Table of Contents
A study on the Paschal hymn, Vai `etafenf .
Vai `etafenf `e`pswi nou;uci`a ecsyp @ `nou;uci`a ecsyp @ hijen pi`ctauroc @ qa `poujai `mpengenoc.
Afswlem `erof @ `nje Pefiwt `n`aga;oc @ `m`vnau `nte hanarouhi @ hijen ]golgo;a.
This is He Who offered Himself an acceptable sacrifice upon the Cross, for the salvation of our race.
His Good Father smelled His sweet savour in the evening, on Golgotha.
The date and author of this hymn are both unknown. In addition, the theme of it is generic enough that it cannot be said with certainty whether it predates any Ecumenical Councils or was written as a result of them. The piece alone has themes that refute the heresies combated at all Three Councils, but it is not so direct that we can assume that with certainty. The only evidence that lends to suggesting that it is predates the Ecumenical councils, is that it has only one known tune. It would not be irrational to suggest that the indirectness of the Theological themes supports Pre-Council authorship, since hymns following the Councils usually combated specific heresies very vocally and directly so that all believers would be affirmed in their Orthodoxy. These, however, are only speculations, as nothing can be said with surety about the hymn, other than that it is authentically ours based on the tune and the fact that it is written in Coptic.
Note on Style & General Theme
Like most hymns of Great Friday, the theme Vai `etafenf is our Redemption, which was accomplished on that Holy Day. This hymn, however, is stylistically more meditational than other hymns. The pronoun “our” is used, reinforcing the personal contemplative nature of the hymn, as it is each individual member of the church looking toward the Saviour on the cross, and then sharing with the world the same prayer and proclamation. 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.
This hymn, despite its brevity, has in it the story of the Gospel; the story of Redemption. As such, it follows a natural order:
1. He is God.
2. His death was foretold in the prophecies.
3. He is the single and only acceptable sacrifice offered.
4. His sacrifice means the Salvation of our race.
5. His sacrifice was accepted before God the Father.
This is He
1. 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”. Who is He? He is God; He is God Incarnate. This is the very basis to the hymn, which is why she can make the claim that all this was done for our Salvation. It has been discussed why only God can complete our Salvation by the Fathers of the church at length, so it should suffice to argue that a limited man cannot take on the propitiation of sins of an unlimited sin. That is, a mere man under the bounds of natural time cannot take upon himself the sins of all generations – this is absurd. 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; working backwards, my father could not have made the same claim for his generations either. We appear to find ourselves in an endless dilemma, which would have no solution if we did not already recognize God, or rather, if He had not revealed Himself to us. 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 Saviour for Himself – this “one” is no other than the one: God. As author of life and creator of Time, He is held by no such boundaries. As Lord of all Creation, He can make Himself the created. This, indeed, is He.
This is He…
2. How does the Church recognize, though, that this one on the Cross is the one spoken of? That indeed this is the one whose death was foretold? That the one should have been crucified? Saint Athanasius reminds us of some of these prophecies.
Moses was the first to tell us, when he said inspired by the Spirit, “And thy life shall be in suspense before thine eyes; and thou shalt be afraid by day and by night, and thou shalt have no assurance of thy 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.
Following this, Jeremiah prophesied and said, “But I as an innocent lamb led to the slaughter, knew not: against me they devised an evil device, saying, Come and let us put wood into his bread, and let us utterly destroy him from off the land of the living, and let his name not be remembered any more” (Jeremiah 11:19). The only “innocent” person is God Himself, as all others are born with the stain of sin, and “all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God” (Romans 3:23) – save God only. This means that the Innocent person is none other than God incarnate. The wood of which Jeremiah speaks is none other than the wood of the Tree of Life. He goes further to prophecy how the Jews wanted Him destroyed and that memory of Him be blotted eternally.
Abundantly clear are the words of David the Prophet, “For many dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked doers has beset me round: they pierced my hands and my feet” (Psalm 22:16). David’s hands and feet were never pierced. Here He is seeing before himself someone to whom this has been done. “Wicked doers” surround someone who is not wicked – this someone must then have been innocent as well.
Of these three prophecies Saint 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).
These, along with all the other prophecies about the Messiah’s birth, life, death, and resurrection all confirm that indeed, “This is He”, God, our Redeemer, that is on that Holy Wood. Even John the Baptist recognized Him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Who offered Himself an acceptable sacrifice upon the Cross…
3. Having established that indeed it is God on the cross and that this was the death by which He must die, we may then understand the words, “Who offered Himself an acceptable sacrifice upon the Cross.” Since He is God, no others could offer Him. We could not choose for God to empty Himself and take the form of a servant. It is not within the power, nay – it is blasphemous for any man to put God under subjection. In fact, it is an absurdity. If God is under order of man, it means that man is lord over God, far be it from us to make such a statement. It is by realizing this absurdity, however, that we can appreciate the Divine Dispensation that was granted us – that He chose to offer Himself because He meets all the requirements of an acceptable sacrifice. An acceptable sacrifice need only be offered once, continual sacrifice indicates that the previous sacrifice must have been incomplete. The Sacrifice on the cross, however, was an Eternal Sacrifice,
“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 in 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 effected 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).
The fact that only one sacrifice was needed because it was God is reemphasized in another homily, “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).
Saint John teaches that the sacrifice in the Old Testament was incomplete; it was simply an “arraignment”, a process in which the transgressor was brought forth and called as an accused to answer for his faults. The sacrifice made by our Lord, however, was no arraignment situation. He came bearing no faults of His own, but came bearing on Himself the faults of all sinners of all generations. Since not only did He not sin continually but not at all, He showed what is opposite to weakness – complete might. As a result, His sacrifice was all that was acceptable, as no other being, neither in the heavens nor below the heavens, can with boldness claim to be able to do the same – as all are created beings and bound by the laws He created. The heavenly are not of our kind and not unlimited, and hence could not take the sin of man, and as discussed, no man can take on the sins of all generations. God’s sacrifice, again, is the only sacrifice that could be sufficient. He renewed our nature: 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 hath adorned Her all. For as a man buying servants giveth gold for them, and again when he desireth to deck them out doth this also with gold; so Christ hath 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).
…for the salvation of our race
4. It happened “for the salvation of our race.” It has been established that He upon the cross is God. He is 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 debt of man was paid in full, once and for all. What follows, then, is quite logical: Salvation. We lost our Salvation when we were enemies with God, however the paying of this debt, this true Sacrifice, meant reconciliation with the heavens:
”“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 appeareth,” but “for us”” (Saint John Chrysostom, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Homily XVII, p. 956).
Salvation, however, does not merely mean reconciliation – though reconciliation is a mandatory step. It cannot be that man and God be at enmity with each other and dwell in the same heaven! Here, again, then, is the natural consequence of His Godhead. Because He is God, He conquered death by His death and Resurrection. He, as Saint John Chrysostom teaches us, entered heaven to appear for us, and after this Reconciliation and mediation for us, He Himself led to Paradise the spirits of those who had departed before His crucifixion – but in the hope of the Resurrection. It is the Redemption, Reconciliation and the Resurrection that together result for us in Salvation – man was saved from the bondage of sin and the consequence of it (death), and at last could enter with joy into 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 His sweet savour in the evening, on Golgotha.
5. Finally, we can comprehend how “His Good Father smelled His sweet savour in the evening, on Golgotha.” The church is declaring in ecstasy and awe the fact that God the Father has accepted our prayers, and has accepted the Sacrifice offered before Him.
We were standing and praying as David did, saying, “Let my prayer be set forth before thee as incense” (Psalm 141: 2), and we were joining those of the Old Testament of whom it is said “The whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time 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 – as such all our hope was (and is) in Him. Since we could not atone for our sins ourselves and reconcile ourselves to the Father, we stood by, “without”, watching and praying as Christ went in for us – as both our incense – our prayer and sacrifice– and our High Priest – making the offering Himself (cf. Hebrews 2-13). Because His Father found the aroma “sweet” on the Holy Cross on Golgotha, we could sigh in relief, and say, “Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
Our relief is more full, however, 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 thy lips, and will take away thine iniquities, and will purge off thy sins” (Isaiah 6:7).
Now, then, we come full circle and marvel at all that this hymn contains – truly it is the story of our Redemption put in very simple words. Christ our God, of whom the prophets foretold, came to earth, took on our humanity while remaining God, suffered and died, buried and rose, was found as an unblemished sacrifice before God the Father, and hence reconciled us with God, redeemed us, and granted us Salvation.
This hymn is prayed in a very dramatic tune because we feel the guilt of our sins that made necessary this event. We point at the Lord on the Wood and proclaim that, yes, “This is He” indeed, very God and very Man, who is suffering on our behalf willingly, who offered Himself on our behalf. The full realization of the consequence of sin falls upon us, and so we cry out tragically, qa `poujai (“for the salvation”), as though we simultaneously accuse ourselves before Him of our sins, and cry out in wonder to preach to the world exactly what is occurring despite our wickedness.
In spite of the fact that we are living each moment of the Pascha and have not reached the climax, which is in the Resurrection, we still look forward to the hope that is in Him – recognizing that in His body hanging upon the tree is also the promise of Life. It is for that reason that in our prayer we acknowledge that it is for our Salvation – even though Salvation is not achieved until the Resurrection. Since this hymn is also a preaching, it would be an incomplete witness if it did not bear with it the promise of Life that is in Christ our Risen Lord.
This is a prayer of repentance, only when we too can look at our Lord dying on our behalf, and realize that this is for us and because of us, can we continue to cry with genuine tears and say, This is He. Amen. This is He.
“This is He Who in old time was sacrificed as a lamb, He being signified in the lamb; but Who afterwards was slain for us, for ‘Christ our Passover is sacrificed.’ This is He Who delivered us from the snare of the hunters, from the opponents of Christ…and again rescued us His Church. And because we were then victims of deceit, He has now delivered us by His own self” (Saint Athanasius, Letters, Letter X, p.1265).