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Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Alexandrine Liturgy

Parent liturgy from which all the others used by Melchites, Copts, and by the daughter-Church of Abyssinia are derived

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Alexandrine Liturgy, the. —The tradition of the Church of Egypt traces its origin to the Evangelist St. Mark, the first Bishop of Alexandria, and ascribes to him the parent liturgy from which all the others used by Melchites, Copts, and by the daughter-Church of Abyssinia are derived. These three bodies possess the three groups of liturgies used throughout the original Patriarchate of Alexandria. There is the Greek Liturgy of St. Mark, the oldest form of the three, used for some centuries after the Monophysite schism by the orthodox Melchites; there are then three liturgies, still used by the Copts, translated into Coptic from the Greek and derived from the Greek St. Mark, and, further, a number of Abyssinian (Ethiopic) uses, of which the foundation is the “Liturgy of the Twelve Apostles“, that also descends from the original Greek Alexandrine rite. By comparing these liturgies and noticing what is common to them, it is possible in some measure to reconstruct the old use of the Church of Alexandria as it existed before the Monophysite schism and the Council of Chalcedon (451). There are, moreover, other indications of that use. Clement of Alexandria (d. c. 217) makes one or two allusions to it; St. Athanasius (d. 373) has many more; the Prayer Book of Serapion, Bishop of Thmuis in the middle of the fourth century, and the descriptions of Pseudo-Dionysius (De hierarchic eccl.), at about the same time, in Egypt, make it possible to reconstruct the outline of the Egyptian Liturgy of their time, which is then seen to coincide with the Liturgy of St. Mark.

I. THE LITURGY OF ST. ATHANASIUS, SERAPION, AND PSEUDO-DIONYSIUS.—The Mass was divided into two chief parts, the Mass of the Catechumens and that of the Faithful. When the Arians persuaded a certain Ischyras to accuse St. Athanasius of having overturned his altar and broken his chalice during the Liturgy, they made the mistake of producing a catechumen as a witness. St. Athanasius could at once point out that the chalice is not brought to the altar till the Mass of the Faithful, when the catechumens have been dismissed (Contr. Arian., xxviii and xlvi). The Mass of the Catechumens consisted of Lessons from Holy Scripture, Psalms sung alternately, and Homilies. Then follow the blessing and dismissal of various kinds of people who are not allowed to be present at the Holy Eucharist, the catechumens, penitents, and energumens. In Serapion and Pseudo-Dionysius the Mass of the Faithful begins with the bringing of the oblations to the altar; they are then covered with a veil. The deacon reads out a litany for various causes (e katholike), to each petition of which the people answer “Kyrie eleison”, and the bishop sums up their prayers in a collect. Then follows the kiss of peace. St. Athanasius appears to place the offering of the gifts at this point (Probst, Lit. des IV. Jahrh., iii). The diptychs are read, followed by another collect and a prayer for the people. The bishop washes his hands and begins the Eucharistic Prayer (of which our Preface is the first part). The opening of the Eucharistic Prayer has always been very long in the Egyptian Liturgy. St. Athanasius refers to thanksgiving for the Creation, with detailed references to the different works, the Garden of Eden, the Incarnation, and so on; then comes an allusion to the Angels and their orders, who praise God and say (and the people interrupt the prayer by taking up the Angels’ words): “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts”. The bishop continues, praises God the Son who, having been made Man, on the night when He was betrayed took bread, blessed, broke, and gave it to His disciples, saying… The words of Institution follow, although St. Athanasius, because of the disciplina arcani, avoids quoting them. Nor does he mention the Epiklesis that certainly followed. Theophilus of Alexandria (385-412) says that: “The Bread of the Lord, in which the Body of the Savior is shown, which we break for our salvation, and the holy Chalice which is placed upon the Table of the Church are (at first) unquickened, but are sanctified by the Invocation and descent of the Holy Ghost” (translated by St. Jerome, Ep. xcviii, n. 13). The Blessed Sacrament is shown to the people, the Host is broken (the Our Father was probably said at this point), Communion is given, the Host by the bishop, the Chalice by the deacon, and the Thanksgiving (apparently Ps. xxxiii) is said. We notice already in these first references the great length of the first part of the Eucharistic Prayer (the Preface), and the fact that the diptychs are read before the Consecration. These two notes are characteristic of all the Egyptian uses.

II. THE GREEK LITURGY OF ST. MARK.—This rite as it now exists has already undergone considerable development. A Prothesis (preparation of the oblations before the beginning of the actual liturgy) has been added to it from the Byzantine Liturgy; the Creed is said as at Constantinople just before the Anaphora; the Epiklesis shows signs of the same influence; and the Great Entrance is accompanied by a Cherubikon. Since the Monophysite schism this use was more and more affected by the Byzantine Liturgy, till at last it entirely gave way to it among the Melchites. However, it is possible to disengage it from later additions and to reproduce the original Greek Alexandrine Liturgy, the parent rite of all others in Egypt. After the Prothesis, the Mass of the Catechumens begins with the greeting of the priest: “Peace to all”, to which the people answer: “And with thy spirit.” The deacon says “Pray” and they repeat Kyrie eleison three times; the priest then says a collect. The whole rite is repeated three times, so that there are nine Kyrie eleisons interspersed with the greeting and collects. During the Little Entrance (procession of the priest and deacon with the books for the lessons) the choir sings the Trisagion (Holy God, Holy Strong One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us). The lessons begin with the usual greeting: “Peace to all”. R. “And with thy spirit”. “The Apostle” is read, and then, after incense has been put into the thurible, follows the Gospel. The deacon tells the people to stand while they hear it. Sozomen (d. after 425) notes as a peculiar custom of Alexandria that the bishop does not stand at the Gospel (Hist. Eccl., VII, xix). After the Gospel follows the Homily. Both Socrates and Sozomen say that in their time only the bishop preaches, and they ascribe this custom to the result of the trouble caused by Arius (Socr., V, xxii; Soz., VII, xix). Before the Catechumens are dismissed a litany (the great Ekteneia) is said by the deacon. He tells the people to pray for the living, the sick, travellers, for fine weather, and the fruits of the earth, for the “regular rise of the waters of the river” (the Nile, an important matter in Egypt), “good rain and the cornfields of the earth”, for the salvation of all men, “the safety of the world and of this city”, for “our Christ-loving sovereigns”, for prisoners, “those fallen asleep”, “the sacrifice of our offerings”, for the afflicted, and for the Catechumens. To each clause the people answer: “Kyrie eleison.” The priest meanwhile is praying silently for the same objects, and when the deacon’s litany is finished, he ends his prayer aloud with a doxology. The “verse” (stichos, a verse from a psalm) is sung, and the deacon says “The Three”, that is, three prayers for the whole Church, the Patriarch, and the local Church; in each case the priest ends with a collect. The catechumens are then dismissed, and the Mass of the Faithful begins with the “Great Entrance”. The priest and deacon bring the offerings from the Prothesis to the altar while the people sing the Cherubikon. The kiss of peace follows, with the prayer belonging to it; then the Creed is said and the Offertory prayer at the altar. (In other liturgies the Offertory is said before the Great Entrance at the Prothesis.) The Anaphora begins, as always, with the greeting to the people and the dialogue: “Let us lift up our hearts.” R. “We have them to the Lord.”—”Let us give thanks to the Lord.” R. “It is meet and just.” And then the Eucharistic Prayer: “It is truly meet and just, right, holy, proper, and good for our souls, O Master, Lord, God, Almighty Father, to praise Thee, sing to Thee, thank Thee…” The peculiarity of all the Egyptian Liturgies is that the Supplication for various causes and people, which in all other rites follows the Sanctus and the Consecration, comes at this point, during what we should call the Preface. The Alexandrine Preface then is very long; interwoven into it are a series of prayers for the Church, the Emperor, the sick, fruits of the earth, and so on. Again the priest prays God to “draw up the waters of the river to their right measure”; he remembers various classes of Saints, especially St. Mark, says the first part of the Hail Mary, and then goes on aloud: “especially our all-holy, immaculate, and glorious Lady Mary, Mother of God and ever Virgin”. The deacon here reads the diptychs of the dead; the priest continues his supplication for the patriarch, the bishop, and all the living; the deacon calls out to the people to stand and then to look towards the east; and so at last comes the Sanctus: “the many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim… sing, cry out, praise Thee, and say: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”. And then aloud he goes on: “Sanctify all of us and receive our praise, who with all who sanctify Thee, Lord and Master, sing and say” (and the people continue): “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.” After the long Preface the Canon up to the words of Institution is very short. The priest, as usual, takes up the people’s words and almost at once comes to “Our Lord, God, and great King (pamnasileus), Jesus Christ, who in the night in which he gave himself to a most dreadful death for our sins, taking bread in His holy, pure, and immaculate hands, and looking up to heaven to Thee, His Father, our God and God of all things, gave thanks, blessed, broke, and gave it to His holy and blessed Disciples and Apostles, saying [aloud]: Take, eat [the deacon tells the concelebrating priests to stretch out their hands], for this is My Body, broken and given for you for the forgiveness of sins.” R. Amen. The words of Institution of the Chalice are said in the same way. The priest lifts up his voice at the end, saying: “Drink of this all”; the deacon says: “Again stretch out your hands”, and the priest continues: “this is My Blood of the New Testament, shed for you and for many and given for the forgiveness of sins.” R. Amen. “Do this in memory of Me,…” And the Anamimnesis follows, referring to Our Lord’s death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming and going immediately on to the Epiklesis: “Send down upon us and upon this bread and chalice Thy Holy Ghost that He as Almighty God may bless and perfect them [aloud] and make this bread the Body.” R. Amen. “And this chalice the Blood of the New Testament, the Blood of Our Lord, and God, and Savior, and great King, Jesus Christ.”… The Epiklesis ends with a doxology to which the people answer: “As it was and is”. Then follow the Our Father, said first by the priest silently and then aloud by the people, with the usual Embolismos, the Inclination before the Blessed Sacrament—the deacon says: “Let us bow our heads before the Lord”, and the people answer: “Before Thee O Lord”; the Elevation with the words: “Holy things to the Holy”; and the answer: “One Holy Father, one Holy Son, one Holy Ghost, in the union of the Holy Ghost. Amen“. Then come the Breaking of the Bread, during which Psalm cl (Laudate Dominum in sanctis eius) is sung, and the Communion. The form of Communion is: “The holy Body” and then “the precious Blood of Our Lord, God and Savior”. A short thanksgiving follows, and the people are dismissed with the blessing quoted from II Cor., xiii, 13. Some more prayers are said in the Diakonikon, and the liturgy ends with the words: “Blessed be God who blesses, sanctifies, protects, and keeps us all through the share in His holy mysteries. He is blessed for ever. Amen.”

The characteristic points of this rite are the nine Kyrie eleisons at the beginning, the Offertory prayers said at the altar instead of at the Prothesis, and especially the place of the great Supplication before the Sanctus. This last circumstance causes the Consecration to occur much later in this Liturgy than in any of the others. It should be noted that the place of the Supplication is a difficulty in the Roman Mass. We say part of it (for the Church, Pope, and Bishop, the Memento Vivorum and Communicantes) before, and part (Memento Defunctorum, Nobis quoque peccatoribus) after the Consecration. In the Antiochene use, and in all those derived from it, the whole Supplication comes after the Epiklesis. It has been suggested that the explanation of these differences is that originally everywhere the deacon began to read out the clauses of the Supplication as soon as the priest had begun the Eucharistic Prayer. They would then go on saying their parts together, the deacon being interrupted by the words said aloud by the priest. The point at which the Supplication ends would then depend on its length; and if eventually that point (at which the priest sums up its clauses in a collect) were taken as its place in the liturgy, it might occur before the Consecration (as at Alexandria), or after it (as at Antioch), or the Supplication might still be said partly before and partly after (as at Rome). The Roman use, then, would represent an intermediate stage of development (cf. A. Gastoue in Cabrol, Dict. d’arch. chret. et de liturgie, Paris, 1904). But the parallels between the Roman and Alexandrine uses are too obvious not to suggest a common source for these Liturgies. There is the Kyrie eleison, said nine times in groups of three, as soon as the priest stands at the altar, just before the Trisagion which more or less corresponds to our Gloria in excelsis. There are, moreover, clauses and even whole prayers whose common origin with those of our Canon cannot be doubted. As an example, let the prayer said after the reading of the diptychs of the dead be compared with our Supra qute and Supplices te rogamus. In St. Mark’s liturgy it is: “Receive, O God, the Sacrifice, offerings, and Eucharist of thy servants on Thy holy, heavenly, and spiritual altar in the height of Heaven by the ministry of thy archangels… as Thou didst receive the gifts of Thy just Abel and the sacrifice of our father Abraham…” There are other parallel passages no less striking; so that, in spite of likenesses between the Roman Canon and the Syrian Anaphora, it is with this Egyptian Liturgy that ours is generally supposed to have had a common source (Duchesne, Origines, p. 54). Socrates and Sozomen notice some peculiarities of the Alexandrine Patriarchate in the fifth century. On Wednesdays and Fridays the Liturgy was not celebrated (Socr., V, xxii, who says this is a most ancient custom). In this case, too, Alexandria and Rome follow the same practice, whereas that of all the other Eastern Churches is different (Duchesne, Origines, p. 220). The first two sees also agreed in having no Mass on Saturday; in other parts of Egypt there was a Liturgy of the Presanctified, and people received Holy Communion on Saturday evening, not fasting (Socr., ib., Soz., VII, xix, musterion metechousi).

III. THE COPTIC LITURGIES.—After the Monophysite schism the Copts composed a number of liturgies in their own language. Three of these became the most important and are still used: those of St. Cyril, St. Gregory (of Nazianzus), and St. Basil. They differ only in the Anaphoras which are joined to a common Preparation and Mass of the Catechumens. The Anaphora of St. Cyril, also called that of St. Mark, together with the part of the liturgy that is common to all, corresponds exactly to the Greek St. Mark. When it was translated into Coptic a great part of the formulas, such as the Trisagion, the deacon’s litany, said at the beginning of the Mass of the Faithful, nearly all the short greetings like eirene pasin ano umon tas kardias ta agia tois agiois, and everything said by the people had already become universally known in Greek. These parts were then left in that language, and they are still written or printed in Greek, although in Coptic characters, throughout the Coptic Liturgy. A few prayers have been added to the original Greek Liturgy, such as a very definite act of faith in the Real Presence said by the priest before his Communion. There are also Greek versions of the other two Coptic Anaphoras: those of St. Basil and St. Gregory.

THE ETHIOPIC LITURGIES.—In her liturgies, as in everything else, the Church of Abyssinia depends on the Coptic Patriarchate of Alexandria. The normal and original Ethiopic use is the “Liturgy of the Twelve Apostles“, which is the Coptic St. Cyril done into their own language. The Abyssinians have also a number of other Anaphoras (ten or fifteen) ascribed to various people such as St. John the Evangelist, the 318 Fathers of Nica, St. John Chrysostom, etc., which they join to the first part of their Liturgy on various occasions instead of its own Canon.

THE PRESENT USE.—Of these three groups two, the Copts and Abyssinians, still keep their own liturgies. The Copts use that of St. Basil throughout the year on Sundays and weekdays, and for requiems; on certain great feasts they substitute the Anaphora of St. Gregory; that of St. Cyril is kept for Lent and Christmas Eve. This order is common to the Monophysite and Unitee Copts. ‘Very soon after the Arabs conquered Egypt (641) their language became the only one used even by the Christians; in less than two centuries Coptic had become a completely dead language. For this reason the rubrics of the Coptic liturgical books have for a long time been written in Arabic as well; sometimes Arabic translations of the prayers are added too. The books needed for the Liturgy are the Khulaji (euchologion), Kutmarus (kata meros), a lectionary containing the lessons from Holy Scripture, the Synaxar (sunaksarion), which contains legends of saints, sometimes read instead of those from the Acts of the Apostles., and the “Book of the Ministry of the Deacons” (Brightman, lxvii). The Coptic and Abyssinian Uniates have books specially printed for them, which differ from the others only inasmuch as the names of Monophysites are omitted, that of Chalcedon is inserted, and the Filioque is added to the Creed. The Orthodox Church of Egypt has long sacrificed her own use for that of Constantinople. For a time after the Monophysite schism she still kept the Liturgy of St. Mark in Greek. But there were very few Orthodox left in the country; they were nearly all officials of the Imperial government, and, after the Arab conquest especially, the influence of Constantinople over them, as over the whole Orthodox world, grew enormously. So eventually they followed the Oecumenical Patriarch in their rites as in everything else. The Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria even went to live at Constantinople under the shadow of Caesar and of Caesar’s Court Bishop. The change of liturgy took place at the end of the twelfth century. Theodore Balsamon says that at that time a certain Mark, Patriarch of Alexandria, came to Constantinople and there went on celebrating the Liturgy of his own Church. The Byzantines told him that the use of the most holy Ecumenical throne was different, and that the Emperor had already commanded all Orthodox Churches throughout the world to follow that of the Imperial city. So Mark apologized for not having known about this law and conformed to the Byzantine use (P.G., CXXXVIII, 954). Since then the Greek Liturgy of St. Mark has no longer been used by anyone. It remains to be seen whether, now that the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem has begun to make some small restoration of her own use (see Antiochene Liturgy), the very determined and strongly anti-Phanariote prelate who rules the Orthodox Church of Egypt (Lord Photios of Alexandria) will not revive, at any rate for one day in the year, the venerable liturgy of his own see.


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