Pausing to Celebrate Mary with Coptic Christians
María Panagía Miola, SSVM*
The faith of Coptic Christians has not declined after the deadly attacks of recent years. If anything, more Christians have gathered in the very churches — and at the very moments — prone to such aggressions, determined to celebrate their feasts all more faithfully.
During this month of Advent, we might take pause to turn eastward and reflect on the profound Marian tradition in Egypt. For Coptic Christians of both Orthodox and Catholic communities, Marian devotion not only permeates but even defines the season of Advent. According to their shared liturgical calendar, Christians call it the month of Kiahk, as well as, simply, the Marian month. Preparing for the nativity of Christ through, his mother, they dedicate their entire Advent to her by venerating the mystery of her divine maternity.
Etymologically, the term Kiahk is derived from Ka-Ha-Ka, the sacred bull, Apis, an ancient Egyptian god who represented fertility, or generation of life. Coptic Christians recapitulated this live-giving allegory by linking it to the event, of Christ’s coming in the flesh. Another reused symbol from Antiquity can be found in Osiris, god of the afterlife, whose rites were celebrated during the winter solstice: seeds of barley or wheat were set in water and hidden in a warm place until they blossomed, representing Osiris who passed from death unto life, gaining his title as “Eternal Lord.”1 Today, Copts have maintained the custom of sowing seeds during Kiahk. And so, the seeds once planted for Osiris have become seeds of the Word; in their silent ritual of sprouting they evoke the regeneration of the new Eternal Lord.
The liturgy of Kiahk assumes par- ticularly Marian characteristics. By day, the traditional psalmody sung throughout the year is replaced by a different psalmody, called tasbiha kiahkiyya. By night, every Saturday, the Coptic churches hold vigils that last from Five to seven hours. These ceremonies include seven hymns dedicated to the Virgin, called the theotokia hymns. The tone, lahn kiyahkî, one of the six tones used in Coptic liturgy, is exclusively reserved as the melody to accompany the hymns of the Marian month. The music of the theotokia hymns surges with joy, and its verses overflow with praise and thanksgiving. The faithful acclaim her by chanting a narrative of salvation history and punctuating each verse with one of her glorious attributes: “The salvation of Adam and his race | And his return to Paradise | Has appeared from an ever Virgin | Blessed are you, Virgin and bride ... He took from you humanity | Uniting it with the Divinity | You held the One from the Trinity | Blessed is the pride of the human race.”2
For the Copts, Kiahk is also a period of fasting. The Advent fast is called the “fast of the Virgin,” according to the belief that the Virgin herself would have fasted in the time preceding the birth of Christ. A Coptic medieval author, Ibn Siba, explains the significance of the fast by recounting that in a particular moment after the Incarnation of Christ in her womb, Mary would have endured reproach for her mysterious pregnancy. In response to such incomprehension, she would have thus responded to the trials of this time by fasting until her Son’s birth.3
Kiahk is the only one out of the eight periods of fasting included in the Coptic calendar that calls for joy as well. The gladness that looks forward to the coming of the Savior is sanctified by self-denial and intensified by prayer vigils. Spiritually accompanying her in the trials before her birth to the Redeemer, the Copts contemplate the Christmas mysteries, now full of hope, now touched with sorrow, in a continual prayer that engages both body and spirit.
The theotokia feature several important characteristics of Marian veneration, and demonstrate the firm presence of a very early Christian community in Egypt. The Kiahk liturgy focuses on the multifold aspects of the mystery of the Incarnation, praising and giving thanks to Mary for her consent in the moment of the Annunciation. References to her title as Theotokos (Mother of God, or literally, God-bearer) are abundant. This significant term can also be found as early as the third century in the writings of the Alexandrian Church fathers, Clement and Origen, two centuries before the Council of Ephesus proclaimed it as doctrine of the Church. This implies that the title was already a familiar devotion of the Christians in Egypt long before it became the subject of dogmatic dispute about the person of Christ. As a corollary to her role in the Incarnation, her particular role in redemption is honored in the verses.
These Marian hymns foster a vivid disposition on the part of the faithful who accompany the Virgin in her trials, in her silent and hopeful meditation of the Incarnate Word, in the active yearning for the birth of Christ.
Both images and texts shed more light on the nature of early Coptic Marian devotion which provided the context for such Kiahk practices. Perhaps the most beloved image of our Lady in ancient Egypt was the Maria lactans (Latin for “nursing”), or Maria galaktotrophousa (Greek for “milk-nourishing”). The Copts frescoed this image on monastery walls and invoked it in literature from late antiquity onward, as Coptic devotion to Mary increased. Later, Maria lactans acquired even more significance throughout the fourth to the seventh centuries in the context of the doctrinal development of the Incarnation; in fact, the Church fathers from Alexandria played a central role in this Christological discussion and in the formulation of doctrine. A German scholar, L. Langener, has compiled a thorough catalogue of all the pictorial representations of the Coptic galaktotrophousa; the equiva- lent remains to be done for texts.4
Textual examples from the Coptic literature preserved in manuscripts complement our understanding of their Marian devotion. Athanasius continually honored the maternity of Mary in order to defend the true humanity of the Son. In one of his homilies, he calls on the prophets to join in singing praises to the Virgin and ends by comparing her to the angels: “all the angels and archangels tremble as they serve the one you carry in your womb, and dare not speak in his presence, while you speak with him freely ... while the seraphim cover their faces with their wings (Is 6:2), without being able to look directly upon his divine glory, you not only gaze upon his face but caress it.”5 Athanasius’ homily contemplates the mystery of the Incarnation by the light of the Virgin Mother.
Given this background, it does not, then, come as a surprise that the earliest version of the most ancient hymn to Mary that is known to us, which we call, the Sub tuum praesidium, has been transmitted to us in Greek on an Egyptian papyrus (Pap. Ryl. 470). This small gem gives us a profound theological synthesis of Mary as Theotokos, Intercessor, Deliverer, and Blessed. The diffusion of the prayer in vastly different rites from East to West expresses the solid faith of the people in Mary as mother of God. Of all the rites, the current Coptic liturgy has maintained one of the closest textual correspondences to the original papyrus, and Copts of both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have conserved it in their traditions.
The intense Coptic veneration of Mary throughout the season of Advent forms part of a series of Marian themes richly developed in the Coptic culture, such as the veneration of Mary as queen, her role in the celebration of the Nativity, the joyful arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt (which constitutes a feast in the Coptic rite, seeing in this event the sun of salvation having risen upon Egyptian shores). We hardly exhaust the breadth of their tradition by this short appraisal of Kiahk, nor may we easily fathom the richness of Coptic literature as it once existed, since perhaps 90% of it was lost due to the destruction of the monastic libraries.6 We may be grateful that the Sub tuum was salvaged! But with these few examples we can already see the intensity with which the belief in the divine maternity of the Theotokos had penetrated the Coptic soil, and left its fruits in the annual celebration of this maternal season of Kiahk.
*Graduate in Greek and Latin Palaeography at the Vatican School of Palaeography, Ph.D. candidate at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, Romez
1 Gladisch, A. Empedokles und die Aegypter. Leipzig, 1858, p. 73.
2The Holy Psalmody of Kiahk, ed. St. George and St. Joseph Church, Montreal, 2008.
3 Giamberardini, G. II culto mariano in Egitto, Jerusalem: 1974, vol. 2, p. 220.
4 Langener, L. Isis Lactam — Maria Lactans. Untersuchungen zur koptischen Ikonographic. Altenberge, 1996.
5 The papyrus that contains the Coptic text is presently preserved in Turin (CPG 2187). Translation from L. Gambero. Mary and the Fathers of the Church. San Francisco, 1999, p- 106.
6 M. Sheridan, From the Nile to the Rhone and Beyond: Studies in Early Monastic Literature. Rome, 2012, p. 226.
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