An Explanation of Golgotha

Introduction to the hymn

It is chanted in memorial of the burial of the Lord Christ, at the end of the Twelfth Hour Prayer of Good Friday, and is called “the Burial Canon”. While chanting it, the deacons stand around the altar. The eldest priest takes the Burial Icon or the Crucifixion Icon, he buries it in flowers and fragrant oils, placing five seeds of carnation, or flower, or incense, then wraps it with a strip of white linen and places the cross over it. These represent the 5 wounds of Christ: the 3 nails, crown of thorns and the spear. Then he covers it with the Prospharine and puts two lit candles on both sides as a symbol of the two angels who were inside the holy tomb, one at the head and the other at the feet.

Golgotha in Hebrew, Kranion in Greek, the place where You were crucified, O Lord. You stretched out Your hands, and crucified two thieves with You; one on Your right side, the other on Your left, and You, O good Savior, in the midst.

Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

The right-hand thief cried out saying: “Remember me, O my Lord, remember me, O my Savior, remember me, O my King, when You come into Your Kingdom.”

The Lord answered him in a lowly voice saying: “This day you will be with Me in My Kingdom.”

Both now, and ever and unto the age of all ages. Amen.

The righteous Joseph and Nicodemus came took away the body of Christ, wrapped it in linen cloths with spices, and put it in a sepulcher and praised Him saying, “Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal, who was crucified for us, have mercy on us.”

Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.

Both now, and ever and unto the age of all ages. Amen.

We also worship him saying: “Have mercy on us, O God our Savior, who was crucified on the Cross, destroy Satan under our feet.

Save us and have mercy upon us.”

Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord bless amen. Bless me, bless me, behold the repentance, forgive me, say the blessing.

History and Significance

This hymn has a rich heritage in the Coptic Culture.  It is over 3000 years old, and it was used in the burial of Pharaohs in Ancient Egypt.  Philo of Alexandria, a Philosopher from the first century asserts that early Christians have taken Ancient Egyptian tunes and added to it the Christian texts. One of these is the hymn of Golgotha, which was chanted by the pharaohs during the embalming process and at funeral ceremonies.  It is the ancient Egyptians who were the earliest to reject the notion of the finality of death. We see this in many examples in our cultural heritage, including the pyramids.  Death is viewed as a transfer, a bridge or passageway, and a transportation to eternal life.

Hymnology and history scholars reflect and theorize that part of this hymn is the same which Joseph and Nicodemus chanted, for they were in such a mood at the burial moments as not to be able to compose melodies, but were rather in deep grief, astonishment and wonder: how could the Life-Giver die? Thus they probably praised Him with melodies stored in the subconscious, themes which the conscious mind recalls in similar situations. Afterwards, the early fathers composed the final form in words and stanzas.

The place of Golgotha was near Jerusalem, but outside its walls, for St. Paul says, “Therefore, Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate therefore, let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.”  It was a spot visible from some distance, because the Scripture says, “there were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene…” The word is taken from the Greek word “Ikarniune”. Some think that this name was given to this place because of the many bare and unburied skulls. Others say that the place was an open space for execution. However it is commonly thought as being a hill whose shape resembles a skull.

The rule in the Jewish law was that no dead body remains on the execution tool. Moreover, the Roman law allowed the household of the person sentenced to death to ask for the body and take it. In the evening, after the Lord Jesus Christ had breathed His last, Joseph, from the city of Arimathea, who was a rich man and a disciple to Jesus, came to take the body of the Lord. Joseph was a good and righteous person. He was a councilor: a member of the Sanhedrin. It was said that he refused to attend the trial of the Lord Christ, and abstained from voting because he was against their decision and action.  So, Joseph of Arimathea was encouraged and asked Pilate for the body of Christ to be able to bury it before the Sabbath. He had a garden near Golgotha where he had engraved a new tomb, so he took the body of Jesus to bury it, and Nicodemus shared him that honor.  Nicodemus also was a member of the Sanhedrin Council, a Pharisee and one of the Jews rulers. He is the one who once came to the Lord Christ by night so as not to be seen by anyone to discuss and learn from Him about the second spiritual birth. Being convinced by the Lord’s words, he defended Him at the Sanhedrin when the Pharisees attacked Him. He said to them, “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?”

Joseph and Nicodemus took the Body of Jesus and they wrapped it in strips of pure linen with spices and fragrant oils, laid it in that new tomb that was hewn out of a rock. While burying Him, they were praising Him with tearful eyes. This same Praise became the Burial Canon chanted by the Church today.

Musicality and Contemplation

This is a very simple hymn, but it is still very deep.  Its musical structure is as simple as it gets: it has 2 parts.  The first part is like a question, ending in a high note, and the second part is like an answer or a statement.

The sound and volume effect produced by the singing deacons, increasing as they approach the worshiper and decreasing as they move away, gives the musical effects known as “Crescendo” (ascending strength) and “Diminuendo” (descending strength), producing a penetrating effect in the souls of the worshippers and listeners. That is exactly what sound engineers do at times to bring about this effect of “Fade-in” or “Fade-out”. The musicality of Golgotha uses this technique to get the same effect of coming and going – just as death is a passage to eternal life.

The words of this Hymn are a mixture of Coptic and Greek languages  The majority of the hymn is written in Coptic except for the phrases that start with “Glory to the Father…” and “Both now and forever…” and  “Holy God…” which are in Greek (Doxa patri…, Ke nein…, and Agios…)

The first main stanza conforms to the philosopher’s view that it is a Pharaoh theme quoted from Ancient Egypt by early Christians who provided it with Christian texts.  Its simple construction and few tunes (only 4) support the opinion that it is one of the elegies common at that time.  Being of simple lyric tenor, anyone can perform it smoothly even if weeping, for the level goes up or down gradually. It is not like the low refrains which require accuracy and caution on its performance, nor like the sharp responses which require some effort to perform and where the voice is soft.

The second main stanza does not conform with Philo’s view for the following reasons:

  • The musical creation and motif forms here differ from those of the first stanza.
  • Its performance requires excessive care because of the perfect fifth leaps and swift tunes.
  • The word expression in this second stanza and the tune are congruent; that is to say, when the tone of the words of the hymn “Avosh Evol Engi Pi Soni”- which mean “the thief cried out” rises, voice leaps occur and tones become swift expressing the meaning of the words. This can only be realized through live musical composition which was impassable at the time when Joseph and Nicodemus were burying the body of the Lord Christ.
  • The Greek words in the hymn indicate that it was translated from the Ancient Egyptian language into the Greek, then into Coptic.
  • The mode of the Hymn is the “Agam Mode”, known as the “Great Tenor”, which is the simplest of both the Eastern and Western Modes of music.
  • The simple rhythm of the stanza is only composed of two strokes: the first strong, and the second weak.

The music of this Hymn can be summed up in two small stanzas: the first basic one is composed of eight meters only and four tunes. This is to show that Joseph and Nicodemus were weeping while putting the spices over the body of the Beloved, so they could not express their grief except with these four tunes. Their vocal chords were trembling, they could not chant with a  fifth tune. They were looking at the Holy face in astonishment and wondering how could it be that He, whom the angels praise continually, saying “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal”, dies. Hearing this praise by the angels, they found themselves praising with a harsh voice (musically referred to as “Fioco”) while crushed and weeping. Their vocal chords were unable to utter anything except these four tunes. Thus they kept repeating them ten times.

While wrapping the body and putting spices and fragrant oils on it, they remembered the cry of the thief on the right side of the Lord on the cross, saying, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom”. Realizing that such a cry has rescued the thief from Hades and eternal perdition and brought him to comfort and eternal kingdom, they tried to cry out like him despite the trembling “Fioco” voice. Therefore a new fifth tune is introduced that was not before in the first stanza which was repeated ten times. This fifth tune is the fruit of their struggle and labor, and of their desire to attain that elevation which the thief had attained!

Here, the praise takes another form by a second stanza introduced actually stronger than the first, yet softer. It begins with a flow “Glissando” that passes over the five tunes to express the meaning of the words “Avo-osh Evol Engi Pi Soni”, i.e. “then the thief cried out”. This rapid move to a “perfect fifth” layer is not strange because the image depicted at that moment in the mind of Joseph and Nicodemus was that of the thief who had attained the kingdom of heaven and Paradise with those words. Why then would they not lay hold of it by a leaping melody? Therefore the tune rises to attain to the heavenly orders’ tunes spreading ringing around the Golgotha. This image of the thief made them repeat this second stanza four times, then bow in awe before the dead body full of life to entreat Him, saying, “Do we not deserve to be like that thief who was on Your right?” We know that our sins are like crimson, but this Your holy body and the precious blood pouring from Your stabbed side can make them as white as snow. Here they return again to the first gentle and soft but sad stanza of the four tunes, to implore Him, saying, “Aripa Mevei O Pa Shois, akshan-ei khen tekmetouro”, which mean: “O Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom”. They kept repeating them four times also till they receive the voice of the meek Lord saying to that thief, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise” Indeed, they will not forget that marvelous voice. It is the same voice which cried loudly, “Lazarus, come forth!” the voice of the Lord who raised Lazarus from among the dead by a cry and can raise us from the death of sin. Yes, Joseph of Arimathea remembered his sin; how he dared to come to the Lord secretly in fear of the Jews! He should have cast fear away, and now he did. He was bold enough to stand before Pilate and ask him to take the body of the Lord Christ. Fear no longer had a place in his heart. Here the tune is higher again, and the second stanza with its five tones and Glissando can return and be repeated seven times the same way. The tune continues the same: a mixture of quiet grief one time and strong grief another time, till the tune ends with the first stanza with its four tones when they have completed the burial of the dead body of the Living Christ. Then they bow down before the tomb with tears flowing heavily until the huge stone conceals the Holy Body from their sight.

Prayer

You, who have done away with death by Your death after having suffered, let me cherish Your suffering as my treasure; Your crown of thorns as my glory; Your pains as my joy; Your myrrh as sweetness in my mouth and Your love as my honor and gratitude. O Lord, do not allow blood and flesh to prevail over me, nor Satan strike me down! Rather, let me taste the joy and beauty with Joseph and Nicodemus of this solemn tune “Golgotha”.

Sources and where to go to learn more:

1. The Musicality of the Coptic Hymns Article written by: George Kyrillos Translated by: Mourad Mina Prepared for the Russian Orthodox Encyclopedia (Vol. 37)
2. Nabil Kamal Botros; “Coptic music in Egypt & its relation to the music of the Pharaohs”– Faculty of Music Education – Helwan University – 1976.
3. Mustafa Atalla and George Kyrillos – Coptic Music – University of Helwan, Graduate Studies Diploma in the music of the Pharaohs, 2006. HEEPF – page 56.
4. “Behind the Hymns” Aired on Apr 4, 2015. SAT7 Production. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/O8XpYxOoa4o
5. Will, Adams. The Journey to Eternity: Ancient Egyptian Religion & Embalming Practices. Valencia College Press. 2012.