March 15, 2004
A complete analysis of the Great Lent hymn, Meghalo.
A complete analysis of the Great Lent hymn, Meghalo.
‘Meghal-oo’ would be the proper English transcription of its Coptic counterpart. In modern practice though, one can find it pronounced as “Meghalo” or “Meeghalo”. The word is a purely Greek one, loaned much in Greco-Bohairic and retains the original meaning “great” or “mighty”. Although the hymn text is purely Greek, it is pronounced in the Greco-Bohairic dialect of the Coptic language when chanted.
It can be argued that because it is written in Greek, it should be chanted using New Testament (i.e. Koine) Greek pronunciation rules. Examples of such include “Osarkothenda” instead of “Osarkothenta” and “Arkhi-erevs” with a light ‘kh’ sound instead of the heavy ‘sh’ pronounced in Greco-Bohairic.
This hymn is the Signature hymn for the Great Lent of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Megalou comes after the reading of the Synexarium in the place where Apekran or Qen `vran appears annually. The hymn is composed of three verses of undoubted Greek origin, as the hymn’s words are purely Greek.
According to the knowledge of the writer, only one source of Coptic hymnology has recorded this hymn in its entirety: Mua’llim Tawfik Youssef. Going back to the modern recorded source of our hymnology, Mua’llim Mikhail has taught and recorded only the first verse. Modern practice follows in such suit and most people learn, teach, and chant only the first verse of the hymn. Listening to the Mua’llim Tawfik recording does reveal though that once the tune for the first verse is learned, the remaining two verses are easy to learn, only involving fitting the words on the tune. The author encourages all to learn the remaining verses, but to exercise obedience and discretion in wanting to chant these verses in their churches.
Fr. Metias Nasr suggests that the authorship of Megalou can be linked to whomever authored Omonogenyc . Authorship in the Coptic tradition is attributed to St. Severus or St. Athanasius the Apostolic. By examining the text of both hymns, both are written and composed in the same artistic spirit. Both are based on the Trisagion hymn and build upon the spiritual meaning of the Trisagion to develop the respective theme of the hymn. The only minor difference is stylistic, where the Trisagion text is quoted before the actual hymn text in Omonogenyc . The opposite is found in Megalou . Both point to the wonder of the Incarnation, although the hymns are in a different liturgical and theological atmosphere. This is to assert however that the act of salvation is one, and that, in everything Christ did, all His acts are embodied in His atoning work. This assertion is further supported by the celebrant priest’s part in the Prayer of the Epiclesis in the Liturgy of Saint Basil, where he prays:
“Therefore, as we also commemorate His holy Passion, His Resurrection from the dead, His Ascension into the heavens, His Sitting at Your right hand O Father, and His Second Coming from the heavens…” (Southern United States Diocese Euchologion, p. 164, 2001).
The hymn text is reproduced below in its entirety and broken down according to how the hymn is composed in terms of it musical sentences. The end of a sentence will be denoted by a (:).
Megalou @ ar,y`ereuc @ ictouc ewnac @ a,ranton @ `agioc `o :eoc .
“The Great Archpriest (High Priest): The Eternal: The Pure: Holy God.”
“The Pure, Eternal, Mighty High Priest. Holy God.”
Reference: St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews
“Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (Heb. 8:1).
Kata tyn @ taxin tou @ Mel,izedek @ telioc @ `agioc ic,uroc .
“According to the order of Melchizedek, the Whole. Holy Mighty.”
“According to the perfect order of Melchizedek. Holy Mighty”
“The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4).
Ocarkw;enta ek `Pneumatoc @ `agiou ke `agiac Mariac @
tyc par;enou mega @ to muctyrion @ `agioc a;anatoc .
“Who took flesh by the Holy Spirit from Holy Mary the Virgin in a great mystery. Holy Immortal.”
Reference: Nicene Creed
“ And was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
(Taken from the Southern United States Diocese Euchologion, 2001).
Note: The reader will note here that a literal translation was not included. This is for the sole reason that the literal translation of the original Greek is in fact the accepted and precise theological statement of the Coptic Orthodox Church and her sister Churches regarding the Incarnation of our Lord. Thus, there is no need to show two steps of translation of this verse.
The careful observer will note that the Trisagion hymn (Agios) is weaved into this hymn. The Trisagion hymn here appears in its most original form before one of the Church patriarchs added the extensions to combat heresies about the Divinity of our Lord. (Hegumen Yohanna Salama, Studies into the Rites of the Coptic Church). If all three verses will not be chanted, the best practice is to complete the first verse and then either immediately chant the Paralex or chant the first line of the Trisagion hymn, conclude with `Eleycon `ymac and then chant the Paralex. This will be discussed in detail later on in this study.
The following explains the textual sources for this hymn and how much is recorded in each source.
+ Nahdet el Kanais Deacons’ Service Book, p. 232-233 (Latest edition): All 3 verses with the Trisagion hymn.
+ Mua’llim Farag’s Deacons’ Service Book, p. 203: First verse only with Agioc `o :eoc .
+ Albair Mikhail’s Deacons’ Service Book, p. 378: First verse only with full text of Trisagion.
Note: Much of the content of this section is rewording and paraphrasing of Heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church (HCOC) Servant Albair Mikhail’s opinions recently featured on the forums.
Officially, the current rite says that it is to be chanted in Sundays and the Concluding Friday of the Great Lent. The following is a summary of what the different textual and cantor sources say concerning this hymn:
+ Nahdet el Kanais Deacons’ Service Book (Latest Edition): “Hymn to be chanted on Sundays of the Great Lent and the Concluding Friday of the Great Lent after the Praxis and Synexarium readings.”
+ Mua’llim Farag’s Deacons’ Service Book & recording: “Hymn to be chanted on Sundays of the Great Lent and the Concluding Friday of the Great Lent.”
+ Albair Mikhail’s Deacons’ Service Book: “Hymn to be chanted on Sundays of the Great Lent and the Concluding Friday of the Great Lent.”
+ Mua’llim Faheem Girgis: “Hymn to be chanted on Saturdays, Sundays of the Great Lent and the Concluding Friday of the Great Lent.”
Most other cantors and books will agree and propagate this teaching.
It is common in the modern practice of some churches to indeed chant this hymn as Mua’llim Faheem teaches on Saturdays. The following is the scholarly answer by HCOC Servant Albair Mikhail concerning this:
“All books say that Megalou is to be chanted in Sundays and the last Friday of the Lent. on the other hand, the rite for Saturdays and the first Monday of the Lent is exactly the same as Sundays. [Logically then], we should be able to chant Megalou on Saturdays and the first Monday of the Lent as well.”
Albair also tells us that the Holy Synod has promised that they will discuss this with the rest of the bishops in the next Holy Synod committee on Pentecost to set this common practice into the official rite for the hymn. The following is the suggestion put forth:
- Megalou to be chanted on Saturdays and Sundays.
- Megalou to be chanted on Monday the beginning of the fast and Friday the end of the fast.
The greatest issue surrounding this hymn is how to chant the ending once one has chanted the words of the first verse. It is important to note that just because the text of the Trisagion hymn is included or part of Megalou , this does not entail that the Trisagion hymn should not be chanted after the end of the Paralex. The following is best practice given two scenarios:
Teaching 1, supported by M. Farag’s Deacons’ Service Book:
Eleycon `ymac and straight into Apen[oic
Teaching 2, supported by Mua’llims Farag and Ibrahim Ayad recordings:
`Ctaurw;yc d`ymac , Eleycon `ymac , and then straight into Apen[oic
The following is the scholarly answer by HCOC Servant Albair Mikhail concerning the confusion surrounding how to chant the end of Megalou correctly:
“ Eleycon `ymac is part of the Trisagion which we sing (first verse) before Apen[oic
[and not part of el-mohayyar ( Apen[oic )]. So, if we are not going to say the first verse of Agioc , then why do we say Eleycon `ymac only? Some people consider it part of the hymn but it is part of Agioc . This follows also with the Nativity and the Resurrection: the first verse of Agioc is to be chanted and then Apen[oic/Pa[oic . Some churches say Eleycon `ymac before Apen[oic in the Lent but not in the Nativity. We have to be consistent: either say it to indicate that the first verse of Agioc should have been chanted first or just [chant] Apen[oic .”
The author’s recommendation, based on the conflicting opinions, to resolve this issue is after seeking appropriate permission from the church leaders to follow the recommendation confirmed by Albair’s answer.
There is a further issue surrounding this hymn regarding two extra verses which have been attributed to its Paralex, Apen[oic . These two verses are included below:
Ou`c;oinoufi pe Mari`a
ou`c;oinoufi etqen tecneji
ou`c;oinoufi ecmici `mmof saf,a nennobi nan `ebol
“Mary is the incense, incense that is in her womb, the incense born from her lifts away our sins.”
Marenhwc nem niaggeloc
enws` ebol enjw `mmoc
je `axia `axia `axia Mari`a ]par;enoc
“Let us praise with the angels, saying and singing, ‘Worthy, worthy, worthy is Mary the Virgin.”
Judging by the content of these verses, they are most definitely a doxology to the purity and intercession of our Mother before the Lord. These verses are documented in Albair Mikhail’s Deacons’ Service Book (p. 379) and the latest edition of Nahdet el Kanais Deacons’ Service Book (p. 234). Furthermore, Mu’allim’s Faheem and Tawfik do not include these verses in their recordings of the Paralex. Mua’llim Ibrahim Ayad, though, does include them on his Great Lent tapes. Also, Mua’llim Farag has recorded them in a recording with the Institute of Coptic Studies choir. These recordings definitely suggest that these are commonly taught and chanted in Egypt currently. The fact that these verses are also documented in books and old manuscripts most definitely lends weight to their authenticity.
There is, however, a ritualogical and theological problem with these verses in context of this hymn. A careful study of the text of Megalou does reveal that the hymn is a supreme doxology of the Lord’s priestly work in general, and more specifically as He exercises His eternal priesthood in the wilderness in order to sanctify fasting, showing us a way to conquer temptation, and endures fasting on our behalf in order to prepare His Body for the ultimate sacrifice on the Cross. Even the mention of St. Mary in the third verse of the hymn is merely introduced to prove the origin and mysterious birth of our Lord. They do not to any effect offer praise or glorification. on a more general note, the basic aim of the Paralex is to explain or expound on the theme of the signature hymn. Here, the theme is clearly the priesthood of our Lord. Thus, these verses would most definitely detract attention away from the theme.
The theological problem is that within the sound theological and ritualogical understanding of the Church, the attributes of God are never mixed with the attributes of St. Mary. If we say that Christ is the incense, then St. Mary is the censer. We cannot then say in the beginning of the verse that St. Mary is the incense and then later say that the incense born from her is the Savior. As with all our hymnology, the Church insists on precise theology expressed in sound hymnology.
This idea was originally suggested by Fr. Metias Nasr in his Great Fast lecture from a past liturgical conference in Cairo, Egypt. The author does agree with this notion and invites all to reconsider these verses in light of the research presented above. However, he does not condone any action taken in a church without prior permission from the choir leader or church priest. His job here is to simply present facts and conclusions for the communal benefit of our worship through hymnology, while keeping true to the theology and ritualogy of the Great Lent season.
Note: It is important to quickly state that such analysis and exegesis that will follow is purely based on contemplation on the music and words. As there is little in terms of scholarship and research into Coptic hymnology, such word as this piece is a humble effort to try to develop a methodology in understanding Coptic hymns. For the most part of the following work, the author has relied on knowledge of the Eastern musical scales and their musicological explanations.
Megalou is a marvel of Coptic hymnology. As with most other masterful hymns of our Church, it manages to weave together borrowed musical sentences from other hymns into a hymn that still fully takes the worshipper into the depth of the hymn. The borrowed sentences are as follows:
+ Wnim nai (Eng. ‘O This Great!’) - chanted before “Ya Kul Al Suffof” on the Feast of the Resurrection.
+ Apekran - annual hymn for the saints chanted after the Reading of the Synexarium.
+ E;be ]anactacic - the mournful Pauline tune chanted during Passion Week and General Funeral Service on Palm Sunday.
Through all three verses of the hymn, there seems to be a recurring pattern that is reflected by the music. The structure can be defined as follows:
+ It firstly states the origin or identity of the Lord. This first ‘part’ shows an aspect of His character.
+ It then moves into a prophetic announcement, drawing our attention to a prophesy or proclamation that has now come true in the New Testament.
+ Then, the hymn brings to our minds some vision or image of struggle or great battle of some kind.
+ It then lifts us up in conquer and victory over this struggle! The impossible becomes reality.
+ It then makes a solemn proclamation affirming some eternal characteristic of our Lord or a part of His work in salvation or something pertaining to this.
+ Then, we are brought into the air of contemplation, meditating on a trait of the Person of Christ that suffered because of His work on earth.
+ Then, we are quickly reminded to remember that He is still Holy and Divine! This station is always a sentence or a part of the Trisagion hymn.
+ Repeating the same music again from point 6, we contemplate again on a trait of His Person.
What an intense, rich, fulfilling, satisfying spiritual meal we are given every Sunday of the Great Lent in this hymn alone! How much we are gently guided to contemplate and praise and remember and share in the grueling work of Christ’s fasting under the temptation of the Devil. How often we lose interest in all the melisma and our minds wander.
It is amazing how this pattern is repeated in each verse and how the music reflects the pattern for the words in each verse.
This hymn contains musical sentences that always seem to be unfinished. It takes you from one zenith to another nadir in no time and sometimes without link. Furthermore, with almost all the large hymns, there will be a series of notes that solely characterize or identify the hymn. In most of the station endings of Megalou , you will find this characterization. The following is a brief breakdown of the musicology of this hymn for the first verse.
i. The first musical sentence or ‘station’ is an original piece of music. Reflecting the greatness of our Lord, it is characterized by disjoint sentences. Let us remember that it is impossible for the human mind or tongue to express the greatness of God. Thus, every time we try to comprehend it, we are taken to a next level, which further amazes and mesmerizes us.
ii. Then, it moves into the well-known Wnim nai station. The hymn hearkens us back to Exodus 34:28, where Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights in order to receive the Law. Thus, the New Testament Moses is drawn out into the wilderness in order to prepare Himself for the ministry of the salvation of mankind. Instead of ending like the borrowed sentence, it proceeds into a broken ending of Wnim nai to prepare us for the mournful parts of the hymn.
iii. The second half of the second station then takes us into a semi-blown sad tune, as previously stated borrowed from the hymn of Apekran . Here, the hymn portrays the ascesis in the desert, the struggle with temptation, the pangs of temptation attacking the Lord in the flesh, and the anguish of fasting completely from all food. one can only stop and think the extent of this great spiritual struggle between the hidden Savior and the Enemy.
iv. Suddenly, the hymn shoots up a ladder of ascending joyful notes and later ends on a somber note. We are reminded in this musically original station that His priesthood is after all all-powerful and that by His full obedience to the Father in the midst of temptation, He would conquer through fasting and perseverance.
v. The next station is like a solemn march with the notes very formal and organized. The second part of the station, starting with “e”, shoots up another ladder of serious proclamation and then ends like the first part of the station. It is solemn and undoubted just as the eternity of the Lord’s priesthood.
v. A,rantwn and `o :eoc are identical in musicology. The significance of this shall be discussed in the next section. These sentences will borrow a few musical sentences from E;be ]anactacic . Overall, they are somber sentences. In A,rantwn we meditate on the pure suffering by experiencing the pangs of temptation. In `o :eoc , we remember the God that suffered in His Humanity for us and felt the full weight of our physical and spiritual sin. Both these words end with the mournful Pauline sentence.
vi. The Agioc that falls between the previous two words takes on a more proclamatory and fanfaric feel. We are proclaiming the holiness of God that fasted for us. He is still Holy!
vii. After `o :eoc is chanted, we chant the beginning to the Trisagion hymn as outlined.
We leave the reader to keep in mind the pattern observed and help them to contemplate in their own way for the remaining two verses.
The Fathers on the Hymn’s Theme
The following is but a drop into the streams of their sayings on the theme of the eternal priesthood. They are included here for spiritual benefit and food for contemplation during chanting this hymn.
St. Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen, ch. 12:
“This Jesus, who is eternal, the one great High Priest of the one God, and of His Father, prays for and exhorts men.”
“If, then, we say that the Lord the great High Priest offers to God the incense of sweet fragrance…”
St. Ignatius, Epistle to the Magnesians, ch. 5:
“To those who indeed talk of the bishop, but do all things without him, will He who is the true and first Bishop, and the only High Priest by nature, declare…”
Ibid., ch. 7:
“Do ye all, as one man, run together into the temple of God, as unto one altar, to one Jesus Christ, the High Priest of the unbegotten God.”
Epistle to the Philadelphians, ch. 9:
“The priests indeed are good, but the High Priest is better; to whom the holy of holies has been committed…”
Justin Martyr, Dialogue of Justin, ch. 33:
“So God has shown that His everlasting Priest, called also by the Holy Spirit Lord, would be Priest of those in uncircumcision.”
St. Athanasius, Four Discourses against the Arians, ch. 14:
“…and when became He ‘High Priest of our profession,’ but when, after offering Himself for us, He raised His Body from the dead…”
“…as a High Priest, having He as others an offering, He might offer Himself to the Father…”
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, First Cathetical Lecture to the Catechumens:
“…and Christ Himself the great High Priest, having accepted your resolve, may present you all to the Father…”
“…eternally anointed by the Father to His High-Priesthood.”
St. Basil, Letter to the Caesareans:
“As He was made a way, so was He made a door, a shepherd, an angel, a sheep, and again a High Priest and an Apostle…”
Letter 236 To The Same Amphilochius:
“…whence the Lord, in things pertaining, to God, is both King and High Priest.”
“The Pure, Eternal, Mighty High Priest. Holy God!”
Not only did God appear in the flesh in the fullness of time, but He also appeared taking on the painful role of the Eternal High Priest. only the God-Man could offer Himself willingly as the Sacrifice and be the High Priest at the same time. The priesthood of our Lord Christ is powerful enough to lift up and rip every sin away from us! The deception of the Devil hinders us every day and lies to us. “He won’t forgive you!” “That sin is too horrible!” “You can take Communion all you want; that sin is still there as clear as daylight!” The Deceiver lies to us and brainwashes us. He then plants seeds of doubt in the Mystery of the Eucharist and we begin to either flee from it completely, approach it not believing in its efficacy, or making plain excuses of not communing citing “unworthiness.” The Fathers gently remind us that it is our unworthiness that makes us ‘worthy.’ It is our dependence and honesty in the Sacrament of Repentance & Confession to Christ present that makes that absolution uttered by the priest to make us run to the altar for total forgiveness and cleansing. The minute we hear that absolution, we run to the altar. Not wait, we don’t even think: we run! We now have the ‘pass’ to enter the Holy of Holies and partake of the Eternal Sacrifice that shackled Satan and his powers.
Christ’s blood is pure and divine. It covers all our sins. The minute we doubt His Priesthood, His ministry, and His Sacrifice, we blaspheme against that Blood. God spare us from this!
“According to the perfect order of Melchizedek. Holy Mighty!”
Christ’s Priesthood is not like the priesthood of Aaron. It completes and supersedes that priesthood. The sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle by the Old Testament priests were only a temporary propitiation for the sins of those who approached to reconcile with the Holy one. Not only is Christ’s Priesthood eternal and perfect, but also instead of relying on blood and animal sacrifices just as in the Tabernacle, the gifts to provide for lasting salvation are bread and wine, just like the offerings put forth by Melchizedek.
In Proverbs 9, we are told of the house, standing on seven pillars, built by Wisdom. Christ calls us from the altar of that house saying, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed!” He gently directs our attention to His wounded side that shows the entrance to the house and we see the wine mixed with water. Our Lord is the Wounded Mediator, the Perfect Priest that offers us a way back to the Father through His side from which the Sacraments - those seven pillars - come. Can we really find it in ourselves to reject this great picture of true love, of a Lord wanting to break Himself for us and for our sanctification?
“Who took flesh by the Holy Spirit from Holy Mary the Virgin in a great mystery. Holy Immortal!”
Somehow, in a way that supersedes and would flood our minds, the Immortal Wisdom of the Father, that Ancient of Days, took flesh and became a full human! Not only that, but also this came to pass by the pure womb of a virgin! Truly this is a great mystery. Truly this affirms the transcendence of our God above any physical or mental limit we can ever set. It had to involve an act of flesh being mysteriously spread on divinity so that the economy could be fulfilled (Liturgy of St. Gregory the Theologian). Finally, it had to be by the full participation of the Trinity so that none could ever dare to say that the work of salvation was not complete.
What does this mean for us, still struggling in the flesh? The Triune God is working in our lives, even if we sometimes fall and stray far, far away. The thief heard the Son cry out to the Father on the Cross, the Spirit then opened His eyes to the Son, and the Son finally granted the thief a place in the bosom of the Father. (Fr. Armeya Boules, Studies in Gospel of St. John, Part I). That Triune God wills that all humanity be saved – salvation is eternal, immortal and accessible when we drop at the foot of the Cross.
These words fall short of describing the beauty of this hymn as words cannot express the desires and expressions of the Spirit who wrote it. It is so deep and so amassing in spirituality. The hymn manages to chart for us the journey of our Lord climbing up the mountain, leaving the wilderness, His priestly work for our salvation, and then leaves us focused on Him entering Jerusalem. The hymn deftly stops there and hands us over into the arms of the Holy Week hymns for them to explain to us the rest of the journey to the Cross and then finally out of the tomb that couldn’t contain Our Lord.
Let us then remember these simple words next time we stand to chant either praying for our own salvation or leading our congregations.
Glory is to God. Amen.