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  • Foundational Considerations for Theological Education in the Coptic Orthodox Church: Part Two — The Experience of St. Habib Girgis and the Coptic Orthodox Seminary

    His Grace Bishop Suriel Bishop of Melbourne, Australia and Professor at Pope Shenouda III Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary, New Jersey, United States Having briefly set forth, in Part One of this series, an overview of Christian education as it was carried out in the early Church, and particularly in the “schools” of Alexandria, let us now shift our focus to modern Coptic history, and specifically the work of St. Habib Girgis in theological education in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Prior to embarking on that endeavor, however, it is important to note that little is known about the theological developments that arose in Egypt immediately following the Arab Conquest, and whatever we know today comes from the literary productions of isolated theologians of that period rather than from any consistent or uniform theological school of thought. The thirteenth century is considered by some scholars to be the “age” of Coptic Orthodox Theology and Dogmatics, which was followed by 300 years of silence in the field of Coptic Orthodox Theology. By the late Middle Ages, the situation in the Coptic Orthodox Church was quite dire. A seventeenth century German theologian and traveler describes his visit to a Sunday liturgy in the Coptic Orthodox Church, writing: “They [the Copts] do not keep or have preachers nor are those good priests suitable. Instead of the sermon, there is reading after the Gospel of a homily from a book called tafâsîr (explanations), taken from one of the Fathers, such as Basil, Chrysostom, Cyril, Theophilus, Abbot Bussi, and people of that sort. For some time, the Franciscans have been preaching in Arabic among the Copts, and as a result they have been converting Copts to Catholicism with their exemplary lifestyle.”[1] By the middle of the nineteenth century, historians note that many among the clergy, reflecting their social surroundings, were ignorant of and negligent in their religious duties. Coming from the lower classes of the community, these clergymen often made up for their previous probations either by misusing church property or selling their religious services. The Church, plagued with widespread ignorance, had then a bleak future and was under external threat from Western missionaries while facing constant internal struggles, with the educated lay people calling for reform. By this time, Protestant and Catholic missionaries were active in Egypt and began posing threats to Coptic identity, as they were generally far more theologically educated than the Coptic clergy of that time. Needless to say, the need for a clerical school to educate Coptic Orthodox clergymen in the Faith of the Church became particularly pressing under these dire conditions. The first attempt at establishing such a clerical school was the opening of a clerical college on January 13, 1875 during the papacy of Pope Cyril V.[2] This institution was enthusiastically hailed as a new incarnation of the ancient Catechetical School of Alexandria. However, few of the students — all monks from the monasteries — applied themselves to their studies, and the Seminary survived only a few months. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Coptic Orthodox Church was in all the more urgent need for a seminary for the formation of her priests. St. Habib Girgis comments: “Since religious service was among the most esteemed services to the Church and its position was the highest, this required, therefore, that pastors [الرعاة] be sufficiently prepared in the Orthodox faith. They needed to be especially cared for and to be chosen from among those with excellent qualifications, from the sons of the community generally. Various efforts and finances are also required for the sake of these pastors who will lead the community to the place of safety and for the benefit hoped for.”[3] Habib Girgis could not imagine a priest serving without the education necessary to equip him for such an important role. He understood how impossible it would be for any person to be employed in a profession or trade without having first undergone the necessary training; how much more important, then, was proper religious training for a priest who was responsible for the souls of people! He wrote: “But the Church cannot present to us true leaders, counselors, and reformers unless her leaders and pastors are specially trained to practice their lofty and critical roles. Who can be compared to them except those with similar critical positions in life? An engineer cannot take on this role without proper training in the faculty of engineering. The physician cannot be trusted over people’s bodies and souls unless he receives both theoretical and practical education in his faculty. The situation is similar also for a judge, lawyer, teacher, farmer, and mechanic, as well as others who are comparable… Hence, a religious pastor is not exempt from this, since a pastor, worthy of this title and worthy to be responsible for souls, needs to be educated in religious and secular subjects. But it is more important that [the priest] perfects the sacraments and characteristics of his profession than any of those other professions so that he may fulfill his obligations and carry out his burdens. In this way, he may transcend to a most eminent relationship with the eternal souls [he pastors].”[4] According to Habib Girgis, in the second half of the nineteenth century there was only one priest in all of Egypt who was both capable of preaching and well versed in the Orthodox faith: Hegumen Philotheos Ibrahim Baghdadi, who lived from 1837 until 1904. This historical background underscores the importance of the dedication ceremony that took place on November 29, 1893 — a date widely considered to be the official opening of the Coptic Orthodox Seminary in Cairo, which Habib Girgis considered to be the greatest success of Pope Cyril V. When the Seminary opened, it had no teacher of religion or theology. Its first dean, Yusuf Mankarios, would simply choose some religious books and hand them out to the students to read aloud in front of him. Students complained repeatedly to the Pope and to the Lay Community Council about the lack of proper theological instruction, but to no avail. This bizarre situation continued for four years and led many students to leave the Seminary. There was one attempt to rectify the situation: on January 13, 1896, the Lay Community Council appointed the  aforementioned Hegumen Philotheos, who was then quite elderly, to teach at the Seminary. Sadly, however, his tenure lasted only two weeks, after which he collapsed in class due to his old age and illness and would never return. Habib Girgis was one of 12 graduates of the great Coptic School who were chosen to be part of the first class of 40 students to enter the Seminary. Many of his cohorts dropped out because of lack of interest or academic ability, but Habib Girgis was a bright scholar who, given his academic prowess and exceptional talent, as well as the Seminary’s need for a capable teacher, was appointed by a special decree to teach religion on a temporary basis during his final year. He graduated shortly thereafter — the first to graduate from the newly re-established Seminary — and on May 8, 1898, having shown great potential and success as an instructor, he was promptly appointed to a full-time position at the Seminary, teaching Theology and Homiletics. Habib Girgis compared the relationship between the Seminary and the Coptic community to that between the heart and the body. He says, “for as the duty of the heart is to pump blood to the organs of the body, accordingly, from this spring, the spirit of teaching, guidance, and the transmission of the good news of salvation will spread among people.”[5] The mission of the Seminary was twofold: to teach Orthodox Theology and doctrine, and to form priests and preachers who would enlighten the other members of the Coptic community, both young and old. The first statutes for the Seminary were formulated in 1893, prescribed a five-year period of study, and listed the subjects to be taught. All were taught by foreigners, with the exception of Theology, which was to be taught, from the third year of coursework onwards, by a capable Orthodox priest. The statutes promulgated thereafter, in 1912, addressed numerous administrative matters: all students were required to live at the Seminary, sleeping in dormitories or large rooms, and it was only with special permission that a student could lodge outside the Seminary. Class sizes were capped at 25 students, and admission requirements included passing an entrance exam, presenting three letters of recommendation, including one from the prospective student’s diocesan bishop, a minimum age in practice — of 16 years old — and at least four years of elementary school education. Each applicant was required to undergo a medical examination and be physically fit, without blemish or physical deformity. Applicants were also required to nominate a sponsor — an individual who would vouch for the prospective student’s character, commitment to completing his studies, and willingness to be employed wherever the need arose and to continue in religious ministry following his completion of the Seminary’s curriculum. The statutes also extended to the lives of priests and teachers beyond the confines of the Seminary. For example, the Board could transfer a preacher from one place to another according to need and circumstance. Preachers were required to prepare for the Board an annual report of their ministry. Parish priests were only permitted to allow graduates of the Seminary to preach in their parishes, and had to obtain written permission from the Pope. The Seminary maintained a record of qualified preachers and each year announced the names of the new graduate preachers along with their places of ministry. These regulations served two purposes: they ensured that those who preached were properly trained and formed at the Seminary and preached according to the Coptic Orthodox Faith, and prevented followers of other religious denominations from infiltrating Coptic Orthodox parishes and preaching views and ideas that were not in accordance with Coptic Orthodox Theology. Such measures afforded the Coptic Orthodox community a layer of protection by ensuring that those who preached came from a reliable source approved by the Pope himself. When Habib Girgis was appointed dean of the Seminary in 1918, he inherited an institution with virtually no organizational structure, vision, or sense of direction. The curriculum was inadequate in many ways, particularly with regard to religious and theological education — the very purpose for which the Seminary had been established. Financial constraints led to friction between Habib Girgis and the Lay Community Council, and Habib Girgis felt stymied in his efforts to improve the Seminary’s infrastructure, increase faculty salaries, and meet daily running expenses, among several other concerns. As dean of the Seminary, Habib Girgis had his work cut out for him. He took on a monumental list of reforms under dire circumstances, embracing a task that might have discouraged even the most formidable and talented of educators. He described his love for the Seminary and his zeal for education and theological reform in strong metaphorical language, likening it to the shedding of blood, putting one’s life and spirit at its service, and the kindling of fire and hope in one’s heart. Amidst those financial difficulties, a committee presented a report in February 1927 which acknowledged the Seminary’s financial hardship and the economic crisis that the country at large was then facing, asking only for what was considered to be essential, fundamental, and practical. Acknowledging Habib Girgis’ great endeavors in developing the Seminary religiously, spiritually, and academically, the committee sought the support of the Patriarchate Church Council, the Lay Community Council, and the Pope to raise standards even further. The committee desired that all faculty be appropriately qualified, both academically and spiritually, with preference given to clerical school graduates who had completed the higher level coursework. This would entail transferring to other schools certain faculty members who were deemed unqualified to teach at the Seminary. The report also stressed the importance of having qualified lecturers, preferably chosen from among the higher level graduates of the Seminary, or from those holding higher diplomas from other Schools, Colleges, or Universities. The low salaries paid to local faculty affected their morale and gave them little incentive to improve their academic standards. Habib Girgis understood their predicament and made repeated requests for increased pay, to no avail. He wrote bitterly to the Patriarchate Church Council saying: “I have said that the moral state of the teachers is unacceptable and their spirits are low with pain and overburdened with hardships. How can a teacher work while his mind is disturbed and his soul is in pain and in a miserable state?”[6] Receiving meager wages, the existing lecturers showed little desire to develop their knowledge and skills and found no incentive to exert themselves to strive for academic excellence among their students. The report that was presented alongside the budget emphasized that the Seminary was the “spine” of the Coptic Church and the measure of its revival and refinement, and argued that the new proposed system would raise standards to a level suited to modern developments and circumstances. Despite all the work by the committee that had been expressly appointed by the Patriarchate Church Council, there was no immediate response. Habib Girgis followed up with a letter to the Council on May 31, 1927, after the academic year had ended, seeking a response so that improvements could begin at the start of the new academic year. Almost two months later, he received a hasty and brief reply requesting a report on the last academic year before the committee could look into the new curriculum. Both Habib Girgis and the committee must have been deeply frustrated by this apparent lack of interest from the very body that had demanded such a thorough inquiry and imposed such a stringent deadline. The reasons for the Patriarchate Church Council’s ambivalence are unclear; the most likely explanation is a lack of sufficient funds to implement their recommendations, although the Council may also have been attempting to exert its authority over the Seminary. Habib Girgis regularly wrote with sorrow to the Patriarchate Church Council about its lack of financial support. The following appeal is from 1929, but the sentiments expressed therein remain true throughout Habib Girgis’ career as dean: “This state has disadvantaged the welfare of the College and the welfare of education, and if this continues the situation will be worse. Who then will carry that responsibility? This, no doubt, is an injustice that no member of the council would accept, and since I have raised this complaint and have not had a response except that the budget does not allow for more, why then does the budget accommodate all [the Patriarchate’s] facilities, yet is only restrictive toward the Clerical School, which is more worthy than any other facility and should be given attention more than any other work?”[7] Habib Girgis appointed foreign lecturers to teach subjects for which no qualified Coptic Orthodox teachers could be found. For instance, in October 1928, he announced that the Seminary’s elite group of instructors of Theology, the humanities, and Law had been joined by the honorable Mr. John Leonard Wilson, who held a higher degree in Theology from Oxford University, to teach Philosophy of Religion. Habib Girgis understood that appointing a highly-credentialed scholar from Oxford would help raise both the academic standards and prestige of the Seminary. While he did not allow non-orthodox doctrine to be taught to his students, Habib Girgis looked beyond dogma to the other benefits that such a scholar could bring. In May 1942, Habib Girgis outlined the further refinement of the curriculum of the Seminary. He restructured the Seminary by dividing it into nine “streams,” or programs. There would now be only one level for the main course of study, which was primarily for those studying so as to receive ordination thereafter to the priesthood, requiring four years to complete. The Sunday School Teacher’s program would require three years of part-time study, comprising two lessons per week. The clerical program for ordained priests would also be part-time over a three-year period, but with six lessons per week, into which Habib Girgis proposed introducing the subject of Comparative Theology. Unfortunately, the 1942 plan only partially came to fruition due to a lack of funding. In 1946, Habib Girgis introduced further part-time study in the evenings for University graduates who were employed and still desired to serve as volunteers in their own parishes. Many leaders of Sunday Schools from Cairo and Giza enrolled in the Seminary at that time, although women were not admitted until October of 1959, nearly eight years after Habib Girgis’ death. Sadly, however, the Lay Community Council ordered the closure of this new Graduate Seminary during Habib Girgis’ last illness.[8] The Seminary still struggled to find qualified Coptic Orthodox faculty members to teach, eventually conceding that if no suitable Coptic Orthodox teacher could be found, a theological teacher might be recruited from another, preferably Orthodox, denomination. The depressingly low pay rates were still in place, even in 1948. The average teacher was earning only around 12 Egyptian Pounds per month. Girgis as dean was paid just over 40 Egyptian Pounds per month, while Cantor Mikhail Jirjis was earning less than four Egyptian Pounds per month to teach liturgical hymnology. There was also the continuing dilemma over whether to send students abroad to gain higher qualifications in western Seminaries and Universities. Habib Girgis struggled with this predicament throughout his career. In November 1945, the committee suggested that some of the Seminary's brighter graduates be sent abroad to study Hebrew and Greek, in order that they might, upon their return, replace foreign faculty members. It was also decided at this time to form an administrative committee for the Seminary consisting of three metropolitans chosen by the Holy Synod, three members of the organizing committee, the dean, and two members of the faculty. Its role would be to examine every nomination to the priesthood from across Egypt and present its recommendations to the Pope for his approval. Any ordination carried out in defiance of that system would be considered void. This move would bring an unprecedented degree of centralization to the Church and greater authority for the Pope. Habib Girgis wished only to ensure that those who had earned their qualifications at the Seminary would be ordained to the priesthood, and no one else. Whether this goal was achievable is open to question. The decree was followed to a great extent during the papacy of Pope Cyril VI but less closely thereafter. It is important to note that alongside his diligent work in theological education, Habib Girgis worked in parallel on expanding the work of Sunday Schools in the Coptic Orthodox Church. In fact, he based much of the work of Sunday Schools at the Seminary, which was a strategic move, as the Seminary was the heart of education in the Church and became an environment where Habib Girgis could test his ideas and theories on both faculty and students, with the Seminary also providing the right environment for the protection of pedagogical approaches, textbooks, and curricula. Having discussed the great work of Habib Girgis in the service of theological education in the Coptic Orthodox Church during his lifetime, the question now becomes whether he ultimately achieved his ambitions for the Coptic Orthodox Seminary. Because his work there was central to his mission of reforming the Coptic Orthodox Church and community, success or failure in that enterprise meant success or failure at broader reform. The verdict of history is not unanimous. In his 1938 book on the history of the Seminary, Habib Girgis observed that in the 45 years since its opening in 1893, the Seminary had produced a total of 320 graduates, two metropolitans, 209 priests, and 87 preachers and teachers (he did not mention the cantors), and acknowledged that 22 graduates were still without work. Many of the graduates had served the Church and the community in capacities other than the priesthood, such as by teaching Sunday School, leading youth groups, and joining Coptic Societies. Graduates of the Seminary had a profound influence on the Coptic Orthodox Church and community. Nonetheless, later in life, Habib Girgis soberly reflected on the Seminary's progress and said: “The Theological School was established half a century ago. It should have reached, by now, the standard of the finest Colleges. Regretfully, however, it did not receive the required support for its development. Instead, it spent most of its life in wasted struggle, fighting to survive and develop according to the weak means it possessed.”[9] The culmination of Habib Girgis’ work at the Seminary was its official recognition and accreditation in July 1948 by Egypt’s Minister of Education. The Minister recognized the qualification granted by the Coptic Orthodox Seminary as the equivalent of a four-year Bachelor’s degree. Nevertheless, the Seminary never reached the international standards to which Habib Girgis aspired. The prerequisites for admission remained low, as relatively few young Coptic men were interested in studying theology or pursuing a priestly calling — a vocation that enjoyed little prestige in the Coptic community at that time. Habib Girgis never achieved his ambition of an educated priesthood made up solely of men with a proper theological training from the Seminary. Although one can sense through his writings the bitterness he felt at the end of his life because his goals were not fully met, he is found in the same writings nonetheless hoping for a brighter future, one in which the next generation would carry on his legacy, recognize the central role that his educational reform policies would play in preserving Coptic identity, and assure a successful future for the Coptic community. Habib Girgis’ desire was that the Coptic Orthodox Seminary not only graduate priests, preachers, and teachers, but also reformers in every sense of the word.[10] In the life and decades-long service of Habib Girgis, we see that he was responding with singular care and concern to a pressing issue of his time — a desperate need for educated clergy, servants, and Church leaders who were able to ensure that the Coptic Orthodox faithful were fed true Orthodoxy in light of active western missionaries in Egypt. In the coming final entry in this series, we will reflect on the challenges we face today in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and examine, through applying the historical data we have discussed thus far, why the Coptic Orthodox Church is in equal if not even greater need for sound theological education today as she was at the time of St. Habib Girgis. — [1] Johann Michael Wansleben, Relazione dell Stato presente dell’Egitto, as translated in Anthony Alcock, Johann Michael Wansleben on the Coptic Church (2016), 7-8. [2] Pope Cyril V occupied the Throne of St. Mark from 1874 to 1927. He is the longest reigning patriarch in the history of the Coptic Church, having served as pope for 52 years, nine months and six days. [3] Habib Girgis, The Coptic Orthodox Theological College [4] Habib Girgis, “al-Madrasah al-Iklīrīkiyah: Māḍīhā wa-ḥāḍirhā wa-mustaqbalahā” [The Clerical School: Its Past, Present and Future], al-Karmah [The Vine] 9.9 (1923): 464 [5] Habib Girgis, “al-Madrasah al-Iklīrīkiyah,” al-Karmah 6.7 (1912): 307-8 [6] Habib Girgis, Handwritten letter from author to the Patriarchate’s Church Council, Patriarchal Archives, Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate, Cairo (21 February 1929): 4-6.2-4/33 [7] Ibid. [8] I believe this decision caused him to become paralyzed near the end of his life. [9] Habib Girgis, Practical Means Toward Coptic Reform, 82 [10] It is important to note that during this period, authors would at times use western writings as references. Even some of Habib Girgis’ works, especially those on the Sacraments, were influenced by Catholic writings. At times, Protestant Apologetics was used against Catholics and Catholic Apologetics against Protestants. While some efforts were made by certain individuals to translate selected patristic texts such as Yassa Abdelmassih, Murad Kamel, Yusuf Habib, and Fr. Markos Dawoud, it was not until the time of the bishop of education in 1962, that is, Bishop Shenouda (later Pope Shenouda III of blessed memory), and his writings and sermons, along with the publishing of the writings of Fr. Matthew the Poor and the work of the Center of Patristic Studies in Cairo, which started in 1979, that we begin to see a more widespread use of patristic texts. This begs the question: what were some of the main sources used during the first seven decades of the twentieth century, particularly the first half of the twentieth century? Fr. Markos Dawoud, for instance, spent most of his effort translating the works of F.B. Meyer and Matthew Henry from English into Arabic. This raises some serious questions about the formation of theological thinking in the Coptic Orthodox Church, particularly in the late nineteenth and early- to mid- twentieth centuries, which many see as a time of reform. These issues merit further study and extend beyond the scope of this introductory series. — His Grace Bishop Suriel presently serves as a Professor at the Pope Shenouda III Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary in New Jersey, United States. We are honored to announce that Season Two of His Grace Bishop Suriel’s podcast, Coffee with Bishop Suriel, is also coming soon! Subscribe to Coffee with Bishop Suriel to receive the latest news. 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.

  • Keeping the Feast: The Passover Transformed in Athanasius’ Festal Letters

    While containing invaluable insights into the life of the patriarch and his dedication to his pastoral duties — insights that his more formal treatises cannot express — the Festal Letters of Athanasius of Alexandria remain a lesser-known work. Though many only survive until our day in fragments, these Letters, irrespective of their present completeness or condition, reveal personal reflections of the patriarch throughout the stages of his leadership of the Church in Egypt, as evidenced by his comments in them about his life in exile or other difficulties he encountered. Although the Letters occasionally document Athanasius’ personal responses to his situation, his primary responsibility was to inform the Church, through the Letters, regarding the dates for the celebration of Great Lent, Pascha, and the subsequent Feast of Pentecost. These announcements, from the See of Alexandria to the Christian world more generally, were part of a longstanding tradition begun by the third century and continuing under the formalization of the process at the Council of Nicaea.[1] Besides announcing the Feast dates, these annual letters to the faithful provided the bishops of Alexandria a platform from which to encourage their flock to a life of purity and holiness. In this paper, particular attention will be given to the recurring themes surrounding the Passover and its transformation into a Heavenly Banquet, as well as Athanasius’ exhortation to “keep the feast,” as he describes in his Festal Letters. In the style characteristic of Alexandrian theology, Athanasius repeats this powerful phrase — “keep the Feast” — throughout his Festal Letters, bringing to the fore the shadow of the Old Testament types brought to light and fulfilled in the life-giving suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ. Athanasius writes of the symbolic heavenly feast of the Christians: “For otherwise it is impossible to go up to Jerusalem and eat the Passover, unless we observe the fast of forty days.”[2] From this direct instruction, the seriousness of paying heed to the liturgical season is evident, and Athanasius uses his entire range of biblical understanding to communicate to the Church this urgent spiritual need. For Athanasius, the fasting period was an indispensable preparation without which the Feast could not be attained. In short, fasting is keeping the Feast, and true feasting is rejoicing in the presence of the Lord. Historical Background One of the issues discussed at the Council of Nicaea was the standardization of the dates for the Paschal Feast. The reasons given for the necessity of standardizing the calendar across the Christian world were twofold. First, the desire to separate the Christian celebration from the Jewish Passover; second, to promote unity across geographic regions by keeping the Feast on the same day. Constantine writes in a letter to those who were not present at the Council: “We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Savior has shown us another way,”[3] and “[f]or what could be more beautiful and more desirable, than to see this festival, through which we receive the hope of immortality, celebrated by all with one accord, and in the same manner?”[4] While tensions persisted between the Churches of Rome and Alexandria on this point — of calculating the date of the Paschal Feast — this Canon of Nicaea was an attempt at unification.[5] By the first few centuries after the ascension of Christ, Alexandria had already long enjoyed a distinguished reputation as a renowned center of learning and scholarly pursuit; it was this Alexandrian erudition, particularly in mathematics and astronomy, that enabled the Egyptian Church to carry out this service — of calculating and communicating, through annual Festal letters, the accurate date of the Paschal Feast each year — for the benefit of the greater Christian community.[6] The earliest evidence of this annual announcement is a fragment attributed to Pope Dionysius[7] (enthroned 247-264 CE), though the hagiography of Pope Demetrius (enthroned 189-232 CE) suggests that the custom of announcing the Festal dates began as early as the late second century.[8] The three largest collections of Festal letters are from Athanasius, Theophilus, and Cyril, respectively.[9] The Athanasian letters are preserved in Coptic and Syriac, with other fragments extant in Greek and Armenian. Manuscripts of the epistles from Theophilus and Cyril exist in the aforementioned languages as well as Latin and Arabic,[10] demonstrating the wide circulation of these correspondences. Since the last of the known Festal letter manuscripts dates to the fourteenth century, it may have been that the Alexandrian Church continued to honor the Nicene directive to calculate and announce the dates for Lent and the Feast at least until the Middle Ages.[11] The practice of issuing Festal Letters was revived in the Coptic Church in the twentieth century, but with a changed scope given that the annual Feast dates had by then become easily calculable and the transmission of messages had become fairly instantaneous. Thus, in modern times, the Festal Letters of the Popes of the Coptic Orthodox Church represent greetings and exhortations on the Feasts of the Nativity and the Resurrection, and are publicly read in Coptic Orthodox Churches all over the world during the Divine Liturgies of the Feasts of the Nativity and Resurrection. As it has been with the use of Festal Letters in modern times, there was also much ongoing change in the way that the Christians of Alexandria kept the Feast during the time of Athanasius himself.[12] As the liturgical calendar developed over time, the Paschal Fast had gradually expanded from a period of three days’ abstinence to a six-day fasting period, while the Quartodeciman practice of celebrating the three-day Paschal Feast between the 14th of Nisan and 16th of Nisan, at the same time as the Jewish Passover, was abolished at Nicaea in favor of upholding the more prevalent tradition of celebrating the Feast on a Sunday.[13] The Forty-Day Fast, Great Lent, was also at some point appended to the Pascha Week, being counted as part of the Great Fast. As far as modern scholars can determine, this was the structure of Great Lent at Athanasius’ time. For David Brakke, the impetus for attaching the Paschal Fast to the forty-day period of Lent lay squarely with the Alexandrian patriarch.[14] However, as with many other questions regarding early Church practices, we may never be able to localize the precise time that Great Lent and Pascha became conjoined, recognizing in any case that the adoption of liturgical customs generally tended to arise gradually and originate in local practice. Nonetheless, by the time Athanasius penned his Festal Letters, the Churches at Rome and Jerusalem also celebrated a multi-week Lenten season preceding the Pascha, and it appears that the Church in Egypt also upheld the same standard.[15] Keeping the Feast Of all the feasts included within the Church Calendar, the Resurrection Feast is the definitive celebration of Christianity, when the initiated — the baptized believers — participate in God’s victory over death through the life-giving passion of His only-begotten Son. Paul the Apostle writes to the Corinthians of the effectiveness of the Resurrection for the salvation of mankind: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Cor 15:19-20). He continues that those “belonging to Christ” shall likewise be raised, and this salvation for humanity is God’s victory over death. We will repeatedly return to 1 Corinthians in our exploration of the Festal Letters as a focal point for Athanasius’ theological understanding and appreciation of the Feast of the Resurrection, particularly through Paul’s proclamation that “indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:7-8). While Athanasius is not the only early Church Father to connect this passage from the Pauline letters to the typology surrounding the Exodus narrative of the Passover,[16] he undoubtedly provides one of the most thorough treatments of these concepts, with over a quarter of his Festal Letters making reference to the transformation of the Jewish Passover into the redemptive Passion of Jesus Christ. As we read in the passage above from 1 Corinthians — that preparing for Passover requires purging the old leaven from our lives[17] — the Lenten Fast was this time of preparation and transformation. During this period, the Christian faithful strive to transform their earthly situation to reflect their eager anticipation of the heavenly Jerusalem; the Feast of the Resurrection, being the “Christian Passover,” is therefore a time for Christians to draw near to God and to partake of the spiritual food and drink of that Feast. For Athanasius, God is the giver of the Feast (Letter X), Christ is our guide to the Feast (Letter XIV), and He is the one who summons us to attend the Feast (Letter VI). Further, as Athanasius discusses in these three epistles, the Feast itself is continual worship of God, and our diligent participation in it gives way to the manifestation of virtue. Finally, for Athanasius, the Lenten period, though full of fasting and vigils, is also a time of thanksgiving and praise. In Letter XIV, he therefore explains that the Feast requires temperance: “Therefore, let us too, when we come to the feast, no longer (hasten) to the old shadows — for they have been accomplished — nor as if to ordinary feasts, but let us hasten as if to the Lord, for the feast is ready, not thinking of it as pleasure and enjoyment for the belly, but as a manifestation of virtue. For the pagans’ feasts are filled with gluttony and complete indolence because that is when they think they are celebrating a feast — when they are lazy — and that is when they perform works of perdition — when they feast.”[18] Passover Typology A typological interpretation of Passover in Exodus 12 first comes to us from Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 5:7 and is found throughout Athanasius’ Festal Letters. At the heart of this typological interpretation of Passover is Christ as sacrifice. He takes the place of the lamb that protected the Hebrews from certain death, but not only this — Athanasius also describes, in Letter XLI, that God’s presence was with the Hebrews just as His presence is with the Christians in the Church: “But the Passover is proclaimed to us, so that we might remember the salvation that came during it, and it is completed through a lamb, without which there could be no Passover ... For it is not the blood of the lamb alone that hinders the destroyer and liberates the people from Egypt; rather it is the Word who was in the blood who accomplished these things.”[19] Thus, just as the Word was present in the lamb of the first Passover, the Word incarnate continues to be present as a source of thanksgiving in the bloodless Christian sacrifice. This offering of thanksgiving is not only giving additional attention to prayer, but it is a call to virtuosity of life and a promise from the people to fulfill the Law — indeed, keeping the command necessitates pious activity: “For [Moses] said, ‘[l]et the children of Israel celebrate the Passover,’ intending that, just as from a commandment, the action should be near to the word, while the word facilitates the action.”[20] By discussing the presence of God with His people in both the Old Testament and the new age, Athanasius turns the discussion to the posture of the people towards God: If God is in the Feast, how do we approach the Lamb? He writes: “Let us not proceed merely to the performance of the act of the feast, but as persons who are about to approach the divine Lamb and to touch the heavenly foods. Let us cleanse the hands and purify the body.”[21] However, it is not an outward cleansing, but an inward one that the devotional activity of the forty days seeks to achieve. For Athanasius, there is eternal import in this Feast along with its historical and typological aspects. The protection of the Israelites and the redemption of the Christians both point to the completion of salvation in the Parousia — the second coming of Christ — when the feast of God’s presence will be unending. In his Letters, Athanasius therefore discusses the Passover in four contexts: the deliverance of the Hebrews, the Last Supper of Christ with His disciples, the Christian Passover which the Church celebrates now, and the Heavenly Banquet prepared for the faithful. The symbolic meaning given to the actions of the Jews relates to the Christian attitude towards worship now, as well as the ultimate fulfillment of the union in heaven. For this reason, he writes, in his Letter XLV: “Just as all the old things were a type of the new things, present festival is a type of the joy above.”[22] In all four contexts, preparation precedes this heavenly union. There are numerous references to purging the old leaven and taking sustenance from the new, hearkening back to the passage from 1 Corinthians 5, signaling to the Christians that the Lenten Fast is the opportunity to prepare for the presence of the true Lamb. Athanasius therefore warns: “But the deceitful person and the one who is not pure of heart obtain nothing good ... Thus, Judas, although he thought that he observed the Passover, was alienated from ‘the upward call’ and the company of the apostles because he devised deceit against the Saviour. For the Law commanded that the Passover be eaten with care, but when he ate, he was caught by the devil.”[23] Without preparation and sincerity of purpose, the Feast becomes what Athanasius refers to in several letters as observation of the days without devotion. This can be contrasted with what awaits those who diligently prepare. For instance, in Letter XXVI Athanasius encourages the believers: “Let us walk in [these days] by preparing ourselves for the Lord and making straight his ways, as John said, by cleansing ourselves from all defilement and all sin, so that the Lord who commanded these things might come to us and dwell among us ... and walk among us and eat with us the Passover, while also promising us the true Passover and the joy in heaven with the saints.”[24] The Old Testament feast is thereby accomplished and transformed in the Christian Passover. Those who participate in the Christian Feast are therefore also awaiting the second transformation — of feasting in heaven with all the holy people of God. Preparing for the Feast with Spiritual Food and Drink With all this emphasis on eating the Passover as part of the Hebrews’ preparation for leaving Egypt and its tyranny, Athanasius does not neglect to turn his attention to the other types of eating that give physical reality to the Christian spiritual truth — that Christ is the bread of life and living water. His Festal Letter X was composed in the year 338 CE,[25] the year after Athanasius returned to Alexandria from his first exile; as such, the patriarch connects his trials with the Hebrews’ advancement through the wilderness, adding that by patience and the imitation of Christ there is victory for the faithful and virtuous. Athanasius discusses perseverance through adversity, writing: “In this same way those who suffer affliction temporarily in this place, after they have endured, pass over to the place of repose.”[26] He continues, in reference to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man: “Lazarus, on the other hand, after he had hungered for bread ground from wheat, in that place could find satisfaction with what is better than manna, the Lord who came down and said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven and gives life to human beings.’”[27] In crossing the Red Sea, the Hebrews were nourished by the lamb; on their journey through the wilderness, they were sustained by the manna from heaven. Again, there is a transference of this grace to Christians, who first receive redemption through the sacrifice of Christ and then abide in Him through continually receiving the blessed Eucharist. However, just as in Leviticus, where Moses warns that God will not accept all fasts and that the consequence for breaking His command is death, Athanasius distinguishes between the vices and virtues while likewise cautioning that we can eat in an unworthy manner. In Letter I, explaining that the virtuous soul will desire the food of the saints, he writes: “See, my brethren, how much a fast can do and how the law commands us to fast; for it is required that we fast not with the body alone, but also with the soul ... The two portions, the virtues and vices, are the soul’s foods, and it can eat the two foods and incline to either of the two, as it wills. For if it inclines toward the good, it will feed on the virtues: righteousness, temperance, continence, fortitude. As Paul says, ‘nourished on the word of truth,’ so too our Lord Jesus Christ being (so) nourished by these, said, ‘My food is to do the will of my Father who is in heaven’ ... And just as our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, because he is heavenly bread, was food for the saints, according to this (passage), ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.’”[28] Though lengthy, this passage is worth considering and meditating on for several reasons. It provides a concise example of Athanasius’ incarnational theology.[29] The human condition is that souls can choose to grow in either vice or virtue. The Lord Jesus Christ, being fully human, is also capable of making that choice, and always chooses the good. He always exercises Himself towards the good, which is fulfilling the will of God the Father. By our sanctification, through participating in His life, we also are empowered to feed on virtue. And so, we clearly see that for Athanasius, spiritual food is not about eating at all, but rather is about our imitation of Christ through godly action. Suffering trials with patience is indeed one path towards this goal, but even more than this is fasting — particularly, in the context of Athanasius’ Festal Letters generally, and the particular passage quoted above more specifically — Great Lent with purity, prayer, and charity will open the road to holiness even in the absence of external persecutions such as those Athanasius faced. Included within Athanasius’ imagery of several types of food, one can find many references to the living water or spiritual drink. In the same way that food for the soul can be either sinful or virtuous pursuits, Athanasius reinforces the role of choice with a quotation from Proverbs, connecting the call of Wisdom to the people with discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ: “For sin too has its own peculiar bread of its death, to which it summons lovers of pleasure and senseless people, saying, ‘Take secret bread gladly, and sweet water of theft’ ... The Wisdom of God, that lover of human beings, prohibited these things.”[30] With this passage we see the link between sinful actions carried out in secret, and the exhortation to flee from what is secret, strange, and foreign to God. On the other hand, the saints will always thirst for the presence of God. Athanasius continues in Letter VII to link the Beatitudes — “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6) — with the Lord Jesus’ address to the multitudes at the Feast of Tabernacles, when He said: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37). Athanasius continues this passage: “For this reason, his disciples, who believed, he continually fed with his words and made them live by the nearness of his divinity.”[31] Finally, from Athanasius’ Letter VII, the sanctification of the people is completed in the reception of the Faith and of Christ Himself in the Eucharist: “Not only here, my brethren, is the bread the food of the righteous ones, nor are only the saints on earth nourished by such bread and blood, but we eat it in heaven as well, for the Lord is the food even of all the exalted spirits and angels, and he is the joy of the entire heavenly host ... he promises those who persevere with him in his trials, saying, ‘I promise to you, as my Father promised to me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.’”[32] Like in Letter I, the patriarch subtly leads the people to the concept of deification,[33] equipping the faithful with knowledge of the redemptive action of abiding in Christ, who alone is capable of providing nourishment for all. It does not belong to a man to say that he can satisfy the needs of mankind, so Athanasius hearkens back to creation in Letter XLIV: “And in the way that a river from a spring once gave water to drink in paradise, now it is he who gives the same gift of the Spirit to all people ... To say this does not belong to a human being, but to a living God who truly bestows life and gives the Holy Spirit.”[34] The readers of Athanasius’ Letters were thus reminded that the Lord who created the world provides nourishment for all, and by giving His own body and blood became the heavenly feast for all: “But the Lord is with us, He who is the basis for the holy feast. Let us gather and cry out to the Lord like the saints, not with our lips but in the depths of our hearts.”[35] For Athanasius, keeping the feast consists of devotion to prayer and discipline, and being nourished by the Word of God. As the faithful move toward Him through their inclination towards virtue, He Himself can “walk among us and eat with us the Passover while also promising us the true Passover and the joy in heaven with the saints.”[36] Heavenly Banquet We have thus far considered the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the Paschal lamb whose body and blood are the spiritual food and drink of the Eucharistic offering. Further, the Lenten period of fasting and ascetic practice is established as preparation for reconciliation and the unification with God. Without this period of preparation — typified by the Old Testament command to keep the Passover and New Testament invitation to be ready for the wedding feast — the believers will not be equipped for the heavenly banquet. In perfect adherence to Athanasius’ theology of sanctification, Orthodoxy of Christian understanding recognizes a dual movement between the believer and God. Through His Incarnation, God comes to humanity, and all humans are therefore called to respond by demonstrating, with purity of heart and a life of righteousness, that they are striving to move towards God, which gives Him the opportunity to fulfill His promise of inviting the faithful to His table in the kingdom of heaven. Athanasius teaches that the desired wedding garment is purity of mind and heart, just as he describes that the food and drink of the feast are the accumulation and manifestation of the virtues. He writes: “What follows, my beloved, is clear: Even we should accordingly come to such a feast, having clothed our minds not in filthy garments, but in pure ones. Indeed, we need for this purpose to clothe ourselves with our Lord Jesus, so that we might be able to celebrate the feast with him. And we are so clothed when we love virtue and are enemies to vice, when we practice continence and do away with licentiousness, when we embrace righteousness before injustice, when we honor sufficiency and are strong in mind, when we do not neglect the poor but open our doors to everyone, when we favor humility of mind and hate arrogance. For by these things in former times even Israel, after it had contended as if in a shadow, came to the feast.”[37] For Athanasius, adorning ourselves with holy deeds is like putting on the white wedding garment in preparation for the feast with the angels, as Athanasius repeatedly calls it, and moderation, soberness, charity, mercy, and humility are the garments of the saints. The children of Israel similarly prepared themselves to draw near to God, although now the shadows and types are brought to light and fulfillment. In Letter XXVIII, Athanasius repeats these themes, writing: “Having become victors over sin, let us similarly prepare ourselves with actions, so that we too might meet the one who comes and, having entered with him, partake of the immortal food and live eternally in the heavens.”[38] Within this context, it is apparent that Athanasius considers the Lenten Fast to be a feast of God’s presence. Although the Fast is a time of repentance and correction, it is also a time of increased thanksgiving. While we wait for the life of the coming age, Athanasius instructs his flock, we must celebrate in this life in anticipation of the next. “Therefore, my brethren, as we look forward to celebrating the feast of eternal joy in heaven, let us celebrate the feast now as well by rejoicing at all times, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks to the Lord in all circumstances,” the patriarch writes in a joyful epistle that followed his return to Alexandria after an absence of seven years.[39] The joy of the Lord and the feast of the heavenly banquet do not come before the trial, but rather these things are the reward for endurance and faithfulness. Athanasius elaborates in Letter XLI: “You are the ones who have endured with me in my trials ... Therefore, because we have now been summoned through the Gospel to this great and heavenly banquet, into that swept upper room, ‘let us cleanse ourselves.’”[40] In this way, Athanasius is clear that preparation is required for entering into the great feast of the Lord and that the consequences for negligence are dire. A Call to Diligence In Letter XXV, we receive both encouragement and a warning from the Church Father, who writes: “We will recline with the Lord, like his disciples, and take from the spiritual nourishment that he will provide for us, only if we eat and drink with him with perseverance and do not betray the truth through Jewish thoughts and myths, like the wretched Judas. For he became such because he did not eat the Passover reverently as is fitting.”[41] Though Athanasius spends a more significant portion of his Festal Letters in praise of good behavior, he also cautions in them specifically against observing the days merely for the sake of the days themselves and without a pious disposition, like the Jews, and assuming immoderate practices associated with pagan worship such as gluttony or drunkenness. In Letter VI, for instance, Athanasius describes how the Jewish people did not bear the fruits required by the master of the vineyard, writing: “Therefore, when the Lord cursed them because of their negligence, he removed from them the new moons.”[42] Earlier in this same epistle, Athanasius is clear that carelessness about the feast is not a problem only of the Jewish people, but rather Christians must also be thoughtful in their preparation to receive the feast. He therefore explicitly exhorts: “Whosoever is not disposed, treats the days as ordinary, and does not celebrate the feast, but ... finds fault with the grace and prefers to honor the days without supplicating the Lord who during these days saved [him] let him by all means listen ... to the apostolic voice that rebukes him: ‘You are observing days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.’ For the feast does not exist on account of the days; rather, we celebrate the feast on account of the Lord, who suffered during them on our behalf.”[43] In Letter VI, Athanasius relies on three references from the Gospels to reinforce his point that God’s grace requires diligent action on the part of man — the parable of the vineyard, the healing of the ten lepers, and the parable of the talents. In each case, the patriarch is asking his flock to ready itself for the feasts of the angels and saints by fulfilling their duty, with thankfulness and to the best of their ability. Even in the case of negligence, however, there is repentance available for the sinner who comes to himself and returns to his father’s house. Athanasius posits the question of who is worthy of being invited to the Lord’s table in Letter VII, reflecting on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Following his examination of the confession of the son to his father, he writes: “then [the son] will be deemed worthy of more than what he requested, for the father does not receive him as a hired hand ... but kisses him as a son, gives him life as if from the dead, deems him worthy of the divine banquet, and gives him his former precious robe, so that on this account there is singing and joy in the paternal home.”[44] Through repentance, the son reckons with his internal conflict and his desperate external circumstances, and has victory through returning to his father’s care. While facing extraordinary hardship in his varied exiles, Athanasius simultaneously writes to the Christians of Alexandria to persevere. One example of the personal touch afforded to him by the format of the festal announcements is Letter XIII, wherein he writes: “Even now, my beloved brethren, I will not be slow to announce to you the saving feast ... For although those opponents of Christ have oppressed you, along with us, with afflictions and sorrows ... because God is comforting us through our mutual faith, behold I write to you even from Rome. Even as I am celebrating the feast with the brethren here, I am celebrating in will and spirit with you as well, for we send up prayers in common to God, who has granted us not only to believe in him, but also now to suffer for him.”[45] Athanasius uses the announcement for this year 341 CE to encourage and strengthen his people, reminding them that the trial is temporary and the joy that awaits is eternal: “When we are tested by these things, therefore, let us not be separated from the love of God, but let us celebrate the feast even now, my beloved, not as if we are bringing in a day of suffering, but one of joy for Christ, by whom we are nourished every day.”[46] The patriarch asks the faithful not only to patiently endure, but also to be joyful and thrive in the feast, knowing that Christ our true Passover suffered for the sake of all mankind. Likewise in Letter III, for the Lent of year 342 CE, also during a time of extended exile and absence from Alexandria: “For the one who serves the Lord ought to be diligent and not careless or, rather, (ought to be) inflamed, so that, after he has destroyed all material sin with an ardent spirit, he may be able to approach God.”[47] He continues by pointing to Moses as an example of an ardent spirit purified by the devouring fire of God. Athanasius quotes the Apostle, writing: “Therefore the blessed Paul, because he does not let the grace of the Spirit that has been given to us to grow cold, exhorts, writing, ‘Do not quench the Spirit.’ For this is how we will remain partakers of Christ — if we hold fast until the end the Spirit (that was given) at the beginning.”[48] Once again, we discover Athanasius’ teaching about sanctification and man’s participation in his own salvation in an indirect way; the struggle towards purity requires conscientious action with fiery, unrelenting perseverance, as described in this Letter. Indeed, by the Christians’ observation of the feast with gladness and thanksgiving, the world will see that Christians are imitators of Christ and be amazed, according to Athanasius. In the following passage, Athanasius reveals that a consequence of the personal sanctification of putting on Christ is that the Christian feast will be a transformative light — an example of holy, sober joy: “The Lord’s wise servants, however, who have truly clothed themselves with the human being who has been created in God, have become recipients of the evangelical words ... ‘Set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.’ They celebrate the feast in such a proper manner that even the unbelievers, when they ‘see their good order,’ will say, ‘God is really among them.’”[49] Athanasius layers the transformation of the Passover from a shadow only available to the Hebrews to the light of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice available to all and visible by all. Although this feast is marked by the forty days of Lenten fasting and is a time of temperance and self-regulation, it ultimately will be further elevated to the heavenly banquet of the kingdom of God and the redemption of all creation. Regarding this reconciliation of the heavenly and earthly, Athanasius writes: “The entire creation keeps the feast, my brethren ... on account of the enemies’ destruction, and of our salvation. And rightly so: For if there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, what would there not be over the abolition of sin and the resurrection of the dead? What a feast! And how great heaven’s joy!”[50] — [1] Athanasius, The Festal Letters of Athanasius of Alexandria, with the Festal Index and the Historia Acephala. Translated by David Brakke and David M. Gwynn. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press), 18. [2] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 89. [3] Schaff, Philip, and Henry Wace. A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Vol. 14 Second Series. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 56. [4] Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 14, 55. [5] Ibid, 55. [6] Allen, Pauline.  “The Festal Letters of the Patriarchs of Alexandria: Evidence for Social History in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries.” In Alexandrian Legacy: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Doru Costache, Philip Kariatlis, and Mario Baghos.  (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 174. [7] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 19. [8] Mikhail, Maged S.A. “The Evolution of Lent in Alexandria and the Alleged Reforms of Patriarch Demetrius” In Copts in Context: Negotiating Identity, Tradition and Modernity, ed. Nelly van Doorn-Harder (South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2017), 169-180, 252-258. [9] Allen, 174. [10] Ibid, 175. Certainly the Arabic Letters represent later translations and could not have arisen contemporaneously to the Letters’ authorship. [11] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 21. [12] Bradshaw, Paul F, and Maxwell E Johnson. The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity. Alcuin Club Collections, 86. London: SPCK, 2011. [13] See The Synodal Letter of Nicaea. [14] Brakke, David. Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. [15] Bradshaw, Paul and Maxwell Johnson, 92. Whether the Christians in Egypt fell short of the standard practice as it was carried out in the other Churches in Athanasius’ time, and whether such shortcoming, if extant, was a matter of official practice of spiritual laxity, remains an open question, with the question arising in part from St. Athanasius’ comment, in Letter XII, that “[t]he Egyptians were made a laughing-stock because they, of all the world, did not fast during the forty days before Pascha.” In this Letter, Athanasius writes to Serapion, bishop of Thmuis, from Rome, in 340 A.D., imploring the Egyptian Christians to fast all forty days of Lent, as the Christians did in Rome. Athanasius’ Festal Letters generally paint the picture of a Great Lent composed of six weeks before the Feast of the Resurrection, with Saturdays and Sundays not being considered fast days​, although the dietary practice of the Fast was upheld on those days, in light of abstinence being forbidden on all Saturdays and Sundays of the year, with the exception of Paschal Saturday. [16] Other patristic writers that make the connection between the Exodus narrative and the Resurrection Feast include Melito of Sardis in On Pascha and Origen in Homilies on Leviticus. [17] Of note is that one of the two Pauline Epistle passages read during Paschal Saturday, or Apocalypse Saturday, in the Coptic Orthodox Church is excerpted from 1 Corinthians 5:7-13, beginning: “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8). [18] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 67. [19] Ibid, 211. [20] Ibid, 64. [21] Ibid, 78. [22] Ibid, 230. [23] Ibid, 88. [24] Ibid, 185. [25] Ibid, 107. [26] Ibid, 113. [27] Ibid, 113. [28] Ibid, 51. [29] For further discussion see Wahba, Matthias F.  The Doctrine of Sanctification in St. Athanasius’ Paschal Letters. Cranston, Rhode Island: St. Mary & St. Mena Coptic Orthodox Church, 1988.  Also to examine how this theological stance continued to be delivered through the Festal Letters, see Morgan, Jonathan. “The Role of Asceticism in Deification in Cyril of Alexandria’s Festal Letters.” The Downside Review 135, no. 3 (2017): 144–53. [30] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 95. [31] Ibid, 97. [32] Ibid, 98. [33] Deification in the Athanasian and, more generally, the Alexandrian tradition, is in reference to the natural receipt of the perfected believers of the attributes of immortality and incorruptibility, which attributes are God’s alone by nature, but which He grants to those who have a share in the resurrection to life at the last day. The notion in the early patristic Fathers is far removed from the later developments of the concept that arose in the West. [34] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 229. [35] Ibid, 185. [36] Ibid, 185. [37] Ibid, 71. [38] Ibid, 192. [39] Ibid, 167. [40] Ibid, 213. [41] Ibid, 182. [42] Ibid, 85. [43] Ibid, 81. [44] Ibid, 99. [45] Ibid, 137. [46] Ibid, 143. [47] Ibid, 147. [48] Ibid, 147. [49] Ibid, 177. [50] Ibid, 87. — Bibliography Primary Sources Athanasius. The Festal Letters of Athanasius of Alexandria, with the Festal Index and the Historia Acephala. Translated by David Brakke and David M. Gwynn. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2022) Athanasius. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. IV. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998) Eusebius of Caesarea. The History of the Church: A New Translation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019. Schaff, Philip, and Henry Wace. A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Vol. 14 Second Series.  (Grand Rapids.: Eerdmans, 1983) Secondary Sources Allen, Pauline.  “The Festal Letters of the Patriarchs of Alexandria: Evidence for Social History in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries.” In Alexandrian Legacy: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Doru Costache, Philip Kariatlis, and Mario Baghos.  (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015) 174-189. Bradshaw, Paul F, and Maxwell E Johnson. The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity. Alcuin Club Collections, 86. London: SPCK, 2011. Brakke, David. Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Brakke, David. “A New Fragment of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter. Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon.” The Harvard Theological Review 103, no. 1 (2010): 47–66. Daise, Michael A. “‘Christ Our Passover’ (1 Corinthians 5:6–8): The Death of Jesus and the Quartodeciman Pascha.” Neotestamentica 50, no. 2 (2016): 507–26. Demacopoulos, George E. Five Models of Spiritual Direction in the Early Church. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007. Gywnn, David. “Patronage Networks in the Festal Letters of Athanasius of Alexandria” In Episcopal Networks in Late Antiquity: Connection and Communication Across Boundaries, ed. Cvetković, Carmen Angela and Gemeinhardt, Peter. (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2019) 101-115. Mikhail, Maged S.A. “The Evolution of Lent in Alexandria and the Alleged Reforms of Patriarch Demetrius” In Copts in Context:Negotiating Identity, Tradition and Modernity, ed. Nelly van Doorn-Harder (South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2017), 169-180, 252-258. Morgan, Jonathan. “The Role of Asceticism in Deification in Cyril of Alexandria’s Festal Letters.” The Downside Review 135, no. 3 (2017): 144–53. Meawad, Stephen M. "Fasting Reconsidered: St. John Chrysostom and Modern Science on Fasting." Presented at “The Conference in Preparation for the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church,” (2016). Wahba, Matthias F.  The Doctrine of Sanctification in St. Athanasius’ Paschal Letters. Cranston, Rhode Island: St. Mary & St. Mena Coptic Orthodox Church, 1988. Widdicombe, Peter. The Journal of Theological Studies 47, no. 2 (1996): 678–81. Wilken, Robert Louis. “The Inevitability of Allegory.” Gregorianum 86, no. 4 (2005): 742–53. — 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). 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.

  • Foundational Considerations for Theological Education in the Coptic Orthodox Church: Part One — The Experience of the Early Church

    His Grace Bishop Suriel Bishop of Melbourne, Australia and Professor at Pope Shenouda III Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary, New Jersey, United States The Coptic Church that first began to lay down roots in the lands of immigration approximately 50 years ago is now quite established in the West, no longer seen as a “diaspora” but rather a fully established Church with numerous dioceses and patriarchal jurisdictions throughout the western world. We as Coptic Christians are now members of truly “national” churches in each of the countries where Copts have settled. In light of this rapid international expansion, our call to ministry in the 21st century Coptic Church, particularly in the formative field of theological education, poses novel, nuanced, and critical challenges — challenges that are significantly amplified today when compared either to education as it was carried out in the Church historically, whether the Coptic Church specifically or the Christian Church more generally until the middle of the twentieth century, or to when the first Coptic churches were established in the West. These challenges raise serious and pertinent questions regarding theological education and the formation of future clergy, servants, and Church leaders, which formation is essential to the integrity and propriety of the spirit and method by which those who comprise these categories of servants carry out and administer the service of the Church, and to the preservation and transmission of sound doctrine in the pedagogical aspects of the Church’s service and mission. The Coptic Church in her rich history and heritage is certainly not alien to challenges, having faced and overcome a myriad of obstacles and wholly unfavorable odds if only to survive until the present day. In each period she has faced unique challenges, such as those which she must now traverse, and reflecting on how the Church has dealt with these challenges historically and methodologically can supply us with many important and instructive lessons to guide us in addressing today’s concerns. To this end, I wish to focus in this series on two historical periods: one ancient — the School of Alexandria — and one modern — the work of St. Habib Girgis in theological education — in order to draw from these some thoughts, reflections, and a proposed path forward for Coptic Orthodox Christian theological education in the 21st century in the West. In books five and six of his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea tells of the didaskalion of Alexandria — what we like to think of today as the School of Alexandria — and enumerates its heads Pantaenus, Clement, and Origen. He presents what at first glance seems like a uniform succession of leaders in an ecclesiastical institution, and his readers are tempted to ponder the size of its supposed campus. The historical evidence, however, does not add up. A more careful analysis of the sources leads us to a rather different picture of this formidable entity: there are no buildings, classrooms, or desks; instead there are learned teachers and avid students eager to hear the word of God. The matter may perhaps upset some people, yet an honest assessment of our sources leads us to a much deeper appreciation of the beauty of the ancient Christian heritage. Ronald Heine, who published an extensive study on Origen through Oxford University Press titled Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church, presents the most plausible picture of the state of affairs in the milieu of Christianity in Alexandria. He speaks of “schools” instead of one singular school, at once acknowledging both the diversity and rich complexity of Christian teaching in that cosmopolitan city. There were likely five famous Christian teachers in second- and third-century Alexandria: Basilides, Valentinus, Pantaenus (who is designated by Origen as “the Hebrew”), Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, who was a disciple and student of Clement of Alexandria and who would himself emerge as a teacher early in the third century and ultimately become the most formidable scholar of the Christian East. Two of the five teachers mentioned above, Basilides and Valentinus, propagated teachings incompatible with proto-orthodoxy; the remainder, however, deserve our full attention. We know a little about Pantaenus from the writings of Clement, but we do not have any of his writings. Clement and Origen on the other hand have bequeathed us enough material for a lifetime of reading and decades of study. Pantaenus, Clement, and Origen, like their contemporaneous teachers, spent their efforts tutoring students in what would have looked like an ancient philosophical school. Schools of this sort were not necessarily academic in the modern sense of the term. They could be as small as a teacher and a single student and could perish with the death of the teacher or otherwise survive under a successor. Indeed, it was the character of the teacher that attracted potential students. Teachers would become spiritual guides to their students, who would gather around their teacher for years on end. The schools of antiquity were fundamentally oriented to texts — they could be described as textual communities — and their teachers interacted with important texts in three ways: one, “text functions as teacher;” two, “text and teacher act in concert or together;” and three, “teacher as text.”[1] St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker’s Panegyric is full of high praise for Origen, Gregory’s teacher, and Gregory makes clear that for him, his teacher became his text.[2] Clement and Origen’s works themselves fit within the second category, though they write in a rather different style. Clement often structures his works topically and makes use of texts that serve his literary efforts. Origen employs a similar arrangement in some of his works, yet in others, especially his exegetical works, he arranges his teaching by the structure of the text under examination. Origen had himself been a grammatikos, that is, one who taught children in the second level of their schooling after they had learned the basics of reading. The grammatikos would treat a text in four stages: one, “criticism to determine what the ancient author had written;” two, “reading and recitation, which included memorizing the text for recitation;” three, “explanation of the text, which included the meaning of unusual words, grammatical forms, etymology, as well as the content or story of the text;” and four, “judgment, or the moral teaching of the text.”[3] Origen would soon make use of his rhetorical training and devote his efforts exclusively to the study of Christian texts when persecution broke out under Septimius Severus (from 193 to 211 A.D.). As Eusebius recounts in Book Six of his Ecclesiastical History, there was not a single teacher remaining to preach the word of God.[4] Two brothers, Plutarch and Heracles, we are told, sought out Origen to teach them about Christ, and they became his first two students.[5] Eusebius names nine of Origen’s students who soon after baptism went to their martyrdom: these were Plutarch, who was one of the first two to seek Origen out for instruction, Serenus, Heraclides, Hero, a second named Serenus, a woman named Herais, Basilides, a woman named Potamiaena, and her mother Marcella.[6] What, then, was the goal of the school of Origen? Heine summarizes this for us beautifully: “Origen’s school, like Clement’s before him, was not intended to form specialists in texts or ideas, whether secular or sacred, but to form a Christian person. The real subject was the virtues, practical wisdom, self-control, justice, and courage.”[7] In Origen’s school, Gregory Thaumaturgus says, students were incited to virtue more by his works than by his words.[8] His example caused his students to love the virtues. Gregory judged the ultimate goal of Origen’s school to be that a person should progress through all the virtues, and having been made like God with a pure mind, approach Him and remain in Him.[9] Clement and Origen were concerned with the formation not merely of learned people, but, more centrally, of spiritual servants of God. What are the implications of this short discussion on the “schools” of Alexandria for theological education in the Coptic Church today? First, the question on the hearts of many: must our theological schools be accredited? If we are honest with ourselves, the issue touches our deepest vulnerabilities as a Christian minority emerging into the daylight of freedom of religious expression. Surrendering to any process of accreditation necessarily forces us to put into words and in writing to what we claim we are committed and provides an opportunity for others to hold us accountable to our expressed cause. Accreditation is not a matter to be taken lightly or approached hastily, but is undoubtedly a necessary step if we as a Church are serious about our commitment to bringing the message of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.[10] How can we return to the former glory of Alexandrine Christian education in carrying out the important service of theological education in the Church today, particularly in the West? First, we must recognize that the primary function of theological schooling and religious education in the Church at all levels is to discipline our people in the Christian life, just as it was in the theological schools of second- and third-century Alexandria, and we must make use of the ancient Christian texts bequeathed to us in order to achieve this purpose, so as to abide by and deliver the very spirit and doctrine that so wonderfully characterized the Orthodox authors of those texts, whose descendants we are. Second, we must return to the Alexandrine text of the Holy Scriptures, which is carefully preserved in the Coptic textual witnesses. Translation of these works, or adoption of the English language versions of the Holy Bible most faithful to the Alexandrine text, is undoubtedly necessary across Coptic Churches in the West. Third, we must allow the faithful writers of antiquity to speak to us today, both by consulting accurate translations of the ancient sources and through the mouths of their modern readers. We must oblige our responsibility of academic honesty and have the courage to be accurate, precise, and exacting in our research efforts. Just as it is incorrect to say, in broad strokes and general terms, that the School of Alexandria taught this or that, since it has been shown that Origen and Clement conducted their own “schools,” so to speak, so too is it erroneous to assert in general terms that the Coptic Church teaches this or that, except in those instances where the ancient liturgical prayers of the Coptic Orthodox Church reflect a certain teaching or the Church has publicly and consistently adopted a specific stance on any given matter. In the case of modern teachers and scholars, it is preferable to acknowledge that “Bishop X taught this,” or “Father Y taught that.” Every modern scholar in the field of Coptic Studies, in any of its areas, must bear the responsibility of academic honesty and measure himself or herself against the Alexandrine tradition that extends almost 2,000 years. Each of us as Coptic Orthodox Christians, and particularly those among us who are tasked with the responsibility of educating in the Church at any level, must recognize that to justify one’s knowledge and teaching of Christian faith and doctrine without recourse to the ancient writings, and especially, for our purposes, those that emerged in Alexandria, is precisely to preach ourselves and not authentic Orthodoxy. — [1] H. Gregory Snyder. Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World: Philosophers, Jews, and Christians. Religion in the First Christian Centuries. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 224-27. [2] See Gregory Thaumaturgus, Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen. [3] Ronald E. Heine. Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. P. 61. [4] Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History VI.3.1. [5] Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History VI.3.2. [6] Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History VI.4.1 — VI.5.1. [7] Ronald E. Heine. Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. P. 64. [8] See Gregory Thaumaturgus, Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen, 9. [9] See Gregory Thaumaturgus, Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen, 12. [10] I will address accreditation further in the third entry of this series. — His Grace Bishop Suriel presently serves as a Professor at the Pope Shenouda III Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary in New Jersey, United States. We are honored to announce that Season Two of His Grace Bishop Suriel’s podcast, Coffee with Bishop Suriel, is also coming soon! 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