The Altar and the Ciborium/Canopy
The English word 'Altar' is derived from the Latin word 'Altare', which means the place or the sculpture upon which sacrifices are slain. Other names for the Altar e.g. table (the Table of the Lord) and 'Mazbah' in Arabic.
The Altar material can be made of wood, stone, or metal.
The Coptic Altar takes the shape of approximately a cube, which resembles the Tomb of the Lord.
It must be hollow so that relics of saints can be kept inside or beneath it. Nevertheless, recent trends tend to keep these relics in a container next to the icon of the saint to enable the people to kiss it and receive their blessing.
In the Coptic Church, the choir is usually raised three steps above the rest of the Nave, while the sanctuary is often raised one step above the choir.
The Altar is never raised above the sanctuary, but is fitted directly on its ground, as directed by the divine commandment. (Exod. 20 : 26).
The Altar is consecrated by a bishop who anoints it by Chrism. The Liturgy of the Eucharist can be temporarily held on an un-consecrated Altar as long as a consecrated Altar-Board is placed upon it.
The Altar must not be left without coverings, which often consist of three layers:
I. The first cloth covers the Altar completely from all sides, and is decorated with four crosses (one at each corner) or just a big cross in the centre. The most commonly employed material, in the Coptic rite, is the white linen as an indication of purity, but in recent times red cotton velvet is sometimes used.
II. A white linen cover is placed on the above, which hangs only about 15 cm. from the Altar surface.
III. The third layer is used only during the celebration of the Liturgy of Eucharist to cover the Holy Gifts, and is called 'Prospharine' derived from the Greek word 'prosphora', i.e., 'oblation'. It represents the stone that the angel rolled away from the Tomb of Christ. After the prayer of Reconciliation, the priest and the deacon lift it up from its place and shake it so that the little jingles attached to its edges produce audible sounds. It resembles the earthquake that took place during the resurrection of Christ.
The Altar has held a distinct sanctity ever since the Early Church. Nothing is placed on it, apart from the Holy Elements, the sacred vessels and the Gospel.
As for candlesticks, one is placed on the right side of the Altar, and the other on the opposite side. They refer to the two angels guarding the Lord's Tomb.
On the surface of the Coptic Altar, an oblong rectangular slot is engraved to a depth of about 2.5 cm., in which a consecrated Altar-Board is loosely embedded. The Board is generally made of wood, or rarely of marble, upon which the following are painted:
• A Cross or a number of crosses.
• The first and last Greek letters, A & W
• Occasionally few selected psalms such as (Ps. 86 (87): 1, 2) or (Ps. 83: 3)
The majority of the main Coptic Altars, and sometimes the side ones, are surmounted by a wooden or stone canopy, which rests upon four pillars of stone or marble. It is known as the Ciborium; a term that is probably derived from the Greek word 'Kiborion', which originally meant the hollow seed case of the Egyptian water lily. Later, the term was applied to drinking cups because of the similarity in shape between them, and eventually it was adopted by the church for the above- mentioned canopy which takes the shape of the bowl of a cup.
More widely, this term is now commonly employed in the liturgical terminology to designate:
– The structure that is mentioned above.
– The covering suspended over the bishop's throne.
– The dome-shaped vessel that is used to contain the holy communion for the sick.
Although the Coptic Altar is bare, devoid of any ornament or painting, the Coptic Ciborium is generally rich in paintings on both the interior and exterior surfaces.
The icon of the Lord, surrounded by the Cherubim and the Seraphim often occupies the center of the dome, for it represents the heaven of heavens in which the Lord and His heavenly creatures dwell.
Icons of the four Evangelists are painted on the four pillars; as if the four corners of the universe are sanctified by the word of the Gospel.
On the top, a large Cross is mounted in the centre of the Ciborium and sometimes another four crosses are mounted on the sides, so that they all refer to the five wounds of the Lord.