After Christ’s death in the ninth hour, the mood of the church gradually shifts. The worst is over now, and we begin to celebrate the victory that Christ won over Satan, sin, and death.
The prophecy of the eleventh hour is the Exodus account of the Passover, now finally and completely fulfilled, as the blood of the perfect Lamb covers his people’s sins and protects them from final death. In the twelfth hour, the priest himself comes down and chants the third chapter of Lamentations, which is so entirely fitting, and terribly poetic in Arabic, as it was in the original Hebrew (an anacrostic poem): “I am the man that has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. . . He hath set me in dark places, as they that are dead of old. . . I was a derision to all my people, and their song all the day. . . Thou hast removed my soul far off from peace; I forgot prosperity.”
And then, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness. The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him. The Lord is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. . .” Go read the whole thing.
The gospels of the eleventh hour cover the veil of the temple being torn, symbolizing the reconciliation of God and man, with no barrier between us now, the dead rising from the graves around Jerusalem, and the remarks of the centurion.
The psalm of the twelfth hour takes – I kid you not – fifteen minutes to sing. In our church, there’s one man who’s far and away the best cantor; he loves Jesus, and the songs of the church, and he studies the tunes carefully, and teaches them to his sons. However, he’s so shy that two other deacons have to stand up to sing with him, and then gradually sit down once he gets going on this virtuouso performance. This is fifteen minutes, no repetitions (unlike a baroque aria), and no written music – all by memory. This is the psalm on which I finally began to understand Coptic letters, simply because there was so much time for considering! But joking aside, it is the perfect conclusion for the day:
Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in the darkness, in the deeps. Ps. 88:6
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Ps. 23:4
Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever; the sceptre of thy kingdom is a sceptre of righteousness.
Thou hast loved righteousness and hated wickedness, therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.
All thy garments smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia. Ps. 45:6-8
Followed by the last bits of the gospel accounts, as Joseph of Arimathea requests Christ’s body and buries it, and the women watching, making plans to come and anoint it after the Sabbath.
Here the deacons gather the armfuls of red roses, which were laid all day in front of the icon of the crucifixion which was placed at the front of the church, and the little girls get to help strip the petals off. The priest and deacons then make a procession around the church with an icon of the burial of Christ, which is then wrapped in the rose petals and some spices, and placed in a marble box on the altar, with a candle at either end, symbolizing Christ’s tomb, and the two angels. The men of the church then retire behind the curtains around the altar and read the entire book of Psalms through (simultaneously, to save time), while the women prepare to serve a meal of foul (fava beans) and fried falafel. The last fasting meal of the church is eaten in a festive atmosphere. We are looking forward now to the Resurrection, which will be celebrated scarcely 24 hours from now.
After this nine hour service, most people promptly go home to bed (instead of spending an hour on the internet!), in preparation for the midnight vigil service, which commemorates the Harrowing of Hell, as Christ brings his saints, from Adam and Abraham on forward, out in triumph, having cheated Satan and death, and broken the strength of our oldest enemies. If I have any energy left after this adventure, I will try to post some more. Mainly, we chant a great many hymns regarding every saint in the calendar, and read the entire book of Revelation, one chapter at a time (in case you needed any more proof that the Copts are postmillenialists at heart). There are some candles floating in aromatic oil involved, too. And a daybreak liturgy is prayed, as well. The Easter service itself will start around 8pm on Saturday (in case I’m too busy sleeping and dying Easter eggs to write before then).