Given that social distancing is a vital requirement in the attempt to halt the spread of coronavirus, Churches in Egypt on 14 March 2020 suspended all gatherings, activities, prayer meetings, and Sunday School. One week later they closed churches altogether and temporarily halted celebration of Mass.
Yet the Church realised that the congregation had thus been deprived of direly-needed spiritual nourishment which was especially important in the difficult times of coronavirus.
Churches took to social media to make up as much as they could for their physical closure. Facebook, Zoom, and YouTube came in especially handy in this regard. Announcements of the broadcast of daily talks, meetings, hymns, or videos captivated the congregation. Given that it is Lent, a season of fasting, Bible readings, and daily Mass, a wealth of material is being broadcast by churches.
Sunday School, too, is being broadcast live every Friday, the weekday on which it is held in normal times. Pope Tawadros decided, together with Anba Marcos, Bishop of Shubral-Kheima and head of Koogi satellite TV channel for kids, that the channel would regularly air Sunday School lessons and music.
Pope Tawadros reminded the congregation that this was a time of repentance, especially given it was Lent; a time of prayer during which the congregation should raise their hearts and ask the Lord to have mercy on the whole world; and a time of peace when reconciliation should take precedence in our lives.
He recalled a prayer from the Evening Litany of the Pascha service during Holy Week: “O God of mercy and compassion, Lord of all consolation …. Protect the world from death, scarcity, pestilence, wars, earthquakes, horror, and all fearsome events. We ask You, O Lord, hear us and have mercy on us.”
The Pope announced he would deliver a short daily “contemplation” to be televised live from the Papal Headquarters at St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbassiya, Cairo. He started on 19 March, 10 Parmhat on the Coptic calendar, a day which coincided with the Feast of the Cross in the Coptic Church.
The Pope’s messages came under the theme “Have Mercy On Us, O Lord”. The message is translated into English, Italian, and other languages so that Copts in the Diaspora can follow it.
“I am meeting you in exceptional times,” the Pope began. “Exceptional in the sense that they are times not seen before by the generations today living in the world. Under coronavirus outbreak, I’ll talk to you not to give medical or practical advice, but to address the spiritual.
“God created humans on earth, and they passed through numerous phases of development. In the later stages, however, and despite all the progress they had achieved, men and women ignored the truth of God, alienated themselves from Him and glorified themselves to the point of self-worship. During recent times, it appears the human race has reached rock bottom. People deny God, embrace violence, cruelty, materialism, sexual licentiousness, selfishness and self-centredness, seeing nothing in the world but themselves.
“Today,” Pope Tawadros said, “a tiny invisible virus has attacked the entire human race, causing indescribable fear and panic.
“God in His merciful compassion is giving us all a wake-up call, reminding us how insignificant and powerless we are before such a minute attacker.
“At this point we can only lift our hearts in prayer asking for God’s mercy.” He referred to the Bible verse in Acts 2:1 “… They were all of one accord,” and asked everyone to say the two psalms 27 and 91 daily. Both psalms dispel fears; Psalm 27 begins with: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, who shall I fear?” and Psalm 91 says: “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty”.
Prayer for every hour
Pope Tawadros said he would expound on the concluding litany of every Prayer of the Hours, Agpiya, which reads:
“Have mercy on us, O God, and have mercy on us, who, at all times and in every hour, in heaven and on earth, is worshipped and glorified, Christ our God, the good, the long suffering, the abundant in mercy, and the great in compassion, who loves the righteous and has mercy on the sinners of whom I am chief; who does not wish the death of the sinner but rather that he returns and lives, who calls all to salvation for the promise of the blessings to come.
“Lord receive from us our prayers in this hour and in every hour. Ease our life and guide us to fulfil Your commandments. Sanctify our spirits. Cleanse our bodies. Conduct our thoughts. Purify our intentions. Heal our diseases. Forgive our sins. Deliver us from every evil grief and distress of heart. Surround us by Your holy angels, that, by their camp, we may be guarded and guided, and attain the unity of faith, and the knowledge of Your imperceptible and infinite glory. For You are blessed forever. Amen”
Four corners of the world
The “Have Mercy On Us, O Lord” prayer, Pope Tawadros said, like many other prayers, is said in the plural sense, even if one is alone while praying it. This, he said, means that one is not separated from the entire human race but is part of all humanity.
“Have Mercy On Us, O Lord”, the Pope said, is repeated in the Coptic Church numerous times in various prayers throughout the day and year. It is a constant, non-ending supplication. It concludes every prayer; and is prayed once, thrice, ten times, 41 times, or any number of times on many occasions. On Good Friday it is said 400 times: 100 times in each of the cardinal directions, to ask for mercy for everyone in the four corners of the earth.
“Lord, Have mercy”, the Pope explained, has its roots in the Bible. Among the references he gave to that was Psalm 103: 11, 12 in which, he said, the Lord’s mercy is depicted in the visual image of the Cross. “For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us”; the four cardinal points, according to the Pope, represent the four tips of the cross.
On Wednesday 25 March, in response to an invitation by Pope Francis, Pope Tawadros II called on Copts to unite in prayer with Churches the world over at noontime for the Lord to intervene and lift the peril of coronavirus.
Members of the congregation would pray wherever they are, and Pope Tawadros prayed with them in a televised address.
The Pope asked worshippers to take five minutes before noon in silent prayer and contemplation, offering their hearts to God and asking for His mercy for people across the world. Following that, everyone would join in the Lord’s Prayer and the “Lord have mercy” chant said in the Coptic Liturgy.
The chant is a very simple one and is sung to a distinctive melody that profoundly expresses supplication. The words say:
“Have mercy on us, O Lord, our Father, the Pantocrator,
“Have mercy on us, O Lord our Saviour,
“Have mercy on us, O Lord, again and again”.
1 April 2020