“Seven & Four”
There is a special rite of praises in the Coptic Church that are commonly known in Arabic as “7 & 4,” which relate to a service conducted on Saturday nights during the Coptic month of Kiahk. What does that name mean? From the amateur to the scholar, you will hear the same answer that the renown author Gawdat Gabra gives: “It is commonly called ‘the seven and four’ because seven Theotokias and four odes [a.k.a. canticles] are thus sung.”
If anyone has paid any attention to the praises sung on Saturday night, you would have realized that the above explanation is no longer valid!
Allow me to explain:
UNDERSTANDING THE RITE
The Marian month of the Coptic Church is the month of Kiahk, which coincides with most of December and some of January. While the Catholic Church designates the month of May for special devotion to St. Mary, the Coptic Church, always cognizant of St. Mary’s significance as pertaining to her bearing Christ in her womb, spends the Coptic month in which we celebrate Christ’s birth (on the 29th of Kiahk) honoring the Mother of God.
The reason for this honor is evident in what one may call the “theme” hymn of the Kiahk rite (from the gospel response hymn chanted during the first two weeks of the month): “We give unto you greeting, with Gabriel the angel saying, ‘Hail to you O full of grace, the Lord is with you.’ Wherefore we glorify you as the Mother of God…”
It is commonly reported that St. Cyril the Great (who led the Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in AD 431 which resulted in ascribing to St. Mary the term Theotokos—i.e., Mother of God), composed special hymns (referred to as Theotokias) about St. Mary to teach people the theological basis for the honor attributed to her. If one examines the Theotokias, they are truly theological essays meant to teach profound truths to evince why St. Mary is worthy of the title, “Mother of God.” Even if St. Cyril the Great did not compose these hymns, they were clearly composed some time during or shortly after his papacy with the intent of convincing all listeners as to why St. Cyril and the council’s support of the title Theotokos was fitting.
Each day bears its own Theotokia to be sung. Each daily Theotokia was added to the then current practice of nightly vigil praises, known as the “Midnight Praises,” (or Tasbeha in Arabic), which already consisted of, at its core, four canticles (note: each canticle is also commonly referred to by the term “hoos”).
Thus, each night, particularly in monasteries (although possibly practiced more generally, especially in preparation for Sunday service), believers would spend an all night vigil as follows:
- Evening offering of incense,
- Prayers from the Agpeya (or Book of Hours, a.k.a. Horologion),
- Midnight Praises (which includes at minimum its four canticles and the day’s Theotokia).
- Celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist and partaking of the body and blood of Christ.
During the month of Kiahk, it appears that over time additional songs and hymns were added to supplement the Midnight Praises, including many which were devoted to St. Mary.
Rather than maintaining the practice of nightly vigil services, at some point, for some reason (maybe the weakness of the people, or simply for convenience), churches (although not monasteries) began to celebrate only one all-night vigil each of four weeks during the month of Kiahk, on Sunday Eve (Saturday night / Sunday morning), and decided to incorporate each daily Theotokia into the one night’s vigil. Hence, the Midnight Praises during the Kiahk vigils would include the typical FOUR CANTICLES plus all SEVEN THEOTOKIAS of the week, all in one night.
However, as H.G. Bishop Youssef confirmed with me recently, the practice today is really ONE & FOUR (one Sunday Theotokia and the four canticles), or at most TWO & FOUR (if the Vespers Praises are sung—which are before the extended Kiahk vigil service begins, and which include the Saturday Theotokia). Today, it is usually no longer an all night vigil, but mostly a Saturday night service lasting usually between 5–7 hours that concludes before midnight; however, a minority of churches continue to maintain the practice of an all night vigil, and some churches also maintain daily Kiahk praise services (which are sometimes conducted as all night vigils, as happened recently in the Coptic Cathedral in Cairo, Egypt [click here for a video of the Friday Eve Theotokia]).
A CALL TO RETURN TO 7 & 4, and Other Improvement Suggestions
Each Kiahk, I used to be so excited that I would spend much of the night honoring St. Mary. But I am always disappointed. As I stand in each Kiahk service, I notice that St. Mary is not really mentioned much until the last couple of hours. Of course, the entire vigil is not simply intended to honor St. Mary, as it is a preparation to receive our Lord, but there is an additional focus on St. Mary more so than at other times of the year. And that would be easy to accomplish, by simply adding the daily Theotokias that are at present absent from the service. If we simply replaced a very redundant and presently unncessary “explanation melody” hymn that is sung after each canticle, we could disperse the Theotokias among the four canticles.
What am I talking about? The pattern of the first half of Kiahk praises is simple:
- Melody explaining the canticle
- (Repeat for next canticle)
The melody explaining the canticle may have been useful in the past, when the canticle would likely have been sung only in Coptic (as one can even tell from older manuscripts was the language of prominence), and there was a need to sing in the spoken language of the time (Arabic) to explain what the canticle was saying (especially considering that it is unlikely there were enough of these hand-written manuscripts for each congregation to follow along). Today, the explanation melody is no longer needed, as the translation of the hymn is readily available and usually projected on a screen for everyone to see. And many times the four canticles are sung in alternating Coptic and the language of the congregants (Arabic, English, etc.)
Therefore, if Vespers Praises are sung, which includes the Saturday Theotokia, and the Sunday Theotokia is always said anyways, you could replace the four explanation melodies with a Theotokia, and just add the remaining fifth Theotokia somewhere else in the service order. Proceeding in this manner would not unduly extend the time of the service, but improve upon it greatly. The new pattern would be:
This way, the entire day would have bursts of beautiful hymns dedicated to St. Mary, spread throughout the entirety of the service.
There are other ways to improve it as well.
- I asked my friend Tony Kalleeny, well known for his service in the Coptic Diocese of the Southern U.S.A., and he informed me of several long hymns that are often skipped (e.g., Hos Epchois which is the long intro for the psalms that are prayed after Ten Theeno, comprising of prophecies about the Nativity/Virgin Birth; and Aretenthontee, which is also said during Vespers Praises before the Kiahk Vigil, part of the Saturday Theotokia).
- There needs to be better translations (in English and other languages) of many of the songs. If interested in providing one and seeking approval by the church to use it, contact me!
- And wouldn’t it be great if the Coptic Church set up a competition for people, world-wide, to submit their own theologically grounded hymn about St. Mary, in the language of their land, and then choose winners whose songs are approved by the Holy Synod to be acceptable if sung as part of the Kiahk vigil? Why not! Many of the songs we have today are late additions by certain cantors or others.
PRAYING WITHOUT CEASING AS A SIGN OF YOUR SPIRITUAL WELL BEING
Sadly, with each Kiahk praise service I attend, I cannot help but every once in a while take a look at the congregation and sigh, sad to see the empty pews, considering the scene as indicative of a weakening in the overall spirituality of my church.
To me, the strength of one’s spiritual life can be measured in part by the ability to enjoy extended amounts of time in contemplation and worship of God. What ever happened to that?
Sadly today, people seem to have grown weak in being able to withstand extended hours of prayer and praise. Yes, quality is more important than quantity, but we should strive for both; I am reminded of something the Lord Christ once said: “You should have done these things without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).
This is in stark contrast with the past. Bishop Kallistos Ware writes in his famous book, “The Orthodox Church,” about an archdeacon from the Patriarchate of Antioch who wrote around the 1600s about what he observed regarding the Russian Orthodox faithful when he was visiting Russia for a time:
“Services lasting seven hours or more were attended by the Tsar and the whole Court: ‘Now what shall we say of these duties, severe enough to turn children’s hair grey, so strictly observed by the Emperor, Patriarch, grandees, princesses and ladies, standing upright on their legs from morning to evening? Who would believe that they should thus go beyond the devout anchorites of the desert?'”
What happened to our adoration of and desire to emulate heroes of prayer, such as those monks who used to hang a rope from the ceiling and tie their hair so that they would not fall asleep while trying to pray all night? St. Pishoy (d. AD 417) did it, Pope Kyrillos (Cyril, the 116th archbishop of Alexandria, d. AD 1971) did it, and so many others.
I will leave you to think about some remarks made by Pope Shenouda in one of his sermons, which have made its way into a book titled, “Have You Seen the One I Love?”
“If you cannot talk to the Lord for just half an hour a day here on earth, how will you be able to talk to Him when you go to eternity? Where will you go? If you had no relationship with the angels and the saints here on earth, how will you live with them when you meet them in heaven?
If you love material possessions, crave the fulfillment of physical desires, and lust after worldly desires, what will you do when you go to heaven and the material and physical desires are nonexistent? What will you say then? Will you apologize and say, “I am sorry. The heavens will not do for me. Send me back to earth!”
Attend Kiahk, and increase your stamina for prayer. If you don’t have much stamina for it, then it probably means the depth of your spiritual connection with God needs to become deeper.
May the grace and peace of the All-Holy Trinity be with you all.
Cover photo of a manuscript located at the Coptic Monastery of St. Paul the Anchorite near the Red Sea mountains. Possibly dates back to the 18th century.
The A to Z of the Coptic Church, by Gawdat Gabra.
The Spirituality of the Holy Psalmody, by Matthew Massoud
Handbook for Liturgical Studies: The Eucharist, edited by Anscar Chupungco
Albair Mikhail’s explanation of the history of the Kiahk Praises: http://www.copticheritage.org/studies/the_kiahk_sunday_vespers_praise
The Spirituality of the Praise, by H.G. Bishop Mettaous
OTHER SOURCES ON RITES:
My friend Tony Kalleeny informed me of a book series that is well trusted by H.G. Bishop Youssef that discusses the rites of the Coptic Church, by a priest known as Abouna Athanasius El-Maqary. At present they are written only in Arabic. If anyone is interested in translating them, and having the translation published, let me know! You can find these books here. You can also visit his website, where Abouna Athanasius posts, among other things, several videos discussing his books and some of the rites: http://athanase.net