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What Language Is This? Coptic Comes to Christmas

A new song highlights a growing interest outside the Egyptian church in reviving an ancient language of the Christian world.
What Language Is This? Coptic Comes to Christmas
Image: Screengrab / Calvary-St. George's Episcopal Church on Vimeo
New music premiered at the candlelight service at Calvary-St. George's Episcopal Church on Dec. 4, 2022.

The darkened New York church was packed with almost 1,000 congregants holding candles, as a group of six singers sang out Christmas news in an ancient language few New Yorkers had ever heard.

Shere Veth-le-em, etpolis enni-epro-feetees, the-etav-mes Pikhrestos en-khets, pi-mah esnav en-Adam,” they sang at Calvary-St. George Episcopal Church’s candlelight service. “Eksmaro-ot alethos, nem Pekiot enagha-thos, nem Pi-epnevma ethowab, ge avmask aksoti emmon. Nai nan.”

The choir was performing a new song by composer Laura Jobin-Acosta in the Coptic language, which is nearly extinct except for where it pops up in Coptic liturgy. It is very unusual to have new art in Coptic and in a Protestant worship service, say Coptic leaders.

Calvary-St. George’s music director, Kamel Boutros, was born in Egypt and grew up in the evangelical church there. He wept as he conducted the new song at the service.

“I felt God’s presence,” said Boutros. “I felt Jesus’ love for every single soul in that space. I hadn’t felt something like that for years.”

An ancient language that originated before Christ and incorporates hieroglyphics and Greek, Coptic is a term that also applies to the earliest Christians in first century Egypt. The growth of the language coincided with the growth of Christianity there. The country’s Coptic Orthodox Church is its oldest church, but today in Egypt, Christians across traditions—both Orthodox believers and evangelical Protestants—identify themselves as Copts.

The Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 600s eventually established Arabic as the predominant language instead of Coptic. Today there are almost no native speakers of the Coptic language, similar to another language of the ancient Christian world: Aramaic.

In recent years, some in the Coptic Orthodox Church have tried to revive this ancient language. In 2021, the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of London began offering weekly Coptic language classes over Zoom. The interest in the language has grown as the diasporic Coptic church has grown: In 1971, there were two Coptic churches in the United States, and now there are more than 200.

Father Gregory Saroufeem, who leads the sole Coptic parish in Manhattan and whose parents immigrated to the US from Egypt, was at the candlelight service and saw the new song as one piece of evidence that Coptic culture has “ventured out” to the rest of the world. His church uses Coptic and English liturgy.

“It was special to hear the Coptic language sung by a non-Copt,” Saroufeem told CT, adding that it was “done perfectly.” He helped the composer and choir with the pronunciations and transliteration. He and Boutros got to know one another through a local nonprofit that supports a community of garbage collectors, largely Christian, in Egypt.

The song, “Shere Veth-le-em,” is based on a line from a Coptic hymn, set to new music. The church projected a translation on the wall: “Hail to Bethlehem, the city of the prophets, where Christ was born, the second Adam. Blessed are You indeed, with Your good Father and the Holy Spirit, for You were born and saved us. Have mercy upon us.”

Usually the Coptic language remains within Coptic liturgical services or in academic discussions, Saroufeem said. He knew of only one or two people elsewhere who had composed worship music in the Coptic language.

Coptic churches around the US have been doing language courses for youth for decades, according to Phoebe Farag Mikhail, a Coptic Christian who has studied and taught the language at a church in New Jersey. Farag Mikhail noted that numerous societies are dedicated to the preservation of the language, with the most well-known being the International Association for Coptic Studies.

Michael Akladios, a historian at the University of Toronto, told New Lines magazine this year that there is a growing interest in the Coptic language, partly related to increasing oppression of Christian communities in Egypt within the last decade.

Boutros, the music director, said using Coptic at the New York Christmas service was not primarily about highlighting oppression of Egyptian Christians. He wanted to use an ancient, unfamiliar language in a service marking Christ’s birth more than 2,000 years ago because he thought it would catch the congregation’s ear and allow them to “see the text again.”

When he thought of this idea a few weeks before the candlelight service, Boutros contacted Jobin-Acosta, a composer and longtime member of the church who regularly helps with worship. He asked her about setting some music she had recently written—a Latin liturgy, “Agnus Dei”—to a Coptic text. She was thrilled.

“Setting an ancient sacred text—who would pass that up?” she told CT. “What better way to preserve [Coptic] than with the universal language of music?”

Boutros said Coptic music is traditionally melismatic, where every syllable has lots of notes. When he heard Jobin-Acosta’s original piece, he heard melisma and thought it would fit a Coptic Christmas song well.

As Saroufeem and Boutros worked on the text, Jobin-Acosta made rhythmic and harmonic changes to her music to support the text. Her original piece was written as a lament, but she changed it because the Coptic text was “praising.”

As a soprano, she sang the song with five others. Boutros noted that usually Coptic chants come from male leaders, so it was unusual to have female voices leading a song in Coptic.

When we go to church, we’re coming from vastly different backgrounds and lives,” said Jobin-Acosta. “But we come and do this very vulnerable and humbling process of worshiping together. … It’s not perfect, but it works because the dissonance itself is beautiful.”

At the service, Boutros was overwhelmed by her piece.

“There is this hesitation in the words: b-b-born, s-s-savior,” he said. “When you’re spiritually shocked, your voice doesn’t speak like it’s straightforward: … ‘The angels we have heard on high—it was nice.’ It’s just ‘Ahh!’ She brought that.”

This particular church has a rich music history, with Black composer and soloist Harry Burleigh on staff from 1894 to his retirement in 1946. Along with other vocal compositions, Burleigh arranged many African American spirituals that were among the first to be performed in concerts in the US. Boutros was a singer with the Met Opera, and many top musicians in the city are drawn to Calvary-St. George’s.

“I would love not just to do music in Coptic [but in] a lot of languages that have been annihilated for one reason or another that were used by Christians,” said Boutros. “I would love to find something completely in Aramaic to do—things that were the sounds of those days.”

For the candlelight service, the church asked Saroufeem to come and read Matthew 2:1–15, about the Magi and Jesus and his family escaping to Egypt. Saroufeem concluded in the half darkness of the church, “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’”

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