Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

The Nayruz: The Beginning of the Year of Grace

print Print  |  send Send to a friend  |  bookmark Bookmark  |   |   |  back Back

When we come to celebrate the Nayruz, or the Coptic New Year, we are observing a feast which possesses a quality which distinguishes it from the rest of the feasts of the liturgical year. And that characteristic is the singular fact that what we commemorate on this day (and its three-week extension), is not so much a particular action by a specific saint, but a date: Nayruz lands on Thooute 1, and this is what lends the feast its significance. The reader might interject at this point with the response that the theme of the Nayruz is actually the honoring of the martyrs; and this undoubted fact will be discussed a little further on. But while the valiant martyrs and saints who have adorned the annals of Coptic history are commemorated throughout the entire year, the most prominent factor that characterizes the Feast of the Nayruz is the date.

This date is in fact the first day of the Coptic, that is, the Egyptian, calendar. And so the Nayruz becomes a celebration not only of the first day, but also symbolically of the entire year, and even of the fact that we have an Egyptian calendar year. For the important point to notice is that the calendar which organizes our liturgical life pre-dates the Church by some one- or two-thousand years. The whole arrangement of 12 Coptic months divided into 30 days each with a "little" month appended at the end is not the invention of the Church but of the genius of the ancient Egyptians. And so, consciously or unconsciously, by employing this calendar, we are affirming our historical link with the people of the Nile valley.

It is not a small thing to be the descendants of the ancient Egyptians. It would fully repay the time of every Copt to sit down one day and examine the accomplishments of his biological ancestors—the first to discover that a year is 365 days long and to frame a year around it; the first to form a complex civilization with social and administrative institutions; the first to employ primitive medicine; the first to invent paper; the first to institute a literature; the first to belief in the afterlife; and the only race to ever know the architectural secrets of the pyramids. As a whole, they were an intelligent and inventive race, who exceeded their time in science, mathematics, astronomy, and language. They were themselves, like the pyramids they built, a wonder to the world; and the ancient Greeks, when speaking in after-years of similar Greek marvels in astronomy or science, gladly admitted their indebtness to the Egyptians. When one reflects upon the extraordinary nature of this ancient race, it enflames the spirit with pride to know he has that prestigious blood running through his veins.

But we do not begin our calendar from the old, high days of Egyptian antiquity, which reach back to circa 3000 BC; rather, we begin it at precisely 284 AD. And this singular detail points to the fact that we are not merely recognizing our identity as Egyptians, but as Christian Egyptians. The year 284 AD marks the commencement of the reign of the Roman emperor who staged the most devastating and far-reaching persecution in early church history—Diocletian. For ten long, dismal years, the persecution ravaged the entire church, and was applied with particular violence in Egypt. Many of our eminent martyrs distinguished themselves at this time by their faith and courage, and the patient suffering of the Coptic saints provided abundant material for many of the pages in our modern synaxarion. Thus, by fixing the first year of its calendar at the start of Diocletian's reign, the Coptic church points to the period when her identity as a suffering church experienced its full flowering. Yes, the Coptic church existed before Diocletian, and even boasted of such great names as Alexandros, Clement, and Origen. But the era which established her consciousness as a suffering church, an enduring church, a militant church, was the era of persecution—and it is this brave and undaunted consciousness which has lived on in the Coptic mind through successive centuries of Arab rule up to the present day.

Thus, the Nayruz, in the deepest historic sense, is a celebration of our very existence as a Coptic Church. In declaring the year to be 1727 AM, we do not merely indicate a point in time, but declare that God has preserved this precious branch of the Orthodox Church for so many years in the face of fierce opposition. If Pentecost is considered the birthday of the Universal Church, then we would not be remiss in styling the Nayruz the birthday of the Coptic Church. It celebrates the simple fact that incense still fills our churches; that our ancient hymns are still chanted; that the clash of cymbals in worship is still heard; that our liturgy is still prayed; that our patriarch still sits on the throne; that the priceless Coptic language is still uttered; and that our synaxarion is still a work in progress. The fact that we have persevered in using our unique calendar through so many dark centuries indicates the two-fold truth that the foreign invaders of Egypt were unable either to cut off the historic lineage of ancient Egypt or to quench the fiery spirit which animated the early Christians of the Nile valley.

If a person does not consider these things, he will never realize his eminent fortunes in being Coptic. The little child might grow up embarrassed about his parents' accent; a youth might shun the ingrained habits of the elderly; and even adults might attempt to hide their background as a disgraceful blight on their identity. But all this surely proceeds from a deep ignorance. The ignorance is even tragic, in that it can cause us to ignore so bountiful a heritage, to neglect so important a stewardship, and even to disdain so great a gift purchased with the blood of martyrs. If we are found guilty of such neglect, we are liable to fall into the grossest errors, such as the unthinkable suggestion that we discontinue the Coptic language in our worship and thus to let it to be lost in oblivion.

But despite all this emphasis on our cultural heritage as Egyptians and Copts, the Nayruz is not meant to narrowly be a mere toast to nationalism. It is, ultimately, a spiritual feast. For, as we mentioned before, the persistence of the Egyptian Church was due to the unwavering faith of the martyrs; but their faith was not in a national or cultural institution, but in Christ. A believer facing torture or having her body torn apart by beasts could not find the strength to persist simply by thinking of her pride in her nation. When the body is racked with physical pain, all thoughts of self-admiration evaporate. Only the example and image of Christ could supply the martyrs with the needed grace to endure. This is why even an American, Chinese, or Brazilian convert can rejoice in this feast; though he cannot identify with the glories of ancient Egypt, he receives something much more precious—the spirit of the Coptic martyr.

Though we call it a "new year", the Nayruz is not really analogous to the modern western New Year (Gregorian calendar) celebrated here in America, which is not so much a commemoration of anything as a reason, or rather an excuse, for revelry and debauchery. Just as we found a parallel between the Nayruz and Pentecost, so we may imagine a faint secular parallel with the American Independence Day – a holiday filled with songs and hymns extolling the bravery of the first Americans, not unlike our songs of praise for the martyrs – which signals the "birth" of the nation, in a similar way that the Nayruz signals the "birth" of the Coptic identity as a Church of martyrs. But there is also a vital difference: whereas America gained her independence and life through the bloodshed of war, the Coptic Church earned hers through the bloodshed of martyrdom: the first by armed combat (the only way of the world), the second by patient suffering (the only way of the church). In a recent Egyptian movie entitled "Hasan wa Morcos", the final scene depicts two massive, seething hordes of angry men running out of a mosque and a church, which meet in the streets for a violent collision – Muslim and Christian slaughtering each other to gain the primacy. But nothing could be further from the truth. The precarious nature of the Copts' experience in Egypt has required them to simply entrust their lives to God, which trust is amply expressed in our prayers: "...for You have covered us, helped us, guarded us, accepted us to Yourself, spared us, supported us, and brought us unto this hour", and in the lyrics of our music, such as "My Coptic Church" and "O Coptic Bride of our Savior".

And this belies the paradoxical existence of the Coptic Church – that when threatened with death, rather than resist, we bow the neck and leave our souls in Christ's hands. Violence is met, not with violence, but with peace and love. Can a nation perpetuate itself for long by a method so contrary to logic? Will not our serene resignation be interpreted as a sign of weakness? Must a people not protect itself and defend itself, if need be, by modes of aggression? But the Coptic people have chosen a higher road. We might see this "paradox" of our church life as perplexing; and yet, the paradox resolves itself into perfect harmony when rooted in its finest example of victory through death: Christ upon the Cross. This is indeed our only weapon. "Hail to the Cross!" is the Church's exultant doxology, and to no wonder: we would expect a nation to hail and pledge undying allegiance to the one and only "weapon" which has kept her safe through the centuries. And this feeling of dependence upon the glorious Cross explains the Copts' eternal preoccupation with its "sign"– visibly placed upon every church, every wall, every neck, and every heart. And that is why the three-week festivities of the Nayruz end, not with fireworks or fanfare, but with the solemn yet joyous Feast of the Cross.

print Print  |  send Send to a friend  |  bookmark Bookmark  |   |   |  back Back