Coptic Holy Bread

Coptic Holy Bread

Ever since man made bread it became essential for human life, and has become a symbol of life itself.

The word bread and meat had the same pronunciation in Hebrew and Aramaic.  Since civilization began, ancient Egyptians made special bread placing signs and seals on it. Such signs later became Christian signs such as the "Dove "and the “sign of the cross”, such signs appeared on the bread found in Akhmem, dating back to the beginning of the Christian era.  

It was known that all ancient churches (Romans, Syrians, and Armenians), which followed the Apostles rules, put different seals on the bread, which was used in the Eucharist.

Those churches shared a common Christian spiritual heritage, before the churches divided. The seal was placed on the bread before sanctification during baking, and it has a clear spiritual imprint. 

The seal in the Holy bread plays a role when dividing the holy bread during the prayer of the fraction. This is a general norm in all Coptic churches, particularly in the Coptic Orthodox Church.

The holy bread of our church is the essence of Apostolic Christian experience in understanding the Divine Liturgy and in understanding the relationship of Christ to the Church in the Eucharist.  All the symbols on the bread explain the stages of the Liturgy and our relationship with Christ in the Eucharist.

If we look at the shape of the holy bread, we will notice that the circle shape represents the universe and spiritually reflects salvation.

Christ is symbolized by the box in the middle of the Holy bread, and is called Alasbadikon, this name was derived from a Greek word which meansthe Lord- Christ himself.Christ is in its center, and around Him twelve crosses representing the twelve apostles. 

In the olden days, the Alasbadikon was referred to as the cornerstone and those who studied construction and engineering in Palestine, realize that the cornerstone mediates the dome and closes it in the shape of a cross.  The cornerstone is the last stone placed, which completes the construction and gives strength and stability to the structure.

The circle shape of the holy bread appears in the dome above the altar because it represents the universe, but here in particular it is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone.

In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in Him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by His Spirit (Ephesians 2: 20-22).

Jesus Christ is the cornerstone and the center of the church, He gathers the Apostles and the people around Him in this heavenly feast, in order to make all His sacred body, and as the St. Paul the Apostle said: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body” Paul the apostle explains the reason behind this union which converts abundance to one “for we all share the one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10: 17).

Making the holy bread:

1. Dissolve the yeast in the amount of water according to the quantity required and add the flour.  Knead thoroughly and consciously and add the water in stages until the dough is not stiff but soft, average softness is required.

2. Cut the dough into the required sizes to form the holy bread, each size has its own stamp, for example small holy bread has a different stamp than that of a large size.

The bread is then placed in large trays and is covered with a piece of cloth; preferably the cloth should be one of the church curtains – dedicating it only for the process of making holy bread. The cover should be tight so as not to dry the doughs crust, which would in turn make it unfitting to be the lamb.

3. In the order that each piece of dough was cut, it becomes stamped with the stamp that is suitably sized according to the size of the dough. For example a small dough should not be stamped with a large stamp, and the large dough for the Lamb should not be stamped with a small stamp.  The reason being is that it needs to be clear for the priest as he divides during the prayer of the fraction.  The letters, words and crosses of the stamp should be notable and clear.

The stamped bread is then placed in a large tray in the order that it was stamped and then it is left to rise.

4. After fermentation, holes are made in each bread, never make the holes before the dough rises, since this affects the yeast and its efficiency.

The holes made should be suitable to the size of the holy bread, neither large nor small that it might disappear after baking. The numbers of holes are five, three holes on the right and two on the left.

5. Good baking of the holy bread should be in a moderately heated oven; a high oven ruins the bread, and makes it unsuitable to be presented as the lamb, because the lamb must have no faults.

A high temperature oven makes the holy bread dry and crusty from the outside, and small pieces end up dropping onto the tray.

Reasons for the pieces that fall from the Holy bread are:

a. Exposure of the dough to air for a long time before baking. 
b. Baking before completion of the fermentation period.
c. Not kneading the dough well
d. Baking over high heat. 

Jesus promised His pure disciples to give them the Holy Communion, and He has prepared their minds for this event when He said to them, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51)    

According to the teachings of the church, the following Conditions should be followed when making the Holy Bread:

1.    To be made from pure wheat flour. 
2.    To be well leavened. 
3.    To be considered special bread 
4.    To be free of salt.

The Shape of the holy bread:

1.    Should be made round shaped as the sun, which emits heat, warmth, and light, as when we take Holy Communion we are filled with the grace emitted from the sun of righteous- Jesus Christ as the light of Christ shines within us, and expels the darkness of sin from our lives.  The circle also refers to the eternal Lord Jesus Christ and to eternity (unlimited) as the circle has no beginning and no end. 

So is our Lord Jesus Christ – He has no beginning nor end, and is existing since eternity and remains forever, He described himself saying “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end”.

2.    The five holes: The five holes in the holy bread refer to Christ’s wounds, the two holes in his hands, the hole in his feet, the stabbing of the spear on his side, and the thorn crown.

Three holes on the right and two holes on the left are made on the holy bread, and are then left for fermentation.  This is an indication that after Christ was hanged on the cross he carried our sins with him; it’s then backed in the oven where the fire is a sign of the pain that Christ has suffered.

Also the five holes are made to avoid any crackles during baking, so that the holy bread has no faults as Jesus Christ is perfect.

These holes also remind us about God’s deep love for us, even though we are full of many sins, He gave us his torn body holed with nails, to eat, and gave us His blood, which shed from His wounds to drink, and to live by them eternal life.

3.    A middle cross surrounded by twelve crosses: cut the dough to form the bread and stamp the middle with a large cross and then stamp twelve small crosses around the large cross.  These represent the twelve disciples – the nucleus of the first church, and Jesus Christ himself the cornerstone.

The large centered cross refers to Jesus Christ, therefore the part of the holy bread that holds this cross in the middle is called "Alasbadikon", and this part is the piece which the priest puts in the goblet.  He uses it to make the sign of the cross on the body three times during the last part of the Divine Liturgy, then he returns this section back into the goblet until the time of Holy Communion.  

While the twelve crosses surrounding the middle cross refers to the twelve Disciples of Christ, this indicates the existence of Jesus Christ always amidst His disciples.  While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” (Lk 24: 36)

4.    The three sanctifications: Around the large cross surrounded by the twelve crosses is a circle with the words "Holy God" written on it.  This means Holy God (three times) as if Christ is surrounding His church in the world, being in the middle so that it will never be shaken.

The three sanctifications "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy immortal who does not die” is written in a circular motion around the holy bread.

This is the prayer we say in each hour of the Psalms (Agpeya), and before reading the Bible in the Divine Liturgy. So what we eat is actually the body of Christ, the Son of God.