The central feature of the Coptic Orthodox liturgy is the celebration of communion. Consumed as the final element of the mass, much of what comes before is preparation. Early on, before most people arrive, are Bible readings and traditional hymns, followed by a sermon aimed to connect both to the Gospel text of the day and the lives of the Coptic faithful. By then most are in attendance, and priests and congregation alike repeat the words establishing the foremost mystery – Jesus present in body and blood.
As the priest prepares the host he chants from the passage in Luke in which Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper:
Take, eat of it, all of you, for this is my body, which is broken for you and for many, to be given for the remission of sins. Do this in remembrance of me.
The people reply: This is true. Amen.
Then follows the presentation of the cup, and the priest proclaims:
Take, drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many, to be given for the remission of sins. Do this in remembrance of me.
The people reply: This also is true. Amen.
As an aside, before returning to this mystery, then follows my favorite part of the mass, in which the congregation sings:
Amen. Amen. Amen. Your death, O Lord, we proclaim. Your holy resurrection and ascension, we confess. We praise you, we bless you, we thank You, O Lord, and we entreat you, O our God.
These sentiments are repeated throughout the mass: I believe, I confess, this is true. The priest states an understanding of the Eucharist, and the people respond: Amen, amen, amen… Lord have mercy. It is as if the utter impossibility of the event itself – bread and wine becoming flesh and blood, and that of a crucified man nearly 2,000 years ago – demands constant sublimation of the message. Appropriately, at a certain interval, all are invited to prostrate before the holy host. Many are familiar with the sight of Muslims with forehead bowed in reverence to God; though pew position disallows most Copts from complete prostration, most adjust their bodies to the degree possible. In monasteries, lacking any impediments, all humble themselves with their face to the ground.
Raised in Protestant tradition, I have little connection to these pious practices. Communion is a time of remembrance, not an infusion of the transubstantiated Son of God into my being. I label them pious; upon observing the mass many would be excepted. The congregation is prompted to confirm, “This also is true” – quite a few mutter along unengaged. At the moment of prostration, group ethics demand a response, but some heads are bowed only minimally. Among the worshippers seated on the sides of the church (and thus not facing east as demanded by tradition), a good percentage fail to turn their bodies appropriately.
In these observations no disrespect is intended; the repetition of any established pattern naturally lessens the experience of its import. What I would like to highlight is the degree to which an incident today demonstrated unequivocally that Jesus’ presence is a matter of deep conviction.
When communion commences, the men line up at the left of the church, the women at the right, and they receive a cloth napkin. Upon reaching the iconostasis the priests emerge to place the bread in the mouths of the supplicants, after which they proceed to the central aisle where another priest spoons the wine. After each element is received the napkin is placed over their mouths lest anything fall to ground.
In this particular church, women tend to outnumber the men, and as such the last few minutes consist of the final few ladies making their way through the line, some of whom carry their babies who also partake. Today it so happened that one of these babies received his portion of bread, but when the mother lowered him toward the priest to pour from the spoon, the bread, unrestrained in his toothless mouth, fell to the floor.
I cannot tell if the congregation noticed. By this time most are shuffling back into their seats or even out the door. Communion is the point of church – though there are a few minor rituals remaining, many have stopped paying attention. The priest, woman, and those around, however, were jolted into confusion. Immediately the priest bent down and placed the morsel back in the baby’s mouth, as his mother looked on horrified. When it fell again the mother quickly descended to pick it up. The priest, though, was quicker, and pushed the woman’s hand away. This time he put the bread into the woman’s mouth, and mother and child filed away into the anonymity of the crowd.
This woman was the next-to-last participant, and the one after her received the wine without incident, and the priest returned behind the curtain to join his colleagues and the deacons in cleaning the communion implements. This final worshipper, however, was still a little unsettled. She looked down at the ground where the bread had fallen, stepped to the side, and walked around. She took all care that her feet would not trample on Jesus, should any of his presence remain where he fell.
What should be made of such faith? That which struck me the most was that this belief was real. Not in the sense of intellectual credence, but of tangible reality. I cannot say if these women love their families, are considerate to others, or pray on a daily basis. Do they know God? Do they love him?
They know however, at the deepest core of their being, that Jesus is present in the bread and the wine. Maybe this is not true; maybe it is only a constructed social mechanism. Yet a further question is this: Assuming, of course, that God and Jesus somehow go together, does this faith please God?
According to Biblical testimony, God seems quite ready to receive flawed faith. Elisha the prophet bid the healed leper Naaman on his way with a barrelful of dirt on which to worship God in the manner of his idolatrous understanding. Jesus healed the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda who had no one to help him in when the angel descended to stir the waters. Surely other examples could be gathered.
Perhaps the most relevant example, though, should come from an essayist who believes that God loves and accepts him, yet cannot refrain from wondering at the legitimacy of the faith of others. No matter how orthodox my creedal faith, such an attitude betrays a pride and superiority unbefitting a creature of God. That he welcomes me into his family, despite such flaws, should give hope to us all. There may be many pretty sentiments I can conjure, but until I perceive God’s presence as fully as the women I observed today, I must remain their pupil.