The Heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church

O Monogenis

Mena Rizkalla (Fortunatus)
January 21, 2004

A spiritual and historical study of this Paschal hymn.

Introduction

Of all the hymns sung during the great Pascha, very few so elaborately tie together the dogmas of the church with her general feeling of mourning. In essence, this hymn is perhaps a proof of the intrinsic relationship between Theology and spirituality: they are inseparable. Everything about O Monogenis, from its words to its authorship is relevant for the Christian who wishes to derive from it all possible spiritual value.

The Piece

O only-Begotten Son, and the Word of God, the Immortal, before all ages, Who has accepted everything for our salvation - the Incarnate of the holy Mother of God, the Ever-Virgin Mary.

Who without change became man; Who was crucified; the Christ God, Who has trampled death by His death; The one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, save us.

Holy God, Who for our sake became man without change, still being God;

Holy Mighty, Who through weakness has shown what is greater than might;

Holy Immortal, Who was crucified for us and endured death upon the Cross in His flesh, still being immortal; O Holy Trinity have mercy upon us.
(Translated by Hegomen Athanasius Iskander)

A Note on Style

The author of this piece is bold, a fact which shall be discussed later, but not bold such that he forgets the boundaries of his mind, thoughts, and words. For in this piece, only adjectives, verbs or adverbs, are used to describe our God, never direct nouns. This is noteworthy only insofar as one recognizes how articulate the Greek language is - one can define virtually anything in Greek. Our fathers, however, like the Jews before them, understood that God could not be defined in terms of nouns or substances. He could only be described on what He has done, what He is like, how He works - in terms of His graces to us, or our relationship with Him. To attempt to say more would be risking blasphemy, as to claim a perfect understanding of God would be to presume one’s own divinity. Hence, like our fathers who wrote the Creed at Nicea, the author of this piece speaks of God Who is “Immortal”, God Who has accepted everything, God Who became man or the one of the Holy Trinity. This reverence toward the Second Hypostasis and indeed toward the Holy Trinity must be noted and reflected in the way that this is sung, for though the hymn is bold, it is also humble.

General Theological Themes

Before analyzing the specific themes of this piece, it is worth noting the overall theme: an affirmation of Christ’s perfect Divinity, as well as His perfect Humanity. It is the perfect exposition on the words of Saint Cyril,

“If anyone does not acknowledge the Word of God the Father to be united hypostatically with the flesh and to be one Christ together with his own flesh, that is, the same subject as at once both God and man, let him be anathema.”
(An Explanation of the Twelve Chapters, Anathema 2)

It is a hymn pleading for the mercy of our God, even as we relive His hanging and death upon the life-giving Tree. His perfect Divinity is revered and implored in our plea for mercy - for we do not ask the mercy for humanity from any mere human, but only from God. We revere and acknowledge His perfect humanity, as the sixth hour of the blessed day is the hour in which our Lord gave up His Spirit into the hands of His Father, which happened according to His perfect Humanity. Because He was both Human and Divine, salvation could be accomplished, and this we testify in this hymn ñ bowing before the Incarnate Logos, not just before His Divinity, nor before only His humanity.

Specific Theological Themes

Having recognized that the spirituality cannot be severed from the Theological let us then examine aspects of this hymn more directly.

First, Christ is declared as the only-Begotten Son, hence His Sonship to the Father is declared. Even in the hour of His death, we sing with solemnity and hope and call Him “the Immortal”, we acknowledge His perfect Divinity on the cross, even as Demas did, knowing that no mere mortal by definition can be Immortal. “Before all ages” is then another cry out to affirm our belief that He is Divine, as we do not sing to a mortal man, one born of a woman as being “before all ages”. Ever-existing and Eternal can only be attributed to God, no man can claim such an honour to himself. From this we can see how the writer may be referring directly to the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-Begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages”. As we know, this very section of the Creed was written in order for the Church, the living body of Christ, to proclaim the perfect Divinity of Christ. Perhaps, then, it is meet to realize that the Creed here is being sung - the Orthodox Creed is not a mere document, it is a prayer.

“Who has accepted everything for our salvation…”
Here, then, is the proclamation of His Manhood. This is an indirect reference to the kenosis, the “emptying” of God, in which He “emptied Himself and took the form of a servant”. For as God, He is not forced to “accept” anything, as he has the Divine authority merely to command and it shall be done, nothing is forced upon the Lord of Hosts. Because He emptied Himself, however, He accepted upon Himself the penalty that was given to our humanity, suffering and death as the price for our iniquities. He “accepted everything” in full, He Was not selective, He bore every pain, every tribulation, every temptation that is common to man, and took it upon Himself all “for our salvation”.

“the Incarnate of the holy Mother of God, the Ever-Virgin Mary”
It is not clear as to why a reference was added to magnify the Theotokos here, though it is entirely appropriate. There are a few possible reasons one can consider for this section, one of which will be analyzed when considering the authorship of this piece.

It is possible that the church saw it appropriate to magnify His Holy Mother who at this hour stood at the feet of her son and beheld Him dying. Indeed, we also include her and honour her in the verses of Sext sung prior to this hymn. Reasons for veneration of the Theotokos in general already have books dedicated to it, but another reason for this inclusion is possible. It is not unlikely that this was another affirmation of His perfect one Nature, a defense of the title Theotokos made to oppose Nestorius, the deposed Patriarch of Constantinopole in their Christological war. It is quite likely that the church was considering all these possibilities, though the explanation of the latter may shed strong light upon who actually authored this piece.

“Who without change became man; Who was crucified…Who has trampled death by His death; the one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, save us.”

If it was not clear, here it is said with perfect clarity so that none may doubt, Christ is God the Word Who took flesh, and because He was perfect in His humanity He died, and because He is perfect in His divinity He conquered death and can be asked to save us. He is none other than the second hypostasis of the Trinity, and He, the Word of God, did suffer on our behalf and accept death.

“If anyone does not acknowledge that the Word of God suffered in the flesh, and was crucified in the flesh, and experienced death in the flesh, and became the first-born from the dead, seeing that as God he is both Life and lifegiving, let him be anathema.” (An Explanation of the Twelve Chapters, Anathema 12)

This is then followed by a modified version of the Trisagion, the first two words of each verse affirming His Divinity, and the rest referring to his perfect humanity and the Incarnation. It restates all said in the first two verses in perhaps a more poetic way and corresponds again to the words of Saint Cyril,

“we understand him to be the Word of God the Father who has become incarnate and been made man, and if you call him ‘man’, we acknowledge him to be no less God who has by divine dispensation accommodated himself to the limitations of the human state. We say that the intangible has become tangible, the invisible visible. For the body that was united to him, which we say was capable of being touched and seen, was not something alien to him. Those who do not believe this but, as I have said, separate the hypostases after the union, and consider them united by a mere conjunction simply in terms of rank or supreme authority, are excluded by this anathema from those who hold orthodox opinions.” (An Explanation of the Twelve Chapters, Anathema 3).

The Trisagion in and of itself presents a controversy relevant to the authenticity of the authorship. This shall be discussed in context below. It should suffice that it is again verifying the spiritual/theological basis of the first two verses. It seems fitting also to add here, that O Monogenis is a hymn that falls into the category of Trisagion hymns, accompanied by the Trisagion itself, and Megahalo. The hymn itself was quite likely based on the hymn of the Trisagion.

The Prayer

This, then, is the prayer of O Monogenis: it is the prayer of all who worship Christ in His one Nature of God the Incarnate Logos, and it is the prayer that rings forth the truth of our Salvation. It is a hymn of power sung to the Lord crucified, in the hope of the Lord triumphantly resurrected.

Upon these words hang the fate of all Christians, and hence one who sings this cannot sing passively. The church cannot put enough emphasis on this, because if Christ is not God, if He is not resurrected - then our faith is in vain, “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14). This religion is no longer the religion of hope, but it is a religion of death - for beyond the tomb there would be no eternal life, there would be a sentencing to Hades, but far worse and God forbid, we would have believed a lie.

It is perhaps appropriate, then, to note the change in tune in these proclamations. We sing only the first word of each verse pathetically, but in our proclamations of the faith, we sing with a sudden solemnity. The tune is not hesitant, the tune is not dramatically tragic as the “kha ep ougai” (“for the salvation”) of Fai et af enf - rather it is one of dignity, mourning and respect, but also a tune of those proclaiming their God’s perfection. It is not dramatic - it is solemn; it is the cry of the army to their Commander, Who is both one of them and far superior to them.

Authorship

It has not been determined exactly who wrote O Monogenis. The Copts hold two traditions: Saint Athanasius the Apostolic according to some, and Saint Severus of Antioch according to others. Another tradition of note is that of the Chalcedonians, who hold that it was written by Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century.

A. Emperor Justinian

Of the three possible authors, it seems most appropriate to eliminate consideration of Emperor Justinian for reasons of politics and Christology.

Politically, it makes very little sense that he wrote it. This Emperor favoured his own in so far that he had our Pope Theodosius banished from Egypt, to live in Constantinopole until his death. Furthermore, it was him who exiled Saint Severus of Antioch from his patriarchal chair to Egypt, after the blessed saint confessed his Orthodox belief in the mia physis. This bit of politics is relevant in that the Copts rejected Justinian. It is very unlikely that the Copts would accept a hymn to be forced upon them by a heterodox emperor, considering they were out of communion with the majority of the Christian world for their obstinate belief in Orthodoxy. It is implausible that they would succumb to even one hymn. It is equally unlikely that Justinian would have requested them to sing the hymn, since he knew that he was not in their favour, and also understood well the nature of the schism and what it entailed. He was in favour of a reunion of the churches eventually, but there has not of yet been any evidence to suggest that he did request the Copts to sing a piece that he wrote. Furthermore, the tune is consistent with the tunes of all our other Paschal hymns - it would seem peculiar that the Copts were not only open to accepting the hymn he wrote, but that they would take it further to compose the music to accompany it. This is far from the personality of the Copts.

The other reason is partially related to the first, and it is based on Christology. As discussed previously, the hymn is Christological in nature, but far more importantly, the Trisagion is sung Christologically here, not in the Trinitarian way as is tradition among the Chalcedonians. In fact, to sing the Trisagion Christologically was virtually anathema in their church from at least after Chalcedon, until their 5th Ecumenical Council. Emperor Justinian presided over this council, and acknowledged that the Trisagion could be used; however, it was more of an allowance than an encouragement. It was not popularly accepted even after sanction, and this is evidenced by the fact that it was later re-condemned by their John of Damascus - just two centuries later. It does not make sense that something so unpopular among the Theologians of his church would be accepted by his own people. Even more against his favour, is the fact that the Greeks today do not sing O Monogenis with a Christological Trisagion. So highly is Justinian esteemed among the Chalcedonians, that it would seem odd that they would make intentionally such an omission - it would suggest acknowledging him as a saint while not recognizing his theology. So this alongside the very important political argument should not be dismissed or undermined. It may also suggest that the Trisagion might not have been initially included if Justinian wrote it, which is a possibility that does not allow us (on this basis) to reject him entirely as a candidate, though the issue of politics cannot be undermined. The very fact that Copts sing it, is a strong evidence that it could not have been written by an outsider. The Copts were closed to Greek additions and influence from Chalcedon until the time of Pope Cyril IV, the Great Reformer, just two centuries ago. So the only possible evidence in favour of Justinian is the universality of the hymn; this, as shall be discussed, perhaps can be explained better by attributing it to another author.

Finally, this piece is bold. No unskilled Theologian can write on the mystery of the Incarnation so succinctly and without fear, this is a person writing with experience and great insight into the truths of our faith - Justinian was an emperor, not a Theologian.

B. Saint Athanasius the Apostolic or Saint Severus of Antioch

It is the universality of this piece along with the Creedal nature that lends evidence that indeed this piece may have been authored by the great Saint Athanasius. Anything written by Athanasius was made known to the church universal, as he died many years before the tragic split of the Church. This would give explanation as to why the hymn is currently in use between the churches that are not even in communion with one another. The strong correlation between the first verse and the Creed must not be overlooked. The author, as discussed previously, even follows the same order of the clauses of the Creed. Furthermore, we know that the “13th Apostle” is the pillar to every Christian’s understanding of the Incarnation, the major theme of this piece. It was Athanasius, who wrote,

“For He was made man that we might be made God; and He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality… And, in a word, the achievements of the Saviour, resulting from His becoming man, are of such kind and number, that if one should wish to enumerate them, he may be compared to men who gaze at the expanse of the sea and wish to count its waves…”
(Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word, S.54). None knew or know the Incarnation as Saint Athanasius, nor is this piece inconsistent with his works.

One would feel content accepting the author as none other than the 20th Pope of Alexandria, but for three elements of the piece: the reference to the Theotokos, the words “Christ God”, and the Christological Trisagion.

The strong message of the Incarnation does indeed seem to be some form of a direct attack on the Arian heresy to be included in our prayers, but the reference to the Theotokos poses more questions. It is not altogether impossible or unlikely for Saint Athanasius to be mentioning the Holy Virgin, however, referring to her as the Theotokos so directly, and in the context of O Monogenis, is more typical of Post-Ephesus writing. This piece is affirming His perfect oneness, which is inherent in the title of Theotokos. The Fathers emphasized usage of the term Theotokos after rejecting Nestorius’ heresy that she is only the Christokos (the bearer of Christ), and not the Theotokos (the bearer of God). This was a direct influence of Saint Cyril the Great, who wrote,

“If anyone does not acknowledge Emmanuel to be truly God and therefore the holy Virgin to be Theotokos (for she gave birth according to the flesh to the Word of God made flesh), let him be anathema.”
(An Explanation of the Twelve Chapters, Anathema 1)

This, alongside the Christological Trisagion seems awkward. If Athanasius used a Christological Trisagion, it is not only unlikely, but virtually impossible for the Chalcedonians to have rejected it so much or to hold it anathema. Division from the great fathers, particularly of Saint Athanasius meant immediate separation, as Athanasius’ words gained him the title of Apostolic; so great was his authority that he was seen almost as an Apostle! It seems, especially because of the remaining piece of questionable writing, that this piece is post-Athanasius. We must also take into consideration, that the later fathers do not forget what was said before them - their sayings, quotes, and writings are collected alongside their own writings, such that the treasure of the churchís spiritual writings grows, not diminishes. That is, the fathers of the church quote the fathers of the church. So the Athanasian style of the first two verses does not demerit the possibility of Saint Severusí authorship of the piece.

The words ‘Christ-God’ are highly atypical of Alexandrine school writing. Christ-God, is distinctive of Antiochene school writing, and it is a terminology that started to be used following the great controversy between Saint Cyril of Alexandria, John of Antioch, and Nestorius of Constantinopole. The words ‘Christ-God’ are not used carelessly, they represent the heights of a far greater controversy, and it is these two words that open the possibility of Saint Severus’ authorship.

Not only do these words support him as the writer, but also the strong emphasis on the one Nature of God the Incarnate Logos. These Cyrillian words used by Saint Dioscorus again at the repulsive Council of Chalcedon were the reason for the separation of the Diophysites from the Orthodox. It was these words that became the treasure of the Orthodox Copts for centuries, because it was for them the sentence that they were willing to be isolated for and estranged from all others. This strong influence on writings and hymns from this controversy are of course all post-Chalcedon, but more importantly, they were the words that stirred Saint Severus’ heart, as he returned to the Orthodox Church - it is this statement of Saint Cyrilís that Saint Severus and all the Orthodox confessed:

“Considering, therefore, as I said, the manner of His incarnation we see that His two natures came together with each other in an indissoluble union, without blending and without change, for His flesh is flesh and not divinity, even though his flesh became the flesh of God, and likewise the Word also is God and not flesh, even though He made the flesh His own according to the dispensation. Therefore, whenever we have these thoughts in no way do we harm the joining into a unity by saying that he was of two natures, but after the union we do not separate the natures from one another, nor do we cut the one and indivisible Son into two sons but we say that there is one Son, and as the holy Fathers have said, there is one nature of the Word (of God) made flesh”
(Saint Cyril the Great, the Pillar of the Faith, Letter to Bishop Succensus)

This being a strong emphasis of his time, coupled with his Antiochene schooling, give reasonable explanation for the strong leaning toward the Alexandrine Christologies while writing with Antiochene style - it gives reason for the ‘Christ-God’ terminology not commonly used (though not altogether unused) during the time of Saint Athanasius.

The only issue is again, not understanding its universal use. It is, at least, equally likely that the hymn could have spread from Alexandria if it had been spread from Constantinopole. Perhaps we could also consider the possibility that he wrote it pre-exile, and that it was modified either by the non-Chalcedonians or by the Chalcedonians locally.

Though no author can be concluded beyond any doubt, it is not unreasonable to discount Justinian - as discussed previously. There is evidence that supports Saint Athanasius’ authorship, though the evidence and themes favour most strongly Saint Severus.

Significance of the Authorship

One may question the spiritual significance of knowing the author of this piece altogether. The relevance of course, is relative - it is different to those who are praying alone than to those who are praying with the church universal. Whether Saint Athanasius or Saint Severus, it is clear that this hymn not only is a proclamation and prayer of our faith, but it is also a condemnation on those who defame our God - the heretics. In that sense, it has also become a preaching; a preaching handed down by the fathers. By recognizing the author, we are sharing in the communion of the saints - the living and the dead. By singing with Athanasius or singing with Severus, we are joining them in their trials and tribulations that they endured for their God and faith; for the Truth of the one Nature. We are joining them in their triumph over the enemy; we are joining them in their love and passion for our Saviour and Redeemer. More importantly, we find with them the same favour with God, for also preserving until now the same truths professed before the world centuries upon centuries ago. Through and with them, we learn to love Him more. The triumphant church of God that sees no death stands in unity, proclaiming the mysteries of the faith, and uttering with boldness the Divine Mystery of our Salvation - it is first and last to the Glory of God.

Bibliography

Quoted:
“On the Incarnation,” Saint Athanasius the Apostolic
“An Explanation of the Twelve Chapters,” Saint Cyril of Alexandria
“Letter to Succensus,” Saint Cyril of Alexandria

Though not quoted or paraphrased, the following titles influenced the ideas in this piece:
“On the Unity of Christ,” Saint Cyril of Alexandria
“The Council of Chalcedon Re-examined,” Father V.C. Samuel
“Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” John of Damascus.