Advent Series | Hidden Treasures

In this episode of Hidden Treasures, we discuss what's behind the hymn "Eparthenos" or "Today the Virgin". Check out this short video to learn more about this beautiful hymn, chanted during the glorious Feast of the Nativity. Read more

A contemplation on the Hymn

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Supreme Essence and the earth offers the manger to the Unapproachable.  The angels with the Shepherds glorify, and the wise men with the star journey, for to us is born a new Child, God before the ages.

On the feast of the Nativity to help us not miss this extraordinary event and to help us feel some of the spiritual wonder of the incarnation we sing the hymn E-parthenos.

Following the reading of Acts we pause to sing this hymn. It has no cymbals because this event was not announced in spectacular fashion it was quiet. The tune is soft and simple because it is the time to be in amazement before the birth of the Lord. Jubilation will follow but now is the moment we are in awe.

The hymn is a proclamation of the birth of Christ so it starts with “today”, in this moment we must bear witness to Our Lord on earth. “Today, the Virgin bears Him who is Transcendent”. Hear these words for God is everywhere and in all things yet on this day He is being born a baby. How can the entire ocean fit inside one cup? Yet something more amazing has just happened. To look upon God would cause you to die yet He is in the womb and St Mary is blessed and made worthy.

“The earth presents the manger to Him who is [unapproachable] or ‘beyond reach’”

This is a hugely important scene.  Note the wording because it intensifies the mystery. Man failed to acknowledge this moment and instead left a pregnant woman to deliver out in the cold, but the rest of creation reacted, with the earth offering the cave and a star declaring His presence all of nature is bowing to the creator. He is “beyond reach” we have no way of approaching God ourselves. He has chosen to come to us; therefore He is in absolute control. Do not think that because Christ is born without announcement and in a cave that it was out of His control and was forced to be born in a manger. This is exactly how God wanted it to be for all mankind to watch. If you think about it, if God was to be born in a wealthy home or a publicly accepted righteous home it would contradict His message and mission. People would not believe that He came for all, they would say only the already righteous can be saved or only those of a certain education or race or social standard can be saved. He literally came in at the lowest point possible meaning no one can challenge His dedication for every living soul on the planet. Can you imagine a heavily pregnant woman in labor coming to anyone’s door and not being helped? No hotel would ever just leave someone in that state regardless of the room situation. They must have been looked upon as not even human to be rejected that way. So Christ starts His life on earth only equal to whatever animals sleep in the cave.

“Angels and Shepherds glorify Him”

This is an interesting combination for a choir. The highest spiritual beings created for worshiping God makes sense. But one would not have put them

with simple uneducated people with little social interaction and untrained singing voices. But actually they are the perfect combination for two reasons. First, if the highest spiritual beings and the lowest earthly beings can praise God, then we all definitely will be somewhere in between and as a result also worthy to sing praises to our Lord. It means we also have got to be worthy of approaching the manger with a song in our hearts as well. But also there is a hidden reality that is manifest here. The reason Shepherds are worthy to sing along side angels is because God made them for that exact same purpose. So the initial sentence used to describe angels (highest spiritual beings) is in reality just as applicable if not more to the Shepherds as well.

The Magi arrive led by the star

The Magi can truly be called wise men. They were not wise in their own eyes; they did not have an ambition to show off their intelligence but instead looked at the facts without bias and agenda. They studied the stars and all of nature and concluded for themselves this star would be hugely significant. We do not know how much they knew about the Old Testament and Jewish tradition but they did not need to, to appreciate the importance of this night. They represent the wisdom of this world how we search and debate and puzzle over life’s greatest mysteries. For them approaching the cave and seeing the living God has shattered all debate. The living God is here alive and has a plan and intention for all of us. Our intellectual journey our searching for God and meaning in our life has to also take us before the manger. The problem is that often it is not what we were hoping to see. If you are going to search for God using all your intellect and knowledge at some stage along the journey you will come across the manger. Will you accept this scene? The Magi did not even hesitate, their hearts had led them to this point and they were not about to question that for a second. What they witnessed was an appalling scene: a young girl on the floor in the mud surrounded by the filth and stench of the animals she had no sanitation, no experienced midwife delivering a child into the muddy floor. It was appalling conditions and extremely undignified. You can imagine the state of this floor if St. Mary preferred to put her newborn baby in the trough (remember the trough the prodigal son ate from it would have been the same) the animals ate from. Yet they fully accepted the scene, they saw the new born Lord and that is all they saw for their hearts were truly searching for God, they did not see anything else. When we arrive, the choice we make will depend entirely on what we see. If we see the Lord and only the Lord it is irresistible, if however we arrive still concerned about our lives and our world we will notice the horrific conditions, the smell and struggle and wonder why should we have to fast and pray and give our money to the poor. Why does it have to be such a struggle? It’s because it’s the path our Lord chose, starting with his birth.

We can see that if our heart and mind have not been prepared the whole event can easily fly by without us noticing it. So the hymn requires us to pause and meditate on its massive and eternal significance. Because this Child is God and He is on a mission to save us. This is the final line of this short hymn, but what it says will change everything and will set our hearts in motion for full on praise of God. For all of this is for us. The whole mystery is saturated in love. The full wonder of the Nativity of God, lies in the pure and greatest mystery of Christian reality: the love that orders the cosmos, the love that creates and fashions, the love the theologian calls God Himself, comes directly, fully, gently yet forcefully into the world.

So now we have stopped to witness and tried to feel a flavor of this wonder we can say just those words out loud and to God. In the hymn that follows, Pijenmici – “The Virginal birth and spiritual contractions are a paradoxical wonder according to prophetic sayings”. This leads us to full on glorification of God with the angels as we witnessed in the hymn Apenchois and the joyful Agios.

An Introduction to Coptic Hymns

Music is the language used by the Seraphim in heaven and humans on earth to Praise God. It is the language of the soul as prayer is the language of the heart. St Augustine says “There is no emotion of the human spirit which music is incapable of expressing”.

In spite that Coptic hymns are primitive and very ancient they are still alive and appeal to both the simple and the sophisticated. It offers joy, peace, stimulation and fulfillment to whoever takes interest in it. All other forms of music run out of fashion with time but the Coptic hymns have provided the Copts with an everlasting means of praising God as well as of self comfort. They were developed through the gifts and inspirations which accompanied the Apostolic Period.

As to the value of hymns in the Coptic Church, our fathers consider that God’s praise through hymns is the means which lead to the rewards obtained in the holy Sacraments; i.e. praise is essential for receiving the grace of God.

Historical Development of Hymns

  1. In the Old Testament: Man has used music in the worship and praise of God since the very early days of humanity. It started during the days of Adam and reached a peak during the life of King David whose Psalms and hymns are still in use today. The Old Testament is full of references to the use of music and musical instruments in the Jewish worship.
  2. The Early Church in General: The early church was founded by the “Jewish” apostles and hence it is expected that the early church must have been influenced by the Jewish music. This music took two forms; the Temple music which was vocal and the Synagogue music which used musical instruments. An evidence of such an influence is the universal use of the Jewish word “Alleluia” in all churches.

Such an influence, however, varied from one church to another depending on the language, culture, music and tradition of the various nations. No attempt was made by the early preachers to dictate a uniform system of prayer on all churches. Rather they devoted their teachings to faith and doctrine and left the remaining details to individual churches to be arranged in accordance with their traditions and culture. An example of this is the Ethiopian Church which used dancing and their hymns and music totally differ from its parent church; the Coptic Church.

Development of Coptic Hymns

The Coptic hymns began to develop shortly after the preaching of St Mark the Apostle in Alexandria. Early Christians were basically Jews, who lived in large numbers in Alexandria, and Egyptians. Both groups have contributed to the formation of the Coptic hymns, namely:

  • The Christian Jews brought with them well established hymns both in wording and music.
  • The Christian Egyptians brought with them the very deep music of the Pharaohs relating to immortality of the sprit, the one God and resurrection.

Both contributions mixed exceptionally well due to the similarity of the background of the two cultures, but mainly due to the dedication of the early Coptic Christians. That dedication was so strong that those new believers sold everything and devoted their lives to worship in monasteries near Lake Mariut first (in the forties of the first century) and then afterwards they spread to other locations.

With such devotion and zeal efforts were concentrated to establish the system of prayer, wording and music of hymns, the Liturgy, the system of hourly prayers etc.

Because of this heritage, the Coptic Orthodox Church had always been preoccupied by making the hymns a worship tool and means for elevating the spirituality of the believers who attend the liturgical services. As a result, many scholars have overlooked the importance of studying the musicality of these hymns which is considered, from a purely scientific point of view, the origin of music sciences in the Middle East, if not in the entire universe. Historians tell us that the ancient Egyptians had colleges and schools for learning the sciences of music and singing. The best of those schools were found in the metropolis of Memphis (Saqqara), as evidenced by the pictures and writings engraved on the artifacts that show musicians and singers learning the musical profession. The graduates of those schools who excelled were appointed to work in the king’s Royal Palace and the homes of higher state officials.A

In his book “The Life of Moses the Prophet”, the Jewish historian Philon of Alexandria wrote that when Moses was brought up in Pharaoh’s palace four thousand years ago, he was made to study all sorts of music sciences including its harmonic and rhythmic forms, as well as poetry and rhymes. When saint Mark the apostle and evangelist (one of the seventy apostles appointed by Jesus Christ) came to Egypt, he established a school of theology in Alexandria and dedicated one of its departments for teaching music so that music would remain a science. He also authored the first Divine Eucharist Service (later attributed to St. Cyril the great) B in which he included all that he received from the Holy Mouth of our Lord Christ, in addition to the hymns which were composed at that time. St. Mark had received these hymns from Christ the Lord personally in the “Upper Room in Jerusalem” where St. Mark lived with his family. This room was a “rehearsal place” for the disciples to sing praises with the Lord “And when they had sung a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mk.14:26). That way, our Lord established the first “Chorus” in the New Testament for reciting praises. He would recite the psalm in His Sweet Voice, and the disciples would respond saying “Hallelujah”. The Church historian Bishop Josabius of Caesarea wrote quoting “Philon” (who lived in the days of the apostles) describing the act of praising in the days of the apostles: “And so they  did not spend the time in contemplations only, but they also composed songs and praises for God in all kinds of tunes and rhythms and they divided them into different measures”C .  The creative composition of hymns however, did not stop at that time, but proceeded further. We find St. Athanasius the Apostolic, the 20th Patriarch (326 – 373 AD) composed several hymns, among which is the wonderful hymn “O-Mono-genes” (Oh Only Begotten Son of God) which is recited during the sixth hour every Good Friday. And so, the creativity and hymn composition continued through the first three centuries AD until most of the Coptic hymns were composed in a scientific and spiritual form, to be recited by the saints and all Copts over the years till this day.

Nature of the Coptic Hymns

Coptic hymns are deep, harmonic and exactly defined songs meant to express the innermost emotions of the praising spirit. They do not follow musical notes or dedicated rhythm but rather they translate the pulses of the spirit. No doubt, the Coptic hymns were the product of highly spiritual people guided by the gifts and inspirations that were pertinent to the apostolic period. As such, it would seem impossible to duplicate it or challenge it by musicians.

This conclusion was confirmed by the English musician Professor Earnst Newland Smith who visited Cairo in the winter of 1927 upon an invitation from Mr. Ragheb Moftah the Egyptian researcher. The English musician listened to the entire range of Coptic music and documented it in 18 volumes. Some of his findings and comments are listed below:

“What we understand today as oriental music appears simply a degradation of what was once a great art. This music which has been handed down for untold generations within the Coptic Church should be a bridge between the east and the West and place a new idiom at the disposal of Western musicians. It is lofty, noble and great art especially in the element of the infinite, which is lacking today. Western music has its origin in ancient Egypt”. He also says, “Give me the voice of Ceruso singing the Coptic hymns and I shall destroy the walls of Jericho.”

Importance Of Hymns

To Coptic Studies:

Coptic hymns are essential to any Coptic study simply because it is related to the Church’s tradition, rites, worship and spirituality. This could be appreciated if we imagine our church services without hymns.

To the Coptic Church:

  1. In a non-apostolic church such as the Protestant churches, hymns are used to prepare the spirit for prayers or listening to Preaching. Contrary to that, however, in the Apostolic churches especially the Coptic Church, hymns are themselves a worship for both the singer and the listener. Thus there is no specific time allocated for the hymns in the service but the whole service is a symphony consisting of the priest, deacons and congregation served by the music. In other words, the hymn is the part of the service during which the spirit is let free to praise God with its full capacity and strength.
  2. The hymns represent a valuable inheritance, which dates back to the apostolic age unchanged. Thus, they are regarded as part of the Church’s Sacraments and a living gift, which could be obtained through learning. Those who learn it become distinguished servants of the holies and participants of one of the church’s most valuable Sacraments, namely, Praising God.
  3. Praising God is highly honored by the Coptic Church to the same degree as the Holy Sacraments as it is a “sacrament of the heart”. Thus, the Discolia warns even the bishop against taking hymns lightly or neglecting it. It says: “If you, bishop, were sitting teaching or listening to the reader or the singer and an important personality enters the Church do not allow yourself to be distracted but continue talking or listening to the readings or the hymns”.

To the Coptic Person

  1. The Coptic hymns are phrases written around Divinity, faith and theological beliefs, which reflects the human conception of the nature of God. When it is sung driven by the spirit it expresses our participation in this faith and our thirst to the Creator.
    Thus, its real effect comes from the fact that the hymns are centered around God and his love. It is an appreciation and a display of love and gratitude towards the love-giving Father!
  2. Praise is a Divine service whereby we join the cherubim and seraphim in their continuous praise. Thus, we get raised to the same rank of the heavenly Angels.


References & where to learn more:

  1. Contemplation: St. Mary & St. Shenouda Coptic Orthodox Church of Cryodon, South London, UK. www.smass.co.uk
  2. Tasbeha.org
  3. Copticheritage.org
  4. “The Musicality of the Coptic Hymns” by George Kyrillos. Translated by Mourad Mina. The Russian Orthodox Encyclopedia, Vol. 3.  Retrieved from: http://www.davidensemble.com/english/book/MusicalityOfCopticHymnsEngli sh.pdf
  • Nabil Kamal Botros; “Coptic music in Egypt & its relation to the music of the Pharaohs” – Masters degree thesis – Faculty of Music Education – Helwan University – 1976.
  • H. Pope Shenouda 3rd “The beholder of God St. Mark the Evangelist” 3rd Edition 1985
  • Father Matta El-Meskeen, “Daily Praises and the Psalms of the Hours” Studies in the Church Traditions, fourth book, third edition, 1993 – Anba Makar Monastery, the prairie of Shiheet.