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New church builds on old traditions

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  • Rev Fr John Brian
    New church builds on old traditions Coptic Orthodox observe Christmas on their schedule By TOM HEINEN theinen@journalsentinel.com Posted: Jan. 5, 2007 Still
    Message 1 of 2 , Jan 7, 2007
      New church builds on old traditions

      Coptic Orthodox observe Christmas on their schedule


      Posted: Jan. 5, 2007

      Still using a calendar directly rooted in one that Egyptian pharaohs relied
      on 3,000 years before the birth of Christ, Wisconsin's only Coptic Orthodox
      congregation will celebrate the 29th day of the month of Kiahk on Sunday.

      They also call it Christmas.

      Tonight, the 50 families that belong to St. Mary & St. Antonious Coptic
      Orthodox Church will have vespers and a Christmas Eve liturgy in their
      nearly completed, $3 million church at 1521 W. Drexel Ave., Oak Creek.

      They will be seated in front of a new iconostasis, a decorative,
      icon-holding partition that was handcrafted in Egypt to separate the
      sanctuary from the nave. Four workmen and two engineers from Egypt spent 10
      days in December unpacking, assembling and installing it.

      "Christmas comes with the new year for us, and we are very eager to have our
      new church complete," said Father Rewis Awadalla, who termed the
      installation one of the final construction steps and "a sign of hope and new

      After the Christmas Eve service ends about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, people will
      gather in the basement for a celebratory feast that will break their 43 days
      of morning fasts and round-the-clock abstinence from meat and dairy

      Local Greek Orthodox, Antiochian Orthodox and Orthodox Church in America
      congregations were among those that celebrated Christmas on Dec. 25, the
      date used by Western churches.

      But local Serbian and Russian Orthodox churches are among those that will
      observe Christmas this Sunday. They use the old Julian calendar of Roman
      Emperor Julius Caesar instead of the now widely accepted Gregorian calendar
      revision that Pope Gregory XIII issued in 1582.

      Eastern and Western churches agreed long before that to celebrate Christmas
      on Dec. 25, but the calendar differences have produced what is now a 13-day
      difference in determining when Dec. 25 is.

      Adding to that mix, Armenian churches such as St. Mesrob Armenian Apostolic
      Church in Racine adhere to an even earlier tradition. Those that have a
      priest available are celebrating Christmas and the Epiphany today.

      Cherishing Egyptian heritage

      Tradition holds that St. Mark the Apostle founded the Coptic Orthodox Church
      in the 1st century in Egypt, where it continues to be based. Copts treasure
      Egypt's biblical heritage of having sheltered Mary, Joseph and the infant
      Jesus after they fled from Bethlehem.

      The new church in Oak Creek reflects Coptic tradition in many ways.

      The iconostasis temporarily holds a few icons from the congregation's old
      church in Waterford. New icons - colorful images of Christ, St. Mary his
      mother, the Last Supper, the Apostles, martyrs, other saints and angels -
      are still being painted on wood in Egypt. Once in place, the images of the
      saints will serve both as role models for the people and as reminders that
      the saints are looking after them and interceding for them, said Awadalla,
      the church's priest.

      Awadalla is hopeful that the icons will arrive in time to be installed on
      the iconostasis and on side walls before Easter, which this year falls on
      the same day in Western and Eastern churches, April 8.

      Plans call for the church to be dedicated this summer, probably in August,
      when Pope Shenouda III, the spiritual leader of Copts worldwide, will travel
      from Egypt to the United States.

      There are three entrances or doorways in the iconostasis, each closed off
      with red velvet cloth and topped with a quote from scripture engraved in the
      wood. The two side ones lead to communion rooms.

      The larger, center entrance is called the Royal Door and is used by the
      priest to enter the sanctuary. The sanctuary represents heaven, which Jesus,
      as the high priest, opened to humans with the blood of his sacrifice.

      Made of unstained maple, oak and walnut imported to Egypt from Canada and
      Turkey, the iconostasis has three natural shades of coloring and is rich in
      other symbolism.

      Some examples:

      Hand-carved vines with grape clusters stretch across many parts of it. "The
      vine represents what our Lord Jesus Christ said about himself, that he is
      the true vine and we are the branches (John 15:1-5)," Awadalla said. "At the
      same time, it represents the Eucharist, because you've got grape juice to be
      converted into the blood of Christ."

      Variations of the Coptic cross are used throughout the iconostasis. The end
      of each of the cross' four arms has three edges to symbolize the Holy
      Trinity. That totals 12 edges, symbolic of the 12 apostles, who spread the
      Gospel to the four corners of the world.

      Four large pillars represent the four Gospels. Each also represents "the
      victorious believer" from the book of Revelation, "He who overcomes, I will
      make him a pillar in the temple of My God." That is why the pillars also
      resemble palm tree trunks, with braided palm leaves at the top symbolizing
      victory, he said.

      New Iconostasis

      line.com/graphics/news/img/jan07/coptic010607.jpg> Click to enlarge

      Photo/Michael Sears <mailto:msears@...>

      Father Rewis Awadalla, the priest at St. Mary & St. Antonious Coptic
      Orthodox Church in Oak Creek, looks over the newly installed iconostasis,
      which was built in Egypt and assembled over 10 days last month by Egyptian
      craftsmen. New icons to decorate the partition are being handcrafted in
      Egypt, where the Coptic Orthodox Church was founded and is still based.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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