Table of Contents
A book that covers the history and spirituality of the Holy Psalmody in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and which consists of contemplations and studies on some hymns. The book has been edited and was forwarded by H.G. Bishop Youssef (Bishop of the Diocese of the Southern United States). Special thanks to Matthew Massoud (the author) and the priests of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Toronto, ON, for allowing us to publish this book on this site.
IN THE NAME OF GOD, ALMIGHTY
COPTIC ORTHODOX PATRIARCHATE
ST. MARK’S COPTIC ORTHODOX CHURCH
The Spirituality of the Holy Psalmody
Edited and Forword by H.G. Bishop Youssef
Bishop of the Diocese of the Southern United States
Written by Matthew Massoud
St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church
41 Glendenning Ave.
* Hard copies of this book may be ordered from the address and phone number above (ask for Fr. Pishoy Salama), or by contacting Matthew Massoud at [email protected] *
* All quotes from the Holy Bible in this article are taken from the New King James Version *
Praise is the work of the angels standing before the throne of God praising Him incessantly. The Holy Psalmody is a means for praise, prayer, thanksgiving, glorification, and appeal to God.
This book gives us a brief historical overview of the Psalmody, its biblical origin, and the sayings of the fathers concerning singing hymns, especially the Psalms. It takes us on a spiritual journey of meditation to uncover the meaning, beauty and the spirituality behind each part of the Sunday Psalmody.
The book invites us to arise, as the first hymn in the Psalmody, ‘Tentheno’ or ‘Arise’, is a call for all the believers to awake from both their physical and spiritual sleep to praise the Lord. It encourages us in the First Canticle to join together in praising the Lord and to lead a life of repentance, as it recounts the crossing of the Red Sea symbolizing the baptism to get to a new life of repentance.
The Second Canticle brings to light the life of Thanksgiving beginning by giving thanks to the Lord, professing His glory, and the perfection of His creation. We are then brought to the point of persecution in the Third Canticle. The devil has seen the strength of the Lord, and our journey to salvation, and begins to send his hosts of demons to destroy us. The Three Youths bring to light the true life of Christianity and the endurance through trials and tribulations. The persecution leads us to the commemoration of the saints where we begin to mention the names of those in paradise who were able to “fight the good fight.” The author meditates on the importance and dogma of the intercessions of the saints then gives us a taste of heaven as we pray the Fourth Canticle with all the choirs of the heavens, praising our awesome and powerful God as He sits on His throne.
Now that we have tasted heaven, let us go forth and fight for it. We have to seek repentance and humility because these are the keys to heaven. The author leads us to the Psali of the Holy Psalmody (the Jesus Prayer) through which we ask ceaselessly “My Lord Jesus help me.” By singing and meditating on His name throughout the Holy Psalmody, especially in the Sunday Psali for Jesus, we are not only raised, but we destroy the devil as we sing His name.
The author then guides us through the Sunday Theotokia, meditating not only on the symbol of St. Mary but also on her life of humility and service being the highest saint of heaven, and the perfect model of Christianity. The Sunday Theotokia ends with the hymn Aven Piarshi-Eirevs which provides a wonderful image to the believer concerning the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross.
From my heart I deeply thank the author for his great effort in researching this topic. May this book be a blessing to those who read it so that they may savor the richness of the Holy Psalmody and praise the Lord with understanding, with humility and with joy through the intercession of St. Mary the mother of God, the prayers of all the saints, and through the prayers of our beloved father H.H. Pope Shenouda III.
Glory be to God forever. Amen.
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern US
17th of Babah, 1720 A.M. – 28th of October, 2003
The Holy Psalmody (or Tasbeha in Arabic) is a Holy time where the believers gather in order to pray together to the Lord, praising Him for His glory and at the same time, soaring into the heavens to join with His saints and angels. It elevates the spirit, and through the grace of God, purifies us from all our sins and blemishes. Because of the beauty that lies in this great service, there are many aspects of the Psalmody which an individual may meditate on and learn from. The Psalmody is comprised of selected sections of the Holy Bible. The Sunday Psalmody (sung Saturday night, or early Sunday morning before the Liturgy) begins with the Midnight Prayers of the Agpeya. It is then followed by Tentheno, which is comprised of selected passages from the midnight prayers of the Agpeya. Afterwards, the First Canticle, or Hos in Arabic (Exodus 15) is sung, followed by the Second Canticle (Psalm 136), Third Canticle (Daniel 3, taken from the Orthodox Bible*1), the Hymn of the Three Youths (written by Moalem Sarkis), the Song of Azariah, the Commemoration of the Saints, followed by selected Doxologies. We then sing the Fourth Canticle (Psalms 148, 149, 150), followed by the Psali and then the Sunday Theotokia. It is then ended by the hymn Neknai O Panoti (Your Mercies, O my God). The congregation then recites the Introduction to the Creed (We exalt you, O Mother of the True Light) followed by the Orthodox Creed (We believe in One God). Efnouti Nai Nan (O God Have Mercy) is then sung. The chanters then recite Holy, Holy, Holy O Lord of Hosts followed by Our Father. As the Psalmody ends, the prayers of the Prime Hour are read from the Agpeya followed by the Morning Doxology leading to the Matins Raising of Incense. We will try to cover as much as possible so that we may meditate at all times on the One Who died for us and loved us. May the Lord bless those who have preserved this great prayer throughout the generations, and continue to bless those who are trying to master it so that we may praise the Name of our Creator.
*1 The Orthodox Bible contains additional Scripture that the Protestant Church omitted. This additional Scripture is wrongly titled the Apocrypha. For the Orthodox Church they are Canonical Books.
Chapter 1 – The Purpose of the Holy Psalmody
There are many reasons for the incorporation of the Holy Psalmody in the Church. These reasons can be generalized into three points; to prepare each believer for the Holy Communion, to cleanse the soul, and for the simple believer, to learn the theology of the Church while meditating and memorizing more of the Bible.
1. TO PREPARE FOR THE HOLY COMMUNION
Preparing ourselves for the Holy Liturgy and the receiving of Christ are extremely important and should not be taken lightly. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul
writes concerning the Holy Eucharist*2:
“Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgement to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
The Holy Eucharist is a time when the Lord comes to us, and His Holy Body and His Holy Blood are presented to us on the altar. Its significance is great in our lives, for without it, we cannot live with our Lord. Our Lord Jesus Christ mentioned its importance when He spoke to the Jews saying,
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6: 53-56).
We, as the believers of the Church, have been blessed with a great sacrament. How then should we prepare ourselves for this Holy sacrament so that we may benefit from it? Our Lord Jesus Christ instructed us on how to receive Him through the parable of the ten virgins. This parable centers around five wise virgins and five foolish virgins, who had their lamps and awaited the coming of the bridegroom (Matthew 25:1-13). Although this parable can be likened to the end of days, it can also be used to explain how we should approach the altar each time we partake in the Holy Communion. In the Holy Psalmody, we stand praising God, lifting our hearts to Him, waiting for Him. In the story of the ten virgins, when the bridegroom came at midnight, those who had enough oil for their lamps and who had readied themselves went in with Him. Those, however, who were not vigilant enough found the door shut, being deprived of not only the presence of the bridegroom, but of the joy and love that came with being in His presence. We too sing and pray, keeping watch, “lest [we] enter into temptation” (Mark 14:38). This is also why the first line of the Psalmody begins with Tentheno (Arise O Children of the Light) because we become like the five wise virgins who arose from their slumber and lit their lamps (and became children of the light) to enter in with the bridegroom, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Not only should our hearts be ready for the coming of the Lord, but the Church should also be made clean for our King. When a great authority comes to visit, you must welcome him with the finest apparel, presenting him gifts worthy of his status. If a feast is held in his name, all things should be clean. In the same way, the accessories of the altar are kept in a safe manner and are made spotless. They are cleaned not only in a physical sense, but they are prayed on and the fathers purify them with the Holy Myron*3. Even though this is done, we often forget about “spiritually” cleaning our Church to welcome the King of Glory. St. John Chrysostom writes about this importance:
“This is what is done by the prayers, by the cry of the herald. We scour the Church, as it were, with a sponge, that all things may be set out in a pure church, that there may be ‘holy and without spot or blemish’ (Eph. 5: 27). Unworthy, indeed, both our eyes of these sights, and unworthy are our ears!” (Third Homily on Ephesians).
2. TO PURIFY THE SOUL
As noted in the previous point, the severity behind approaching the Holy Communion without a clean heart is a great sin, so great that it becomes a judgement to us. How then, can we prepare ourselves using the Psalmody? King David the Prophet writes in Psalm 51,
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:7).
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart – these, O God, You will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).
Both these verses signify prayers of repentance. The Lord washing us relates to the beginning of the introduction (Tentheno or Arise O Children of the Light), where we acknowledge our faults with verses like, “Let my cry come near before You, O Lord, give me understanding according to Your word” or “I have gone astray like a lost sheep, seek Your servant for I do not forget Your commandments.” Also, acknowledging our faults and sins can be seen throughout the Holy Psalmody when we repeat the phrase in the Commemoration of the Saints saying, “that He may forgive us our sins.” In doing this, our hearts become contrite and our souls humbled, becoming purified through God’s loving grace, since,
“God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5).
After we have become pure, we can join with David the Prophet and say,
“And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me; Therefore I will offer sacrifices of joy in His Tabernacle; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises to the Lord” (Ps. 27:6).
3. TO LEARN THE THEOLOGY OF THE CHURCH AND TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE BIBLE
Often the subject of Theology*4 is thought to be complicated and too diverse for the simple believer. The topics of the Nature of Christ, the virginity of our mother St. Mary and other topics are often left to the priests and theologians to discover and indulge in. Yet through the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, the Church has mastered the teachings of Theology and has presented it to us in a Holy and understandable manner (even though the topics are not as complicated as we make them to be). Throughout the parts of the Psalmody we are able to understand the role of the Holy Trinity, and we are taught how God is Three-in-One and One-in-Three as well as many other topics. A good example of this is in the Sunday Theotokia, where the Nature of Christ is explained:
“One nature out of two, a Holy Divinity, co-essential with the Father and incorruptible” (Part Two of Theotokia).
In the Theotokia, we also learn about the Holy Virgin Mary and the symbols that relate to her in the Old Testament concerning her Perpetual Virginity and how she was the chosen Theotokos*5. The Sunday Theotokia will be explored in depth later on.
Through the Psalmody, we also learn more about the Bible and are able to memorize it and hymn it. H.H. Pope Shenouda III mentions the beauty behind this when he says that this not only helps us meditate and hear the Words of God when we pray, but in reciting them over and over, we learn to memorize them so that we become enflamed and surrounded by the Holy Words of God.
*2 A Greek word meaning thanksgiving.
*3 Holy Oil that has been passed on since the time of the Apostles.
*4 Theo- is a Greek word meaning God and –ology stemming from the Greek word Logos meaning Word as well as wisdom and reason.
*5 Theo- is a Greek word meaning God and –tokos is a Greek word meaning bearer. Therefore the word Theotokos means God-bearer and commonly translated as Mother of God.
Chapter 2 – Biblical References Concerning the Holy Psalmody
There are many verses in the Bible that symbolize the importance of hymnology and singing the psalms as a means to benefit our lives with God. We have already looked at how the parable of the ten virgins mimics the Psalmody. There are also other striking verses that bring to light the beauty and use of the Psalmody.
1. PSALMS AS PRAISE
“Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms” (James 5:13).
“Praise the Lord! For it is good to sing praises to our God; For it is pleasant, and praise is beautiful” (Ps. 147:1).
The Psalmody is comprised (as mentioned in the introduction) of many psalms. The psalms are a beautiful means for us to pray to God. They allow the soul to express its emotions in a Holy manner before God, by the use of the words of David the Prophet and other psalmists, who wrote these prayers by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They lift the soul to heaven into the presence of our Holy God.
2. PRAYER OF ST. PAUL AND ST. SILAS
“But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed” (Acts 16:25-26).
Although St. Paul and St. Silas may have not used the exact prayer of the Psalmody, the similarities found in the praying of Psalmody and their prayers are great in number. First, they did two important things; prayed and sang. You cannot have one without the other. They offered their hearts and their mouths as sacrifices of praise. The power of the Psalmody done by St. Paul and St. Silas were so great before the Lord that our King caused the earth to quake for them. The simple prayers of two men gave them the authority (through our Lord) to have dominion over the forces of this earth. This is exactly what happens in the Psalmody. When we offer our hearts to the Lord, we too can cause the earth to quake and tremble, and have dominion over our sins on earth. Although St. Paul and St. Silas were in jail at the time of this event they still arose and became children of the Light (Tentheno). They became a light to the other prisoners and to the keeper of the prison, who later converted along with his entire household (Acts 16:27-34). They followed the teachings of Christ when He said,
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
Also, how beautiful is this: that even when they were in the deepest state of persecution, they still prayed and sang aloud for the other prisoners to hear; both the believers and unbelievers! Another important part is at the end of the verse where it is written, “and their chains were loosed.” This again is a great mediation to help explain what happens each time we pray the Psalmody. We are freed from the limitations of this world. Our souls are almost separated from our bodies, and are taken up to heaven just as St. Paul was taken up (2 Corinthians 12:1-6). Our earthly sins (which are our chains) are broken by the power of prayer and by the sacrifice of praise.
3. LAYING THE FOUNDATION OF THE TEMPLE
“When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the Lord, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord: ‘For He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’ Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid” (Ezra 3:10-11).
What a beautiful passage from the Bible! The verse from which the people sang was Psalm 136, the exact psalm we use in the Second Canticle. This beautiful passage mentions many wonderful things. The people were singing the psalms and as a means of prayer, as we often do in our Church, deriving hymns from the Psalms and verses from the Bible. The people also sang this hymn when the foundation of the Church was laid. Similarly, we repeat this hymn during the Psalmody as the foundations of our soul are laid and are transformed into a holy dwelling place for the Lord, as the Temple was a Holy place for the Lord in the Old Testament. Not only does this passage bring to life many vivid and powerful meditations, but it also shows the richness of our Church in following even the tiniest details of the Bible. Not only do we sing the same Psalm as the Jewish people did, but even the use of the cymbals are common between our praises and the praise of the children of Israel!
Chapter 3 – What the Church Fathers Have Said Concerning the Singing of Hymns (especially on the Psalms)
Singing psalms is a medicine for healing the soul (St. Athanasius).
There is no emotion of the human spirit which music is incapable of expressing (St. Augustine).
…The Book of Psalms thus has a certain grace of its own, and a distinctive exactitude of expression. For in addition to the other things in which it enjoys an affinity and fellowship with the other books, it possesses, beyond that, this marvel of its own – namely, that it contains even the emotions of each soul, and it has the changes and rectifications of these delineated and regulated in itself. Therefore anyone who wishes boundlessly to receive and understand from it, so as to mold himself, it is written there. For in the other books one hears only of what one must do and what one must not do. And one listens to the Prophets so as solely to have knowledge of the coming of the Savior. One turns his attention to the histories, on the basis of which he can know the deeds of the kings and saints. But in the Book of Psalms, the one who hears, in addition to learning these things, also comprehends and is taught in it the emotions of the soul, and, consequently, on the basis of that which affects him and by which he is constrained, he also is enabled by this book to possess the image deriving from the words. Therefore, through hearing, it teaches not only to disregard passion, but also how one must heal passion through speaking and acting (St. Athanasius).
For I believe that the whole of human existence, both the dispositions of the soul and the movements of the thoughts, have been measured out and encompassed in those very words of the Psalter. And nothing beyond these is found among men. For whether there was necessity of repentance or confession, or tribulation and trial befell us, or someone was persecuted, or, being plotted against, he was protected, … or he wants to sing praises and give thanks to the Lord – for any such eventuality he has instruction in the divine Psalms (St. Athanasius).
If the point needs to be put more forcefully, let us say that the entire Holy Scripture is a teacher of virtues and of the truths of faith, while the Book of Psalms possesses somehow the perfect image for the souls’ course of life. For as one who comes into the presence of a king assumes a certain attitude, both of posture and expression, lest speaking differently he be thrown out as boorish, so also the one who is running the race of virtue and wishes to know the life of the Savior in the body, the sacred book first calls to mind the emotions of the soul through the reading, and in this way represents the other things in succession, and teaches the readers by those words (St. Athanasius).
Those who neglect the prayers of the Psalms with mediation, lose the chance of prayer according to God’s will (Father Pishoy Kamel).
The passion of adultery is extinguished by the songs of the Psalms, and the beauty of the tunes. By the pouring of the heart before God and the hidden screams (The Spiritual Elder, St. John Saba).
The work of praising attracts the service of the Angels because this is a function of their existence. Thus they come closer to those who imitate in their ways (St. Basil the Great).
Thirst after Jesus, and He will satisfy you with His love (St. Isaac the Syrian).
Take courage, toil and strive zealously, for nothing will be lost. Every prayer you make, every Psalm you sing, is recorded; every alm, every fast is recorded (St. Cyril of Jerusalem).
Chapter 4 – Historical Overview of the Holy Psalmody
There have been several documentations concerning the Psalmody. Very little is known about the actual beginnings of the Psalmody, but historical accounts date the beginning of this prayer to be as early as 65-75 AD. Around this time, a man named Pliny the Lesser, a Governor of States of the Roman Empire, was asked to write a report to the Emperor on the people called the Christians. Pliny the Lesser wrote in his report, “They sing hymns for Christ as a God before sunrise and after they rest and pray a ‘secretive prayer’ for the believers.” This secretive prayer referred to the Holy Liturgy and the singing of hymns before sunrise referred to the Psalmody.
Even St. Hippolytus (who lived around 150 A.D.) mentioned the existence of the Psalmody. He was a writer who focused his studies and writings on the end of the world. He wrote about the fate of the Christians and he wrote that in the last day, the Psalmody will cease to come from the mouths of Christians. How could he have mentioned this Psalmody if it did not exist?
Chapter 5 – Contemplations on the Holy Psalmody
The Psalmody is full of meaning and contemplations. It is a spiritual journey allowing the believer to feel all states of the spiritual life in a single moment of time. To cover each word of the Psalmody and its beauty would be highly beneficial to the believer, but for the purpose of this book, we will only scratch the surface of the meanings and spirituality behind each part of the Sunday Psalmody.
1. TENTHENO (ARISE O CHILDREN OF THE LIGHT)
The first prayer of the Psalmody begins with the verse,
“Arise O children of the light and let us praise the Lord of Hosts.”
Usually sung in a long tune, this hymn calls on the believers to awake from both physical sleep and more importantly, spiritual sleep, to praise the Lord of Hosts. Many verses from this hymn are taken from the midnight prayers of the Agpeya, reminding us once again to be like the five wise virgins, who prepared themselves for the coming of the bridegroom (the Gospel reading of the first service of the midnight prayers of the Agpeya), and also like the sinful woman, who went earnestly before the Lord, to seek His forgiveness and to live with Him (the Gospel of the second service of the midnight prayers of the Agpeya). The following meditation on the hymn, Tentheno, was taken from a deacon from St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church in Toronto, Canada.
I would like to meditate with you on one word in the hymn of Tentheno. In this long hymn, the word Tentheno, “Arise” is split up into three sections. Ten-the-no. “Ten” and “the” are short, and then there is a crescendo at “no,” where the hymn starts. As I was listening to it yesterday, I was thinking to myself of the spiritual significance to why the word “Tentheno”, in the long hymn, is split up into three sections. Our lives, like the hymn, should be split up into three sections as well. What are the three sections, you ask? David the Prophet says,
“We went through fire and through water; but You brought us out to rich fulfilment” (Ps. 66:12).
Water, fire, and rich fulfillment. If you ever notice, that is how the actual Psalmody is split up. The first part is Water. This signifies the First Canticle; the exodus of the Israelites, and crossing of the Red Sea as we read in the Second Canticle,
“To him which divided the Red sea into parts: for his mercy endures for ever: And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endures for ever: But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endures for ever” (Ps. 136: 13-15).
Fire: The Third Canticle, Aripsalin, and “Tenoueh Enthok – Azariah’s Prayer” which revolve around the story of the Three Youths in the fiery furnace; Rich Fulfillment: from the Commemoration of the Saints, till the end of the Psalmody, This is because we feel as we are indeed in heaven, in the presence of God, the Almighty, and His saints. What, then, is the significance of water, fire, and rich fulfillment?
Water is a symbol of “soft” tribulations. When a person is at the first stage of repentance, he believes that the devil is bombarding him with all his might, when in fact the devil is barely doing anything to him. H.H. Pope Shenouda says that the devil does not bother with beginners “in the road of repentance,” because they are too easy for him. He merely sends one of his weak assistants to “visit” the beginner every now and then, or simply allow the beginner to fall on his own. The devil likes a challenge so he goes after the strong people, not the beginners, who are of no interest to him. He allows them to fall on their own. In order to pass the “water” stage, the individual must struggle until he can swim his way to safety as Father Misael (serving in St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Toronto) often tells me. In other words, the repentant individual must learn how to pray, and depend solely on God, never on himself. The repentant individual must learn how to use “the ways of salvation” that God has prepared for us. Only then will God, “our spiritual lifeguard,” toss to the individual the Cross as a life preserver to rescue the person.
The second stage is fire, which is a symbol of “strong” tribulations. When an individual is close to reaching, or has reached Christian perfection, the devil begins to use all of his “power” to ensnare the individual, because only at this stage are they a challenge to him. Examples of such are the three youths, who were thrown in the fiery furnace. The fire, or the mere thought of death did not scare them because they knew that God was watching over them. Another great example is the Great St. Antony. When he lived in a tomb at the beginning of his ascetic life, devils (plural – more than one) appeared to him in forms of strange beasts, wanting to devour him, but St. Antony knew very well that they had no authority over him. They beat him physically, to the extent that he was close to death. He was taken back to the Church, because the people were expecting him to pass away, but he asked his helper to take him back to his tomb, and with his might and authority began chanting:
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked came against me to eat up my flesh, my enemies and foes, they stumbled and fell. Though an army may encamp against me, in this I will be confident” (Ps. 27:1-4).
These great people, who do not fear the fire, are like the righteous Job:
“There is none like him on earth, a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8).
They know that God allows these tribulations to test their faith, and that nothing bad will happen to them:
“Behold, he is in your hand, but spare his life” (Job 2:6).
After going through water and fire, God will reward the successful, by bringing them out to rich fulfillment, which is eternal rest in His heavenly kingdom; the region where sorrow and sadness do not exist.
As mentioned previously, in the long hymn of Tentheno, the word “Tentheno” is split up into 3 sections. Ten-the-no. “Ten” and “the” are short, and the stretch “or the actual hymn” begins at “no.” One could mirror this to our lives; tribulations, whether they are “soft” or “strong” are temporary, and short-lived, just as the one beat of “Ten” and the one beat of “the.” They do not last long, and their end comes quickly, whereas our “rich fulfillment,” like “no,” where the actual hymn starts, stretches out forever. As the hymn starts at “no,” our true rejoicing will commence once we reach the green pastures of heaven, where God, the true “rich fulfilment” abides. And there, we will praise Him endlessly, with the choirs of the heavenly.
“Now it is high time to awake out of sleep” (Rom. 13:11).
Chapter 6 – Contemplations on the First Canticle of the Holy Psalmody: Exodus 15
“Then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and spoke, saying: ‘I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea!’” (Exodus 15:1).
The First Canticle is taken from the book of Exodus chapter 15 verses 1-21. This song was sung after the people of Israel followed the direction of Moses*6 through the Red Sea. In doing so, Pharaoh and his chariots drowned and the people were freed from the bondage of slavery they faced in Egypt under the reign of Pharaoh. This Canticle is filled with a great deal of symbolism and brings meaning to our lives. First let us look at the basic meaning behind the crossing of the Red Sea, and then we will meditate on selected parts of this Canticle.
1. THE CROSSING OF THE RED SEA SYMBOLIZES BAPTISM AND THE NEW LIFE ONE HAS GAINED THROUGH REPENTANCE AND CONFESSION
First let us examine briefly what life was like for the children of Israel when they were slaves. They were ordered by Pharaoh to do very hard manual work and were put under very strenuous conditions, often abused physically (Exodus 1:11). The Egyptians even killed the male children, and enslaved the young daughters (Exodus 1:22). Now let us compare this to our own lives. Pharaoh, representing the power of the devil, as described by St. Gregory of Nyssa in the book Life of Moses, often inflicts the same type of torture on us. When we become slaves to him (through sin) we are driven to great tortures on our spirits, bodies and we can even be put to death spiritually by the command of the devil. Fortunately though, God made a promise to Moses on the mountain saying,
“I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows. So I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up from that land to a good and large land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites and Hittites and the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites” (Exodus 3:7-8).
What a beautiful promise God has given to those who have cried to Him even when they were bound by sin! After God had sent the ten plagues on Egypt and the Children of Israel came to the Red Sea, the Lord commanded Moses to divide the sea (Exodus 14:16). The children then followed Moses and crossed the sea to the other land, and as the book of Exodus tells us, the sea then came back upon the Egyptians who were in pursuit of the children of Israel, and they drowned and died at the bottom of the sea (Exodus 14:22-31). How then do we relate this to the Psalmody? In the Psalmody, as we described earlier, we take a journey through life. When we begin the Psalmody, we are often dragged down by the cares of the world and the sins of our soul are often great. We endure the slavery of sin, asking God to deliver us from the hand of the devil. We then are joined with the children of Israel in praising God as we walk through the Red Sea, seeing the death of the enemy as we journey out of Egypt towards the “land flowing with milk and honey.” This all happens during the waters of baptism (and the sacrament of repentance and confession, a renewal of our baptism every time we are given the absolution by the priest). In reciting the hymn of Exodus, we are driven to repentance and emotion because we are reminded of our former life when we were under the rule of the devil. We have now been made new with God and are saved from the poor life we once lived, the life of bondage and slavery to sin, that we often voluntarily chose to live. Being driven to this new life, we then begin our journey into the Psalmody, leaving behind our cares and sins in Egypt and crossing the Red Sea into the new land. We can now truly begin our journey into heaven.
2. MEDITATIONS ON SELECTED VERSES FROM THE FIRST CANTICLE
A. “Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song to the Lord, and spoke, saying: ‘I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously! The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea!” (Exodus 15:1).
This is the first verse sung in the First Canticle. This verse is extremely important because it encourages the believers of God to join together in praising the Lord. There are a few parts of this passage worth noting. The first is that Moses and the children of Israel both sang this song. The Bible clearly shows that it is not only the leaders’ responsibility, but the whole assembly must join collectively to declare the wonderful works of God. Secondly, we notice that although the whole assembly sang together, they still begin the song with the word “I”, not “we.” This shows that each individual should declare the glory of God. Just because we might stand among the believers, it means nothing unless one personally declares the glory of God through prayers and hymns. The third aspect that we must meditate on when we sing this part of the Psalmody is how the Lord saved us from the devil and has thrown him into the sea. We remember our past life with the devil and meditate on our new life with God, living amongst the angels and saints being in the presence of God at all times.
B. “The enemy said, ‘I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my lust shall be satisfied upon them, I will draw my sword, and my hand shall destroy them.’”
Those who have been rescued from the bondage of slavery are often pursued by the devil. His crafty desire for our downfall and his persistence in trying to bring us down is continual. The beauty of this passage is that it reminds us of God’s great power. Though the enemy has decided to pursue, overtake and divide the spoil, trying to destroy us, he cannot and will not touch those who follow God. Our Lord has restrained the devil by His death on the Cross, crushing the head of the serpent under His feet. King David also realized the power of the Lord over the enemies when he said,
“The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; Of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked came against me To eat up my flesh, My enemies and foes, They stumbled and fell. Though an army may encamp against me, My heart shall not fear; Though war may rise against me, In this I will be confident” (Psalm 27:1-3).
Those who follow the Lord, and keep His ways, shall overcome the pursuit of the devil, and because of the strength of God, the devil shall be destroyed by the tears of repentance.
C. “Who is like You, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like You, glorified in His saints, amazing in glory, performing wonders?”
The question of faith is often an issue in our lives. Is the Christian faith the true faith, or is another religion the right one? This passage is one of great power! “Who is like You, O Lord, among the gods?” If each individual truly asked this question and pondered it in his or her heart, then the answer should be clear that the Christian faith is the right and true faith. What faith is able to profess the love of God like the Christians can? What faith can declare that their God loved them so much, that He took a weak and sinful nature, clothed Himself with it, endured great persecution, even to the point of death, just to free the race that He created? Our Lord Jesus Christ expressed this great love for us when He spoke, saying,
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).
Not only did Christ love us to the point of death, but His whole mission to be incarnate was to save the world, and not to condemn it, even though the world was living in sin. St. Paul also meditates on this beautiful expression of love when he writes,
“Who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
Truly our Lord is great, for there are no other gods, religions, or treasures of the earth that have ever reflected the perfect love God has for us!
D. “And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand and the women went out after her with timbrel and with praises. And Miriam answered them saying, ‘Sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously.’”
This verse also shows the beauty of prayer. Once again, we see the beauty of the Church in that as we walk amidst the children of Israel, out of the land of sin, we too carry an instrument in our hands, perfecting and mimicking the same walk of deliverance as that of the children of Israel. Not only that, but this verse also shows the importance of women in the Church. Miriam the prophetess led the women in prayer, professing the power of the Lord. Praise is not designated to a specific gender, but the entire body of believers join together to declare the glory of the Lord. Just as the Lord used the Samaritan woman (John 4: 1-42), here He uses another woman, Miriam the prophetess, to lead the women to praise God. Every time we sing this verse, we follow the words of David the Prophet, which commands that,
“Everything that has breath praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:6).
E. “With the split, the waters of the sea split and the very deep, became a walkway. A hidden earth was shone upon by the sun and an untrodden road, was walked upon.”
This passage is taken from the Lobsh*7 of the First Canticle. These verses, once again, declare the beauty of the Lord our God and the way He is able to direct our lives. King Solomon professed saying,
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
When we are faced with the Red Sea, pursued by the enemies of God, we often fall into despair and lose hope, not knowing which way to go. Yet, just as the Lord opened a new path unto the Children of Israel and led them across the sea, destroying the enemy, He does the same for us as we walk with Him and towards Him. He opens the doors for us, allowing us to even walk in an area never ventured before by any man on earth, just to allow us to reach salvation. He whispers in our hearts the gentle words of His mouth, saying,
“I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).
His light shines on us like the sun as we walk the path of life and in the end as we cross to the other side, living with Him and glorifying His Name!
*6 The name Moses is an Egyptian name derived from the Coptic word Musi. It is derived from two Coptic words: The First moou meaning water and etchi meaning to take. The name Mu-chi or Musi in Coptic means taken from water, which was the name given to Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter when she found him floating in the river and took him as her son (Exodus 2:10).
*7 A Coptic word meaning explanation.
Chapter 7 – Contemplations on the Second Canticle of the Holy Psalmody: Psalm 136
“O give thanks to the Lord for He is good: Alleluia, His mercy endures forever.”
The Second Canticle is taken from Psalm 136. It is a psalm rich in spirituality and full of thanksgiving. In the days of David the prophet, this hymn was sung by the believers as they entered into the city of Jerusalem. It begins by giving thanks to the Lord, professing His glory, and the perfection of His creation. It then moves further into the Old Testament, reminding the people of the mercies of the Lord, who brought them out of the land of bondage. Furthermore, it proclaims how the Lord directed His people through the wilderness, helping them fight through the trials and tribulations they faced. Once again, we will look at the basic meaning behind Psalm 136, and then meditate on selected parts of this Canticle*8.
1. THE SECOND CANTICLE BRINGS TO LIGHT THE LIFE OF THANKSGIVING
We have been freed from the bondage of sin, and have crossed the waters of baptism through the sacraments of confession and repentance. The natural reaction of a man rescued from the pains of slavery, and adopted to become a son of the King, would be one full of thanksgiving. In the journey of the Psalmody, we follow the route of this emotion. We, who were slaves of sin, have been freed. We thank the One Who freed us. We declare His awesome power and profess His divinity, declaring how He created the heavens and the earth. We thank Him for “delivering us from our enemies.” We should not just thank our Lord, but profess His glory to the world, as David professed in His song of deliverance,
“Therefore I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the Gentiles, and sing praises to Your name” (2 Samuel 22:50).
St. Augustine, in his meditation of the Psalms, also spoke of the reason why we should thank the Lord our God, when he said,
“What reason shall I give why you should praise Him? ‘Because the Lord is good’ (ver. 3). Briefly in one word is here explained the praise of the Lord our God. “The Lord is good;” good, not in the same manner as the things which He here made are good. For God made all things very good; not only good, but also very good. He made the sky and earth, and all things which are in them good, and He made them very good. If He made all these things good, of what sort is He who made them?” (Expositions on the Book of Psalms: Psalm 135)*9.
Not only does the Second Canticle bring rise to the prayer of Thanksgiving, but the mercy of the Lord is emphasized each time we sing this wonderful hymn. The refrain for this hymn, “for His mercy endures forever” is repeated twenty-eight times. The number twenty-eight is significant. If we read in the book of St. Matthew we are brought to the answer behind this number.
“From David until the captivity of Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until Christ are fourteen generations” (Matthew 1:17).
According to H.G. Bishop Mettaous (Bishop of St. Mary’s Monastery, El Sorian), if we take the sum of these two numbers, fourteen generations from David to the captivity, and fourteen from the captivity to Christ, the number would be twenty-eight. This is to remind us that the Lord’s mercy encompassed the children of God from the writing of this psalm (written by David the Prophet) to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
2. MEDITATIONS ON SELECTED VERSES FROM THE SECOND CANTICLE
A. “To Him who smote Egypt in their firstborn: Alleluia, His mercy endures forever.”
In the beginning of this psalm, we profess the beauty of the creation of God. We declare how He made the heavens and the earth, declaring His perfection and His wisdom. The Psalter then gives thanks, bringing to memory the days of oppression of the children of God. The Lord performed many wonders in the land of Egypt, not only delivering the children of God, but also allowing the Egyptians to see the true and living God so they could turn away from the life of idolatry. St. Gregory of Nyssa reflects on this verse saying,
“The teaching is this: When through virtue one comes to grip with any evil, he must completely destroy the first beginnings of evil. For when he slays the beginning, he destroys at the same time what follows after it” (Life of Moses).
Thus St. Gregory puts the spirituality of this verse in picture. Not only did God slay the firstborn of Egypt as a means to deliver the children of Israel, but in doing so, He was teaching us a lesson to use in our spiritual lives. The killing of the firstborn of Egypt is the killing of the first thought of sin that may enter into our hearts. In repeating this in the Psalmody, we are reminded that we have been freed from the bondage of sin, but we still must work to enter into the Heavenly Kingdom, for,
“Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).
St. Gregory also reveals the means by which we must slaughter the firstborn of evil when he writes,
“The history provides this perception in both the killing of the firstborn and the safeguarding of the entrance by blood. In the one the first impulse to evil is destroyed, and in the other the first entrance of evil into us is turned away by the true Lamb” (Life of Moses).
Thus, by anointing our doors as the children of Israel did, with the blood of the true Lamb, who is Christ, the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), we free ourselves and protect ourselves from the thoughts of evil.
B. “To Him who led His people through the wilderness: Alleluia, His mercy endures forever.”
How did the Lord lead His people through the wilderness?
“The direct route from Egypt to Israel would only take 11 days by foot. But God took the Israelites on the long road which took 40 years. Here’s the explanation of why He did that: Remember how the Lord your God has led you in the desert for these forty years, taking away your pride and testing you, because He wanted to know what was in your heart. He took away your pride when He let you get hungry and then fed you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had ever seen. This was to teach you, ‘that a person does not live by only eating bread, but by everything that the Lord says…’ He took away their pride and tested their hearts. Did God want the children of Israel to reach the Promised Land? Of course. But He was more concerned that they arrive prepared than that they arrive too soon…at the right time God comes. In the right way He appears. So don’t bail out. Don’t give up. He is too wise to forget you, too loving to hurt you. When you can’t see Him, trust Him. He is praying a prayer that He Himself will answer” (Max Lucado).
This beautiful meditation can be thought of every time we sing the Psalmody. The number forty represents life, therefore we can interpret the forty years as the journey of life. Christ prepares us as we travel through this life. We are set in dry, barren surroundings, often alienated because of our belief, but we are led by Him. We endure tribulations, hardships and struggles so that we may follow Him. In return He sends us the food from heaven, the manna, which is the bread of life, or as we have been taught by our Lord, the Body of our Savior,
“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (John 6: 48-50).
He brings us the Word to direct us through the teachings of the Apostles. Even though we are sometimes presented with the presence of a barren land, having very little fruit to harvest, our Lord pulls us through it so that we may confess as the righteous Job did saying,
“But He knows the way that I take; When He has tested me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
C. “And slew famous Kings: Alleluia, His mercy endures forever.”
Not only does this canticle bring to light the wonderful things the Lord did in Egypt, but King David professes His power over the kings and rulers of this world. There are two meanings behind this. The first is described by St. Augustine when he writes,
“When you see what has been done to the wicked, take heed lest it be done to you…. But when the good man sees what the wicked has suffered, let him cleanse himself from all iniquity, lest he fall into a like punishment, a like chastisement. Then you will have a thorough understanding of these things. What did God do afterwards? He drove out the wicked, ‘And he gave their land for an inheritance, even an inheritance to Israel His servant’ (ver. 12)” (Expositions on the Psalms: Psalm 135).
The second meditation derived from this passage can be on the destruction of the devil. Jesus described the devil as the ruler of this world.
“I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me. But that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, so I do. Arise, let us go from here” (John 14:30-31).
Even though the ruler of this world is the devil, our Lord Jesus Christ crushed him and destroyed his kingdom by dying on the Cross. He rescued those who were held captive in Hades and brought them into His kingdom, opening the gates of Paradise for all His children.
D. “He brought forth water out of a rock and gave it to His people in the wilderness.”
St. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of this verse in his meditation of the Life of Moses.
“I shall call to mind the miracle of the rock, whose resistant and hard nature became drink to those who were thirsty when its hardness dissolved into the softness of water. It is not difficult to harmonize the sequence of the history with spiritual contemplation… For ‘the rock,’ as the Apostle says, ‘is Christ’ (1Cor. 10:4), who is moistureless and resistant to unbelievers, but if one should employ the rod of faith he becomes drink to those who are thirsty and flows into those who receive Him, for He says, I and My Father ‘shall come to him and make Our home with him’ (John 14:23)” (Life of Moses).
What a beautiful contemplation on this passage of the Psalmody! The rod of faith is able to bring forth water from the Lord, as seen in the story of the Samaritan woman, who was overcome with joy because when she had asked the Lord for living water, she received the
“Fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4: 14).
This not only brings to light that the Lord nourishes “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), but that those who believe in His Name and follow Him with their hearts shall see the wonders and miracles of the Lord.
*8 The word Alleluia is repeated at the end of each verse throughout this Psalm. The word Alleluia is a Greek word derived from the original Hebrew word Hallelujah. Hallelujah means, Praise ye Jehovah, which is God’s Name as given to Moses by God Himself when Moses asked Him, “‘… What is His name? What shall I say to them?’ And God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ And He said, ‘Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’’” (Exodus 3: 13-14) The Name, I AM, is translated to the word Jehovah in Hebrew.
*9 Because the numbering in the Septuagint differs from that of the NKJV, the numbering of this Psalm appears as 136 in the NKJV and 135 in the Septuagint.
Chapter 8 – Contemplations on the Third Canticle of the Holy Psalmody: The Hymn of the Three Youths
“Blessed are You, O Lord, God of our Fathers, and exceedingly to be praised, and exalted above all forever.”
The Third Canticle is taken from the book of Daniel chapter three in the Orthodox Bible. This song was sung by three holy youths, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, who were placed in a burning furnace because they refused to worship the golden image made by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon (Daniel 3:1-12). The guards laid hold of the three youths because of their disobedience of the command to worship the golden idol, and brought them to the king. Nebuchadnezzar ordered them to worship the idol or be thrown into the fire. He threatened them saying that no one would be able to deliver them. The three youths replied,
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up” (Daniel 3:16-18).
The three youths were then ordered to be thrown into the furnace because of their disobedience. In his anger, Nebuchadnezzar commanded the fire to be hotter, in order to destroy the youths. Although he desired to kill them, by making the furnace hotter, he ended up killing the soldiers while the youths continued to pray during this time, remaining unharmed. The beauty of this story is evident in the following events after the furnace was made hotter:
“And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished; and he arose in haste and spoke, saying to his counsellors, ‘Did we not cast the three men bound into the midst of the fire?’ They answered and said to the king, ‘True, O king.’ ‘Look!’ he answered, ‘I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.’ Then Nebuchadnezzar went near the mouth of the burning fiery furnace and spoke, saying, ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here.’ Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came from the midst of the fire. And the satraps, administers, governors, and the king’s counsellors gathered together, and they saw these men on whose bodies the fire had no power; the hair of their head was not singed nor were their garments affected, and the smell of fire was not on them” (Daniel 3:23-27).
1. THE THREE YOUTHS BRING TO LIGHT THE TRUE LIFE OF CHRISTIANITY AND THE ENDURANCE THROUGH THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS WE FACE
The story of the three youths is a story rich in meditation. The Church, through the wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit, placed this wonderful prayer of the youths (which was sung while they stood in the furnace), right after Psalm 136. As mentioned earlier, the Psalmody is a journey of the spiritual life in a single moment of time. We first asked God to help us and forgive us of our sins, then we were delivered from the bondage of sin through the crossing of the Red Sea, through the sacrament of baptism and its renewal in the sacrament of repentance and confession. We have given thanks to our God for His love in delivering us, and destroying the “prince of this world” (John 14:30). We are then brought to the point of persecution. The devil has seen the strength of the Lord, and our journey to salvation, and begins to send his hosts of demons to destroy us. As seen in the story of the three youths, the devil, in all his anger, may even bring those in power and a whole city of people against us. His aim is to discourage us from the path of salvation and in doing so, cause us to return and desire the life of bondage of sin and slavery. An example of this is seen through the children of Israel when they cried out against Moses saying,
“Oh, that we had died by the hand of the Lord, in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and when we ate bread to the full! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger!” (Exodus 16:3).
We too, may also fall into this despair, and desire to return to the land of bondage. This is because of our lack of faith, and loss of hope. These people, who had been freed from sin, asked Moses to allow them to return to be slaves again because they did not have bread! They forgot that they were being led to the land flowing with milk and honey, just as we often forget that we are being led to the Kingdom of Heaven. Though this life may be a difficult journey to take, the rewards are great.
In singing this beautiful prayer of the youths, we are transformed in many ways. Let us meditate on their story so that we may be reminded of it as we join with them in prayer. The three youths were loyal to God, refusing to bow to the golden image made by Nebuchadnezzar. They followed the words of the Apostle Paul, which said,
“Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
The three youths professed their love for God, and refused to worship the golden image. We too, when participating in this hymn, renounce the devil as he attempts to lure us back to him, fooling us with images of feeble things, just as he tried to lure the children of Israel with the remembrance of meat and bread (materials of this world), things which do not compare to the treasures of heaven. The second thing that the youths did was that they accepted the idea of torture to uphold the truth. After they refused to worship the golden idol, they were brought before the king and threatened to the point of death, but they stood firm in their belief. This can also be likened to our spiritual lives. After the devil has tried to entice us back to him, he then wages war against us with mere threats, hoping that we would find our way back to him out of fear of what he can do to us, even though he has no dominion over us, as Christ said,
“Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:19).
If we follow the example of the youths, and arm ourselves with the Cross, confessing the Name of Christ, remaining loyal to our King, confessing and believing that our God will deliver us from the hand of the devil, then the devil will try to harm us. He will command us to be thrown into the fiery furnace, and in anger, command it to be hotter. Out of his foolishness and his ignorance, he will end up falling into his own snare, bringing to death his own men when we arm ourselves and destroy Him with the sign of the Cross, as David the Prophet spoke, saying,
“They have prepared a net for my steps; My soul is bowed down; they have dug a pit before me; Into the midst of it they themselves have fallen” (Psalm 57:6).
After we read that the soldiers had died because of the heat of the furnace, our attentions are brought to a wonderful verse:
“And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace” (Daniel 3:23).
What a beautiful verse! These three young men, in the midst of fire, persecution, and oppression, bound by their hands and feet, fell down. They fell down in prayer, kneeling and praising their God, the Creator of heaven and earth. Although we are sometimes bound by tribulations and are constantly being assaulted by the devil, we too experience this joy of the three youths and begin to praise our God. In drawing ourselves into prayer, the devil begins to panic and is often confused, wondering how the children of God could be joyful in a time of persecution, often pondering the origin of the source of this joy. But this answer is very simple.
“‘Look!’ he answered, ‘I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire; and they are not hurt, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God’” (Daniel 3:25).
God was standing in their midst. Who is able to contain their joy and love when they stand in the presence of God? We too, when we sing this hymn, are joined with the three youths, standing in the fire, joined with God Himself, in His presence, praising Him. What equals this beauty is the fact that as God joined them and stood in their presence, the chains that bound the three youths were loosened. Here again we are drawn to the meditation that our chains of sin are loosened like those of the three youths and like the chains that were broken and fell off from St. Paul and St. Silas (Acts 16:25-26). This loosening of chains can also be a reference to our joy and spiritual lift into heaven. It is only through trials and tribulations that we can truly experience the love of God and be lifted up with Him and when we are loosed, we become so in tune with heaven that we often forget the trials and tribulations we encounter.
Let us look at one more thing concerning this wonderful story of the three youths. When the king saw that the youths were loosened and that there stood One among them who resembled the Son of God, the king believed and asked the youths to come forth so that he may see. This again brings us back to the verse written by St. Paul to St. Timothy, calling for all of the youths to be examples to the believers (1 Timothy 4:12). When we are faced with trials and tribulations and direct our hearts into prayer, praising the Lord our God, we will draw those who do not know Him. We become children of the Light (the first verse mentioned in the beginning of the Psalmody), and God, through His grace, shines His light through us so that the servants, administers, governors and even kings of this world, become attracted to the True Light, that God has shone within us. They become astonished at us, seeing what we have been through, and witnessing the power of God as we come out of the fire unharmed like the three youths.
“Then Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego came from the midst of the fire. And the satraps, administers, governors, and the king’s counsellors gathered together, and they saw these men on whose bodies the fire had no power; the hair of their head was not singed nor were their garments affected, and the smell of fire was not on them” (Daniel 3:26-27).
Not only do the believers living on earth remain unharmed, but the souls of the righteous escaped the flames as well. H.G. Bishop Mettaous also brings to light the meaning of how the youths escaped from the fire unharmed. The fiery furnace is a symbol of the flames of Hades, which burnt constantly, but did not consume the souls of the righteous who were in it waiting for the coming of our Lord, and for the doors of Paradise to be opened.
2. MEDITATIONS ON SELECTED VERSES FROM THE THIRD CANTICLE
A. “Bless the Lord, all you waters that be above the heaven, Praise Him and exalt Him above all forever.”
In the prayer of the three youths, we notice that the youths call upon the creation to bless and praise the Lord. They ask the stars of heaven, the moon, the sun, the beasts and so on. These are things that do not have a soul or mind. There are several wonderful meditations one can derive from this. First, if we notice the order in which the youths ask the creation to praise God, the order falls to the exact sequence as in the creation found in Genesis. This shows us the spiritual strength of the youth and how they were extremely well versed in the Bible. How can we praise the Lord our God if we do not read the Book of Life, and listen to the words of the Lord? We are reminded that we should read and meditate on the Holy Bible and on the writings of the Fathers in the days of our youth, so that we may grow in Him, since the days of our youth are what shape our future. St. Pachomius alludes to this when he said,
“Struggle in your youth that you may rejoice in your old age.”
In the book of Ecclesiastes, king Solomon, in all his wisdom, also wrote,
“Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth, before the difficult days come, and the last years draw near when you say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
The second beautiful meditation is based on the story of Adam and Eve when they sinned and were cast from the Garden of Eden. This fall caused the whole earth to enter into the life of toil and struggle. Even the beasts and cattle were affected as with all the creation that did not have minds or souls. Because of their sin, and because we are the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, we ask the creation to join us in prayer, that God may restore us to the original state in which He created us, and place us once again into the New Garden of Eden, the Paradise of Joy.
The third beautiful meditation that can be taken from this wonderful praise of the three youths and their desire to ask the creation to praise God, is taken from H.G. Bishop Hedra (Bishop of Aswan). He writes,
“The third hos is the praise of the three saintly youths [Prayer of Azariah], which we find in the Orthodox Bible*10. And in it the three youths ask all the creation to join with them in the praise of God and the blessing of His Mightiness. For example it is sung, ‘Praise the Lord you rain with the dew,’ ‘Praise the Lord you clouds and wind,’ ‘Praise the Lord you whales.’ So how does the creation that is without thought, praise Him, while the creation that has a mind, that was created to praise God, stands silent? ‘Let us praise Him and exalt Him above all forever,’ (‘Hos erof ari ho oo shasf sha ni eneh.’) This is the phrase sung after every verse.”
What a powerful meditation. How can one stand silent when the creation without salvation (like the rain, dew, cold heat etc.), praise God, while we, who were slaves of sin, and have been freed, stand quiet and emotionless before the God of heaven?
Another beautiful meditation concerns the refrain, “Praise Him and exalt Him above all forever”. We repeat this refrain thirty-four times. The number thirty-four is significant, in that our Lord Jesus Christ lived on this earth for thirty-three and a half years. If we rounded that number up we would get the number thirty-four. How wonderful is it that we praise each year of the life of Christ, each moment that He blessed our nature and took our form. Yet as the refrain reminds us, not only do we praise Him for the life He lived here on earth, but throughout all the ages and forever shall we praise our Lord and God.
B. “Bless the Lord, O you who worship the Lord, the God of our fathers, Praise Him and exalt Him above all forever.”
This hymn is sung in a beautiful long tune. It is rich in Coptic hymnology and this hymn is able to bring the soul into the heights of heaven. We will meditate on the tune of Hos erof ari ho oo shasf sha ni eneh. The extensions of this long hymn are in “ari” and “sha”. They follow the same pattern, so we will meditate on them in a collective manner. This portion of the hymn begins with two parts of a very high, up-tempo tune. This beautiful up-tempo beat can be likened to our re-birth in Christ through the Holy Baptism or through its renewal in the sacrament of repentance and confession. We are made pure in these two sacraments, and the choir of angels rejoice in the salvation of our souls. The proceeding parts of this hymn are sung in a descending tune, becoming more sombre as the tune hits a very low key, making it difficult for some people to sing. This mimics two aspects of our spiritual lives. To the believers, this sombre tune may represent the hard-pressed feeling due to the persecution they are facing and the various trials and falls one might encounter. To the catechumen*11, this may be a remembrance of the life they once lived without our Lord Jesus Christ. A gloomy life that lacked all joy and was filled with feelings of depression and despair. The tune then starts to rise again, in gradual steps. This is likened to the climb of the believers. They start with a simple push, maybe through the Word of God, through the aid of their Confessor Fathers, or maybe through the lives of the saints. The believers then begin to rise from their evil ways and turn their eyes towards the Lord their God. The tune then hits two high repetitious parts, sounding almost like a cry for help, reminding us of the words of David the Prophet who cried out saying,
“Unto You I lift up my eyes, O You who dwell in the heavens. Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, As the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, So our eyes look to the Lord our God, Until He has mercy on us. Have mercy on us, O Lord, have mercy on us!” (Psalm 123:1-3).
We will now focus on the beautiful meditation which comes from the final two parts of this long hymn. These two parts are repeats of the first parts, the high, up-tempo beat we have previously talked about, and now instead of just the choir of angels praising because of our salvation, we join with them, in perfect unison, chanting for the Glory of God. For through all the tribulations we faced, we are being purified to become like angels living on earth.
“Let all the torments of hell come upon me, for I suffer for the love of Christ” (St. Ignatius of Antioch).
*10 H.G. Bishop Youssef (Bishop of the Diocese of the Southern United States) comments on the Coptic Orthodox Bible saying, “As we do not have a printed Orthodox Bible you can refer here to either the Septuagint, or the Catholic Bible or the canonical Books omitted by the Protestants.”
*11 A person who believes, but has yet to be baptized.
Chapter 9 – Contemplations on the Commemoration and the Doxology of the Saints of the Holy Psalmody
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints”
The saints are an integral part of our Church. After the hymn of the Three Youths and the Prayer of Azariah, the Church incorporated the Commemoration of the Saints followed by appropriate Doxologies. This, once again, shows the wisdom of the Church Fathers and the guidance they received from the Holy Spirit. After having been freed from the bondage of sin by the power of God, thanked Him, and endured persecution for His sake, taking our lead from the three youths who endured the fire, we then begin to mention the names of those in heaven, who were able to “fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 1:18). As H.G. Bishop Mettaous remarks, each time we mention the names of the saints, they join us, one by one in praising the God of Heaven. In this act, the Church becomes united with the heavens. The saints are an important part of our lives, so we will meditate on the importance and dogma of the intercessions of the saints.
1. BIBLICAL REFERENCES REFERRING TO THE INTERCESSION OF THE SAINTS
There are several examples in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, which make reference to the intercession of saints. The first example would be found in the book of Genesis, specifically, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. God was angry with the people because of their wicked ways (Genesis 18:20-21) and Abraham desired to save the city. We observe this example of intercession as Abraham asked the Lord to spare His people.
“But Abraham still stood before the Lord. And Abraham came near and said, ‘Would You destroy the righteous with the wicked?’” (Genesis 18:22-23).
It is so remarkable that the righteous saints of the Lord are able to stand before the Almighty God to plead with Him on behalf of the people! The story progresses with Abraham asking the Lord to spare the city if there were fifty righteous men. The number diminished then to forty, then thirty, twenty, and finally ten. Each time he made a request the Lord told him that if He found that many people, He would not destroy the cities. In the same way, the saints of the Lord are able to ask the King to help and spare us, and He, out of His love for His saints, listens and confides in them.
The second example of intercession in the Old Testament is found in the story of Job. Job was also a righteous man, who was tested by the devil, but he endured and proved his love towards God because he did not curse God, but remained faithful. Even when his friends turned against Him, he remained faithful to his Lord and did not curse Him. Finally, when the Lord revealed to Job the reason behind his suffering, He went to the friends of Job and instructed them to do this:
“Now therefore, take for yourselves seven bulls and seven rams, go to My servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly; because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8).
This is exactly what takes place when we ask the saints to pray on our behalf. Through the gift of humility, we are able to realize that we have not lived a good Christian life, and have not lived like the saints. Because of this truth we take our sacrifices of praise, give it to the saints and ask them to take those offerings and pray to God on our behalf (as Job did for his friends). Then God will accept it, sparing us from His wrath because of His love for His true servants, who spoke rightly of Him.
The third example of intercession in the Old Testament is found in the story of Moses the prophet, when the people disobeyed the Lord by making for themselves a golden calf to worship when Moses was on the mountain. The Lord saw their wicked ways, but Moses went before the Lord and began to pray to Him, asking Him to spare the people, although he saw their wickedness as well.
“Turn your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven’” (Exodus 32:12-13).
Here we see two intercessions. First Moses pleaded on behalf of the children of Israel. Secondly, in his humility, Moses used the intercession of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Patriarchs of Israel, to plead to God on his behalf.
“So the Lord relented from the harm which he said He would do to His people” (Exodus 32:14).
There are many more references (such as 1 Kings 13:6 and 1 Timothy 2:1) referring to the intercession of the saints, but we will look at the greatest saint in heaven, the Theotokos, St. Mary for our last example. In the wedding of Cana of Galilee, where the first miracle of our Lord took place, we will notice the powerful intercession our Mother, St. Mary made to the Lord on behalf of those at the wedding.
“And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, ‘They have no wine.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what does your concern have to do with me? My hour has not yet come’” (John 2:3-4).
Verses six to ten then show how our Lord Jesus proceeded to turn the water into wine, even though the hour of the Lord had not yet come. He changed the water into wine because of His love for St. Mary. This shows the power of the intercessions of the saints in our lives, for,
“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers” (1 Peter 3:12).
2. MEDITATING ON THE IMPORTANCE OF SINGING THE COMMEMORATION AND DOXOLOGIES OF THE SAINTS
There are many reasons why we sing the Commemoration of the Saints. First, by singing the names of the saints, and by honoring them, we befriend the saints. In Ecclesiastes we find that,
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion” (Ecclesiastes. 6: 9-10).
This is one of the many roles of the saints. Not only are they there to pray for us, but to walk with us, encouraging us every step of the way, brining us up when we are brought very low, and reminding us of the beauty of the Lord. St. Ambrose explains the importance of our friends.
“Preserve, then, my sons, that friendship you have with your brethren, for nothing in the world is more beautiful than that. It is indeed a comfort in this life to have one to whom you can open your heart to, with whom you can share confidences, and to whom you can entrust the secrets of your heart. It is a comfort to have a trusty man by your side, who will rejoice with you in prosperity, sympathize in troubles, encourage in persecution. What good friends those Hebrew children were whom the flames of the fiery furnace did not separate from their love of each other!” (St. Ambrose).
We often forget that the saints, who led righteous lives, were humans just like us. They had the same flaws and struggled with the same sins and same trials we deal with. What separates us from the saints is not that they lived a perfect life, but that they lived the life of repentance, confessing each and every act because of their great love for God, knowing that they were not worthy of His grace and of the great sacrifice He made for us on the Cross. We learn what they endured when we sing their doxologies and are often reminded that just as they endured, so shall we if we walk with the Lord. Their presence also helps those who might find themselves alone. Christ said,
“For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
How can this be possible if we are praying by ourselves the Psalmody or any other prayer alone? We said earlier that when we mention the name of the saint, they come and stand among us, uniting the church and our soul with heaven. When we call upon them, they help fulfill this promise as well as encourage us.
Another meditation on the importance of the Commemoration of the Saints and the Doxologies comes from H.G. Bishop Hedra of Aswan.
“Proceeding these hymns is the commemoration of the saints. When we have become involved in praising God and glorifying Him, we have the participation of the victorious church with us. It is the souls of the saints who have preceded us to the paradise of joy, that come to support us and to accompany us in our continuous struggle against the world, sin, and the weaknesses of the body. So we ask from their love and their aid to remember us before the Throne of blessing with a stronger intercession. So we say, “Intercede (or pray) on our behalf that the Lord may forgive us our sins.” This last phrase makes us feel how sinful we are that we may learn the life of humility. It is also a deep theological order in our Coptic Orthodox Church, which teaches us the intercession and prayers of the saints. We also notice the difference between an intercession and a prayer request. The intercession is specified for Saint Mary, the heavenly hosts, John the Baptist, and the 144,000 martyrs. This is due to the high level at which they are and because they have special favor before God. The prayer request is specified for the rest of the martyrs and the saints.”
As Bishop Hedra explained, the mentioning of the saints is a means to humble ourselves. It is only when we humble ourselves, realizing that we have not lived a strong Christian life, that we become closer to God. We also learn the difference between intercessions and prayer requests, once again learning more about the theology of the Church as we sing the hymns of the Church.
A final reason why we sing the Commemoration of the Saints and the Doxologies is to fulfill the commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ. When the Lord sat with his disciples, a woman came with very costly oil to anoint Jesus with it. She was rebuked by Jesus’ disciples, who thought she should have sold it and given the money to the poor. But Jesus answered and said,
“Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will be also told as a memorial to her” (Matthew 26:13).
The saints, who loved the Lord with all their heart, who offered sweet repentance before Him and who died for Him, who not only anointed His feet, but proclaimed His word throughout the world, confessing His Glory, should they not also be told to the believers and non-believers as a memorial to them?
“Can the lover of martyrs ever have enough of their memory? The honor given to the righteous, our fellow servants, is a testimony of the good will of our Common Master. Bless the martyrs heartily, that you may be a martyr by intention. Thus, even though you depart this life without persecutor, fire or lash, you will still be found worthy of the same reward” (St. Basil the Great).
Chapter 10 – Contemplations on the Fourth Canticle of the Holy Psalmody: Psalms 148, 149, 150
“Praise the Lord from the heavens Alleluia. Praise Him in the heights.”
The Fourth Canticle follows the singing of the Commemoration of the Saints and the Doxologies. It is a combination of three psalms; Psalms 148, 149, and 150. These three psalms combined are called “The Praises”. According to the New King James Version of the Bible, Psalm 148 is titled, “Praise to the Lord from the Creation”, Psalm 149 is titled, “Praise to God for His Salvation and Judgement”, and Psalm 150 is titled, “Let All Things Praise the Lord”. We mentioned earlier the benefits of the psalms in our life. St. Athanasius wrote this concerning the psalms:
“For I believe that the whole of human existence, both the dispositions of the soul and the movements of the thoughts, have been measured out and encompassed in those very words of the Psalter. And nothing beyond these is found among men. For whether there was necessity of repentance or confession, or tribulation and trial befell us, or someone was persecuted, or, being plotted against, he was protected, … or he wants to sing praises and give thanks to the Lord – for any such eventuality he has instruction in the divine Psalms.”
Since we have discovered that the psalms are a perfect means to express the feelings of the soul and to offer perfect praise to our Lord, we will try to discover why the church has incorporated these three psalms into the Psalmody following the Commemoration and the Doxology of the Saints.
1. THE FOURTH CANTICLE ALLOWS US TO TASTE HEAVEN
We have taken a wondrous journey so far. We pleaded with the Lord to help us and save us from the hands of our oppressors. The Lord came in a mighty fashion and freed us from the bondage and land of sin. We, being freed from our enemies through the waters of baptism and the sacrament of confession and repentance, thanked the Lord for His love in saving us and bringing us into the new land to embark on our journey through the wilderness of life, trying to reach the promise land. As we journey, we enter into great trials and tribulations like the three youths, tortured by our enemies, but through prayer, the power of God, and His presence, we escape unharmed as we behold His presence through our troubles. We then are joined with the saints, as we sing and proclaim their glory in singing the Commemoration and the Doxologies, inviting each saint to come participate with us, that we may befriend them and join them in praising God. If we have examined all things carefully, we are purified through the Psalmody and stand among the saints and the choirs of heaven. Is this not the meaning of heaven? Since we now stand in heaven, should we not participate in the activities of heaven?
“Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain To receive power and riches and wisdom, And strength and honor and glory and blessing!’ And every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, I heard saying: ‘Blessing and honor and glory and power Be to Him who sits on the throne, And to the Lamb, forever and ever!’ Then the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshiped Him who lives forever and ever” (Revelation 5:11-14).
When we pray the Fourth Canticle we are joined with the heavenly and stand amongst the ranks of the heavens. The Lord has purified us throughout our journey, so that we will learn to love it, and strive for it. As we sing the Fourth Canticle and are surrounded by the saints and heavenly beings, we follow the words of St. John Chrysostom, who instructed us saying,
“Raise your eyes towards the throne of God and you will see the Word Incarnate, the bearer of our humanity, seated at the right hand of the glory.”
What a beautiful and glorious ending for our journey on earth. After we have fought the good fight and struggled through all the trials and tribulations (with God standing amongst us the whole time as He did with the three youths), we are given a beautiful reward by standing in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ as He sits at the right hand of His Father. What a great contrast to our original state, in which we were once slaves to a wicked ruler, who treated us like animals, to now standing with the saints in the presence of the great King. We are not only joined with the heavens in praising Him, but we become exactly like the heavenly beings. We went from a state of despair, pleading for God to save us as a means for our prayer in the beginning of the Holy Psalmody, but now, after we have journeyed through life, begin to praise our God in a different way. We make no reference to ourselves in the Fourth Canticle, but only praise the God of heaven, leaving our old being behind as we are now made in His image.
“Consider, then, how great a thing it will be when the angels are present, when the archangels are standing there together with the seraphim, cherubim, and all the heavenly powers. Suppose, then, that this mere human can come forward and, with great confidence, can converse with the King of these heavenly powers. How great an honor it would take to match this? Not only honor but also the greatest benefit would come to us from prayer, even before we obtain our request. As soon as a man raised his hands to heaven, as soon as he has called upon God, he has immediately put away human affairs. In his mind, he has gone over to the future life and, thereafter, thinks of the things of heaven. He has nothing in common with the life of this world, as long as he is praying and as long as his prayer is offered with diligence and care” (St. John Chrysostom).
2. MEDITATIONS ON THE FIRST PSALM OF THE FOURTH CANTICLE: PSALM 148
A. “Praise the Lord from the heavens. Alleluia. Praise Him in the heights.”
The Fourth Canticle begins with Psalm 148. This psalm is a beautiful psalm, which encourages the creation to praise the Creator. This psalm can be divided into three sections. The first calls for the praise of the heavens, the second part calls for the praise of the earth and the third part calls for the praise of the earth and the heavens as they are joined within the Church. Let us meditate on these three sections.
The first part of this hymn calls for the praise of the heavens. The praise of the heavens is a perfect praise, full of joy and harmony, in which no single being exalts itself over the other, but all attention is given to the God of Heaven. We too, should mimic this wonderful state of praise. St. Augustine (in his Exposition on Psalm 148)speaks of this part of the hymn.
“Praise the Lord from heaven: praise Him in the high places. First he says, ‘from heaven,’ then from earth; for it is God that is praised, who made heaven and earth. All in heaven is calm and peaceful; there is ever joy, no death, no sickness, no vexation; there the blessed praise God forever; but we are still below: yet, when we think how God is praised there, let us have our heart there, and let us not hear to no purpose, ‘Lift up your hearts.’ Let us lift up our heart above, that it becomes not corrupted on earth: for we take pleasure in what the Angels do there. We do it now in hope: hereafter we
shall in reality, when we arrive there. ‘Praise Him’ then in the high places.”
As we lift our eyes to heaven and behold this wonderful site, let us imitate the chorus of heaven so that we may be worthy of praising Him all the days of our lives, not only on earth, but also in the “high places” of heaven.
The second part of the psalm deals with the creation on the earth. This, once again, reminds us of the order of creation, for God first made the heavens, then the earth. The praise of the earth begins with the verse,
“Praise the Lord from the earth, You great sea creatures and all the depths” (Psalm 148:7).
We first see the large things that were created on this earth, the sea creatures and all the depths of the earth (such as the bottom of the seas, in which these creatures live). Even though we emphasize that this earth brings many tribulations, we often forget that it was God who created it and loved it.
“Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
When we behold our surroundings here on earth, let us be reminded of the great God of heaven who created this earth. We can marvel at the size of the creation, and we being miniscule in comparison, are still loved by Him and protected each second of our lives as He guides our ways. We also praise the Lord who made the cattle and birds, and all other living things. We notice His perfect design of all things. St. Augustine writes again,
“Who made all this? You are amazed at the smallest things; praise Him that is great. Hold then this, my brethren, let no one shake you from your faith or from sound doctrine. He who made the Angel in heaven, the same also made the worm upon earth: the Angel in heaven to dwell in heaven, the worm upon earth to abide on earth. He made not the Angel to creep in the mud, nor the worm to move in heaven.”
St. Augustine meditates on verse 8, in which it was written that these things ‘fulfill His words’:
“It was in thought of this that the spirit of the Prophet added the words, ‘which do His word.’ Do not think that these things are moved by chance, which in every motion of theirs obey God. Wherever God wills, there the fire spreads, there the cloud hurries, whether it carries in it rain, or snow, or hail. And why does the lightning sometimes strike the mountain, yet does not strike the robber? … Perhaps He yet seeks the robber’s conversion, and therefore the mountain which does not fear is smitten, that the man who fears may be changed.”
Blessed is our God, Who uses the nature, the things which He has created so that we may learn and be spared from eternal condemnation!
If, after reading the previous meditation, we are still full of pride then let us focus on the meditation of the order of this psalm. If we look at this hymn carefully we are humbled because the Psalmist has placed the heavens first, then the creation of the earth, including the animals and the things of the earth, and then finally he mentions of the people of the earth. King David, inspired by the Holy Spirit, did this for a reason. One is not able to praise God unless they first humble themselves.
The third and final part of Psalm 148 deals with the praise of the Church in which heaven and the earth are connected, through His grace. We join together, singing the hymn with a single voice. The heavens declare faithfully that He is above the earth, and we who live on earth, declare whole-heartedly that His glory is above the earth. He has “lifted the horn of His people.” This statement could not be more truthful. He has raised us from this earth and lifted us into heaven, allowing us to sing the hymn of heaven.
“‘A hymn to all His Saints.’ Do you know what a hymn is? It is a song with praise of God. If you praise God and do not sing, you do not utter a hymn: if you sing and do not praise God, you do not utter a hymn: if you praise something else, which does not pertain to the praise of God, although you sing and praise, you do not utter a hymn. A hymn contains these three things; song, praise, and that of God. Praise then of God in song is called a hymn. What then does it mean, “A hymn to all His Saints”? Let His Saints receive a hymn: let His saints utter a hymn: for this is what they are to receive in the end, an everlasting hymn” (St. Augustine).
3. MEDITATIONS ON THE SECOND PSALM OF THE FOURTH CANTICLE: PSALM 149
A. “Sing the Lord a new song. Alleluia. And His praise in the congregation of the saints.”
In the previous psalm we were united with the heavens, therefore in this psalm we continue to praise Him “with a new song”. St. Augustine examines the meaning of the term, “a new song”.
“Let us praise the Lord both in voice, in understanding, and in good works; and, as this Psalm exhorts, let us sing unto Him a new song. It begins: ‘Sing to the Lord a new song. His praise is in the Church of the Saints’ (ver.1). The old man has an old song, the new man a new song. The Old Testament is an old song, the New Testament a new song. In the Old Testament there are temporal and earthly promises. Whoever loves earthly things sings an old song: let him that desires to sing a new song, love the things of eternity. Love itself is new and eternal; therefore is it forever new, because it never grows old. … And this song is of peace, this song is of charity” (St. Augustine).
This psalm can also be divided into two sections. The first deals with the power and love of God and His mindful dealings amongst His people. The second is the vengeance and judgement of the Lord, who,
“Will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32).
We will rejoice in our Maker for He has chosen us as the new Israel and we have become heirs to the Almighty King. We shall praise Him with all instruments, with psaltery and harp. St. Augustine once again meditates on this verse in great and wonderful detail, explaining how one, who must “deny himself”, bearing the cross of tribulations and afflictions, may praise in joy and love.
“‘Let them sing a psalm unto Him with timbrel and psaltery.’ What does he mean by ‘timbrel and psaltery’? That not only the voice alone may praise, but the works too. When timbrel and psaltery are taken, the hands harmonize with the voice. So too do you, when ever you sing ‘Halleluiah,’ give your bread to the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger: then not only does your voice sound, but your hand sounds in harmony with it, for your deeds agree with your words. You have taken an instrument, and your fingers agree with your tongue. We must not keep back the mystical meaning of the ‘timbrel and psaltery.’ On the timbrel leather is stretched, on the psaltery gut is stretched; on either instrument the flesh is crucified. How well did he ‘sing a psalm on timbrel and psaltery,’ who said, ‘the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world’? This psaltery or timbrel He wishes you to take up, who loves a new song, who teaches you, saying to you, ‘Whoever wills to be My disciple, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.’ Do not let him set down his psaltery, or his timbrel, but let him stretch himself out on the wood, and be dried from the lust of the flesh. The more the strings are stretched, the more sharp they sound. What did the Apostle Paul say, in order that his psaltery might sound sharp? ‘Stretching forth unto those things which are before,’ etc. He stretched himself: Christ touched him; and the sweetness of truth sounded.”
What a beautiful explanation of this verse! It is only when we are put forth through hardships that we sound pleasant and joyful to the world, proclaiming the truth of and goodness of God!
The second part of this hymn deals with the vengeance of the Lord and the judgement He will bring upon those who have not heeded His words. We are reminded of His love, for He has saved us from sin and slavery in order that we may not experience the fierce judgement of God. Thus we proclaim the goodness of God in the first four verses. His goodness came to us on the Cross and in doing so, He has dealt kindly with us, making us His heirs. It can also remind us to turn from the life of sin, so that we may escape the fires of hell and enter into the joy of heaven.
We also read in this Psalm that He has placed a two-edged sword in the hands of the saints. What is the meaning behind this? The placing of the sword in the hand refers to power and strength given to the saints. The sword in itself is also a very important aspect that we must focus on. St. Paul speaks of this two-edged sword in his letter to the Hebrews.
“For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
This two-edged sword is important as we combat the wicked and deceiving spirits of this world. We use the Bible as our Sword of Truth. The devil may attack us with thought of guilt, convincing us that we are never good, so there is no need to seek repentance or to live with God since we are evil. In doing so, he causes us to lose hope and fall into despair. But we are able to slay this idea if we carry the Word of God and see that He is loving and caring as He said,
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Mark 2:17).
The devil, being injured from one side, tries to attack from the other, filling our minds with the thoughts of pride because we have become “good” because we have turned to God. This, again, must be fought. Once again, we turn our eyes and hearts to the words of God to slay him. We repeat the words of David the Prophet crying out and saying,
“Bow down Your ear, O Lord, hear me; for I am poor and needy” (Psalm 86:1).
In doing so, we may kill the thoughts of the devil with the two-edged sword, so that we may sing a perfect praise to God.
4. MEDITATIONS ON THE THIRD PSALM OF THE FOURTH CANTICLE: PSALM 150
A. “Praise God in all His Saints.”
The third psalm of the Fourth Canticle is Psalm 150. This psalm is a beautiful psalm, sung during the most sacred moments of the Church. It is the hymn of the Holy Communion, sung as the believers partake of His Holy Body and Precious Blood. This hymn is one of perfect praise.
First let us look at the number of times we repeat the words, “Praise Him.” H.G. Bishop Mettaous meditates on this showing its significance. The words “Praise Him” (including the first verse of “Praise God”) are repeated ten times. Ten represents the number of perfection meaning perfect praise, which is exactly what we should offer God for His goodness, blessings, and perfect care which He continually offers to us. Another explanation behind the number ten is that David the Prophet was urging the nine heavenly orders to praise with him, which are: 1) Cherubim 2) Seraphim 3) Thrones 4) Dominions 5) Virtues 6) Powers 7) Principalities 8) Archangels 9) Angels. The tenth order is the order of the human saints. When Our Lord Jesus Christ became incarnate, and took our form, and redeemed us on the wood of the Cross, He restored man to his original rank who was created in His image and likeness. Let us meditate also on the number 150. We already showed that ten represents the number of perfection, while if we look at fifteen we will notice a wonderful point. In the beginning of creation, God made the heavens and the earth and loved them and on the seventh day, He rested.
“Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made” (Genesis 2:3).
We also know that the Lord rose from the dead on the first day of the week (Sunday).
“On the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb” (John 20:1).
Therefore, the first day of the week can also be considered the eighth day (seven days plus the first day will equal eight). The seven days found in the Old Testament in the creation, and the eight days found in New Testament are equal to fifteen. Thus perfection (ten) is found in the fulfillment of both the Old and New Testament (fifteen) and this is why we also praise God, who is the fulfilment and the life of both the Old and New Testaments, who is perfect and above all things.
The first verse of this hymn calls for us to “Praise God in all His saints” and the third verse calls for us to “Praise Him for His mighty acts”. We praise God in His saints, because it was through the mighty acts of His death on the Cross and His Resurrection, that the saints were able to endure and now live in the Resurrection. The saints would have not endured unless He had died and rose on our behalf.
We proceed through the hymn, noticing all the different instruments being played. We are called to praise God with the trumpet, psaltery, harp, timbrel and chorus, stringed instruments, organs and cymbals. We can look at these in a superficial manner and declare that we should praise God, but if we meditate further on these things we will notice wonderful meanings. These different instruments mean nine different things. In the book of Galatians we read,
“But the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
The fruit of the Holy Spirit is made up of nine virtues. If we live in perfection, and strive for the nine fold fruit of the Holy Spirit, then we are praising God, not only with our mouth, but in our deeds. Also in looking at the nine instruments, let us consider that each person has their own talent in serving God. One may speak, the other may teach, one may clean or the other prays. No service or talent is greater than the other before the eyes of God. Is the stringed instrument greater than the cymbal? No. They both produce beautiful sound to the ear. But even greater, if all the talents of the Church join as a symphony, then we would produce beautiful music, not only to our Creator, but all the earth shall come and worship before Him, Who has conducted us to be in unison. If, in the symphony, one sounds off-tune, then the whole orchestra will not produce a beautiful melody. This can mean that if one person begins to bicker and instigate fights, or if we start to do things on our own, not under the guidance of our Lord, then we will be divided, and the music that we play will sound awful not only before man, but before the Creator Himself.
Finally concerning the two verses, “Praise Him with pleasant sounding cymbals” and “Praise Him upon the cymbals of joy”, St. Augustine writes,
“‘Praise Him on the well-sounding cymbals, praise Him upon the cymbals of joy’ (ver. 5). Cymbals touch one another in order to sound, and therefore they are compared to our lips. But I think it better to understand that God is in a manner praised on the cymbal, when each is honored by his neighbour, not by himself, and then honoring one another, they give praise to God. But lest any should understand such cymbals as sound without life, therefore I think he added, ‘upon the cymbals of joy.’ For ‘joy’ that is, unspeakable praise, does not proceed, unless there is life” (Exposition on Psalm 150).
Therefore, when we sing the Fourth Canticle, let us piece all these meditations together in order that our praise may be sweet before our Righteous King.
“The subject of our meditation in this present life should be the praises of God; for the everlasting exaltation of our life hereafter will be the praise of God, and no one can become fit for the life hereafter, who have not practised himself for it now… But praise with your whole selves: that is, do not let your tongue and voice alone praise God, but your conscience also, your life, your deeds. For now, when we are gathered together in the Church, we praise: when we go forth, each to his own business, we seem to cease to praise God. Let a man not cease to live well, and then he praises God forever. …It is impossible for a man’s acts to be evil, whose thoughts are good” (St. Augustine).
Chapter 11 – Contemplations on the Psali of the Holy Psalmody (The Jesus Prayer)
“I sought after You, from the depth of my heart, My Lord Jesus help me.”
Throughout the praises of the Holy Psalmody, our souls have progressed through the spiritual journey. We asked God to deliver us, and He brought us out of land of sin and slavery into the wilderness. After being saved, we gave thanks to the One Who saved us from our miseries. Then, at the envy and rage of the devil, we are pressured by his deceptive ways, trying to lure us back into Egypt by offering us the materials of this world. If we fight him through prayer, he begins to torture us physically and spiritually, but if we resist and pray to God, then we shall be unbound of these afflictions and the God of heaven will stand in our midst. We will then call on the saints to stand with us, uniting the Church with the heavens, learning from them, asking them to pray for us as we endure trials in this earth. We are then, through God’s abundant grace, brought into the chorus of the heavens, as we pray the Fourth Canticle with all the choirs of the heavens, praising our awesome and powerful God as He sits on His throne. We then come to the Psalies in the Holy Psalmody. If we look at the words, we may notice a penitent approach in this hymn. How can one who stands in heaven show sorrow and remorse and ask for repentance? Although this seems contradicting, it is through the wisdom of the Fathers by the works of Holy Spirit that this beautiful hymn is put following the Fourth Canticle.
Before we meditate on this hymn, let us look briefly at what this hymn is comprised of. There are many beautiful meditations behind the Sunday Psali concerning the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. The refrain of the Psali is, “My Lord Jesus, help me” and “My Lord Jesus Christ, help me.” The refrain of this hymn comes from the original prayer of the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ which is:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The history behind this prayer is extensive and dates back to the early days of monasticism. The monks used this prayer in order to fill the commandment of St. Paul to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Even though the history of this prayer is powerful and reveals the wisdom of the desert fathers, we will only concentrate on the spiritual contemplation of this hymn.
1. THE JESUS PRAYER IS THE PERFECT PRAYER FOR THE BELIEVER
The Jesus Prayer has been meditated on by many Church Fathers. In its simplest form, this hymn was used from the beginning of Christianity in the simple prayer of Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy). The members of the Church prayed this prayer in every service, not only in the prayers of the Sacraments, but in the prayers of the Agpeya (read seven times every day) and in other wonderful hymns. Although it was the monks who brought this prayer into the Church, it is a prayer that should be recited by all believers.
“Let no one think, my fellow Christians, that only priests and monks need to pray without ceasing, and not laypeople. No, no: every Christian without exception ought to dwell always in prayer” (Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain).
We raised the question as to the placement of this hymn in the Holy Psalmody, questioning why one must pray this hymn after they have stood before the Throne of God. The answer to this is very simple; it was through grace that we stood before our Lord. Although we have sung the wonderful praise of the Fourth Canticle, and have given glory to our God, we also must not forget that we have not yet left this world. Salvation is not obtained in a moment time, but through struggle and God’s grace that we may one day live the prayer of the Fourth Canticle in the Heavenly Kingdom. King David realized this very fact when he wrote,
“O Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger, Nor chasten me in your hot displeasure. Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak; O Lord heal me, for my bones are troubled; But You, O Lord – how long? Return, O Lord and deliver me! Oh, save me for Your mercies sake!” (Psalm 6:1-5).
This great prophet, the king of Israel, who killed the giant Goliath and escaped the hand of death from his enemy Saul, who was said to be according to the heart of our Lord (1 Samuel 13:14), prayed a song of mercy, asking the Lord to help Him. We too follow the example of King David, asking our Lord to help us, to our very last breath on this earth so we can continue to make our way into the presence of our Lord.
Not only does this help us realize that our lives on earth are still an ongoing battle, but it brings us to another important level of spirituality. As we discussed earlier, the Holy Psalmody is a journey of our spiritual lives in a single moment of time. We have not only journeyed through the phases of our lives, memorizing the Bible as we go along, but we have been guided to the various forms of prayer. The Church Fathers have weaved a beautiful set of prayers that express all the pleas known to man. Sometimes we are taught Christianity from a certain view-point and forget that there are various stages leading to the gate of heaven. For example, one may talk about the life of joy and love, while the other may talk about the life of tears and longsuffering. These two things may seem confusing to us. Which is the proper path to take? It is through the Holy Psalmody that this answer may be found. In the beginning we pray the prayer of need, then the song of deliverance, and the hymn of thanksgiving, followed by the prayer of endurance. We then pray the prayer of the saints, glorifying God Who worked through them, followed by the song of perfect praise and of joy. All these prayers are essential to our lives, though one or more may dominate. This then brings us to the next prayer, the prayer of repentance and of humility. We can also look at these prayers as a progression of our spiritual state. In one of the first few verses of the Midnight Psalmody, we pray that God may, “cast away from our minds the slumber of sleep.” In our earlier spiritual years, our prayers may be geared toward physical needs and desires, but as we progress through the life of Christianity, we leave behind the needs of our body and begin to pray the perfect prayer, the prayer that focuses completely on our Savior.
The Jesus Prayer is also filled with the cry of help, asking God to even create within us new hearts. St. John Climacus speaks of humility saying,
“Repentance lifts up a man. Mourning knocks at heaven’s gate. Holy humility opens it. This I say, and I worship a Trinity in Unity and a Unity in Trinity.”
We seek repentance and humility because these are the keys to heaven. Now that we have tasted it, let us go forth and fight for it. St. John Climacus again speaks of this need for humility when he said,
“Pride and nothing else caused an angel to fall from heaven. And so one may reasonably ask whether one may reach heaven by humility alone, without the help of any other virtue.”
We also ask for humility after reaching the height of heaven because the devil has tried to follow us to bring us back down. He too, once experienced the glory of heaven, and since pride dragged him down out of his envy, he desires for us to follow in his path. He has seen our perseverance through the waters of baptism and in its renewal through the sacraments of repentance and confession, and has seen the thanks we have given God for our deliverance. When he tired to lure us with empty threats and vainglory, we renounced his ways, declaring the glory of God. The devil saw us joyous, standing with the saints and praising the God of Heaven instead of following his ways, and now he comes to tell us that we have done well. This can lead us to the biggest fall of all. When we believe that it was our strength that helped us endure, and not God’s grace, then we will fall faster than he into the depths of hell. It is only through humility that we may endure. The perfect example of humility was our Lord Jesus Christ, and this is why we meditate on His Holy Name, the Name of humility.
“Who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
Christ, in perfect humility, went up on the Cross and crushed the devil under His feet. Let us too, arm ourselves with the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ, and crush the devil through the virtue of holy humility, as we meditate on the Name of Christ asking him to forgive us and lead us.
“But after He humbled Himself, He exalted all things. He erased the curse, He triumphed over death, He opened paradise. He struck down sin, He opened wide the vaults of the sky, He lifted our first fruits to heaven, He filled the whole world with godliness. He drove out error, He led back truth, He made our first fruits mount to the royal throne. He accomplished so many good deeds that neither I nor all men together could set before your minds in words. Before He humbled Himself, only the angels knew Him. After He humbled, all human nature knew Him” (St. John Chrysostom).
The hymn of humility, through the prayer of the Name of Jesus, not only leads us to victory, but it is also the root of many other virtues, proving that all of the beatitudes are connected and not distinct. Humility is linked with love, for how can you humble yourself before your enemy or God if you do not love them? Or how can you understand humility if you do not feel joy after the Lord has granted you His grace and forgiveness? Humility also leads to perfect praise, thus not contradicting the Fourth Canticle, but building upon its meaning. St. John Climacus writes once again,
“A man truly humble within himself will never find his tongue betraying him.”
When we have embraced perfect humility we are then restored back to His image, speaking forth only holy words, thus opening our mouth only to praise Him. In the famous Russian Orthodox book, The Way of a Pilgrim, we are enlightened of the power of the Jesus prayer, which not only has the ability to change the words that proceed from our mouth to be holy, but also change the heart and soul of the believer who uses it. The story begins with the pilgrim in Church, when he heard an epistle of St. Paul read and noted the words, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). He pondered the meaning of these words, and sought out people who could help him to “explain this mystery.” After a long time, he encountered an elderly monk, who explained to him about the practice of the Jesus Prayer. The pilgrim was comforted, and desired to learn how to pray without ceasing. He was given the Philokalia*12 by the elder to read, and a prayer rope in order to keep count of the prayers. Later, the elder died, but continued to guide him through revelations, and the pilgrim slowly advanced to say the Jesus Prayer continuously in his heart, using the breathing techniques. He spoke of the experience he had in reciting the Name of Christ and described the feeling saying,
“When I began to pray with the heart, everything around me became transformed and I saw it in a new and delighted way… So now I walk and say the Jesus Prayer without ceasing and it is more precious and sweet to me than anything else in the world.”
Every time we hymn the Jesus Prayer, we also fulfill the commandment of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it. If you love Me, keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another helper, that He may abide with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:13-18).
The first wonderful part of the Jesus prayer is that we live the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, since we “ask in His name.” We ask of Him and He provides for us because we prayed through Christ. Not only does the Jesus prayer bring to light the power of Christ, but it allows us to worship the Trinity as well. If we keep in mind the passage of our Lord as we hymn the Sunday Psali, then we will remember the power of the Trinity. We pray through Christ and the Father hears us and sends the Holy Spirit to direct us. We live through the greatness of the Holy Trinity in a single verse,
“My Lord Jesus [Christ], help me.”
2. MEDITATIONS ON SELECTED VERSES FROM THE SUNDAY PSALI
A. “I sought after You, from the depth of my heart, My Lord Jesus, help me.”
We begin the Sunday Psali for the Lord Jesus with this verse. This one verse can sum up the lives of the saints and why we honor them. How can we truly say to our Lord that we have sought Him from the depths of our hearts? Only a select few lived the life of Christianity, struggling with blood and sweat, confessing the Name of our Lord before the emperors and showing their undying love for God. We can also take the examples of the great fathers of the desert, such as St. Antony the Great, who after hearing one command of the Lord (Mark 10:21) journeyed out into the wilderness, and because of his perfect zeal, he forsook all to follow the teachings of our Lord. Yet, this does not mean that we cannot obtain this. We sing this first verse of the Psali so that He may sanctify our hearts and minds, so that we may follow Him as He said,
“If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).
The second part of the first verse of the Psali is even more important than the first part. We mentioned that this verse can sum up the lives of the saints. Even though the saints led the life of Christianity, truly seeking Christ from the depths of their hearts, they always followed their zeal for Christ with the words, “My Lord Jesus, help me.” They realized that they did not attain the spiritual gifts of heaven by their own power, but that it was the God of Heaven who bestowed upon them these gifts through His grace. King Solomon alluded to this when he wrote,
“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10).
In singing these words, we too beseech God to help us, calling on the Name of the Lord as we run towards this strong tower, asking Him to illuminate our hearts so that we may follow Him. Out of His love, He hears the pleas that we may make.
“Do not lose your hope, for God cares for your salvation more than you do. He is the One who seeks your salvation, and this has been His way from the start” (H.H. Pope Shenouda III).
B. “You are the Son of God, I believe in You, My Lord Jesus, help me. You who carries, the sins of the world save me, My Lord Jesus Christ, help me.”
How can we pray to our Lord if we do not recognize who He is? Why should we meditate on His Name if we do know His significance in our lives? This seemingly straightforward passage is essential in the prayer of the Sunday Psali of our Lord Jesus. We meditate on His Name because He is the Son of God. This is the essential faith of Christianity, which separates us from all other religions, that our Lord Jesus Christ is the Only-begotten Son of God. Many heresies unfolded because of the lack of understanding of this one statement. One example of this is the heresy of Arius, who was defeated by the Holy Spirit working through the 20th Patriarch of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, who wrote many books concerning the reality that the Lord Jesus Christ was indeed the Son of God*13. One of his most famous pieces was titled On the Incarnation. If we do not believe that He is the Only-begotten Son of God, equal and con-substantial with the Father, then we have missed the act of redemption on the Cross. The Pharisees sought to kill Him because He identified Himself as the Son of God, but we, who are His children, must embrace Him, confessing Him to be the Son of God.
After we have believed in Him, confessing Him to be the Son of God, we then turn our eyes to the Cross, for it was there that we received redemption. If Christ were not the Son of God, then His death on the Cross would have been of no use to us, even if the person crucified had been an angel of heaven. Christ, the Son of God, descended from heaven, took our form and lived among us. He fulfilled all the sayings of the prophets and lived the perfect life according to the Law. Our Lord Jesus Christ, being perfect, without the original sin of Adam, was the only One who could sacrifice Himself upon the wood of the Cross to redeem man from the bondage of sin, opening the gates of Paradise for us all.
“Both from the confession of the evil spirits and from the daily witness of His works, it is manifest, then, and let none presume to doubt it, that the Savior has raised His own body, and that He is very Son of God, having His being from God as from a Father, Whose Word and Wisdom and Whose Power He is. He it is Who in these latter days assumed a body for the salvation of us all, and taught the world concerning the Father. It is He Who has destroyed death and freely graced us all with incorruption through the promise of the resurrection, having raised His own body as its first-fruits, and displayed it by the sign of the cross as the monument to His victory over death and its corruption” (St. Athanasius).
C. “In the accepted time, hear me, My Lord Jesus Christ, help me.”
This verse is also very beautiful, showing the rising of the soul from this wonderful prayer and its progression as a stronger soul, yearning more for the heavenly things. Whenever we pray these few words, asking God to hear us in the accepted time, we have shown how we have united our minds with our Lord Jesus Christ.
“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:20-26).
These wonderful words were spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ to the Father, in His prayer before His death. These Holy, life-giving words show that our Lord has truly changed us in the prayer of the Holy Psalmody. We went from asking for our physical needs, to abiding in the presence of God, being one with Him since it was the Son who asked that this may be done. We can see this because when we pray asking God to hear us in the accepted time, we are asking that His Will be done. We realize that it is not with our limited minds that we may endure, but we place all our thoughts before His Throne, believing and trusting in Him, knowing He is the Pantocrator*14. Our prayer has become like that which was spoken by our Lord, asking only of the things of heaven as our Lord Jesus did with His Father. We no longer care nor worry about things here on earth, but we take to heart that Our Lord Jesus Christ has already prayed on our behalf. We now wait, asking God to attend to all our needs (spiritual and physical) in the right and appropriate time.
D. “Disperse away from me, all of the devils, My Lord Jesus Christ, help me.”
As we mentioned earlier, because of the envy of the devil, and our persistence to detach ourselves from him, rebuking his ways, he will come with a whole army of devils to try to lure us away from the love of God. St. Paul makes reference to this saying,
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12)
We have the armies of Hades attacking us now, seeking vehemently to rip our souls from the presence of God, but the Lord has not left us unarmed against these demonic powers. The first evidence of this is the Cross.
“Dear beloved, He defeated the whole world as we see. He did not conquer it by military powers but by the ignorance of the cross. All spirits surrendered to Him when His body was raised on the Cross” (St. Augustine).
Whenever we cross ourselves, we burn the devils, forcing them to retreat from our presence. St. Paul also alludes to the power of the Cross.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
(1 Corinthians 1:18)
Each time we sign ourselves with the Cross, confessing the Holy Trinity, we ward off those who attempt to rise up against us. We remind those devils, who once ruled over us in the days of slavery, that we belong to the Almighty King, the God who delivered us from their wicked ways. We remind them that it is through the Cross that Jesus descended into Hades (Ephesians 4:8-10)*15, and as He went to save the souls of the righteous who were sitting in darkness, He crushed all the demonic powers because they could not behold His awesome and powerful glory.
“Demons, so far from cheating any more by illusions and prophecies and magic arts—if they so much as dare to make the attempt—are put to shame by the sign of the cross.”
The second way to overcome the devil, is similar to the first. King David writes,
“All nations surrounded me, But in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. They surrounded me, Yes, they surrounded me; But in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. They surrounded me like bees; They were quenched like a fire of thorns; For in the name of the Lord I will destroy them. You pushed me violently, that I might fall, But the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and song, And He has become my salvation”
(Psalm 118 10:14)
We have defeated the devil through the singing of this hymn! We have seen that the “name of the Lord will destroy our enemies.” By singing and meditating on His name throughout the Holy Psalmody and especially in the Sunday Psali for Jesus, we are not only raised, but we destroy the devil as we sing His name. Now if the Name of Jesus terrifies and conquers the devil, how much more will the presence of God destroy him?
*12 The Philokalia is a collection of text written between the fourth and fifteenth centuries by spiritual masters of the Orthodox Christian tradition.
*13 Arianism still exists until today and modern views of the Arian heresy are manifested through religions such as Jehovah’s Witness, who believe Jesus to being a “lower” god than the Father. This heresy was disproved in the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. 318 Bishops attended this council, when the young St. Athanasius, who was ordained a priest in order to attend, by Pope Alexander, refuted the theories of Arius and his followers, leading to the writing of the Nicene Creed.
*14 A Greek word meaning, “He who reigns over all; almighty”.
*15 This biblical verse is also used in the Liturgy of St. Basil in the Anaphora.
Chapter 12 – Contemplations on the Sunday Theotokia of the Holy Psalmody: The Symbols of St. Mary
“You are called righteous, O blessed one, among women, the Second Tabernacle.”
The Sunday Theotokia is a beautiful interpretation written by the Church fathers, which concentrates and focuses on the symbols of St. Mary in the Old Testament. It follows the Psalies and extends until the end of the Psalmody. Although the exact author of the Sunday Theotokia is not exactly known, many references have accredited St Cyril, the Pillar of the Orthodox faith, to have authored this wonderful part of the Psalmody. The Sunday Theotokia is broken up into eighteen parts, with the sixteenth to the eighteenth sections sung only during Sunday Midnight Praise from the beginning of the Holy fifty days of Easter until the end of the Coptic month of Hathor*16. The first 6 sections present and explain the major symbols of St. Mary in the Old Testament; the Second Tabernacle, the Ark, the Mercy Seat, the Golden Pot, the Lampstand, and the Golden Censer. The seventh section, a long hymn of praise for St. Mary, likens St. Mary to the flower of Incense, and the rod of Aaron. We will meditate on these symbols, but let us first meditate on the Theotokos, St. Mary.
1. ST. MARY IS THE HIGHEST SAINT OF HEAVEN, AND THE PERFECT MODEL OF CHRISTIANITY
The role of St. Mary has always been a focal point in the Orthodox Church. We realize the status of St. Mary, regarding her as the greatest saint in heaven. We have seen her miracles and have beheld the glory of the Theotokos. She has become the dear mother of the Church, interceding to her Son at all times to help her children battle through the various trials and tribulations we may face. In the fifth century, at the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus*17, the title of Theotokos was defended by St. Cyril against the heretic Nestorius, who denied and refused to call St. Mary the Theotokos. St. Cyril wrote,
“If anyone will not confess that Immanuel is very God, and therefore the Holy Virgin is Theotokos, inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh: let him be anathema.”*18
Because of this powerful statement and the great role our father St. Cyril had in proving that St. Mary was indeed the Theotokos, this led many to believe that it was his great knowledge in the matter and his great love in keeping the honor of St. Mary that he wrote sections of, if not, the entire Sunday Theotokia.
Not only was the title Theotokos honored by the Holy Church Fathers, but our Lord Jesus Christ also honored His mother a great deal. We see His great love for her in the miracle of the wedding of Cana of Galilee in which St. Mary presented our Lord with the concern for the shortage of wine. Although the time of Christ had not yet come, He still heeded the intercession of His mother and performed the miracle at her request, showing that she had great favor in His heart. Another beautiful way our Lord honored St. Mary was on the Cross. As He hung on the Cross, He spoke to His mother.
“When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, he said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home” (John 20:26-27).
Though our Lord was enduring the great pain of death, suffering all torture for our sake, approaching the point of His final moment, He looked at His mother. He loved her so much that He focused His eyes on her and cared for her well being. He addressed her first and instructed her that St. John was to be her son. He then spoke to St. John and gave the Holy Virgin to be his mother. Even though His mission was to save the world from sin, He still honored her. If Christ honored her, even at the moment of death, should we not also? There are many things one may learn concerning the Theotokos such as the meaning of humility, service, and prayer. Of course we should never limit our Lady to these three characteristics because she is a model to us in many other ways.
The first lesson we may learn from St. Mary is her great humility. Throughout the Bible, we hear of and see very little of St. Mary though we know that she had a great role in the mission of Christ, so great that she bore the title of the Mother of the Apostles.
“It is fitting that Mary should be assisted by the holy apostles. For she was the mother of them all, since the only-begotten Son and Word of God called his own apostles brothers” (Theoteknos of Livias).
Not only was she called the Mother of the Apostles, but a far greater title was given to her, the Theotokos, or the Mother of God. Even though she held such a high position, she still answered the Angel Gabriel in this humble manner saying,
“Then Mary said, ‘Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word’” (Luke 1:38).
Although she had just been given the title of Theotokos by the Angel Gabriel, who revealed the Lord’s desire to dwell in her, she still spoke of this great honor and answered the Angel confessing that she was just the maidservant of the Lord.
This evidence of perfect humility then draws us to her loving service. It was her humility that drove our Holy Mother to visit St. Elizabeth, in order to help St. Elizabeth prepare for the coming of the great forerunner, St. John the Baptist.
“Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth” (Luke 1:39-40).
What a beautiful passage! We see here two wonderful things concerning the pure Virgin. It says that St. Mary “arose in those days”. She did not arise after a month, or after a couple of months, but she arose in the very days of receiving the good news. Many times we gloat when presented with wonderful news, bringing glory upon ourselves in situations we have no control over, but St. Mary, receiving the greatest of Gifts, the Incarnate Word of God, the hope of salvation, went within days of receiving the news to serve her cousin St. Elizabeth. Not only did she leave within the same days of receiving the news, but she “went with haste”, as if running to serve the Lord. Let us learn from this example. Not only should we arise to serve our great and glorious God, but we should go in haste and be committed to serving Him, traveling “into the hill country”, meaning that we should be expected to take the long journey, filled with the highs and lows, for the sake of the love that we have for our Lord Jesus Christ.
Not only do we learn the meaning of humility and service from St. Mary, but we are also taught the meaning of prayer by her as well. We said earlier that the hymn of the three youths was a beautiful prayer in that they prayed the creation in the order according to the book of Genesis. We also notice this beautiful theme in the song of St. Mary (Luke 1:46-56). Her beautiful prayer was similar to the words of Hannah, the mother of the great prophet Samuel.
“And Hannah prayed and said: ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord; My horn is exalted in the Lord. I smile at my enemies, Because I rejoice in Your salvation. No one is holy like the Lord, For there is none besides You, nor is there any rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly; Let no arrogance come from your mouth, For the Lord is the God of knowledge; And by Him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty men are broken, And those who stumbled are girded with strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, And the hungry have ceased to hunger. Even the barren has borne seven, And she who has many children has become feeble. The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to the grave and brings up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; He brings low and lifts up. He raises the poor from the dust And lifts the beggar from the ash heap, To set them among princes And make them inherit the throne of glory. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, And He has set the world upon them. He will guard the feet of His saints, But the wicked shall be silent in darkness. For by strength no man shall prevail. The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken in pieces; From heaven He will thunder against them. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to His king, And exalt the horn of His anointed’” (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
There are so many similarities found between the prayer of St. Mary and the prayer of Hannah. Not only was St. Mary so educated in the Word of God that she hymned the words of the Bible, but the context in which she hymned them was likened to that of Hannah. Samuel was a great prophet of Israel because he restored the royal priesthood to where it should be, since the high priest at the time, Eli, failed to exercise proper parental authority and showed partiality when his own sons sinned. Just as Samuel restored the priesthood of Israel, so did the coming of our Lord. It was the children of Israel who had begun to live the law according to its word, and forgot the true meanings and spirit of the Law of Moses. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to bring “a light to bring revelations to the Gentiles and glory to His people Israel”, as confessed by Simeon the elder in the temple (Luke 2:32). He restored the corrupt priesthood of Israel through His death and the appointing of His Apostles as the new priests of the Church. St. Mary, knowing the Glory of God and His great power, knew this well in advance because she understood the prophecies that indicated what the Messiah would do.
Your name, O Mary, is precious ointment, which breathes forth the odor of Divine Grace. Let this ointment of salvation enter the innermost recesses of our souls. (St. Ambrose)
2. THE SYMBOLS OF ST. MARY IN THE SUNDAY THEOTOKIA
A. “You are called righteous, O blessed one, among women, the Second Tabernacle.”
Looking at the first symbol, St. Mary is likened is the Second Tabernacle. The tabernacle was a place of worship the Lord commanded the children of Israel to build as they journeyed through the wilderness. The Lord commanded Moses saying,
“I will consecrate the tabernacle of meeting…I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God” (Exodus 29:44,45).
This first symbol of St. Mary is befitting to her role as the Theotokos. The Lord promised Moses that in building this tabernacle, He would come and dwell in it. This is an important verse concerning the incarnation of God. In his rebuke of the Arian heresy, St. Athanasius, in the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, proclaimed that God dwelt in the womb of St. Mary, while Arius believed that Jesus was born man and later become “godly”. This then would suggest that Jesus was born with the sin of Adam, which we know is a heresy! In this wonderful symbol, shown to us by the Fathers, we see that the Lord dwelt in the tabernacle, not stood afar and watched or dwelt around it, but in it, the same way as He dwelt in the womb of the Holy Theotokos, St. Mary. Also as the presence of the Lord sanctified the tabernacle, so did the presence of our Lord sanctify our Mother, St. Mary.
Another beautiful meditation concerning the symbol of St. Mary as being the tabernacle, is written by Fr. Matthias F. Wahba.
“The book of Exodus adds, ‘And Moses was not able to enter the tabernacle of meeting, because the cloud rested above it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle’ (Exodus 40:35). Similarly, no one can enter to understand the mystery of the incarnation of the Lord from St. Mary. ‘Great is the mystery of godliness; God was manifested in the flesh’ (1 Timothy 3:16).”
B. “The Ark overlaid, roundabout with gold, that was made, with wood that would not decay.”
In the second part of the Theotokia, St. Mary is likened to the Ark of the Covenant. This Ark was designed according to the Word of God.
“And they shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits shall be its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and out you shall overlay it, and shall make on it a molding of gold all around” (Exodus 25:10-11).
There are many wonderful meanings concerning this beautiful symbol. It first refers to the presence of God who dwelt in the womb of St. Mary. The ark was overlaid with gold within and without. This is likened to the birth of Incarnate Logos.
“And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God’” (Luke 1:35).
In the greeting of the Angel Gabriel to St. Mary, we read that the Holy Spirit overshadowed her. The Holy Spirit sanctified our lady, St. Mary, laying gold within her preparing her womb for the birth of the King of Israel. Not only that, but the wood, did not rot as a result of the presence of the gold. This means that the Theotokos’ virginity did not decay or “rot” as a result of the birth of our Lord, since it was without the seed of man. The Ark is also likened to St. Mary. One of the objects placed in the Ark of Covenant were the tablet which contained the Ten Commandments given by God to Moses. (The ark also contained the manna and Aaron’s rod, which also symbolize our Lord. These two items will be explained later on.) If we compare the tablets of the Law to Christ, who is the Author the Law, then the symbolism of the Ark being St. Mary is very simple. As the Ark of the Covenant carried the Law of God, so did St. Mary carry the true fulfillment of the Law, Christ the Logos*19.
The gold and wood also explain the Nature of our Lord. Our Lord Jesus Christ was completely human and entirely divine, two distinct natures, but these two natures dwelt in the One, Jesus Christ. We sing in the Sunday Theotokia,
“One nature out of two, a Holy Divinity, co-essential with the Father and incorruptible. A holy humanity begotten without seed, coessential with us, according to the economy*20. This which was taken from you, O undefiled, He made with Him as a hypostasis.”*21
The two natures of the Ark are the gold and the wood; the wood symbolizing the humanity, and the gold symbolizing the divinity. These two materials are considered one when referring to the ark. When we speak of the Lord Jesus Christ, we say the same thing. His humanity was not masked by His divinity and vice versa, and these two Natures were in the One, Jesus Christ as explained by St. Cyril. One final symbol is made concerning the Ark. Fr. Matthias Wahba once again explains it.
There is a great similarity between the history of the Ark and the biography of St. Mary. The Ark which represents the presence of God, remained three months at the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite, before David the Prophet brought it to his house (2 Samuel 6). This event points to St. Mary who, while having the Lord in her womb, remained three months at the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth. In addition, the arrival of the Ark made the people rejoice and David leaped and whirled before the Lord (2 Samuel 6:16). Likewise the arrival of St. Mary made Elizabeth rejoice, and the babe, John the Baptist, leaped for joy in his mother’s womb (Luke 1:44). The word which is translated “leap” used in Luke 1:41,44 is the same word used in 2 Samuel 6:16. It is used in the Bible to mean heavenly joy (Luke 6:23) and the leaps of which accompany the coming of the Lord (Ps. 114:4; Mal. 4:2).
C. “The Mercy Seat was overshadowed by the forged Cherubim from all sides.”
The third symbol of St. Mary is the Mercy Seat. This was the covering of the Ark of the Covenant, which was previously explained. Once again, God commanded Moses to construct the Mercy Seat according to His plan.
“You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold; two and a half cubits shall be its length and a cubit and a half its width. And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work you shall make them at the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub at one end, and the other cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim at the two ends of it of one piece with the mercy seat. And the cherubim shall stretch out their wings above, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and they shall face one another; the faces of the cherubim shall be toward the mercy seat. You shall put the mercy seat on top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the Testimony that I will give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will speak with you from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim which are on the ark of the Testimony, about everything which I will give you in commandment to the children of Israel” (Exodus 25:17-22).
The mercy seat, as we read in the book of Exodus, was covered by two Cherubim. It was there that God met with Moses to instruct Him in guiding the children of Israel. This is a type of St. Mary. She was the dwelling place of the Incarnate Word of God. The Cherubim that cover the Mercy Seat are also important. As the Lord dwelt in the womb of the Theotokos, the chorus of heaven praised the coming of the Lord, even while He was in her womb.
D. “The gold pot, made of pure gold, wherein was the true manna.”
We mentioned earlier in the meditations of the First Canticle concerning the love and care of God, who rained manna from heaven for the children of Israel to survive in the wilderness. This manna was temporary, but Christ, when explaining to the Pharisees who He was, likened Himself to the Bread of Heaven.
“Therefore they said to Him, ‘What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ Then they said to Him, ‘Lord, give us this bread always.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst’” (John 6:30-35).
The making and the use of the pot was an instruction given by God to the children of Israel as they dwelt in the wilderness.
“Take a pot and put an omer of manna in it, and lay it up before the Lord, to be kept for your generations” (Exodus 16:33).
The simplicity behind these symbols is very clear to the believer. If we likened the manna to our Savior, the Bread of Life, then St. Mary is clearly the pot where the manna was hidden. Fr. Matthias Wahba further explains the beauty of this symbol.
“Furthermore, St. Mary was not merely a pot, but she gave to the Lord, the living Manna, a body from her own flesh. The Theotokia adds: ‘You bore Him without blemish, He gave unto us, His honored Body and Blood, and we lived forever.’”
St. Gregory of Nyssa also speaks of this wonderful mediation of the Incarnation and the pot.
“You no doubt perceive the true food in the figure of the history: The bread which came from heaven is not some incorporeal thing. For how could something incorporeal be nourished by the body? Neither ploughing nor sowing produced the body of this bread, but the earth which remained unchanged was found full of this divine food, of which the hungry partake. This miracle teaches in anticipation the mystery of the Virgin” (The Life of Moses).
E. “The golden lampstand, made of pure gold, was placed in the tabernacle.”
The fifth symbol of St. Mary is the lampstand. The golden lampstand, or the menorah, was another type of St. Mary. God, once again, commanded Moses to build this lampstand and place it in the tabernacle.
“You shall also make a lampstand of pure gold; the lampstand shall be of hammered work. Its shaft, its branches, its bowls, its ornamental knobs, and flowers shall be of one piece. And six branches shall come out of its sides: three branches of the lampstand out of one side, and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side. Three bowls shall be made like almond blossoms on one branch, with an ornamental knob and a flower, and three bowls made like almond blossoms on the other branch, with an ornamental knob and a flower—and so for the six branches that come out of the lampstand. On the lampstand itself four bowls shall be made like almond blossoms, each with its ornamental knob and flower. And there shall be a knob under the first two branches of the same, a knob under the second two branches of the same, and a knob under the third two branches of the same, according to the six branches that extend from the lampstand. Their knobs and their branches shall be of one piece; all of it shall be one hammered piece of pure gold. You shall make seven lamps for it, and they shall arrange its lamps so that they give light in front of it. And its wick-trimmers and their trays shall be of pure gold. It shall be made of a talent of pure gold, with all these utensils. And see to it that you make them according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain” (Exodus 25:31-40).
Once again, our Lord Jesus Christ makes reference to this symbol when He said,
“I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The light that proceeded from the lampstand was the True Light, our Lord Jesus Christ. The lampstand carries the light, therefore St. Mary is the golden lampstand. Another meditation that can be deduced from this beautiful symbol is found when we focus on the humility of St. Mary. We discussed earlier how she humbled herself and went to serve her cousin Elizabeth, even though she was bearing the Savior of the world in her womb. This also can be seen with the symbol of the lampstand. The light is what catches the attention of the eye. The lampstand humbly takes its role as a bearer of the light. Without the lampstand, there would be no place for the light to illuminate. If we use this analogy, we see the humility of St. Mary as a holy lady who accepted her role, fulfilling the law of God. The light needs a lampstand. We know God is infinite, and has no need of any human, which is to say that He was not limited to St. Mary in order to come, but He chose her and she humbly accepted the will of God. As the light uses the lamp to shine forth its power, so did Christ use St. Mary, taking flesh from her, and coming into this world, which “was sitting in darkness and the shadow of death” (Liturgy of St. Basil).
F. “The golden censor, made of pure gold, carrying the ever burning light.”
The sixth symbol of St. Mary in the Sunday Theotokia, is that she is the golden censor. This symbol was from the writings of St. Cyril the Great, who defended the title of the Theotokos given to our lady, St. Mary. The golden censor was used by Aaron the high-priest (Hebrews 9:4). The golden censor (Shoria in Coptic and Arabic) is deep in its symbolism of the Holy Virgin. If we study the censor, we can notice that there is a base in which the coal is carried. This coal is likened to the nature of our Lord. Just as the fire and the coal are two natures, so is the divinity and humanity of our Lord. In the confession of the Priest at the end of the Liturgy, the priest recites that,
“This is the life-giving Body that Your only-begotten Son, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, took from our Lady, the Lady of us all, the Holy Theotokos, St. Mary. And He made It one with His divinity without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration” (The Liturgy of St. Basil).
Just as the fire and the coal are two natures, they do not mingle with each other, for the fire does not become coal, and the coal does not become fire, just as Christ’s humanity did not mask His divinity or vice versa. But at the same time, one can not separate the fire from the coal once it has been ignited, proving that “His humanity parted not from His divinity for a single moment, nor a twinkling of an eye.” St. Mary carried this great mystery in her womb.
Another wonderful meditation of the golden censor, is found when we look at the wonderful aroma that came forth from it. This aroma, (which will be described later on in the hymn Aven Piarshi-erevs), is the aroma that the Father smelled during the sacrifice of the Son on the Holy wood of the Cross. This fire brought forth the wonderful smell of the incense. This can explain St. Mary’s emotions as she beheld the Crucifixion of our Lord. In the prayer of the Ninth Hour we read,
“When the mother saw the Lamb and Shepherd, the Savior of the world hanging on the Cross, she said while weeping, ‘The world indeed rejoices in receiving salvation, but as for me, my bowels are on fire as I behold Thy Crucifixion, O my Son and my God.’”
Even though she had smelled the incense of Redemption, her bowels were on fire as she beheld the death of her Son. This, once again, reveals the beauty of St. Mary, who did not prevent the death of her Son, understanding the Divine Will which required Him to die.
G. “The rod of Aaron, which blossomed, without planting or watering, resembles you.”
The rod of Aaron is another symbol of St. Mary. The rod of Aaron was used as a means to determine the priesthood for the children of Israel, because Korah and his followers tried to offer incense to God when they were not the chosen priests. In order to solve this problem the Lord commanded Moses saying,
“‘Speak to the children of Israel, and get from them a rod from each father’s house, all the leaders according to their fathers’ houses – twelve rods. Write each man’s name on his rod. And you shall write Aaron’s name on the rod of Levi. For there shall be one rod for the head of each fathers’ house. Then you shall place them in the tabernacle of meeting before the Testimony, where I meet with you. And it shall be that the rod of the man whom I choose will blossom; thus I will rid Myself of the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against you…’ And Moses placed the rod before the Lord in the tabernacle of witness. Now it came to pass on the next day that Moses went into the tabernacle of witness, and behold, the rod of Aaron, of the house of Levi, had sprouted and put forth buds, had produced blossoms and yielded ripe almonds” (Numbers 17:2-5, 7-8).
The rod of Aaron, as read in the book of Numbers, sprouted forth buds and blossomed, even though no one had watered the rod in order for it to have flourished. This is exactly what happened in the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Gospel of St. Luke, when the Angel Gabriel appeared to St. Mary, the Theotokos asked the angel a question when he proclaimed the good news.
“Then Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I do not know a man?’ And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God’” (Luke 1:35).
Just as the Holy Virgin, St. Mary did not know a man, but it was the Holy Spirit which overshadowed her and allowed for the Incarnation of the Son, in the same way the rod brought forth fruit without watering and nurturing.
As we sing the symbols of St. Mary in the Sunday Theotokia, we learn about the Incarnation of our Lord. We are led through the Old Testament, being taught by the Holy Spirit, who worked through the Church Fathers, about all the signs our Lord had given us concerning His coming and by what means He would come.
16 The month of Hator precedes the month of Kiahk and usually ends Decemeber 10th, roughly two weeks into the Nativity Fast.
17 Nestorius, in his sermons, drew a plain distinction between the man Jesus born of St. Mary, and the Son of God who dwelt in him. There were two distinct persons in Christ, who were united not hypostatically, but only morally. St. Cyril of Alexandria sent letters to Nestorius in which he explained the nature of Christ, as the Incarnate Son of God, one Person, and declared St. Mary’s right to be called Theotokos. Nestorius was excommunicated by the Council of Ephesus (where 200 Bishops attended) in 431 A.D.
18 A Greek word meaning accursed. The gravest ecclesiastical censure. ‘Let him be anathema’ involves total expulsion from the Church and consignment to Satan.
19 A Greek word meaning Word as well as wisdom and reason.
20 One of the definitions of this English word is the same as the Greek oikonomia, which is used by the Apostles and Fathers to refer to God’ plan, administration, system, stewardship or management regarding His governance of man and history.
21 A technical theological term for “person” or something which has an individual existence. The word is used to describe the three Persons of the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Hypostasis is also used to describe the one Person of Christ, who is both truly divine and truly human.
Chapter 13 – Contemplations on the Hymn Aven Piarshi-Erevs of the Holy Psalmody
“They likened the High Priest to our Savior, the true sacrifice, for the forgiveness of sins. He who offered Himself as an acceptable sacrifice, upon the Cross, for the salvation of our race. His Good Father smelled Him in the evening on Golgotha. He opened the gate of Paradise and restored Adam again to his authority.”
This beautiful hymn is sung at the end of the Sunday Theotokia. The richness of this hymn lies in the wisdom of the Church Fathers, who through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, composed a hymn entirely based on verses of the Bible to provide a wonderful image to the believer concerning the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross.
1. LOCATING THE VERSES OF THIS HYMN FROM THE BIBLE
A. “They likened the high priest to our Savior, the true sacrifice, for the forgiveness of sins.”
“You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4).
“But Christ came as a High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12).
“He has put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
B. “He who offered Himself as an acceptable sacrifice, upon the Cross, for the salvation of our race.”
“So Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him, He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).
“Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate” (Hebrews 13:12). [This verse was used because it was through His Blood, which is His death on the Cross, the salvation of our race was obtained because He sanctified us.]
“And He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again” (2 Corinthians 5:1).
“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
“Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” [His death on the Cross] (Galatians 4:7).
“But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off, have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation” (Ephesians 2:13-14).
C. “His Good Father smelled Him in the evening on Golgotha.”
“And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Eph. 5:2).
“And the Lord smelled a soothing aroma. Then the Lord said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done’” (Genesis 8:21). [Even when Noah offered God a sacrifice, after the flood, God the Father smelt it. If God made such a promise after Noah offered an animal sacrifice, how much more pleasing and how much more soothing was Christ’s Aroma to His Good Father on Golgotha?!].
D. “He opened the gate of Paradise and restored Adam again to his authority.”
“Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come” (Romans 5:14).
Since Adam was made in the image of God and Christ took Adam’s image therefore, “as through one man’s offence judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life” (Romans 5:18). Since Christ had Adam’s image, He restored Adam by dying on the Cross, giving him (Adam) and the descendants of Adam the “free gift” [salvation].
Adam can also be a reference to men in general fulfilling what King David wrote saying, “And you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol” [also known as Hades or the Abode of Death] (Psalm 86:13).
2. MEDITATING ON THE TUNE OF THIS HYMN
The tune of this hymn is beautiful and can easily be meditated upon. There are two distinct sections of this hymn. The first section, containing the first two paragraphs of the hymn is sung in a sombre tune, very monotonous and mellow.
“They likened the high priest, to our Savior, the true sacrifice, for the forgiveness of sins. He who accepted himself, as an acceptable sacrifice, upon the Cross, for the salvation of our race.”
The tune is very relevant and fits the words of this hymn perfectly. Not only did the Fathers teach us the meaning of the death of our Lord in terms of written words, but through the tune of the hymns we are able to grasp a better understanding what they mean in our lives. The first two paragraphs relate to Christ, and his reason for coming into the world. He took the form of a servant, on behalf of our sins, and took His own sacrificed body, His pure and Holy blood and offered it to His Good Father “for the salvation of our race”.
“He has put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
This sombre tune reflects our sentiments. It helps us realize that it was our falls and our sins that led our great and Holy Lord to ascend up onto the Cross. As we read in a “Fraction of the Son”, we see what Christ bore for our sake.
“And since death was in the way of our salvation, He yearned to go through it because of His love for us. And so, He went up on the cross to pay the price for our sins. We are the ones who sinned, and He was the One Who suffered. We are the ones who were indebted to the divine justice as a result of our sins and He was the One Who paid off our debts for our sake. He preferred suffering to ease and comfort, toiling to rest, shame to glory, and the cross to the throne which is carried by the Cherubim. He consented to be tied in ropes to release us from the bonds of our sins. He humbled Himself to lift us up; He hungered to feed us and thirsted to quench our thirst; He went up on the cross, naked, to clothe us with the cloak of His righteousness; He opened His side with a spear that we may enter and dwell in the throne of His grace and that His blood may flow from His body and wash away our sins. And in the end, He died and was buried in a grave that he may raise us up from the death of our sins and grant us an everlasting life. So, my God, it is my sins that are the thorns that plunged into Your head. It is I who have saddened Your heart by indulging in the worthless pleasures of the world… So then, grieve O my soul, for your sins which have inflicted all this pain on our compassionate Redeemer. Visualize His wounds before you and take refuge in Him when the enemy is stirred up against you.”
We, therefore, sing in a sombre tune to remind us of our sins and of what our Lord endured on our behalf because He loved us so much.
The second part of this hymn is sung in a joyous, upbeat tempo, resembling the tune of the Lobsh (the explanation) of the First Canticle.
“His Good Father, smelled Him, in the evening, on Golgotha. He opened the gate, of Paradise, and restored Adam again, to his authority.”
We sing these two paragraphs in a high, upbeat, joyous tune, because although we sinned and committed wicked deeds towards our loving God, the sacrifice that was offered by our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross to His Good Father was acceptable. We thank our Heavenly Father for accepting this perfect sacrifice, and we thank our Lord Jesus Christ for making this beautiful sacrifice.
“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ” (Galatians 4:4-7).
Not only do we thank the Father for accepting the true sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we thank the Holy Spirit for sanctifying us and allowing us to understand the gift of this sacrifice, purifying us so that we may call God our own Father, becoming His heirs. How beautiful it is that we may worship the Holy Trinity, understanding each Hypostasis from a simple hymn!
“The Cross is the crown of victory. It has brought light to those blinded by ignorance. It has released those enslaved by sin. Indeed, it has redeemed the whole of mankind. Do not, then, be ashamed of the cross of Christ; rather, glory in it. Although it is a stumbling-block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, the message of the Cross is our salvation. Of course it is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it was not a mere man who died for us, but the Son of God, God made man” (St. Cyril of Jerusalem).
The Holy Psalmody is a prayer rich in meditation. It allows the soul to progress to such high spiritual states, to the point that our prayers and feelings reflect the Holy Will of God. We were taken from stench and slavery of sin, walked out of the land of Egypt, from under the rule of Pharaoh, crossed the waters of salvation and then gave thanks to God who saved us and heard our plea. Our Lord guided us through the fires of Hades, helping us to endure for His name’s sake. We praised Him with the three youths in the midst of affliction, being joined by the chorus of the saints. He came and stood in our midst, sweeping our souls up to heaven so that we may offer a perfect praise to God with the angels. We meditated on the Name of our Savior, giving praise to the One who redeemed us and learning the meaning of humility and repentance, the virtues of the righteous. We meditated on the Holy Bible, seeing the symbols of St. Mary in the Old Testament, who gave birth to the Incarnate Logos. We were brought to the Cross, praising our Lord for the perfect sacrifice, out of which we became children and heirs of the Almighty God. In praying the Holy Psalmody, we have been taught to worship the Holy Trinity in a proper manner. It was through His Grace that we left this world and journeyed into heaven, leaving behind all the vanities of this world. Not only have we entered into heaven, but we have prepared our souls for the great feast, the Holy Liturgy. We have been purified in order to partake of the greatest mystery of them all; the partaking of His Holy Body and His Precious Blood. May the Good Lord continue to bless this Holy Prayer, the prayer of the Psalmody and may this pure praise be continually in our mouths, so that we may live in the goodness of God and shine throughout the world. Through the intercessions of St. Mary the Theotokos, the chorus of the Angels, St. Mark, St. George, St. Mina, the Desert and Church Fathers and all those who have pleased Him since the beginning. Amen.
“What better thing can the people do than sing? I know no better than this!” (St. Augustine).
APPENDIX A: Glossary
Adam Days – refers to Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday.
Adam – also refers to the tune said on those days.
Antiphonarium – known in Arabic as The Difnar, it is a book similar to the Synaxarium where the saints of the day are remembered. However, unlike the Synaxarium, the first few lines are sung antiphonically – i.e. not in chorus but in alternating responsive parts.
Batos Days – refers to Wednesdays, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Batos – also refers to the tune said on those days.
Canticle – known in Arabic and Coptic as Hos, is a song or hymn with words taken from the Bible.
Doxology – taken from the Greek language, meaning glorification.
Economy – one of the definitions of this English word is the same as the Greek oikonomia, which is used by the Apostles and Fathers to refer to God’ plan, administration, system, stewardship or management regarding His governance of man and history.
Hos – a Coptic word, which means Canticle.
Lobsh – a Coptic word, which means an explanation.
Psali – a Greek word, which means chant.
Theotokia – a Greek word. It is a glorification to the Theotokos, The Mother of God Saint Mary.
APPENDIX B: References
Chrysostom, St. John (1979), Homilies on Ephesians. In The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (Vol. XIII) (Philip Schaff, Ed.). Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Chrysostom, St. John (1979), Against Publishing the Errors of the Brethern. In The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (Vol. IX) (Philip Schaff, Ed.). Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Climacus, St. John (1982), The Ladder of the Divine Ascent (Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell, Trans.). New York: Paulist Press.
Grube, George W. (1998). What the Church Fathers Say About… Volume I. Minneapolis: Life and Light Publishing.
Grube, George W. (1998). What the Church Fathers Say About… Volume II. Minneapolis: Life and Light Publishing.
H.G. Bishop Hedra, Praises Explained. Retrieved April 5, 2003, from http://www.tasbeha.org/content/articles/praises_explained.php
H.G. Bishop Mettaous (Speaker). Meditations on the Holy Psalmody (Cassette Recording in Arabic). Sourian Monastery, Egypt.
H.H. Pope Shenouda III (Speaker). (2003). Questions and Answers with H.H. Pope Shenouda III. Cairo, Egypt: St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church.
Iskander, Fr. Athanasius (Speaker). (2001). The Holy Psalmody (Presentation). Muskoka, Ontario, Canada: St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church.
Lucado, Max (1999). And the Angels Were Silent: The Final Week of Jesus. Multnomah Publishers.
Malaty, Fr. Tadros (1998). The Personality of St. Athanasius the Apostolic and the Church Environment (Nagwa Salib, Trans.). Gloucester.
St. Athanasius (1980). The Life of Antony (Dr. Robert C. Gregg, Trans.). (New York: Paulist Press.
St. Athanasius (1980). The Letter to Marcellinus (Dr. Robert C. Gregg, Trans.). (New York: Paulist Press.
St. Augustine (1979), Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Ps. 135). In The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (Vol. VIII) (Philip Schaff, Ed.) Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
St. Augustine (1979), Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Ps. 148). In The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (Vol. VIII) (Philip Schaff, Ed.) Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
St. Augustine (1979), Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Ps. 149). In The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (Vol. VIII) (Philip Schaff, Ed.) Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
St. Augustine (1979), Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Ps. 150). In The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers (Vol. VIII) (Philip Schaff, Ed.) Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
St. Augustine (1992). Daily Readings With St. Augustine (Maura See, Ed.). Templegate Publishing.
St. Gregory of Nyssa (1978). The Life of Moses (Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson, Trans.) New York: Paulist Press.
Wahba, Fr. Matthias F. (1996). Symbols of St. Mary in the Old Testament. San Francisco. A Dictionary of Orthodox Terminology. Retrieved August 05, 2003 from http://www.goarch.org/en/ourfaith/articles/article8049.asp
Glossary. Retrieved April 16, 2003, from http://www.tasbeha.org/content/articles/glossary.php
The Divine Liturgies of Saints Basil, Gregory and Cyril (H.G. Bishop Serapion and H.G. Bishop Youssef, Eds.). (2001).
The Orthodox Study Bible New Testament and Psalms (NKJV) (Joseph Allen, Michel Najim, Jack Norman Sparks and Theodore Stylianopoulos, Eds.). (1997). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way (R.M. French, Trans.). (1991). San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco.