I have never been so excited to stand for 7 hours to praise God and honor His mother during the Coptic month of Kiahk (in our parish it is from 5pm until midnight)! And at our parish we are trying to return to the original method of praise, which gave the Kiahk Praises the alternative title “7 and 4” (you can read more about that here)—we may be the only or one of the quite few parishes in the entire Coptic Church doing this.
I’ve been spoiled here in the United States, where Christmas is a prevalent holiday. However, it is riddled with cultural traditions that are quite secular and have nothing to do with the reason for the season: Christ, the eternal Word of the Father, Light of Light, True God of True God, who existed before all ages, never created but is the Creator with the Father and the Holy Spirit, took flesh from a humble woman named Mary, when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, so that the Divine became incarnate.
But I can’t imagine what it was like for the earlier Christians when Christianity was not a prevalent religion, or in places outside of the United States where other religions are the majority, or atheism is rampant. In such places the thoughts and words that come out of people’s mouths and linger in their minds is (and God forgive me for writing these words): “Jesus Christ is just a man, like other good men,” or “Mary did not give birth to God, just to a man that people made out to be God although he wasn’t,” or “There is no God; all of this Christmas stuff is nonsense.”
In the month preceding Christmas, the Coptic Church gives us an opportunity to counteract such claims by spending an entire night filled with hymns and chants that declare the opposite and affirm the testimony of the angels on the day the glorious divine Lord was born: “Glory to God in the Highest.” It gives us a chance to affirmatively declare that the one born of St. Mary is truly “Emmanuel” (meaning God with us).
But as I wrote before, Kiahk praises today have customarily eliminated from the rite the praising of the 7 Theotokias, which focus squarely on the reason for the season. I am so honored that our parish priests have permitted us in our parish to change that, and we will be chanting all 7 Theotokias, God-willing. See the attached for the order we will follow.
Look at the beautiful words we will chant throughout the night, as refrains for each day’s Theotokia, which serve the purpose of teaching (catechesis) and affirming Orthodox Christian truths:
Monday: “He shone in the flesh, taken from the Virgin, without the seed of man, in order to save us.”
Tuesday: “For of His own will, and the pleasure of His Father, and the Holy Spirit, He came and saved us.”
Wednesday: “The Father looked from heaven, and found no one like you [St. Mary], He sent His only-begotten, who came and took flesh from you.”
Thursday: “He did not cease to be divine, He came and became the Son of Man, for He is the true God, who came and saved us.”
Friday: “He took what is ours, and gave us what is His, we praise and glorify Him, and exalt Him.”
Saturday: “Hail to you O full of grace, Hail to you who has found grace, Hail to you who has given birth to Christ, the Lord is with you.” [This is based on the words spoken by the angel of God to St. Mary, in accordance with the Septuagint]
Sunday: “Wherefore we magnify you [St. Mary] befittingly, with prophetic hymnology.” [Prophetic hymnology refers to all the symbolism derived from the Old Testament incorporated in the praise that points to St. Mary]
And for those who feel troubled or weary about honoring St. Mary, if you consider yourself Christian then know this, Scripture calls for it: St. Mary is the only person of whom the Scripture prophesies that “all generations will call [her] blessed” (Lk 1:48). We should join Elizabeth in her praise of St. Mary, “the mother of my Lord” (Lk 1:43), saying, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Lk 1:42), and hearken to the herald angel of God, Gabriel, who greets her in the following manner: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women” (Lk 1:28).
For those who are not Christian, take the countless witnesses who have seen St. Mary in person. How many times does she need to appear to masses of people openly, or to individuals whose lives were changed by her appearance, for people to believe that she is the Mother of God and the Lord honors her in that manner?
I was so blessed to meet a living saint who discarded atheism after Saint Mary appeared to him. He was not Egyptian, nor did he belong to any cultural group that is typically associated with any Orthodox Church (Greek, Russian, etc.), and definitely knew nothing of the Coptic Orthodox Church or Orthodoxy generally. He is Fr. Lazarus, an Australian man who now lives as a hermit in a cave in the wilderness of Egypt, in the manner of St. Anthony the Great, the father of Christian monasticism. Hear him speak of this out of his own mouth: “A monk’s life” (go to minute 28 if you want to directly jump into his recounting of the miraculous encounter with St. Mary)
Image credit: I was blessed to have the opportunity to take the blog cover image myself, of an ancient icon at the St. Anthony Monastery in Egypt.