A Contemplation on the Long Praxis Response: “Shere Ne…”
Hail to Bethlehem, the city of the prophets in which Christ was born, the Second Adam.
The Praxis Response is sung before the reading of the Book of Acts of our Fathers the Apostles. The word praxis is the Greek word for “act” or “action”.
This, and all the Liturgical readings, were historically chanted in Coptic with its introduction “the acts of our Fathers the apostles…” and its conclusion “the word of God shall grow, multiply…” in every liturgy. This practice continued until the time of Pope Gabriel the 2nd (1131-1145 A.D.), until the Arab Ruler Ben Turek ruled in his 10th law that all children must be taught Arabic every morning, and that every Church shall read all the Church readings in Arabic, after they’re chanted in Coptic. As the centuries passed, and Arabic grew at the expense of the Coptic language, the chanting of the entirety of the readings diminished, and the tradition was relegated to just the introduction and conclusion of the readings, as you are hearing today.
The Praxis response is an Adam (festive) piece that is chanted in its own tune, and is seasonal. Each feast has its own response, and the response typically follows the season of the Church or the saints of the day; thus typically follows the Psalmody. In the Annual Season, the Praxis Response is addressed to St. Mary, which is why this long tune and its contemplation is addressed to St. Mary. All Praxis responses, regardless of season, end with the verse “Ek-Esmaroot” or “Blessed are you indeed with your Good Father and the Holy Spirit for you have come/been born/risen, etc. and saved us”.
It is a group-rendered melody that is accompanied by the playing of the cymbals as a preparation for the reading of the Book of Acts. It is a long hymn, containing six melodic divisions (or six parts), preferably alternated between 2 choirs as to emotionally express its hymnologic sentences.
Explanation and Contemplation
by: George Kyrillos, Leader of David Ensemble, Translated by: Deacons of St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church, East Brunswick, NJ.
1st Part of the Hymn
The hymn begins with pronounced, single tones full of power and sharpness, but it always ends with a low, melodic finish, as if in a bow of submission.
It is a summary of the life of St. Mary: strength and steadfastness in the faith in light of what the Archangel says to her, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and the acceptance, submission and humility in everything. She accepted the guidance of the Holy Spirit when Joseph the Carpenter was chosen to take her to his house, despite her having a strong will to remain a Virgin, which was not common among young Jewish girls at the time. She yielded and accepted her fate to become the Mother of God, and all the pain and agony that she had to endure… She yielded her power saying:
“Behold I am the maid servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your words”
How can power and yielding co-exist? She is the Virgin, (and this being typically a hymn for the Virgin), so the hymn, despite the power in it,bows from time to time, announcing that the power is not a deterrence for acceptance and submission. Rather, it distances all that can be described as weakness from it.
2nd Part of Hymn
As for the 2nd part of the hymn, it is a complete repetition of the 1st, without any changes. As if the Saintly Father, the orchestrator who authored this hymn is emphasizing the importance of acceptance and humility in the life of St. Mary. Or as if the 1st part displays this acceptance and humility in the life of St. Mary, and the 2nd part (repetition) is for us to learn from those virtues, and repeat this example that St. Mary displayed in her life of acceptance and humility…. In our life we would be likened to her and follow her virtues.
3rd Part of the Hymn
The 3rd part starts as the first two parts in its beginning segment: full of power yet displaying submission and lowliness. However, the hymn quickly starts to gradually rise in tune until it becomes like a shout in strength and power. It is to display this beautiful scene of the Virgin St. Mary the Mother of the Savior, while she quickly goes towards the mountain to the city of Judah and enters the house of Zechariah to meet with Elizabeth.
As for Elizabeth, she opens her eyes and realizes through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the greatness of her who entered into her house, and who she carries in her womb by a hidden mystery, and she cries out with a great voice and says: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb” The hymn shouts and rises with Elizabeth’s voice as if to illustrate this historical scene, the meeting of the visiting Child in the womb of the Virgin Mary who is Jesus the Savior of the world, and the receiving child in the womb of St. Elizabeth, leaping in joy, who is John the Baptist.
It is a historical meeting between St. Mary who represents the Church of the New Testament. This young Virgin who received power from God to be pregnant in a unique miracle, and to give birth while she remains a Virgin, to Christ the Savior of Humanity, with Elizabeth who represents the Old Israel. This elderly woman, from the tribe of Levi, who is of the daughters of Aaron, from a priestly family, despite her being barren, she also received power from God to be pregnant in a unique miraculous way, to give birth to Christ’s forerunner, of whom was said “a voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord”. It is a meeting of the Old Priesthood with the New Priesthood.
The hymn in the raising of the tune, and its shouting, reaches the level of sharpness and power to express this awesome meeting between her who is the symbol of the New Testament, and the symbol of the Old Testament and Mosaic priesthood. This illustrates the crying of Elizabeth “blessed are you among women” with the movement of the babe with joy in her womb, as if the tunes also carry this strong, changing and moving wind, the force of the Holy Spirit who started to run through John in the womb of Elizabeth to Christ in the Jordan river at His Consecration, to the upper Room on the disciples as tongues of fire, divided amongst them, and they started to speak in tongues, and preach the salvation and fulfillment of the Resurrection of the Lord and his Glory.
And after these heated musical notes in this meeting, during which there is a short and powerful dialogue, with the notes expressing both sides of the meeting, sealed with the strong forces of the Holy Spirit, the hymn quickly dissipates and is lowered to a fast and low segment to prepare for the 4th part of the hymn, which is considered the pinnacle of the musical structure and its crown among the 6 parts of the hymn.
4th Part of the hymn
One can not imagine that anyone would orchestrate a long hymn for the Virgin without contemplating in his mind Mary’s Song of Praise. This praise which reaches in heights, depth, capacity and inclusiveness allowing it to excel above the praises of the angels, starts with:
“my soul magnifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior”
One can question why St. Mary chose to praise with a song that starts with a word of glorification “magnifies”, and the word “my Savior”. Was St. Mary this deep in thought, great in knowledge of the Holy Books, and understanding of the promises? Was she able to so quickly revisit in her spiritual imagination the song of the glory and salvation which Moses and the Children of Israel sang when they said:“I will sing to the Lord, For He has triumphed gloriously! The Lord is my strength and song and He has become my salvation” (Ex 15:1-2) St. Mary was able, through her spiritual vision, to link the events and said this praise, that exceeded the praise of the Children of Israel during their Exodus. Thus, the 4th part of this hymn is not the praise of a nation crossing the sea, but it is the praise that all mankind should sing with the Virgin Mary. For through her, the crossing from darkness into light and from chains and bondage, to the glorious freedom of the children of God and from the awaiting and anticipation of the promises to living in them, became possible. For this reason the 4th part of this hymn is higher and sharper, and more beautiful and the most complete of all 6 parts. It is the part during which we utter the 2nd and 3rd syllables of the word “shere”.
When we listen to this hymn in this part, we realize completely that whoever orchestrated this part can see that the song of the glorification which St. Mary sang is rather a song of Salvation or a song of Passover. It is not only coming out of gentle voice of the Virgin, full of softness. It is also not only coming out of people like the Children of Israel crossing through the water. No one can separate between the 2 songs: the song of the Virgin and the Song of the Children of Israel. For the Virgin mixed in her praise, many words which were repeated by the children of Israel in the praise of Thanksgiving, glorification and Salvation.
Praise of the Israelites
Praise of the Virgin St. Mary
|I will sing to the Lord||My Soul magnifies the Lord|
|The Lord is my strength and song and has become my salvation||My Spirit rejoices in God my Savior|
|Your right hand, O Lord, has become glorious in power…performing wonders||For He who is Mighty has done great things for me|
|By the greatness of your arm they will be as still as a stone||He has shown strength with His arm|
|You blew with your wind, the sea covered them||He scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts|
|You have guided them in Your strength to Your Holy habitation||He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His Mercy|
Is not the praise of Glorification coming out of the mouth of the pure Virgin Mary, an extension of the praise of the children of Israel? At that point this praise became a song of Salvation repeated by the whole world. This 4th part of this hymn is overflowing with strength, more than the 3rd part, which was also overflowing with strength, illustrating the shouts of Elizabeth. What is beautiful is that the concluding segment of the 4th part is exactly the same as the concluding segment of the 3rd part and both of them are fast, and low after a long period during which the tunes were at their heights and sharpness. Now, the time has come for the rhythm to rest and for the tunes to calm down and the levels will be reset for the 5th part.
5th part of the Hymn
The 5th part starts with slow, dragging tunes, in difficulty with language, while the instruments of joy (cymbals and triangle) should stop. It resembles the arduous trip which the Virgin embarked on with Joseph the Carpenter, from Galilee, where The city of Nazareth was, to Judea where Bethlehem was. This is because when her days were near to give birth, a decree from Augustus Caesar was issued to perform a census, so Joseph went up to Bethlehem, being from the house of David, to be counted with Mary his betrothed. This trip was difficult as she was pregnant in her 9th month, let alone while riding on a donkey to cross a great distance, around 80 miles, which is the distance between Galilee, in the north of Palestine to Bethlehem in the south of Judea.
An arduous trip which did not end in rest but rather continued in the struggle of child-bearing, so how can the hymn be anything but struggling and dragging?! But it quickly changes its slow tunes gradually moving to a faster pace and becomes more energetic in its tunes, announcing the new of the glorious birth of our Savior. It is news… Mankind in its entirety changed from darkness to light. For this reason, the musical level changes, and the note “la” [b] appears for the first time in this hymn and around it another note appears, which is “mi” [b]. It is a complete change in the musical ladder. It is a new ladder, is it not? Was not St. Mary called the “Ladder of Jacob” whom he saw rising from the earth and reaching Heaven and the angels of God ascending and descending upon it (Gen 10:28). The Lord used the body of the Virgin to become a ladder upon which He descended to our earth, and the great orchestrater used this new musical ladder to raise us to the level of the Incarnate Son who humbled himself to raise us. He was successful in his choice of this moment to change the musical level.
After this, and shortly before the end of the 5th part, two segments appear in the hymn, which are filled with confusion and astonishment, with a touch of suffering. The 2 segments have similar musical composition with a slight musical difference and a difference in the landing bar. The repetition of the segment twice is as if to stress the confusion and astonishment. The appearance of the natural “mi” note despite the low notes surrounding it, gives a feeling of closeness, compassion and pleading. It’s as if the orchestrator of this hymn desires, before leaving the 5th part of the hymn to not let these incidents pass without expressing it musically: these 2 musical segments express the confusion and supplication of St. Joseph and St. Mary while they are searching for the Child 3 days during which a whole day was spent walking on their feet looking for the child Jesus amongst their relatives and acquaintances. He also expressed the anguish of St. Mary when she said “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I sought You anxiously…” The musician also expressed the astonishment when they saw the child amongst the teachers as a teacher bewildering them with his understanding and answers and their astonishment when he said to them “ I must be about My Father’s business”. The same emotion of confusion and astonishment took place at the incident of the Wedding of Cana of Galilee, and is resembled by the same musical notes of this segment. And in the same manner of supplication and confidence, which was the hallmark of both incidents, the 5th segment of the hymn ends, in supplication and confidence.
6th part of the hymn
For this reason the saintly Virgin Mary is deserving of honor: in her person, mankind was able to say “yes” to God, accepting Him as a Savior for us. In Mary, the union between God and Man was completed. In her, the Church of the new covenant was established, which is saved through the Blood of Christ which was shed from His Body that He took from St. Mary. In her, the holiness of the Old Testament reached its heights in faith, humility and obedience to God. So the 6th segment of the hymn is considered a short introduction, (considering it is the shortest segment of the hymn) to the words of honor by the orchestrator when he was finally able to end the Melismatic style and utter “hail to you (annually: O Mary the pure Turtle dove) ..”.
And in wondrous musical genius, the musician was able to flash back to the one of the musical segments that appear in the 4th part of the hymn during which he displayed the song of praise of St. Mary, which she said through her vision of the future “Behold all generations shall call me blessed”, and this flashback has an important role in tying the 6th and 4th parts of the hymn both musically and spiritually.
Musically, because it was able to recall the musical value which expressed the honor and blessings in the song of praise, which made it enjoyable to the ear, but difficult to forget this musical segment that it is possible for the deacon to learn this hymns, and if he loses focus during the praise in the 6th part, he is able to continue this segment from the 4th part and find the correct musical note, and every time he reaches the 6th part, he can go back to the 4th part until…
Spiritually however, through repeating this segment in the 6th part, we recall all the spiritual meanings included in the song of glorification which is the song of salvation for all mankind, during which St. Mary uttered “behold all generations will call me blessed”.
The words of the verse continue, praising Bethlehem, the town of David, where Christ, the 2nd Adam was born. Bethlehem resembles St. Mary in that it is the City of God, where God first dwelt among mankind, as the womb St. Mary is also the first dwelling place for God among man.
The blessing of this hymn, St. Mary and the city of Bethlehem be with us all, Amen.
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