An Explanation of Atai Parthenos

Introduction to the Hymn

This hymn is dedicated to St. Mary and chanted during St. Mary’s fast, the month of Kiahk, St. Mary’s feast days and monthly commemorations, although there are no restrictions around chanting it throughout the year.

One of the things that makes this hymn special is it focuses on St. Mary through the lens of the Old Testament.  Of the hymns that are chanted for St. Mary from the Old Testament, there are 3 groups:

  1. St. Mary as the Tabernacle
  2. St. Mary as seen in the Song of Songs
  3. St. Mary as seen in the Psalms – Atai Parthenos is in this group.

This Hymn contains ten prophecies about St. Mary, 1 for each string on the harp.  It starts with a short introductory tune that sets up the musical notation for the whole hymn.

Intro Stanza

Today, this Virgin has received honor. /

Today, this bride has received glory. /

She who is clothed in golden fringes / embroidered in many colors.

It is important to note that the whole Church is the bride of Christ.  Every human soul that draws near to Christ, is the bride of Christ.  St. Mary is an example to us all in her purity – if we want to become the bride of Christ, we must be pure as St. Mary modeled this virtue.

After the introduction, each paragraph is musically divided into 2 parts: the first resembling a question, and the second resembling an answer.  The first half contains the question, and the second half contains the prophecy about St. Mary as David the Prophet captures in the psalms.

When David the Prophet became King, he wanted to make a stationary place for God amongst His people; and had chosen Jerusalem.  He wanted to build a great house for God among the Israelites.  In the psalms, David chanted about the House of God consistently, and specifically as the dwelling of God among His people.

God asked Moses to build the Tabernacle so that He may dwell among His people.  The Tabernacle moved around until the time of David who made it stationary, then Solomon finally built the temple.  The connection between David and his psalms, and St. Mary is clear through this: as God dwelt among His people, He also dwelt in St. Mary, in order to be among us (Emmanuel: God with us).  As the Tabernacle was the dwelling place of God, the womb of St. Mary became the dwelling place of God Incarnate.

How can we be like St. Mary & accept the dwelling of God in us?

God dwells in us from the moment of our baptism.  We must resemble St. Mary and her virtues.  We can simply begin with her first virtue, in her response to the Annunciation: “behold I am the maidservant of Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38)– the life of humility and acceptance of God’s will.  This is simply a starting point; we can take each of the virtues of St. Mary and emulate her in our daily lives by taking daily steps and actions to grow in each virtue to resemble her.

Lyrics and Meditation of Hymn

First String

Plucking the first string of his harp / David cried out, saying /

“The queen did stand / at Your right hand, O King.”

“At Your right hand stands the Queen O King.” (Ps. 45:9)

The right resembles the state of power.  She sat at the right hand of Christ so that she may intercede for us.  In all our Coptic Icons, we see St. Mary at the right of Christ.  She, being at the right hand of God, is a reflection on us.  We need her prayers on our behalf.  She is a source of power for all of us, at the right hand of God, interceding on our behalf.  There is a story about a man who lived in a different country than his daughter, and he wanted to go visit her.  There were issues and delays with documentation to allow for him to travel, and the processing was taking a while.  He interceded to St. Mary saying, “you are constantly sitting next to your Son, but I am unable to go and see my daughter, please remember me before our Lord.”  The next day he received permission to travel to see his daughter.

Second String

Plucking the second string of his harp / he cried out, saying /

“Hear, O Daughter and behold, and incline your ear; /

Forget your people and all your father’s house.”

“Listen O daughter consider and incline your ear. Forget your own people also and your father’s house.” (Ps. 45:10)

This verse is also chanted during the Sacrament of Matrimony and the same commandment is given to both the bridegroom and bride during the Sacrament of Matrimony.  The verse, in the context of Matrimony, is to signify the change in the priorities of both the man and the woman, after their marriage.  Before the wedding, both the bride and the groom’s priorities are their parents, and their fathers’ house.  Once the sacrament takes place, the biblical command is to prioritize their new house, so that they may be fruitful and establish a new church within their home. As it pertains to St. Mary, when the Annunciation took place, St. Mary’s response was “behold I am the maidservant of Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).  She, as the bride of Christ, left behind what was in the past, and accepted her new role in God’s plan moving forward, as an example for us to live a life of submission to God’s will and plan.

Third String

Plucking the third string of his harp / he cried out, saying /

“All the glory of the King’s Daugher is within /

clothed in golden fringers, embroided in many colors.”

“The royal daughter is all glorious within her clothing is woven with gold.” (Ps. 45:13)

To understand this verse, we must look to the Tabernacle.  When we examine the exterior of the Tabernacle, we see a tent, like many of the tents surrounding it – nothing on its exterior was adorned.  Its glory was on the inside: decorated with gold throughout.  This is the lesson for us.  We must focus on our spirit and internal relationship with God.

When we live a Godly life, and all our thoughts and actions are in accordance to God’s will, this is the internal glory that God wishes to see in us as temples for Him.  And when we are truly temples of God on the inside, it will show externally.

Fourth String

Plucking the fourth string of his harp / he cried out, saying /

“Virgins shall be presented / to the King behind her.”

 “Virgins shall enter to the King after her.” (Ps. 45:14)

There is an image that David the Prophet wants to paint for us in this Psalm.  This is to teach us that good deeds attract others.  “Fill your heart with peace, and others will be saved among you” – a saying from of the Church Fathers.  We are all to act like magnets, attracting others to God through our lives of obedience, virtue, patience, peace, submission to God, and all the virtues St. Mary exemplified for us.

St. Mary in her image of purity, obedience, and submission, attracts thousands to Christ to follow in her virtues.

Fifth String

Plucking the fifth string of his harp / he cried out, saying /

“Great is the Lord, and greatly blessed is He /

in the city of our God, upon His holy mountain.”

“Great is our Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in His holy mountain.” (Ps. 48:1) “Great… and greatly to be praised”

God’s greatness is the cause for our praise.  We praise God for the greatness of His Love for us.

The “city of our God” – Jerusalem, was built on multiple mountains, physically elevated.  Many of the psalms talk about the height, and elevation of Jerusalem, literally.  Figuratively, this is to remind us that if we want to offer God praise, or thanksgiving, or acceptable sacrifices, we must ascend, and elevate our hearts to God.

We raise our hearts and eyes to God in prayer and thanksgiving, removing our attention from earth and its obstacles and pains, and bring our attention up to God “in His holy mountain.”  We praise God, the praise due to His Greatness, raising our voices and our hearts to God.

Sixth String

Plucking the sixth string of his harp / he cried out, saying /
“Wings of a dove covered with silver embroidery /
And her neck with garlands of gold.”

Seventh String

Plucking the seventh string of his harp / he cried out, saying /

“The mountain of God, the mountain enriched; /

The mountain congealed, the mountain enriched.”

“The mountain of God is the mountain of Bashan. A mountain of many peaks is the mountain of Bashan. (Ps. 68:15)”

There are many mountains around Jerusalem. The mount of Moraya, where the temple was built.  The mount of Zion, where David built the tabernacle.  Golgotha, the mount of olives, were also mountains.  God loved these areas as they are elevated from the earth.  You cannot just get to the top of a mountain automatically; you must climb and elevate yourself.  If you want to live with God, you must elevate yourself, your thoughts, your vision, and your heart to the Heavens.

Eighth String

Plucking the eight string of his harp / he cried out, saying /

“His foundations are in the holy mountains; /

The Lord loves the gates of Zion.”

Ninth String

Plucking the ninth string of his harp / he cried out, saying /
“Glorious things have spoken of you / O city of God.”

Tenth String

Plucking the tenth string of his harp / he cried out, saying /

“the Lord has chosen Zion; /

He has adopted for her a dwelling for Himself.”

“His foundation is in the holy mountains. The Lord loves the gates of Zion.” (Ps. 87:1, 2); “For the Lord has chosen Zion. He has desired it for His habitation.” (Ps. 132:13)

The first mount, the mount of Zion is where David built the Tabernacle and made it stationary, as a dwelling place for God amongst His People.  This is also where St. Mark’s upper room was: where God offered Himself during the Last Supper, and where the Holy Spirit descended on His disciples and the first Church was established.  The same psalm is chanted during Holy Lent in the hymn nefsenti, and both times it is chanted with the same goal: to remind us to elevate ourselves, and struggle in the ascent towards God that we may be in His presence.

The physical building of the Church also mirrors the words of this verse and displays this theme of elevation, as the first chorus in the nave of the Church is a few steps higher than the second chorus.  Likewise, the sanctuary is also elevated one or two additional steps than the first chorus.  We gradually ascend higher and higher, as we get closer to God, step by step.  In lent, it is a journey of repentance and ascent away from sin to the Cross on the mount of Golgotha, and to the Resurrection, and to the dwelling of God in us, just as He dwelt in His Holy mountains.

Composition & Music of the Hymn

  1. Introduction: we hear “atai” twice and “thai” once. These words mean “Today this..”: Today this Virgin; today this bride…  The beginning of the hymn is very solemn – chanted as if to say “listen and pay attention to the following…”
  2. There are 2 halves of each verse: the first half states “He moved the (x)th string from his harp proclaiming and saying…” followed by the second half contains the psalm prophesy about St. Mary. The second half starts with the word “Je”. The tune of the coptic “Je…”: it ascends as an introduction – as the Coptic word “je” simply resembles a colon in our language today.
  3. The tune of the word “Kithara” which means harp is chanted in a tune that’s reminiscent of the tune of the harp.

Prayer

We ask the Lord to lift up our hearts in prayer, repentance, and fasting through the intercessions of the Holy Theotokos St Mary. Help us O Merciful Lord to learn the virtues of the pure Virgin Mary. As we chant this beautiful hymn, enlighten our souls, elevate our thoughts, that we may feel the jubilance of David the Prophet, as he sings and prophesies concerning the Queen who stood at Your right hand, O King.

Glory be to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Sources and where to go to learn more:

“Behind the Hymns” Aired on July 24, 2015.

SAT7 Production. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/YNAyNNIA06k

 “Behind the Hymns” Aired on July 31, 2015.

SAT7 Production. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/cl77Ne6Y6eI