New church builds on old traditions
- New church builds on old traditions
Coptic Orthodox observe Christmas on their schedule
By TOM HEINEN
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
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.
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.
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