History of the Holy Pascha (“Passover”) Week in the Coptic Church

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Arguably the holiest week of the year, known simply as “Holy Week” or maybe more preferably “Pascha (aka Passover) Week” is upon us, with the Pascha Feast (the more traditional term rather than Easter) marking the end of the week, but a beginning for all of humanity. As I had written in my previous post about the History of the Great Fast, it is not enough for us to know about or simply participate in religious observances, but we must understand the “why” in order to make it all relevant to us today. Here is a summary of what I could surmise as being the current practice as well as history of the Holy Week, with a particular emphasis on the Coptic Church. (Further below you will also find a PowerPoint presentation that I used to teach about this subject that you may download and use as desired.)


CURRENT PRACTICE

Holy (“Pascha”) Week Definition. A period of fasting commemorating the last week of Christ’s life leading up to and immediately preceding His glorious resurrection, also known as the “Pascha (aka Passover) Feast.”

How long is Holy Week? 6 days. After Palm Sunday, Holy Week is considered to last through Saturday. It is not part of the “Great Fast,” which is distinct from and was later appended to Holy Week.

Each Day’s Service Arrangement: “Day” and “Eve” services. Monday through Thursday there are usually two main services: one in the morning, just called the “Day” services, and one in the evening, called the “Eve” of the following day. For example, Sunday night there are “Monday Eve” services, and Monday during the morning there is a “Monday” service, followed by the evening with a “Tuesday Eve” service, and so on. Friday (aka “Good/Great Friday”) is a “day” service that usually lasts from early morning and often until 6pm.  Each Day and Eve has 5 segments (called “hours”—1st, 3rd, 6th, 9th, 11th) that follow the same pattern:

  • Prophecies
  • Pascha Praise
  • Psalm chanted in long, sad tune
  • Gospel
  • Litanies
  • Exposition
  • Occasional Commentary by a Church Father

Friday night through Sunday morning (usually from Midnight through the early hours of the morning) is a vigil referred to as “Bright Saturday” or “Apocalypse.” You can read a bit more about that here.

Monday through Wednesday Theme: The theme of Monday through Wednesday of Holy Week can be summarized as: “Christ the Bridegroom: be prepared to receive Him.” This is a shared theme among the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, with even many shared readings. Additionally, there is a well known shared prayer that the Coptic Orthodox should be quite familiar with, which the Eastern Orthodox chant while on Monday Eve (Palm Sunday Night) they place the “Bridegroom icon” at the front of the church (see the icon in the main image for this post). The words chanted are:

“Behold, the Bridegroom is coming at midnight, blessed is the servant whom He finds watching. But he whom He finds sleeping is unworthy of going with Him. Therefore, take heed, O my soul, that you may not fall into deep sleep, and then be cast out of the Kingdom. But watch and cry out saying “Holy, Holy, Holy are You, O God; for the sake of the Theotokos, have mercy on us.”

Wednesday and Thursday Eve Focus: The eve of Thursday (celebrated Wednesday night) we recall Judas’s betrayal.

Thursday Focus: The Institution of the Mystical Supper: the Eucharist. This day Christ established a new covenant between God and man, commemorated through the partaking of His true body and blood.

Friday Focus: The crucifixion.

Weekly commemoration throughout the year. Every week, we commemorate the events of Holy Week:

  • Wednesdays and Fridays (also known as the “fourth” and “sixth” days of the week, with Sunday being the first day) Orthodox Christians fast, to remember the betrayal of Judas as well as the crucifixion of our Lord.
  • Sundays we do as Christ commanded us on Covenant Thursday, to “do this in remembrance of me,” which is to partake of the Eucharist.

 

THE PAST

Here is a timeline of significant events that shaped the rites and rubrics of Holy Pascha Week in the Coptic Orthodox Church

Early Church. Different places commemorated the last week of Christ’s life on earth differently: some a few days, some the entire week. Eventually by the time of the Council of Nicea, all jurisdictions commemorated the entire week.

c. AD 100.  “After the week of the passion, do not neglect to fast on the fourth and sixth days”—St. Ignatius. We see the early Church commemorated Wednesdays and Fridays by a fast. This is an ancient practice that we still do today. Unfortunately it has become nearly obsolete among most Christians, and even among those who retain the practice to some extent, it is often not followed sadly.

c. AD 230. “But He commanded us to fast on the fourth and sixth days of the week; the former on account of His being betrayed, and the latter on account of His passion.”—Didascalia

c. AD 330. St. Athanasius writes a Festal Letter describing the Pascha fast as being 6 days long.

c. AD 1140. Pope Gabriel, 70th Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, with the help of monks from the St. Macarius monastery, reformed the Pascha rites as follows:

  • Shortened the Pascha services
  • Organized and arranged rubrics of the readings
  • Shortened the total amount of readings
  • Selected suitable Old and New testament readings
  • Divided the service in 5 morning and evening hours

c. AD 1200. Abba Peter, Bishop of El-Bahnassa further reformed the Pascha Week services:

  • Gathered better readings
  • Tried to make the reading lengths in each hour similar
  • Published it in a Pascha Lectionary
  • Added sermons, many of which from Abba Shenouda the Archimandrite, whose monastery this bishop was from. (This explains why we see so many writings of Abba Shenouda the Archimandrite in the Pascha services.)
  • Arranged for 4 gospels to be read in entirety. Matthew Tuesday, Mark Wednesday, Luke Thursday, John Saturday
  • Established reading of all psalms after Good Friday
  • Composed tunes for many of the prayers. “Adribic” tune came from the monks of mount Adribah, where Abba Shenouda monastery. “El Lahn el Shamy” (Pekethronos for example) came from Mount Shamah, west of Luxor, where the monastery of martyr St. Tawardos was located.

c. AD 1245. Al-Safawy Ibn Al-Assal–historian, captures certain rites according to his understanding as follows (note the practice of fasting Wednesdays and Fridays was a requirement expected of all Christians until 3pm, and notice also the stringent tone he strikes in its application):

“All Nazarene [“Nassara” meaning Christians] are required … to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays of every week except in the Pentecost season.”

“One who does not fast the holy forty [the Great Fast], or Friday, or Wednesday, he should be cut off unless he has a physical reason like sickness.”

“During these 6 days [Pascha Week], you eat only bread and salt with water. No meat or wine be consumed in these six days, because they are days of sorrow. But for Friday and Saturday, those who can, fast them together as one day. But if you can not fast the two days, be sure to fast the Saturday because the bridegroom is taken.”

“A priest who does not fast the lent and Wednesday and Friday should be excommunicated.”

“These two days [Wednesday and Friday] are to be fasted until the ninth hour (3 PM).”

__________________________________________

SOURCES AND FURTHER RESOURCES

Image above was a picture I took of the St. Anthony monastery in Egypt when I had the blessing of visiting.

Much of the history was derived from the Synaxarion entry for Paope 5th for Abba Peter of El-Bahnassa.

For a PowerPoint presentation of the History of Holy Week which I created and used for my lecture on this subject, you can download it here.

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