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The Role of Abraham in the Rites of the Coptic Church: Uniting the Spiritual Realities of the Old and New Testaments

In an interview about his book “Hearing the Scriptures,”[1] Fr. Eugen J. Pentiuc describes liturgical experience as a dynamic and interactive event in which the interpretative imagination of hymnographers and liturgists collides with the intellect and senses of the hearer, who takes in the entire scene of prayer in the corporate setting of the Church. What Christian worshippers encounter through the hymns, lectionaries, and liturgical prayers of the Church is a synergistic expression of the Holy Scriptures through what Fr. Pentiuc describes as an entanglement of the Old and New Testaments. The depth of the meaning is compounded in both typology of the Old being fulfilled in the New, but also in a reverse typology where the New enlightens the spiritual reality of the Old.[2] While Fr. Pentiuc explores the Holy Week hymns of the Byzantine tradition, in this paper we will focus on the prevalence of Abrahamic typology and references in the Coptic Orthodox Christian rite and explore some aspects of its impact on the liturgical theology of the Coptic Orthodox tradition.


This paper will be organized to cover the appearance of the patriarchs in the Coptic Synaxarium on 28 Ⲙⲉⲥⲱⲣⲏ,[3] in which Abraham is referenced as a prophet. Next, some attention will be given to the minor references to Abraham during the Great Lent and the Nativity season of Ⲕⲟⲓⲁϩⲕ.[4] Then, we will move on to the more notable Feast of Covenant Thursday with its renowned typology of the sacrifice of Isaac foreshadowing the Passion of Christ. Finally, we will reflect on the role that Abrahamic typology plays in the annual days of the Coptic rite in the Eucharistic Liturgy of St. Basil, in the petitions of the Church and, perhaps most importantly, in the prothesis rite of selecting the Eucharistic offering.  


Feast of the Patriarchs on 28 Ⲙⲉⲥⲱⲣⲏ

Many Old Testament figures are included in the Coptic Synaxarium, or the book of the “lives of the saints,” typically in remembrance of their service as prophets or in celebration of their righteous way of life. This includes the combined feast for the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on 28 Ⲙⲉⲥⲱⲣⲏ in the Coptic calendar (September 3 in the Gregorian calendar). For the divine liturgy celebrated on that day, there are several special features that denote the honor given to the patriarchs in general and to Abraham in particular. Among the prayers of this day are a Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲃⲁⲧⲟⲥ,[5] a Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲁⲇⲁⲙ,[6] a hymn for the prophets (Ⲁⲇⲁⲙ Ⲁⲃⲉⲗ[7]) and a Concluding Canon, in addition to the daily readings, which themselves offer deep insights into the Church’s high esteem for the patriarch and prophet who was patiently awaiting the appearance of the Lord, just as he awaited the birth of Isaac. The theology of the Church is enacted and lived in the rites of the Church, and in this particular example the Church’s understanding and thought is fully explained by St. Cyril of Alexandria in his Glaphyra on the Pentateuch: “Great indeed, then, is the marvel of that righteous man, and his love of God is beyond all praise. For…allowing no earthly thing to oppose his love for God, he offered up the spiritual sacrifice.”[8]


Although not an exhaustive treatment of the rites for this commemoration day, several lines from the aforementioned hymns and Canon are worth mentioning. First, the Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲃⲁⲧⲟⲥ for 28 Ⲙⲉⲥⲱⲣⲏ celebrates the three patriarchs while also invoking the prayers of St. Mary the Theotokos.[9] “Through the prayers of the Theotokos and Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,”[10] is chanted making an indirect connection between Abraham as the father of the nations in Christ and the Theotokos as the mother of the incarnate Lord. The hymn for the prophets, Ⲁⲇⲁⲙ Ⲁⲃⲉⲗ, also emphasizes the idea that Christ was already revealing Himself to the Old Testament prophets so that they may also rejoice in the foreknowledge of the salvation of the world. This line also combines the three patriarchs with Noah in exultation, “Righteous Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph judged Egypt; they bore witness to His coming.”[11] Lastly, the Concluding Canon venerates Abraham as the forefather of the Savior, saying: “All races and tribes…cannot speak of your dignity…for the pleasure of the Lord Jesus who appeared in your genealogy.”[12] These mentions of Abraham honor him as a prophet of the Passion of Christ and as an ancestor to the Incarnate Lord.


The Lectionary (Ⲕⲁⲧⲁⲙⲉⲣⲟⲥ), or the book of daily liturgical readings, is a treasure trove containing the mind of the Church regarding Abraham’s high rank among the Old Testament prophets and his importance to our spiritual life today.[13] An overarching theme is the identification of the Lord as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,[14] as if to deflect the question of God’s identity to the patriarchs themselves. The Most High was worshipped by them, and we know Him by virtue of being their descendants. Both the Gospel of the Evening Raising of Incense and the Catholic Epistle excerpted from the Epistle of St. James[15] echo the theme of friendship with God. The Psalm of the Divine Liturgy signals the everlasting covenant with Abraham, reinforcing that what the Lord has promised, He will do, and it will not be undone. This is further evidenced in the Gospel of the Morning Raising of Incense, taken from the Gospel According to St. Luke, which describes the role that Abraham has in the heavenly kingdom with an account of his interaction with Lazarus and the rich man interceding to the patriarch for relief. The result of his friendship with God on earth is the eternal relationship with Him in heaven, participating in the work of the eternal kingdom by comforting the poor and meek. 


This one day in the liturgical calendar reveals the thought of the Church regarding the economy of salvation and the activity of the saints as friends and collaborators with the Lord of Hosts. As previously posited, the Church as the Ark of Salvation facilitates an overlapping of the spiritual realities of the Old Testament and New Testament, whose synthesis is the worship of all who are waiting for the building of the City of God.[16] Abraham waited and saw the hope of the Resurrection; so too his children wait, watch, and hope for the fulfillment of redemption in Christ.


Mentions of Abraham during Ⲕⲟⲓⲁϩⲕ and Great Lent

Abraham accompanies us throughout the Coptic liturgical calendar with mentions during annual days and fasting seasons alike. It is worth noting that the lines about Abraham during Ⲕⲟⲓⲁϩⲕ mirror the hymnology of the Sunday Θεοτοκία,[17] while the hymns for Great Lent mirror the annual Wednesday Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ and express our sharing in the virtues of obedience and generosity whole-heartedly lived by the patriarch. Of interest is that Abraham’s nephew Lot is also counted among the righteous men who were saved through prayer and fasting. In this section, the phraseology of those hymns will be explored.


The theological focus of the Ⲕⲟⲓⲁϩⲕ season is the anticipation of the Incarnation of the Lord, and as such the hymnology places great emphasis on the role of St. Mary the Theotokos and her willing participation in the salvation of the world through her miraculous pregnancy. As previously indicated, this participation in the economy of salvation alongside the Lord is a unique tenet of Orthodox Christianity. Pairing the Old Testament prophets with the Theotokos communicates that this activity began from the earliest encounters of mankind with God. For this reason, one of the seasonal doxologies for Ⲕⲟⲓⲁϩⲕ parallels the well-known verses among the Coptic faithful from the Sunday Psalmody, in the hymn Ϣⲁϣϥ ⲛ̀ⲥⲟⲡ:[18] “Hail to you, Mary: the grace of Abraham;” “Hail to you, Mary: the salvation of Saint Isaac;” and “Hail to you, Mary: the rejoicing of Jacob.”[19]


The tune shifts for the Great Lent, as does the theological lesson taught through the hymnology. In comparing the Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲁⲇⲁⲙ, prayed Sunday through Tuesday, and the Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲃⲁⲧⲟⲥ, prayed Wednesday through Saturday, familiar concepts are displayed, such as the offering of an acceptable sacrifice through fasting, the visitation of the Lord to the righteous, and the deliverance from tribulation. The Wednesday Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ prayed during annual days throughout the year reflects the same theological points with the addition of the virtues of compassion and mercy.


Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲁⲇⲁⲙ for Great Lent

Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲃⲁⲧⲟⲥ for Great Lent

Wednesday Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲃⲁⲧⲟⲥ

The sacrifice of Abraham the Lord accepted to Him; because of fasting, he hosted God.


Isaac the beloved was offered as a sacrifice; because of fasting, he was saved in joy.[20]

The sacrifice of our father Abraham was accepted by God, the Master through prayer and fasting, and He made him a patriarch.


Isaac was tied by his father to be offered as an acceptable sacrifice; through prayer and fasting, a ram replaced him.


Lot the righteous was worthy to be visited by the angels; through prayer and fasting, he was saved from trouble.[21]

When we love the name of salvation of our Lord Jesus Christ and show mercy toward one another, then we fulfill the Whole Law.


Through compassion Abraham was pleased to host God and His holy angels.


Through compassion Lot the righteous was saved from the hard tribulation that came upon Sodom.[22]


Abraham’s Acceptable Sacrifice and Covenant Thursday

As observed in the hymns for Great Lent, Abraham’s sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac is already being recalled in the Coptic congregations in the period leading up to Holy Week. However, the significance of Abraham’s actions will only be heightened as the Pascha unfolds. H.H. Pope Shenouda III described Holy Week in his book Thine is the Power and the Glory: “The Passion Week…is the most important period in the year and the richest spiritually. It is a week full of holy memories of the most crucial stage of salvation...The Church chose for this week certain readings from both the Old and the New Testaments, which reflect, the most passionate feelings that explain God's relation with Man.”[23] In the following paragraphs, Abraham’s participation in the “acceptable sacrifice” of the Lord Jesus Christ through His Passion will be examined.


Prior to Holy Thursday, there is only one prophecy related to Abraham and Isaac found in the readings of the Coptic Church’s Holy Week Lectionary. In the Ninth Hour of Wednesday, one of the Old Testament readings is taken from the Book of Genesis (24:1-9), which tells of Abraham sending his servant to find a wife for Isaac. In this case, the search for Isaac’s bride foreshadows the Church as the bride of Christ.[24] The Church again confirms that the prophets both had foreknowledge of and participated in the salvation history of the world in the Exposition reading for that Hour. The Exposition reading states: “The mystery of Your incarnation You have concealed in our body, O Christ our God. For Abraham, the great patriarch, the father of all nations fathomed in great faith that God the Word shall be incarnate from his seed.”[25] These readings and their situation within the prayers of Holy Week achieve two purposes: first, the congregation is reminded that the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is how He will redeem His bride, the Church, and second, they act as a preparation for the events of the next day when Abraham and Isaac will again be front and center alongside Christ in His Passion on Covenant Thursday.


With the focus on the account of Abraham, Isaac, and the offering on Mt. Moriah, it may be easy to miss the second reading from the Book of Genesis during the Ninth Hour prayer of Holy Thursday, even though it gives an important theological frame to the events of the day. The sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22:1-19) is read in tandem with Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek (Gen. 14:17-20), king of Salem, from whom he received an offering of bread and wine. St. Cyril, in the Glaphyra, gives a lengthy treatment of the presence of Melchizedek, also interpreting the offering as a type of the Eucharist instituted by Christ on Covenant Thursday. He writes, “Melchizedek took up the symbols of the priesthood that excels the law, offering Abraham both wine and bread when he blessed him. Likewise, we are not blessed in any other way except through Christ, the great and true priest.”[26] Thus, the faithful are readied to receive the Institution of the greatest sacrament of the Christian Church, the Eucharist.


It appears paradoxical that the Lord should require that the Son of Promise, Isaac, be offered up, yet this is Abraham’s test, and God finds his sacrifice acceptable, as the Church reads in the Exposition of the Ninth Hour of Covenant Thursday.[27] It is Isaac who carries the wood, just as Christ carried the wood of the Cross by His own strength and will, and was also accepted by the Father, as the Coptic faithful chant in the hymn Ⲫⲁⲓ ⲉ̀ⲧⲁϥⲉ̀ⲛϥ[28] during the Sixth Hour of Good Friday: “This is He who offered Himself as an acceptable sacrifice on the Cross for the salvation of our race.”[29] None give light to this typology better than St. Cyril:


“For the Word was in reality of the substance of God the Father, shining radiantly in His own temple, that which was supplied through the Virgin, and which was nailed to the tree. Although as God He was impassable and immortal, He took Himself away to suffering and death, and through His own body He offered up a pleasing aroma to God the Father. He Himself, therefore, is said to have been accepted by the Father, in accordance with what is written in the Psalms.”[30]


The Psalms resolve this paradox of sacrificing the promised and cherished heir, as we read in Psalm 16:10, “For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. Isaac is restored to Abraham, and Christ trampled death by His Resurrection. Even as we anticipate and gradually approach the Crucifixion during the days of the Pascha Week, the Church is clear in her teaching that the end goal is not solely perseverance in the face of innocents’ suffering, but the rejoicing in the redemptive victory that dawns with the Resurrection Feast. Before the distribution of the Holy Body and Blood for the Divine Liturgy of Covenant Thursday, the Fraction prayer clearly lays out this typology, instructing the faithful to anticipate the Resurrection even on the day preceding the Crucifixion. It reads, “and Isaac returned alive, likewise Christ rose alive from the dead and appeared to His holy disciples. O God, who received the sacrifice of our father Abraham, receive this sacrifice from our hands in this hour.”[31] The Church lives out this unity which transcends temporal boundaries, bringing together the sacrifice of Abraham, the Crucifixion of the Lord, and the institution of the Eucharist, our prayer and sacrifice offered year by year, and the acceptance of all these separate moments by God the Father as one.


Abraham in the Annual Days of the Coptic Rite

The power of this spiritual reality is repeated during the annual days of the Coptic liturgical calendar, when the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil is regularly prayed. Two references to Abraham can be observed audibly, while Abraham’s role in the prothesis rite of selecting the Eucharistic offering is acted out inaudibly by the celebrant. Attentive devotion should be given even to these minor mentions of Abraham in the Prayer for the Departed offered during the Evening Raising of Incense and also in the Commemoration of the Saints prayed during the Liturgy of the Faithful, as they bring into focus the presence of the Scriptures within the liturgical rites. As discussed in the section on 28 Ⲙⲉⲥⲱⲣⲏ, the Gospel of the Morning Raising of Incense passage from the Gospel According to St. Luke on that day describes Lazarus as resting in Abraham’s arms.[32] In reference to the same account, we pray in the two aforementioned prayers, “Graciously, O Lord, repose all their souls in the bosom of our holy fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.[33] Sustain them in a green pasture, by the water of rest in the Paradise of joy, the place out of which grief sorrow and groaning have fled away, in the light of Your saints,”[34] reminding us that death is a departure to the resting place of the fathers and that there is spiritual activity even for those who wait there for the Kingdom. The only mention of Abraham in the Morning Raising of Incense is in the Prayer for the Oblations, reminding us to offer our gifts with righteousness. The prayer reads: “As You have received the offerings of the righteous Abel, the sacrifice of our father Abraham and the two mites of the widow, so also receive the thank-offerings of our servants.”[35] Again we see the overlap of both Old and New Testament offerings with our own in the present time, signifying the unity of the faithful across the ages.


Abraham’s sacrifice also plays as important a role during the Divine Liturgies celebrated on annual days as it does on Covenant Thursday, however through a silent, symbolic action of the celebrant. Not only is it silent, but it is also passed on purely as oral tradition from priest to priest.[36] During the prothesis rite of the Coptic Church, the priest folds the Communion napkin to have a point at one end and hides it inside his sleeve to signify the knife that Abraham would have carried. Once the Eucharistic offering is selected, the napkin is taken out, unfolded, and used to wipe any excess flour from the offering in order to prepare it to be placed in the paten. The remainder of the loaves are also blessed by the priest with the prayer, “A sacrifice of glory, a sacrifice of praise, a sacrifice of Abraham, a sacrifice of Isaac, a sacrifice of Jacob, a sacrifice of Melchizedek.”[37]


The silence of this symbolic act instructs us in the layers of mystery involved in the sacrament. Abraham went to Mt. Moriah keeping the details of the sacrifice to himself; the Lord Christ also went to the Cross in silence. Similarly, when the priest selects the offering bread, he is silent as the congregation chants “Lord, have mercy,” using the appropriate Ⲁϫⲡⲓⲁ prayers (Prayers of the Hours) as a segue into the Divine Liturgy itself while petitioning God to be present among the faithful. We can imagine that Abraham was earnestly praying for God’s presence and intervention in the sacrifice of Isaac, again circling back to the overlapping spiritual parallels of the Old and New Testaments in the life of the Church. 


Conclusion

The climax of Abraham’s role in the rites of the Coptic Church is undoubtedly recognized as Covenant Thursday, when his beloved son Isaac is offered to God in tandem with Christ’s institution of the Eucharist and His preparation to complete the journey to the Cross. Nonetheless, Abraham remains present in the liturgical prayers throughout the year, as we have explored through both the seasonal hymns and the annual prayers. The patriarch is elevated in the eyes of the faithful for his righteous life before the Lord, leading him into a deep friendship with the Almighty.[38] The result of that intimate trust was that Abraham glimpsed through prophetic insight the Passion and Resurrection of the Only-Begotten Son when he received his own son back from the dead, as it were.[39] The sacramental mystery connecting the Old and New Testaments continually points us to Abraham for his willingness and determination to follow the Lord, entreating and energizing today’s faithful to continue in the ways of their father. In imitation of Abraham, the Coptic faithful eagerly rise and travel to the church with their acceptable sacrifice as a demonstration of their inheritance and root of their faith. As St. Cyril writes, “and so God the Father would in due course show forth Abraham to be the root and origin of many thousands of Gentiles, when Emmanuel died for the world.”[40]


[1] Pentiuc, Eugen. “Hearing the Scriptures: A Conversation with Fr. Eugen Pentiuc.” YouTube. Last modified November 9, 2022.

[2] See Augustine of Hippo, Questions on the Heptateuch, 2.73. 

[3] “Mesra,” the twelfth month of the Coptic liturgical calendar, which typically begins in August in the Gregorian calendar.

[4] “Kiahk,” the fourth month of the Coptic liturgical calendar, which typically begins in December in the Gregorian calendar.

[5] A Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ (Psali) is a praise or hymn, and Ⲃⲁⲧⲟⲥ (Wados) refers to the musical meter in which the Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ is chanted, typically one consisting of seven, eight, or even nine beats per measure, and is associated with particular days of the week – specifically, Wednesday through Saturday. Thus, the Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲃⲁⲧⲟⲥ for this commemoration is chanted when it falls on these days of the week.

[6] When used in relation to the hymns and liturgical prayers of the Coptic Church, Ⲁⲇⲁⲙ (Adam), like Ⲃⲁⲧⲟⲥ, refers to the musical meter in which the hymn is chanted, typically consists of four, five, or six beats per measure, and is associated with particular days of the week – specifically, Sunday through Tuesday. Thus, the Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲁⲇⲁⲙ for this commemoration is chanted when it falls on these days of the week.

[7] “Adam Abel”

[8] Cyril of Alexandria, Glaphyra on the Pentateuch, trans. Nicholas P. Lunn, vol. 1 Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2018, pg 159.

[9] “Mother of God”

[10] Ⲯⲁⲗⲓ Ⲃⲁⲧⲟⲥ for 28 Ⲙⲉⲥⲱⲣⲏ, 2. See also H.G. Bishop Mettaous, HG Bishop Samuel, Gerges Sarkis, Murad Morcos, ed. الابصاليات السنوية الجزء الثاني. Beni Suef, Egypt: Victor Kirollos Press, 1995, pg 289.

[12] H.G. Bishop Samuel, ed. ترتيب البيعة الجزء الثالث (الصوم الكبير-الخمسين - من برمهات إلى النسى) Shebeen al Kanater, Egypt: Al-Neam Publishing, 2000, pg. 206-207.

[13] There are nine Scriptural readings for every day in the Coptic calendar, including a Psalm and Gospel for the Evening Raising of Incense, a Psalm and Gospel for Morning Raising of Incense, and readings from the Pauline Epistles, Catholic Epistles, and the Acts as well as a Psalm and Gospel for the Divine Liturgy itself. On 28 Ⲙⲉⲥⲱⲣⲏ, the readings are as follows: Evening Raising of Incense – Psalm 46:6-8, John 15:7-16; Morning Raising of Incense – Psalm 104:2, Luke 16:19-31; Divine Liturgy – Hebrews 11:1-10, James 2:14-23, Acts 7:20-34, Psalm 104:4-5, Mark 12:18-27 (NKJV).

[14] See readings from Acts and the Gospel of the Divine Liturgy.

[15] See also Isaiah 41:8 (NKJV).

[16] See Augustine, City of God.

[17] “Theotokia,” a theologically rich praise for the Theotokos and the Incarnation of our Savior, of which one is found for every day of the week in the Psalmody of the Coptic Church.

[18] “Shashf Ensob,” which begins: “Seven times every day, I will praise Your name…”

[19] Ϣⲁϣϥ ⲛ̀ⲥⲟⲡ, 10a; 10c; 11a; See also Fr. Matthias Farid Wahba, ed., The Holy Psalmody Encino, CA: Keemy Brothers, 2004, pg. 136.

[20] Wahba, pg. 679-680.

[21] Ibid, pg. 671.

[22] Ibid, pg. 201-202.

[23] H.H. Pope Shenouda III, Thine is the Power and the Glory, Last modified March 13, 1998, pg. 7.

[24] Cyril of Alexandria, pg. 164

[25] Fr. Abraham Azmy, ed., Book of the Holy Pascha: From the Last Friday of Great Lent to Resurrection Feast Liturgy Hamden, CT: Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael Coptic Orthodox Church, 2005., pg. 261.

[26] Cyril of Alexandria, pg. 126; See Hebrews 7.

[27] Azmy, pg. 397. 

[28] “Fai Etafenf” (GB).

[30] Cyril of Alexandria, pg 156.

[32] See Luke 16:19-31 (NKJV).

[33] Evidence for the use of this phrase can be found in the rubrics of Pope Gabriel V from the 15th century. For more on the commemoration prayers see Mikhail, Ramez. The Presentation of the Lamb Ebook PDF: The Prothesis and Preparatory Rites of the Coptic Liturgy. Studies in Eastern Christian Liturgies, V.2. Münster: Aschendorff Verlag, 2020, pg. 233-234.

[34] Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, The Coptic Liturgy of St. Basil Canadensis, CA: St. John the Beloved Publishing House, 1993, pg. 31 and pg. 513.

[35] Ibid, pg. 53.

[36] Silas Andrew, “Liturgy of St. Basil,” Bible Study (lecture presented at the College Youth Bible Study, Gainesville, FL: St. Mary Magdalene Coptic Orthodox Church, 2023).

[37] Mikhail, pg. 219. Fr. Arsenius Mikhail details in his work that these practices developed over time with an increasing reverence and symbolism, but are not found in existing manuscripts.

[38] See James 2:21-23; 2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8.

[39] See John 8:56; Hebrews 11:17-19.

[40] Cyril of Alexandria, pg. 159.

 —

  

Jessica Ryder-Khalil serves at St. Mary Magdalene Coptic Orthodox Church in Gainesville, FL. Before becoming a homemaker for her beloved husband and four children, her professional background was in teaching English as a Second Language. She is currently pursuing a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degree at St. Athanasius & St. Cyril Theological School (ACTS).

This paper is an adaptation of course work submitted for "Introduction to the Old Testament," offered by Fr. Eugen Pentiuc in Fall 2023 at St. Athanasius & St. Cyril Theological School.


DossPress.com is a place for Christian men and women to collaborate for the sake of our common edification by sharing their written works. As we strive to uphold a standard of doctrinal and spiritual soundness in the articles shared, we note nonetheless that the thoughts expressed in each article remain the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Doss Press.

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