Like most of the hymns on Great Friday, the theme of ‘Fai Etaf Enf’ is redemption, something accomplished on that day. However, this hymn is stylistically more meditational than other hymns. The pronoun “our” is used which reinforces the personal contemplative nature of the hymn. The Church looks at Him, mournfully, and then shares with humanity the message that they see in Him hanging upon the Tree of Life – this is God Incarnate who is hanging on that tree for our salvation.
When is it Chanted?
- Feasts of the Cross (17 Tute, 10 Baramhat)
- Matins of Covenant Thursday
- 6th & 9th Hour of Great Friday
- Funerals of Clergy
The date and author of this hymn are both unknown. Since the theme is generic, it cannot be said with certainty whether it predates any Ecumenical Councils or was written as a result of them. This piece contains themes that refute the heresies in all three Councils, but it is not direct enough that we can assume with certainty when it was written. It would not be irrational to suggest the indirectness of the theological themes supporting Pre-Council authorship, since hymns following the Councils normally combated specific heresies vocally and directly so that all believers could be affirmed in their Orthodoxy. However, these are only speculations as nothing can be said with confidence other than that it is authentically ours based on the tune and language that it is written in.
In this hymn, we hear the notes ascend, descend, then ascend again, and again, and stay high. We know you’re thinking “this is pretty much the same as every Coptic hymn – up, down, and goes on and on – so what?” These ups and downs take on meaning when we look at what is being chanted during them. For example, when we chant
When Christ was on the cross, He gave up the Spirit with the words, “It is finished,” which we can connect to the singing of the word
Contemplation on the Words
We can meditate solely on the simple words of this hymn and appreciate the weight of the love of Christ in offering Himself on our behalf on the Cross.
This is He Who Offered Himself
In the Old Testament, priests were the only people allowed to offer sacrifices on account of peoples’ sins. Christ offering Himself declares and affirms His High Priesthood.
The Holy Bride of Christ, in pure adoration, makes it clear that she recognizes Who is on the Cross, and she says without hesitation, “This is He.” This is the very basis to the hymn, which is why she can make the claim that all of this was done for our Salvation. A mere man under the bounds of natural time cannot take upon himself the sins of all generations. If I am in debt, it is impossible for me to take on the debt of my father and I cannot in advance take on the debt of my child. Thus, it is abundantly clear that only ‘One’ who has dominion over all properties of time, space, and creation can bear the full weight of such a sacrifice and not need a Savior for Himself.
Saint Athanasius reminds us of some of the prophecies about the One who was to be crucified. Moses was the first to tell us, when he said inspired by the Spirit, “Your life shall hang in doubt before you; you shall fear day and night, and have no assurance of life” (Deuteronomy 28:66). The “life” here is none other than the Life Himself – Moses has proclaimed that the One suspended is none other than God – the source of Life Himself.
Jeremiah prophesied saying, “but I was like an innocent lamb brought to the slaughter; and I did not know that they had devised schemes against me, saying ‘Let us destroy the tree with its fruit, and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name may be remembered no more’” (11:19). The only “innocent” person is God Himself as all others are born with the stain of sin. The wood of which Jeremiah speaks in none other than the wood of the Tree of Life and he goes further to prophecy how the Jews wanted to destroy Him and the memory of Him to be blotted eternally.
David the Prophet speaks clearly saying, “for dogs have surrounded Me; The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet” (Psalms 22:16). We know that David’s hand and feet were never pierced but here he is seeing Someone before himself to whom this has been done.
Of these 3 prophecies, St. Athanasius says, “now a death raised aloft and that takes place on a tree, could be none other than the Cross: and again, in no other death are the hands and feet pierced, save on the Cross only” (On the Incarnation, S. 35, pp.66-67).
In the Old Testament, the sinner would place his hand on the head of the sacrifice, so that the sin would be carried by the pure sacrifice. Christ carried the sins of all people: all people, from the beginning of time until now. He carried it all in the garden of Gethsemane, which raised His blood pressure to the point of His sweat becoming like blood. He raised Himself up on the Cross, like the sacrifices of the Old Testament was carried up on the altar.
We must keep all of this in mind when chanting this hymn as it is the difference between singing “o’s and a’s” and feeling the emotion and weight of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf.
An Acceptable Sacrifice
Christ’s sacrifice was the only true and acceptable sacrifice capable to wipe out human sin. The old sacrifices of atonement were not complete or everlasting, whereas our Lord’s death for us is a fountain ever flowing with forgiveness.
Because He is God, no one else could offer Him. We could not choose for God to empty Himself and take the form of a servant. It is blasphemous for any man to put God under subjection. It is by realizing this absurdity that we can appreciate the Divine Dispensation that was granted to us – that He chose to offer Himself because He meets all of the requirements of an acceptable sacrifice. An acceptable sacrifice needs to only be offered once, whereas continuous sacrifice must have been incomplete and therefore, the sacrifice on the Cross was Eternal.
“Why forsooth are they continually cured with the ‘same sacrifices?’ For if they were set free from all their sins, the sacrifices would not have gone on being offered every day. For they had been appointed to be continually offered on behalf of the whole people, both in the evening and in the day. So that there was an arraignment of sins, and not a release from sins; an arraignment of weakness, not an exhibition of strength. For because the first had no strength, another also was offered: and since this affected nothing, again another; so that it was an evidence of sins. The ‘offering’ indeed then, was an evidence of sins, the ‘continually,’ an evidence of weakness. But with regard to Christ, it was the contrary: He was ‘once offered’” (Saint John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Homily XVII, p.959).
In another homily it is written, “so then He forgave their sins, when He gave the Covenant, and He gave the Covenant by sacrifice. If therefore He forgave the sins through the one sacrifice, there is no longer need of a second” (Saint John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Homily XVIII, p.966).
St. John teaches that the sacrifice in the Old Testament was incomplete and simply an ‘arraignment,’ a process in which the transgressor was brought forth and called as an accused to answer for his faults.
However, the sacrifice made by our Lord was no arraignment. He came bearing no faults of His own, rather the faults of all sinners of all generations. Since He did not ever sin, He showed the opposite of weakness – complete might. As a result, His sacrifice was all that was acceptable, as no other being can with boldness claim to be able to do the same. He forgave our debt by His blood: “this blood was ever typified of old in the altars and sacrifices of righteous men, This is the price of the world, by This Christ purchased to Himself the Church, by This He has adorned Her all. For as a man buying servants gives gold for them, and again when he desired to deck them out does this also with gold; so Christ has purchased us with His blood, and adorned us with His blood” (Saint John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, Homily XLVI, p. 381).
Upon the Cross
Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross was a fulfillment of the prophecies. The Son of Man was to be lifted up. Our Lord Himself stressed this point numerous times (see: John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32-34). You’ll notice the word
There is a similarity in the prophecies of the 11th Hour of Tuesday of Holy Pascha Week, when Christ announced His crucifixion from the book of Isaiah: “there will be on every high mountain and on every high hill rivers and streams of waters, in the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall. Moreover the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day that the Lord binds up the bruise of His people and heals the stroke of their wound” (Isaiah 30:25-26).
The Cross was the altar made of wood that our Lord offered Himself on. The Cross was a symbol of damnation, but after the crucifixion of our Lord, it became a symbol of pride. This is also why after the crucifixion, crosses are not only made of wood but of silver, gold, precious stones, and metals. The Cross is the altar on which was offered the sacrifice for all humanity. In its appearance, it is weakness, but the reality is that it is the sign of what is greater than power.
The Church in its wisdom and understanding of the significance of the Cross offers us this hymn of the Cross by which we contemplate the meaning of the power of the Cross and crucifixion.
For the Salvation of Our Race
Christ’s sacrifice not only gave forgiveness as the sacrifices of old but also salvation. The sacrifice was not only for the Jews who went to their high priest but for the entire human race.
It occurred, “for the Salvation of our race.” As established previously, on the Cross is God, the One spoken Of by the prophets and He is the ‘acceptable sacrifice.’ Through this sacrifice, we are redeemed, since it has been established that the death of the Incarnate Word meant the full payment of the debt of man. Thus, logically following this is: Salvation. We lost this Salvation when we were at enmity with God, but with the payment of this debt, the true Sacrifice, we were reconciled.
“’To appear,’ he says, ‘in the presence of God for us.’ What is ‘for us ‘? He went up (he means) with a sacrifice which had power to propitiate the Father. Wherefore (tell me)? Was He an enemy? The angels were enemies, He was not an enemy. For that the Angels were enemies, hear what he says, ‘He made peace as to things on earth and things in Heaven.’ (Colossians 1:20) So that He also ‘entered into Heaven, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” He ‘now appeared,’ but ‘for us’ (Saint John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Homily XVII, p. 956).
Because He is God, He conquered death by His death and Resurrection. He entered Heaven to appear for us, and after the reconciliation and mediation for us, He led the spirits of those who had departed prior to the crucifixion, in hope of the Resurrection, up to Paradise.
“In order that while He might become a sacrifice for us all, we, nourished up in the words of truth, and partaking of His living doctrine, might be able with the saints to receive also the joy of Heaven” (Saint Athanasius, Letters, Letter XVIII, p.1307).
His Good Father Smelled Him, In the Evening, On Golgotha
The pleasing aroma of incense caused God to establish a covenant with mankind to never destroy them again. Incense being offered in the censer is a living symbol of Christ Himself. How beautiful is it then that we see God the Father establishing a new covenant with mankind, through His Only Son?
In the Evening
Exodus 30:8 – “And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight [defined as the soft glowing light from the sky when the sun is below the horizon], he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations.”
Numbers 28:8 – “The other lamb you shall offer in the evening;…you shall offer it as an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord.”
Psalms 141:2 – “Let my prayer be set before You an incense, the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”
It has been said that Golgotha is known as the place of the skull because it is where Adam is buried. Whether this is true or myth, we do not know, although many icons include a skull under the Cross of our Lord. Regardless, the point stands that our Lord’s sacrifice restored our father Adam and saved him and his entire race.
Finally, we can comprehend how “His Good Father smelled His sweet savor in the evening, on Golgotha.” The Church is declaring in ecstasy and awe the fact in which God the Father has accepted our prayers and the Sacrifice offered before Him.
We were standing and praying as David, saying “let my prayer be set forth before You as incense” (Psalms 141:2), and joining those of the Old Testament of whom it is said, “the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense” (Luke 1:10). Christ was our prayer because He was our only hope at reconciliation, redemption, and salvation – only if He was found acceptable could we live again. Since we ourselves could not atone for our sins and reconcile with the Father, we stood by, watching and praying as Christ went in for us – as both our incense, prayer and sacrifice – our High Priest – made the offering Himself (Hebrews 2:13). Because His Good Father found the aroma ‘sweet’ on the Holy Cross on Golgotha, we could sigh saying, “therefore in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
Our relief is more full if we comprehend that the coal used to burn the incense, a type of Christ, confirms the propitiation of our sins as was told Isaiah, “behold this has touched your lips; Your iniquity is taken away, and your sin is purged” (6:7).
Now, we’ve come full circle and can marvel at all that this hymn contains – truly, it is the story of our redemption put into very simple words. Christ our God, of whom the prophets foretold, came to earth, took our flesh while remaining God, suffered and died, buried and arose, was found as an unblemished sacrifice before God the Father, reconciling us with God, redeeming us, and granting us salvation.
This is one of the most unique hymns, as its tune is both melancholy and cheerful. We are dismayed by the scene of the Perfect One on the Cross having done nothing wrong, for our sake, but also rejoice for receiving salvation as a result.
The beginning of the hymn is full of joy, strength, uprightness and royalty, encompassing our happiness with the Cross. Crucifixion is the only way in which death occurs while a person is upright. This uprightness is the symbol of our pride in the Cross, and our joy in it.
There is a famous tune that repeats throughout this hymn, one that is in
The hymn also describes a word,
Then the hymn takes us to the acceptance of the sacrifice. The word
As this is the Hymn of the Cross, at the words
The next part of the hymn,
The final part of the hymn,
Sources and where to go to learn more:
- “Behind the Hymns”. SAT7 Production. Retrieved from:
- Saint John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, Homily XLVI
- Saint John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Homily XVII
- Athanasius. On the Incarnation.