Should your church “go Coptic” on Christmas Eve?
I love Christmas – and all the Christmas services. Yet, in the memory all too often one special service merges into another, and none really stands out.
So, this question arises: How might we create a truly memorable Christmas Eve service?
In respect of the Christmas Eve service, I suggest that this year churches consider doing away with their cubes of bread and their unleavened wafers and instead “go Coptic.”
The fact is that the small tasteless “cubes” of bread favored by many Free Churches and the equally tasteless wafers favored by Anglican churches have become poor substitutes for the bread that Jesus took and broke in the upper room.
It is so much more powerful to have a real loaf of bread to break and share, yet even that symbolism can become a little dull.
By contrast, last month I was astonished when I took part in a Coptic “mass.” Let me explain.
My wife, Caroline, and I were visiting an ancient church in Cairo. We went there as sightseers, not as worshippers, but discovered a communion service was taking place.
We stood to one side, watching – and not understanding a word. Suddenly, we were beckoned over and invited to go forward and receive the bread.
To our amazement, the priest, having checked that we were indeed Christians, broke a huge Egyptian flatbread and gave one half to Caroline and one half to me.
Unlike Free Church cubes and Anglican wafers, which cannot even satisfy a robin, this was a real meal – for the next five minutes we were busy “chomping” as we worked our way through the bread. The broken bread truly satisfied.
In a new way, I was reminded afresh of the words of Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Jesus satisfies our hunger for God.
This was a service that I will never forget. So, were I still in pastoral charge of a church, I would experiment one Christmas Eve with the Coptic way of breaking bread.
For those who want to bake their own bread, there are instructions available online about how to make Egyptian flatbreads.
Alternatively, one could simply buy a stack of bagels or pita bread, and in turn break each bagel or pita bread in half.
Word and sacrament go, of course, together. Although John 6 is not normally regarded as a passage for preaching on at Christmas, it links with the message of the incarnation, as also with the sacrament: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).
Here is a great text on which to preach the good news – and how much that is needed on Christmas Eve. In my experience, the Christmas Eve service tends to be patronized by more non-Christians than any other church service.
This is a great opportunity to point out, in the words of Adolf Schlatter, that “what we have to do with his flesh and blood is not chew and swallow, but that we recognize in his crucified body and poured out blood the ground of our life, that we hang our faith and hope on that body and blood and draw from there our thinking and willing.”
“Going Coptic” could make for a truly memorable Christmas Eve.
Paul Beasley-Murray retired after 21 years of ministry as the senior minister of Central Baptist Church in Chelmsford in the United Kingdom. He is currently serving as the chairman and general editor of Ministry Today U.K. and as the chairman of the College of Baptist Ministers. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including “Living Out the Call,” a four-volume series on pastoral ministry. His writings can be found at PaulBeasleyMurray.com, where readers can register to receive his weekly blog post. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission.