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August 29, 2012

A Coptic fresco from the 5th century, which has been discovered not a long time ago on the southern wall of the ancient church in the Coptic monastery Dair al-Suryan (Monastery of the Syrians), is educational through its beautiful symbolism.

It is a scene from the Coptic paradise! It depicts the three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob receiving the souls of the departed in their bosoms in paradise; the souls, who are male and females, as one can tell from their hair, are represented sexlessly naked. Each Patriarch holds a grape with two fingers (the thumb and index) of the right hand and cradles the reposed soul in the left arm – the Patriarchs offering the grape to the souls who extend the full length of their right arm to take it and refresh themselves. Two other souls are reposed below in the bosom of each Patriarch who may have reposed earlier, and are helping in refreshing the souls of the newly departed, or possibly waiting for their turn to be fed refreshed by the Patriarch.

The ‘dead’ in Coptic culture are not called dead but are “fallen asleep and reposed in the faith of Christ”, and the Church prays for them in every liturgy in what is called “The Commemoration of the Saints”, which comes immediately before the Fraction and Confession. The liturgical prayer, as in the Liturgy of St. Basil, is for “all those who have fallen asleep and reposed in the priesthood and in the order of laity”, in the following words:

Graciously, O Lord, repose all their souls in the bosoms of our holy fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, sustain them in green pastures, by the water of rest in the paradise of joy, the place out of which grief, sorrow and groaning have fled away in the light of your saints.

This prayer is inspired by Christ’s words: “And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.” [1] The influence of the beautiful story of the Rich Man and Lazarus which Jesus told us is also evident: “And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”[2]  One can also see the impact of the following sacred text on the wording of the liturgical Commemoration of the Saints:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.[3]

And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.[4]

Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away.[5]

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.[6]

The Coptic paradise is no Islamic paradise, and the grapes that are fed the reposed souls by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are symbolic – spiritual and not material. One can say the same thing about the green pastures and the water of rest: there, with Christ and His saints, there is no grief, sorrow or groaning; and this is the Coptic paradise of joy. Coptic paradise is no place for eating, drinking, or lusting after women and boys.

[1] Matthew 8:11 (KJV).

[2] Luke 16:22-23 (KJV).

[3] Psalms 23: 1-6 (KJV).

[4] Isaiah 35:10 (KJV).

[5] Isaiah 51:11 (KJV).

[6] Revelation 7:16-17 (KJV).


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