less formal. It appears that the priests in the Eastern Orthodox Church typically don their epitrachelion over their cassock, whereas in the Coptic Church I have never seen a clergyman wearing any special vestment beyond their normal black cassock.
Mention of Zacchaeus and the Lord’s visit to his house. While the prayers among the Eastern Orthodox may vary to some degree, generally you will find the prayers to make mention of Zacchaeus, about whom the Lord said, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:1–10). This story takes a prominent role in the Coptic house blessing service as well, as the entire passage is read.
Remembering the departed—much more involved in the Eastern Orthodox service. During the Coptic prayer service you will find prayers for the dead, asking “for the repose of the souls of all our fathers and brethren who have gone to their rest in the Orthodox faith.” In the Eastern Orthodox custom, you will commonly find the remembrance of the dead as well, although not in specific prayers. Actually, while the Coptic prayer is generic, in the Eastern Church it is customary that the priest is handed a list of the departed and the living among the family from whom prayer requests are to be made.
PURPOSE OF THE PRAYER, FROM THE WORDS OF THE SERVICE
It is quite interesting to see what the prayers itself tell you about the purpose of the service.
- Cleansing from sin
- Recalling to our mind true worship of the Trinity
- Praying for others
- Prayer for salvation
- Sanctification of the family
- Health of Body
- Safety from harm
Interestingly absent from the text was a prayer that directly spoke about keeping away evil spirits or any sort of dark presence from among the house, although house blessing are commonly thought of as having that purpose. Note however that the Eastern Orthodox water sanctification service during Theophany includes specific mention of the water having this purpose: The water is sought to be “a destroyer of demons, unapproachable by the adverse powers and full of angelic powers; so that to all who drink there from and receive thereof it may be for the sanctification of their souls and bodies, for the healing of sufferings, for the sanctification of homes and for every befitting benefit” (see here for a text of that service).
While the rituals surrounding the service are much more involved in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the house blessings occur more frequently, in the Coptic service you will find a much more extensive set of prayers, with more spiritual formality. But this is likely due to the fact that for the Eastern Orthodox, the water brought into the home has already been prayed on during the Festal Divine Liturgy of Theophany. In fact, if we were to incorporate those water sanctification prayers and the house blessing service, you will hardly be able to find any significant difference among the Copts and Eastern Orthodox. It appears that the Copts “make up” for it by conducting an abridged version of water sanctification prayers.
The most significant aspect of such prayer services (for all Orthodox), and what surprised me the most in the prayers I witnessed at my house, was that the priests invoked the Holy Spirit to descend upon the water. I can’t find this in the Eastern Orthodox rite of the house blessing service, however that is likely because they do pray for the descent of the Holy Spirit during the Theophany water sanctification (see here for a text of that service). That water, as I mentioned above, is what they bring with them to the house blessing.
As I’m writing this I wonder why it seemed so strange to me for the invocation of the Holy Spirit to be included, but I think it is due to my associating that invocation, that special power given to bishops and delegated to priests, that special gift possessed only by the clergy, with what happens at momentous sacramental events—the quintessential sacrament being the changing of the bread and wine to become the body and blood of Christ. And usually such invocation happens at church, not at my house.
Invoking the Holy Spirit is no small thing. Philip the deacon, a miracle-worker, couldn’t do it, but only when two disciples, who were bishops, traveled two days to Samaria, did the new Christian converts finally receive the Holy Spirit to complete their initiation into the faith (see Acts 6).
The Coptic prayer service specifically has this prayer:
“For the sanctification of this water by the power, the action, and the descending of the Holy Spirit…. That the grace of purification descends on it through the power of the Holy Trinity.”
That is virtually identical to what the Eastern Orthodox pray for during the sanctification of water service at the Feast of Theophany:
“That this water be sanctified by the power, act and descent of the Holy Spirit, let us pray to the Lord.”
And then I witnessed, at the end of the service, that both priests who were present breathed into the water, with that passing of breath being a customary method of signifying the passage of the Holy Spirit, bringing to mind Christ having “breathed” on the disciples and telling them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).
As for the water’s purpose, the service says this:
- “That this water becomes a healer of minds, bodies, and souls, and an expeller of all adversary forces.”
The prayers also focus on seeking blessings that seem to be beyond what the water is meant for:
- Bless the house that the family has chosen to dwell in
- Grant that all activities are completed successfully with grace and favor
- Grant righteous lives
- Help and strength from God
- Continued steadfastness in the Orthodox faith
Although the Eastern Orthodox have more formality but shorter prayers during house blessing services than the Copts, when considering that they bring water that had been previously sanctified during the Festal Divine Liturgy of Theophany, the purpose of the house blessings are virtually the same for reach, and the prayers are astonishingly similar. I would love to see more formality during the Coptic house blessing, and it would be wonderful if the priests visited their parishioners’ houses yearly to bring “Jordan Water” to each of their homes. That would be made feasible by bringing pre-sanctified water and shortening the prayer rite.
It is wonderful to see the extent of our similarities, and yet we can also gain much from our differences, if only we were willing to.
- International Handbook of the Religious, Moral and Spiritual Dimensions in Education, published in 2007, Marian de Souza, Gloria Durka, Kathleen Engebretson, Robert Jackson, Andrew McGrady
And in case you are interested, here is a brief highlight of the prayers of the house blessing service according to the Coptic rite:
- As usual for any Coptic prayer service, it begins with the thanksgiving prayers.
- Copts pray for health of body several times, and pray for anyone who is sick, not just the members of the family
- Several other litanies are prayed: for peace, for the clergy, for Christian assemblies.
- There are also prayers for the clergy, for catechumens, and even for the well-being of the city. Other prayers include moderate winds, blessing of fruits, safety for travelers, blessings for the president.
- The Scriptural readings are non-existent it appears in the Eastern Orthodox rite, but the Copts read from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (8:14–21), recite a psalm (102:1–2), and then read the entire gospel passage about the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10).
- The Creed is recited
- The priest concludes with a prayer absolving sin of those present—the same prayer of absolution given at the end of confession, and said during the Divine Liturgy.