Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

Prayer, Enigmatic of the East

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People believe prayer is an "exercise of faith" to be performed when there is time, at times of dire need, if there is a place for it in our schedule or is just an activity pertaining to Divine Liturgy. Have you noticed that in the Holy Bible there is no mention of prayers offered by the corrupt, the angry, the adulterer, the murderer, and those that shed the precious blood of the saints? At some point a faithful Christian must come to the actual realization that those full of strength, impregnated with wisdom, singing joyful hymns—are the ones who prayed.

Prayer is an exercise of patience, discipline, and faith. Prayer offers communion with God. Entreaty in prayer affords the earthly Christian a mysterious, unfathomable, and often difficult to comprehend communion with God that can be undertaken at any time and in the midst of any trial. While the qualities of our prayers are difficult to measure and the responses to our prayers often difficult to gauge immediately, there is an undeniable need within each faithful Christian to pray and communicate with our Lord Jesus Christ.

As early as the first Holy Book of the Pentateuch we are taught the need to pray,

"And as for Seth, to him also a son was born; and he named him Enosh. Then men began to call on the name of the LORD" (Genesis 4:26).

Why was it important for Seth, the son of Adam and Eve, to call upon the name of the Lord? We most assuredly know that Cain his brother did not...

"And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be deliverance, as the LORD has said, among the remnant whom the LORD calls" (Joel 2:32).

How important is our prayer life? Did people in Biblical times talk to God and can we be sure their prayers were ever answered? The Lord Jesus Christ's genealogy is traced through Seth to Adam, showing that the true God became incarnate as true Man in order to acknowledge all those who called upon His Holy name. Therefore, we can be certain that prayer is communication with God, the path to salvation. Therefore, it should not be entered into lightly and irreverently. It can be acknowledged with all certainty that prayers were answered according to the genealogy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Biblical beginnings and throughout the Old Testament, it was firmly established that true believers spoke to God through their prayers AND HE ANSWERED THEM.

Many more examples of prayer were addressed in the Holy Bible. Many varied forms of communication with God are addressed in the Holy Bible, happily through praises and thankfulness, bitterly through complaint, repentantly through confession, and pleadingly through petitions on behalf of the faithful believers and others.

"Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name" (Psalm 100:4).

This Holy Psalm of the Prophet David teaches us we need to spend quality time in prayer. Not only individual prayer is called for in the Holy Bible but group prayer as well. Group prayer was an encouraging invitation to gather and spend time in worshipping the Lord. Following the death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the disciples spread the Holy Gospel. Churches were first formed in the homes of Christians and later on in church buildings set apart for group prayer and worship emphasizing through the ages time and again the importance of prayer.

The Lord Jesus Christ Himself gave specific reference to prayer. He instructed and modeled prayer...

"In this manner, therefore, pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen" (Matthew 6:9-13).

While the importance of prayer has been indisputably established, many questions often arise related to our Coptic Orthodox discipline of praying toward the East. Such as "is this a way of trying to be set apart from other religions?" or "Why does the Coptic Church always have to be different?"

My question to you is: are we actually different or are we the same and unchanged?

The Ante-Nicene Fathers, for example, St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) of Alexandria Egypt; Tertullian (c. 160-230) from Carthage, North Africa; Lactantius (c. 250-325) from Rome who lived in France; and Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) originating from Samaria all asserted that one must pray facing the East. This was the exact practice and belief of the early Christians. Not a popular practice, nor a mimicked worship stance taken from the pagans, but praying toward the East was a necessitated part of worship.

"Corresponding to the manner of the sun's rising, prayers are made looking towards the sunrise, in the East" (St. Clement of Alexandria c. 195).

Perhaps because the sun rises in the East marking the beginning of the newness of a day and time, that wisdom was associated with the East in Biblical times; also possibly due to the more advanced civilizations east of the Holy Land.

"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem" (Matthew 2:1).

Lactantius, an Ante Nicene father, emphasized the East as the "Fountain of Light and Enlightener of all things". He also established two parts of the earth that are opposite to one another, and of a different character.

"I speak of the East and of a different character. I speak of the East and the west. Of these, the East is assigned to God, for He Himself is the Fountain of light and the Enlightener of all things. Furthermore, He makes us rise to eternal life...However, the west is ascribed to that disturbed and depraved mind, for it conceals the light. It always brings on darkness, and it makes men die and perish in their sins" (Lactantius c. 304-313).

Just as the Ante-Nicene fathers helped to interpret the teachings of the pre-Nicene era, most Biblical scholars agree that they faithfully passed along the instruction that the apostles had taught to the Church. To be sure, if it was important enough to be written about by four major Ante-Nicene Fathers, it must be a substantiated affirmed practice of Church prayer.

After closer examination the reader will note that none of the writers upholding prayer towards the East originated from the same geographical area. None of the Ante-Nicene Fathers writings are from the exact same time frame. Yet prayer towards the East was such an important belief that all four specifically addressed it as a "rule of prayer". So, is the Coptic Orthodox Church different or is it the same and consistent with the early church teachings that originated from the Apostles themselves?

So strong must this belief and "rule of prayer" have been, that not only did early Christians faithfully and diligently carry it out but those outside Christian beliefs took notice of the Christian stance toward the East...

"Others...believe that the sun is our god. The idea no doubt has originated from our being known to turn to the east in prayer" (Tertullian c. 197).

Again the pre-Nicene early Christians founded all their beliefs on Holy Scripture. There were no hundreds of written texts on interpretations, no radio commentaries, no internet searches, and no multiple theological colleges to attend. Early Christians often quoted Holy Scripture from memory. Simply and at the time the early missionaries spread the Holy Gospel the only reliable source for their fundamental beliefs was the Holy Scripture. It then comes as no surprise that the Apostolic Constitution addressed the East...

"Let the building be long, with its head to the East, with its vestries on both sides at the East end—so it will be like a ship" (Apostolic Constitution c. 390).

Earthly life can be complicated, with many complex problems, and be filled with adversities. Many of the ancient church fathers were prepared for persecution because of prayer. Nehemiah was prepared to start all over in the reconstruction and rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem through prayer, St. Stephen was prepared for death through his prayer, and the Lord Jesus Christ endured on the Holy Cross through prayer.

The Holy Scriptures says,

"Now when Daniel knew that the writing was signed, he went home. And in his upper room, with his windows open toward Jerusalem, he knelt down on his knees three times that day, and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as was his custom since early days" (Daniel 6:10).

Prayer helps us make the most of our earthly life, look at the disadvantages to see opportunities, and repent but not repeat.

"His name shall rise up above the sun. And again, Zechariah says, 'His name is the East.'" (Justin Martyr c.160).

May we all look toward the mysterious and miraculous East in spiritual seeking,

Bishop Youssef
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

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