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The Coptic cycle of canonical hours is primarily composed of psalm readings from the Old Testament and gospel readings from the New Testament, with some added hymns of praise, troparia (known as "قطع" in the contemporary Arabic Agpeya and as "preces" or "litanies" in English),and other prayers. The Agpeya is the Coptic "Prayer Book of the Hours", and is equivalent to the Byzantine Horologion and Roman Liturgy of the Hours used by the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches, respectively. The Agpeya prayers are popular prayers recited by both individuals and families at home, as well as for communal prayers as an introduction to mass at church. The vast majority of the Copts learn the recitation and prayers of the Agpeya at an early age as children at home from their families.
It includes seven canonical hours, which to a great extent correspond to the Byzantine order, with an additional "Prayer of the Veil" which is usually recited by Bishops, Priests, and Monks,(something like the Byzantine Midnight Office). The Coptic terms for 'Matins' and 'Vespers' are 'The Morning Raising of Incense' and 'The Evening Raising of Incense' respectively.
The hours are chronologically laid out, each containing a theme corresponding to events in the life of Jesus Christ:
- "The Midnight Praise" (said in the early morning before dawn) commemorates the Second Coming of Christ. It consists of three watches, corresponding to the three stages of Christ's prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane ( Matthew 25:1-13 ).
- Prime (Morning Raising of Incense): is said upon awaking up in the morning or after the Midnight Praise the previous night. The vast majority of the Copts recite this prayer upon waking up in the morning. It symbolises Jesus Christ's incarnation, death and Resurrection.
- Terce (9 a.m.) reminds us of three events, Christ’s trial by Pilate, his ascension to the heavens and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples at Pentecost.
- Sext (noon) commemorates the Passion of Christ.
- Terce and Sext are prayed before each Divine Liturgy.
- None (3 p.m.) commemorates the death of Christ on the Cross. This hour is also recited during fasting days.
- Evening Raising of Incense (Vespers)(sunset) commemorates the taking down of Christ from the Cross.
- Compline (9 p.m. - before bedtime) commemorates the burial of Christ, and the Final Judgment.
- Vespers and Compline are both recited before the Liturgy during Lent and the fast of Nineveh.
- The "Cetar" or Veil is usually recited by bishops, priests and monks, as a form of the examination of conscience. Some individuals and families also elect to recite it as a part of their daily devotions at home.
Most of the Copts tend to recite the "contemporary" Agpeya prayers or parts thereof in Arabic, however its English translations are also available in print and digital format for the Copts living in English-speaking countries, and a French translation is also available. The British scholar O.H.E. Burmester edited and published a scholastic work based on a "historical" Agpeya dated to the 13th/14th century AD, "The Horologion of the Egyptian Church", in Egypt in 1973. It was published in two versions a trilingual "English,Coptic and Arabic" version and a "Coptic only" version. A bilingual contemporary "Coptic and Arabic" Agpeya was also edited and published in Egypt in 1975 by S. Pisada. A limited-edition of the "contemporary" Agpeya, dedicated to the Theotokos Saint Mary in commemoration of the apparitions of our Lady of Zeitoun, was edited by E. Rizkalla, and published in the USA in 2014.
Every one of the Hours follows the same basic outline:
- Introduction, which includes the Lord’s Prayer
- Prayer of Thanksgiving
- Psalm 51 (In some Agpeyas, it is referred to as Psalm 50 according to the Septuagint).
- Various Psalms
- A reading from the Holy Gospel
- Short Litanies
- "Lord Have Mercy" is then chanted 41 times (This represents the 39 lashes Jesus Christ received before the crucifixion, plus one for the crown of thorns, plus one for the spear in his side.)