Annual Midnight Praises
The Coptic Church inherited the tradition of praising with Psalms from the Jewish worship in the synagogue. The Psalms were the basis of the vigils of the early Church, and later the Church added more prayers from other books in the Bible, as well as from the saints who authored some of the hymns we use today. All these inspired prayers are found in the Book of Psalmody, which was authored by Nipos, bishop of Fayuum, in the age of Pope Dionysius, the 14th Patriarch of Alexandria during the 3rd Century. Each day has its own Theotokia. Each daily Theotokia was added to the then current practice of nightly vigil praises, known as the “Midnight Praises,” (or Tasbeha in Arabic), which already consisted of, at its core, four canticles (commonly referred to as “hoos”). Each night believers would spend an all-night vigil as follows:
- Evening offering of incense,
- Prayers from the Agpeya (or Book of Hours),
- Midnight Praises (which included at minimum its four canticles and the day’s Theotokia – more on this later!),
- Celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist and partaking of the body and blood of Christ.
Kiahk Midnight Praises – Origin of “7&4”
During the month of Kiahk, it appears that additional songs and hymns were added over time to supplement the Midnight Praises, many of which were devoted to St. Mary.
Most of these additions to the Annual Psalmody were done in the seventeenth century. Rofael el-Toukh published the first book of the Kiahk Psalmody in 1764 A.D. in Rome, under the name “The Theotokias as per the Month of Kiahk.” In Egypt, Claudius Labib published it under the name “The Kiahk Psalmody,” in 1911 A.D.
Instead of keeping the practice of nightly vigil services, churches outside of the monasteries began to celebrate only one all-night vigil each of the four weeks during the month of Kiahk. These were on Sunday Eve (Saturday night / Sunday morning), and incorporated each daily Theotokia into the one night vigil. There is not a clear, documented reason for this change – most likely it was done for the convenience of the people. Therefore, the Midnight Praises during the Kiahk vigils would include the normal SEVEN THEOTOKIAS plus all FOUR CANTICLES of the week, all in one night.
The typical practice nowadays is praying 1& 4 – the Sunday Theotokia along with its explanations, and the four canticles. In our church, we also chant songs that were added to the Kiahk Psalmody as a contemplation or an explanation of some of the other daily Theotokias. For example: the popular chant of “the Burning Bush” is an explanation of the Thursday Theotokia, which itself is an explanation of the symbolism and prophecy of the real Burning Bush resembling St. Mary.
Authorship of Theotokias
It is commonly reported that St. Cyril the Great (who led the Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in AD 431, which resulted in ascribing to St. Mary the term Theotokos—Greek for: Mother of God), composed special hymns (referred to as Theotokias or ‘Honoring the Mother of God’) about St. Mary, to teach people the theological basis for the honor attributed to her. Even if St. Cyril the Great did not compose these hymns, they were clearly composed some time during, or shortly after, his papacy with the intent of teaching all listeners why St. Mary is deserving of the title of “Theotokos”.
Spirituality of 7 & 4
Explanation of and Contemplation on “7”
The Theotokias contain many explanations of the Virginal and Divine Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the Ever-Virgin Holy Theotokos St. Mary from the Old and New Testament:
- The Mother of Light
- The Ladder of Jacob
- The Burning Bush
- The Door of Heaven
- The Good Dove
- The Ark of Covenant
- Clothed with the sun and the moon
- Higher than the Cherubim and Seraphim
All above resemblances explain the Orthodox dogma, and faith of the mystery of redemption: God becoming Man in order to save us.
“Indeed, the personality of the Virgin, the Mother of God, has above the greatest importance concerning the mystery of the incarnation. We cannot taste or touch it and feel or live it and take its blessings except after comprehending the divine connection between the divine and human natures in the divine factory (the womb of the Virgin Mary). Since the mystery of incarnation is the foundation of all mysteries of Christianity, the prophets became expert in the Old Testament with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in casting the large light on this mystery‐‐that is in their description for the Virgin as the Second Heaven.” – Fr. Pishoy Kamel
A Few Symbols of St. Mary Mentioned in the Theotokias
|Holiest of Holies||It is symbolic of the Virgin in that it is separated from the rest of the temple, anointed and consecrated for the incarnation of God in it. With this, the Virgin became the living model to the way that makes us participants in the divine nature|
|Ark overlaid with Gold||The ark made with wood that does not rot, overlaid with gold. For the wood that does not rot is a symbol for the purity of the Virgin and the gold is a symbol for the divinity. This is a symbol that all the heavenly gifts are not from our wooden nature, but it is a heavenly gift of gold that covers our nature.|
|Covering of the Ark with the Cherubim overshadowing it||ʺThe power of the Highest will overshadow you.ʺ This symbol uncovers to us the depth of Godʹs concern for us who overshadows us with His caring and protects us with the protection of His wings|
|The Golden Pot and the Manna Hidden in it||If the golden pot received honor in the Old Testament with the placement of the manna in it, so the Virgin with her giving a body to Christ has received great honor and carried the True Manna and presented Him to us ‐‐ that whoever eats from it will never die.|
|The Golden Lampstand||It was a symbol for the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Light. ʺWe exalt you, O Mother of the True Lightʺ because she carried the True Light that gives light to every person that comes into the world.|
|The Golden Censer||The gold is a symbol of her purity, and the censer carries the live coal of divinity and does not burn. The censer is used in prayer, and therefore the Virgin lays for us the way of being with God ‐‐ that is prayer.|
|The Rod of Aaron||A symbol for the conception of the Virgin without a blemish. As the Rod of Aaron sprouted without planting or water, St. Mary conceived without the seed of man.|
|The Flower of Incense||A symbol of the Virgin whose fragrance spread in the world|
|The Burning Bush||A symbol of the divine conception from the Virgin. The Fire of God’s Divinity did not consume her Holy Body as the fire of Divinity did not consume the Bush which Moses saw.|
|Jacob’s Ladder||A symbol for the Virgin whose body God used for coming down from heaven to our nature. Then He ascended our nature to His heaven.|
Explanation of and Contemplation on “4”
The 1st Canticle
It is the praise of Moses the Prophet after crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 15). The Red Sea was a symbol of baptism – where the sea was a complete barrier between Pharaoh and his soldiers, and between the people that passed through the wilderness with their God. Also, the Church with the baptismal crossing of its children, currently in the wilderness of this world, chants the praise of victory and salvation (the song of Moses). The Church sings it daily until it is sung in complete victory and triumph in eternity: “And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb…” (Rev 15:1-4).
The 2nd Canticle
This is Psalm 135. It is a praise of thanks offered by the church to God for His everlasting Goodness and Mercy. It is offered by the children of Israel, thanking God for releasing them from Egypt, sustaining them in the wilderness, protecting them and making them enter the Promised Land.
The 3rd Canticle
It is the praise of The Three Young Saints Hananiah, Azariah, and Misael in the furnace. When we all chant it in the church, we are symbolizing the furnace to the world with all its bitterness and temptations, yet we are preserved by the Son of God (Dan. 3:25). The fire of the world has no authority on us. The church has tasted the love and mercy of its Groom, so it is calling everyone to share in praising and glorifying Him. The First and Second Canticles express the victory of the Children of God over their enemies through the out-stretched arm of God, and the Third Hos is an expression of the victory of man over his pains, and temptations.
The 4th Canticle
The fourth canticle is comprised of Psalms 148, 149, and 150 and it is all about praise. Praise is the work of the angels. It is the continuous act of not just the church in heaven, but also of animals, plants, and material things. Finally, God is glorified most of all in His saints by their works – “Praise God in all His saints.”
During Kiahk only, we add the refrain “Unto our God is due Glory and Praise. Praise the Lord our God with a joyful Psalm” as praise to God for becoming Man in order to save us.
The hymns and praises of the blessed month of Kiahk have a rich history and touch our hearts with joy; the joy of receiving our salvation. This miraculous salvation could only have been attained through the mystery of the Divine Incarnation in the womb of St. Mary. The Church offers these praises as a gift for us to prepare us for the reception of the Nativity in joy and in humility. May we all use these praises in prayer, contemplation and appreciation of God’s Great Love for us by which we are saved. May we all also participate in these vigils with thanksgiving for the treasures of our hymns and praises, which lift our spirits and enlighten our minds in the understanding of our faith.