What are Coptic Hymns?
Coptic Hymns are deep, harmonic and well-defined songs meant to express the innermost emotions of the praising spirit.
– They are sung in mainly Coptic (thus most people may not understand)
– They have unique tunes, tones and pitch
– The tunes can be categorised into 6 categories (Joyful, Mournful, Annual, Palm Sunday, Lent, Kiahk/Advent) to match the fasts and feasts of the Church
– Some hymns are melismatic (a group of notes sung to one syllable of text) and thus take longer time to sing
– Some Coptic hymns are praises to God, glorifications of Saints, taken from Old Testament or New Testament readings, etc.
Pascha Week Hymns
Pascha Week is the most Holy Week in the Church calendar. It takes us through Christ’s journey of suffering and carrying our sins and leads us to finding joy in Eternal life with Him through His Resurrection. The rites of the Pascha week reflect this journey from the last Friday of Lent until Easter Sunday. The hymns of the Church become deep, complex and sometimes with a paradox. One who observes the hymns carefully will benefit a great deal of spirituality emerging from their deep words and tunes. The Church has chosen these hymns as they may reflect theological concepts, orthodox teachings and important spiritual messages as they should trigger our feelings throughout Christ’s journey to the Cross and beyond the Resurrection.
A very obvious way to benefit from the Coptic hymns of Pascha is to learn them and practice singing them before Pascha week arrives, but this is not practical for everyone. Unfortunately, some people use this as an excuse and just ignore the Coptic hymns during the week and make no effort to gain from them. Coptic hymns exist not only to serve and benefit Priests and Deacons, they are there for everyone’s benefit. In fact, one who does not regard the hymns of the Church, miss out a great deal! Below are some ways we can all benefit from Coptic hymns during Pascha:
1. Read the words of the hymns, carefully and with understanding!
This is the most important!
“For God is the King of all the earth; Sing praises with understanding.” – Psalm 47:7
“I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding.” – 1 Corinthians 14:15
The absolute minimum requirement is to understand and know the words of the hymns being sung. Some questions you may ask yourself – Is there theology? Does it tell a story? Is there a prophecy?
Theology in the hymn “Omonogenees” (O Only Begotten Son) which is sung on 6th hour of Good Friday the Greek word “Atreptos” is repeated 3 times – it means “unchanged” – stressing that Jesus did not change – an Orthodox Christian belief.
During Judas’ hymn sung on Maundy Thursday, the Deacons lead the procession in the opposite way, walk backwards and even play the cymbals backwards reflecting Judas’ great loss in going the wrong way by denying Christ. The hymn tells the story of Barabbas the thief, Lazarus whom Christ raised from the dead and also mentions the prophecy of Jonah in the belly of the whale.
“Golgotha” – the final hymn of the 12th hour of the Good Friday Service includes many theological concepts as well as the story of Joseph and Nicodemus. It mentions that Joseph and Nicodemus were the first to say the trisagion – Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός, Ἅγιος ἰσχυρός, Ἅγιος ἀθάνατος, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς” (Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us). Our Coptic Orthodox Church believes the roots of this ancient hymn originated from Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who said it while taking the body of Christ off the Cross and as he saw Christ’s eyes open. It also stresses that Christ’s Divinity did not part from His humanity. This is very important, as they were astonished at how the God-man (Jesus) can die, we too should marvel at this great act of love; that Jesus died for us to live!
There are many more things we can learn from the words of the Paschal hymns, here’s a recommended reading from my friend Sam’s blog on the Paschal hymn “Pekethronos” and it’s theology > http://gloryandrubbish.wordpress.com/2012/04/06/your-throne-o-god-the-theology-of-pek-ethronos-24/
2. The significance of the melismatic tunes
We can take note of the significance of the long melismatic tunes in hymns if we read the words carefully. If a hymn is very long in tune, but very short in words – how significant must it be!? For example; the hymn “Pekethronos” is the psalm sung in the 12th hour of Good Friday. As we don’t sing it in the tune of “Kai Epertou” (like all the other psalms during the week) all the deacons stand and sing together;
“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; Alleluia.
A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. Alleluia” – Psalm 45
There is a significant time spent on the words “forever and ever.” It has a very repetitive tune which is supposed to make us feel like “forever and ever” indeed! We can thus contemplate on this while singing it. Because of it’s repetitive tune, it is also not hard to keep up with the deacons… I’m not saying it’s easy to learn, but it’s not too hard either – give it a go!
3. The tune, tone and pitch of the hymn
In Pascha week it becomes obvious that most/all of the hymns are in a mournful tune. For example, the annual hymns and readings such as the Pauline Epistle, Psalms, Gospels, the Trisagion hymn (“Agios Otheos“), the hymn of the censor (“Tai Shouri“), etc are chanted in the mournful tune during Pascha. The tunes of the hymns are important as they help us express our feelings – therefore, we should pay attention! If we are not feeling a little mournful through being at Church and just reading the readings and trying to keep up with understanding them, perhaps through listening to the hymns we have the time to contemplate on Christ’s suffering and what it means for us.
So if we listen to the tune of “Pekethronos” for example, we can note that it came from the ancient Egyptian burial hymn that the Pharoahs would sing if someone who was considered royalty died. The tune begins in the mournful tone and ends in a victorious, triumphal tone. The change in tone indicated the Pharoah’s sadness at the person’s death but happiness in knowing that they will have an afterlife with the sun god, Ra. The tune was later adapted and originated at the 1st Church in Jerusalem in the 1st Century at the time of St. James the Disciple. It thus mimics our feelings at the 12th hour of Good Friday – we are saddened by the suffering our Lord Jesus Christ went through but relieved at His triumph over evil, carrying our sins for us and thus granting us Eternal life with Him through His crucifixion!
There are many examples where the tune, tone and pitch of Coptic hymns reflect and trigger our feelings, such as Bright Saturday – some of the hymns are half mournful and half annual/joyful!? Weird and awesome!
4. The Pascha Praise
To You is the power, the glory, the blessing, and honour, forever Amen. Emmanuel our God and our King.
To You is the power, the glory, the blessing, and honour, forever Amen. O my Lord Jesus Christ my good Saviour. The Lord is my strength, my praise, and has become my salvation.
To You is the power, the glory, the blessing, and honour, forever Amen.
The Pascha praise is the most important hymn of the Pascha Week. We should all know the words, the meaning of the them and spend time contemplating on it.
Why do we repeat it so many times?
– 12 times in each hour replacing the 12 Psalms in each hour of the Agpia (Prayer book of the 7 Canonical hours)
– 5 times in the morning, 5 times at night – instead of the canonical hours of the Agpia
However, it doesn’t just replace Agpia prayers – it’s repetitive because the words are powerful and very important. This is highlighted in HH Pope Shenouda III’s book – “Contemplations on the Prayer of the Holy Week” which can be found here: http://tasbeha.org/content/hh_books/Thinpowr/index.html
Thine Is the POWER – “If the Cross had been a sign of weakness, it would have never been our boast and we should have never taken it as our symbol.” – HH Pope Shenouda III
Thine is the GLORY – HH Pope Shenouda highlights Christ’s glory in Christ’s life – all the miracles He did, His baptism, transfiguration on the mount, His Birth, EVERYTHING!
Thine is the BLESSING – Once again Pope Shenouda in his book talks about the blessings Christ gave to us and the whole world, the unlimited blessings to all generations…
Thine is the HONOUR – A contemplation from Pope Shenouda’s book – “And though You (Christ) refused the worldly reign, You reign over the hearts and Your Kingdom is within us. Even those who did not give You their hearts feared you.”
Starting from the Eleventh hour on Tuesday, “my good Saviour” is added after the second paragraph of “Thok Te ti-gom.” This is a symbol of the Lord starting His passion, for on Wednesday, the Chief priests and the scribes discussed arresting and killing Jesus.
Furthermore, starting from the First hour of Good Friday Eve we add the words “the Lord is my strength, my praise, and has become my salvation.” commemorating the beginning of Christ’s journey to the Cross after His arrest and farewelling His disciples.
The way the Pascha Praise is sung in Church consists of two groups of deacons. They respond to each other and resemble the angels in Heaven that continually praise God with the same hymn. We don’t need to sing it 12 times at a time, we should sing it every second time (in accordance with 1 group of deacons) and in between we can pray the Lord’s prayer “Our Father” silently, slowly and with contemplation until it is time for us again to repeat the Pascha Praise.
Summary / tips:
1. Read the words carefully and with understanding
2. Melismatic hymns are long for a reason – they may stress theological concepts and spiritual messages of great importance
3. The tunes, tones and the pitch reflect and trigger our emotions and how we are supposed to feel
4. The Pascha Praise is repeated because it’s the most important!
5. Personalise Pascha Week – bring your own book, highlight or underline the important words and concepts, make indications about the tunes of the hymns
6. Do not ignore the hymns by reading a spiritual book or being idle as your mind may wonder. You would rather re-read the readings that you did not fully understand or reflect on the hymns (and you can read the Spiritual book at home.)
7. Book recommendation “Christ in the Psalms” by Patrick H Reardon – You can read the one page spiritual contemplation on the psalm that is being sung, while it is being sung in Church
The Lord Christ left Jerusalem to Bethany, were we follow Him, saying,“Thine is the Power, the Glory, the Blessing.” The Chief Priests were annoyed when the Lord cleared the Temple, and said “By what authority are you doing these things?” But we say, “Thine is the Power, the Glory, the Blessing, and the Majesty, Emmanuel our God and our King.” They planned to kill Him while we defend Him saying, “Thine is the Power, the Glory,the Blessing.” The Lord in humility, bent to wash the Disciples’ feet, and we praise Him saying, “Thine is the Power and the Glory, the Blessing and the Majesty.”The Lord prayed at Gethsemane in such agony that Hissweat became as drops of blood and we proclaim, “Thine is the Power and the Glory, the Blessing and the Majesty.”We follow Him hour by hour; when arrested, put under trial in the presence of His enemies, crowned with thorns, flogged, falling under the Cross, nailed, till He commended His Spirit into the handsof the Father and when He took the robber on His right with Him into Paradise, and we continually chantunto Him the hymn, “Thine is the Power and the Glory, the Blessing and the Majesty, forever Amen ” – HH Pope Shenouda III
Please leave any comments or questions you may have and I will try and reply to the best of my ability.
I wish you a very blessed and holy Pascha week. May we all benefit from the amazing rites of our Coptic Orthodox Church through the readings, the psalms and the hymns which were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Further reading recommendations:
http://www.copticheritage.org/rites – Scroll down to Pascha Week, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, etc…
http://tasbeha.org/hymn_library/cat/38 – Browse through the words of the hymns in English, Coptic and Arabic! (Some transliterations are included)
http://tasbeha.org/mp3/Hymns/Holy_Week.html – Listen to the Holy Week Hymns, this includes a great selection from different Churches
http://www.davidensemble.com/english/book/ChapterVI.pdf – Scroll and browse to the contemplations and explanations of Golgotha(2) and Agios (8)