On the 6th January I had the pleasure of attending a Coptic Christmas service (Coptic meaning 'Egyptian'). We travelled to a Coptic Church especially for this event. I definitely felt very 'other' as I travelled with the Coptic Christians and attended the overall event, but people were very friendly and happy to introduce themselves.
Upon entering the church I saw an entrance lobby, with two arches, one leading to the high altar, the other to the congregation. Beautiful smelling incense wafted around me, and as we were late arriving the sound of loud rhythmic male voices vibrated through the room, accompanied by the clang of cymbals and triangles.
I took my place in the stalls by myself and looked eagerly to the front. The altar could only be seen through a small wooden archway, leading to a sense of mystery about the rites being enacted. Men and boys sang in front of the arch, all wearing white robes with red sashes. Above the arch that stood behind them was wooden panels decorated with twelve icons, and two larger ones depicting Mary and Jesus. Looking around the room were further icons, gold candelabras and a shrine to the Virgin Mary containing relics (I longed to approach it throughout the whole ceremony).
As the men sang I could spy the lead clergymen through the archway to the high altar, enacting rites over a white cloth covering something, holding up a cross, and holding up what appeared to be a gold Bible. The men and women of the congregation sat separately, the men on the left and women on the right; some of the women wore white veils over their hair, and some wore all white clothes. Perhaps the wearing of white clothes is a survival from ancient Egyptian practices. With regards to the veil I found the following purpose summarised from Corinthians: "The spiritual meaning behind it is to cover human glory in the presence of Gods." (A woman's external glory is in her hair.)
I did wonder why it was only men up there singing and enacting the rites. One man mentioned that whilst he was unsure, he believed it was due to menstrual impurity in women, a concept argued to have existed in ancient Egypt also; however I did wonder why this then discounted young girls from singing, if young boys could. A woman told me that men were given this duty from God, and women were given other duties.
The service contained much of this singing, with few breaks for short liturgical readings on the theme of the nativity. What I found greatly interesting was how it appeared to be a blend of a Catholic Church and a Muslim Mosque. With all of the iconography, bible readings, crosses and Jesus references, the readings and some songs were sang in the characteristic arabic/muslim 'singing' that they use when reciting the holy Quran. Please pardon my ignorance on what this is called! A screen showed the lyrics and readings to the congregation in English, Ancient Coptic, and Arabic. It was unlike anything I'd seen before in a Church. I found it fascinating!
At the end one of the lead clergymen shared a message about Christ, about how he came down to us not born in a palace, with fine linens, warmth and food, but in a dirty stable with an unmarried mother. He was a very spiritual and friendly looking man. To end the service some Copts from Zambia sang a beautiful song accompanied by a woman playing a large drum.
Upon leaving the church the friendly looking clergyman thanked me for coming with a warm smile and then complimented a woman's baby daughter by saying she looked like a young Ankhesenamun, which I liked!
It was a very different experience from other churches that I have visited. Despite being a three hour long service (!) I'd consider going again to soak in the spirituality and love of the place.