It is rare to have insight into the origins of most Coptic hymns. But for the “Hymn of John the Baptist,” we have just that.
It is sung on the occasion of the upcoming Feast of Theophany/Epiphany (when we commemorate the revealing of the Trinity during the baptism of Christ at the hands of St. John the Baptist). It is known as “Oran Enshosho” (a transliteration of the very first words of the hymn in Coptic, which is the way virtually all our hymns are named).
Oftentimes particular feasts are known by certain unique hymns that are sung for just that occasion, and this is just that hymn on the occasion of Theophany. If you look at the text of the hymn you will find that it is focused solely on St. John the Baptist, opening by declaring the exalted honor due him:
A name of pride is your name, O kinsman of Emmanuel, for you are great among all the saints, O John the Baptist.
You are exalted more than the patriarchs, more honored than the prophets, for no one born of women, is like you.
Then we are given our main clue to this hymn’s origin in the text of the hymn itself:
Come and hear the wise, the golden tongued Theodosius, speaking of the honor of the baptizer, John the Baptist.
Theodosius! That’s the clue we needed. Who is this Theodosius that the hymn refers to? It is extremely rare to have a hymn specifically point to a particular individual as being a source for its words, other than biblical saints (e.g., David the Prophet, or St. Paul the Apostle, etc.). What makes Theodosius deserve to be in such esteemed company to have his words sung as a hymn?
The answer: he was the 33rd archbishop (pope, patriarch) of Alexandria (the Coptic Church), enthroned over the See of St. Mark in A.D. 536. His bishopric was troubled by the continued effects of the council of Chalcedon, which took place about 80 years earlier, and which split Christianity into two: adherents of the council (Chalcedonians), now more commonly known as the Eastern Orthodox; and non-adherents (non-Chalcedonians), the Oriental Orthodox.
During Pope Theodosius’s papacy, the Chalcedonian emperor of Constantinople, Justinian, inherited the legacy of intimate involvement in the affairs of the Church which began with Emperor Constantine (ironically at the behest of the Church). According to Coptic sources, Pope Theodosius’s predecessor Abba Timothy denounced (or possibly formally excommunicated) Emperor Justinian due to his affirmation of Chalcedon. With a new man in charge, Justinian thought to try and mend the fracturing of the “One Universal Church” caused by this council, so he invited Pope Theodosius to attend doctrinal conversations in Constantinople to convince him of his error. But Pope Theodosius refused to be persuaded and he reunited with the rest of the non-Chalcedonians.
Interestingly, among those non-Chalcedonians was Emperor Justinian’s wife, Empress Theodora, who sided with the non-Chalcedonians and therefore greatly empathized with Pope Theodosius. He was not allowed to return to Alexandria and was instead deposed and sent off along with some three hundred non-Chalcedonian clergy to a fortress at Derkos in Thrace, thirty miles from Constantinople, where Empress Theodora made them as comfortable as she could. Pope Theodosius died there in exile in A.D. 567 (interestingly, the location of his exile and departure is cited in the Coptic Synaxarion as being Upper Egypt, but non-Coptic sources typically agree on Constantinople). Before he died he was considered a great champion of the non-Chalcedonians, particularly after the death of Severus of Antioch. Many non-Chalcedonians even referred to themselves as Theodosians. (And this hymn is further evidence of his exalted status in people’s minds.)
Sermon on St. John the Baptist
Now that we know more about Pope Theodosius, what is his correlation with this hymn about St. John the Baptist? Simply, the hymn quotes a small portion of a very famous sermon given by Pope Theodosius about St. John. It was so well known that the 40th pope of Alexandria, John III (A.D. 681–689) refers to it about 100 years later: “For my father Abba Theodosius said in the sermon which he delivered concerning him [i.e., John the Baptist] …”
The hymn attributes the following as being derived from that sermon:
What do I call you, how can I honor you, what can I liken you to, O who is worthy of every honor.
You are the sweetness of the fruits, you are he who moves branches, you are the flower of the trees, that are planted in the land of lilies.
While I have had trouble finding the exact text of the first portion of the quote above, the second is easy to find, as it is derived from the opening remarks of Pope Theodosius’s sermon, which is as follows:
“The sweetness of the fruits of the earth, the abundance of the branches of the beautiful trees, the scent of the choice lilies, the sun of righteousness, has shed its rays of light on the whole world.”
He goes on to say that while the day before his sermon on John the Baptist (which day fell on the Coptic New Year) he spoke about the Sun, the Alpha, the King (all references to Christ), he would turn his attention on the second day of the celebration of the new year to the moon, the beta, the king’s kinsman: St. John the Baptist.
For a very beautiful scholarly homage to Pope Theodosius’s sermon on St. John the Baptist, where you can learn about the extant manuscripts, evidence of authorship, and view the Coptic text as well as an English translation of the sermon (on p.57 of the PDF document), you can download the work titled “A Panegyric on John the Baptist,” translated by K.H. Kuhn. [Please note that the references in that writing to the non-Chalcedonians as being Monophysite is inaccurate. We are Miaphysites and have had several meetings with the Eastern Orthodox “Chalcedonian” churches to express that, and the outcome of those meetings is that all agree that on matters of Christology as it pertains to what was discussed at the Council of Chalcedon, we share beliefs that are in agreement (although phrased differently), and that the rift caused by the doctrinal misunderstanding of the Council of Chalcedon is no longer applicable (more on this below). For a very extensive look at this issue, you can refer to Fr. Tadros Malaty’s book on this subject, which you can download by clicking here.]
While we understand more about the root of this hymn’s text, what is still unclear is when exactly Pope Theodosius’s sermon was composed into this hymn. Was it perhaps appended to one that was already existent (the first portion of the Oran Enshosho hymn)? When was this entirely new or expanded hymn instituted in the church? By what means? Was it a synodal decision, or maybe a singular decision by some pope? Was it near the time of Pope Theodosius, or much later? It would have been wonderful if the church maintained a record of its evolution. Maybe we can learn a lesson for the new Coptic mission churches popping up everywhere: it would be great if a historical record was kept of the inception of the mission church, and everything that occurs that substantially impacts its evolution. You never know what someone wonders about a couple hundred years from now, if the Lord’s Second Coming hasn’t happened by then!
SOURCES & FURTHER READING:
For books on the council of Chalcedon, I highly recommend two: The Council of Chalcedon Reexamined, by Father V. C. Samuel of the Indian Orthodox Church, and also Christology and the Council of Chalcedon, by Fr. Shenoudad Maher Ishak
The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian, By James Allan Evans
The Architecture of Alexandria and Egypt, C. 300 B.C. to A.D. 700, Volume 63, By Judith McKenz
The Orthodox Church, by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (briefly delves into the recent meetings the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonians had, some of which is provided below):
Unofficial consultations were held in Aarhus (Denmark) in 1964 and in Bristol (England) in 1967, attended by leading theologians from the two sides; there were further meetings in Geneva (1970) and Addis Ababa (1971). The results were unexpectedly positive. It became clear that one the basic question which led historically to the division—the doctrine of the person of Christ—there is in fact no real disagreement. The divergence, it was stated in Aarhus, lies only on the level of phraseology. The delegates concluded, “We recognize in each other the one Orthodox faith of the Church… On the eseence of the Christological dogma, we found ourselves in full agreement.”
In the words of the Bristol consultation, “Some of us affirm two natures, wills and energies hypostatically united in the one Lord Jesus Christ. Some of us affirm one united divine-human nature, will and energy in the same Christ. But both sides speak of a union without confusion, without change, without divisions, without separation. The four adverbs belong to our common tradition. Both affirm the dynamic permanence of the Godhead and the Manhood with all their natural properties and faculties in the one Christ.
These four unofficial conversations during 1964 were followed up by the convening of an official Joint Commission representing the two Church families: this met in Geneva in 1985 at Amba Bishoy Monastery in Egypt in 1989, and again in Geneva in 1990. The doctrinal agreements reached at the unofficial consultations were reaffirmed, and it was recommended that each side should now revoke all anathemas and condemnations issued in the past against the other. Difficulties still remain, for not everyone on the two sides is equally positive about the dialogue: there are some in Greece, for example, who continue to regard the Oriental Orthodox as “Monosphysite heretics,” just as there are some Non-Chalcedonians who continue to regard Chalcedon and the Tome of Leo as “Nestorian.” But the official view of both [Churches]… was clearly expressed at the 1989 meeting: “As two families of Orthodox Churches long out of communion with each other, we now pray and trust in God to restore that communion on the basis of the apostolic faith of the undivided Church of the first centuries which we confess in our common creed.” May this full restoration of sacramental communion soon be an accomplished fact!