First Things has agreed to publish an article about the spirituality of Coptic chant, with a particular focus on the Good Friday hymn ‘Pek-Ethronos’. The article can be read here.
This post is essentially a companion to that article where I can do some things which can’t be done on the ‘First Things’ website, like provide an actual recording of the hymn. I’ve also included some points that had to be cut from the original article due to First Things’ length requirements.
In summary, the argument was that the main theme in ‘Pek-ethronos’ is that of paradox. The hymn communicates that theme chiefly (but not entirely) through its weaving together of two separate musical themes – a dark one, which dominates towards the hymn’s beginning, and a lighter one which grows gradually stronger, coming to dominate the hymn’s latter half. That slow build-up of joy overcoming sadness is what, for me, makes up the bulk of the hymn’s theological depth; it reflects any and all of the innumerable ways in which the Cross is a paradox. The Cross begins as defeat but ends in triumph, begins with cruelty but ends in love, begins in tragedy but ends with joy; there are thousands more beautiful, paradoxical truths about how the Cross transforms the world.
This is a good recording of ‘Pek-Ethronos’ from a Church somewhere in either Canada or North America, judging from the priest’s accent:
“Pek-ethronos ef-Nouti sha eneh ente pi-eneh, Alleluia.”
“Your Throne O God, (is) forever and ever, Alleluia.”
The tune begins in absolute darkness – the tune in this part is very similar to the long ‘Diptych’ of St. Basil’s Liturgy, and the mournful beginning of ‘Sothis Amen’ before the Absolution in the Liturgy of the Word. The musical mood is entirely and explicitly funerary, which seems rather incompatible with the hymn’s words.
The lighter tone first breaks in very briefly at 3.55, but is gone by 4.12. At 5.40 however, it breaks in again, this time much more noticeably. It wavers in and out of focus for about 90 seconds, after which the tune fades back into darkness at 7.45. All of this takes place on the word ‘eneh’.
At 8.53 the lighter tone breaks in again. At around the 10 minute mark, it climbs to the point just before it should climax twice, but recedes just before it reaches it. After entering the second syllable of ‘Alleluia’, the cantors climb the ladder to the climax once more, and this time, they break through; at 10.57 they enter a joyous cascade of notes that sound, for the first time, to be completely unfree of pain or expectancy – this is the powerful, unchallenged joy which the hymn’s earlier portions had promised would come.
As the cantors work their way through the final ‘Alleluia’, the darker tone seems to return only for as long as the lighter one had remained at the hymn’s beginning. The lighter tone now dominates, and climaxes once more before the hymn ends. The tune of joy, which we glimpsed initially only in brief, fleeting flashes, has proven so powerful, so uncontainable and so eternally true that the darkness simply cannot subdue it any longer.
And there’s a very powerful sense in which this reflects Christ’s own journey into death. It’s no coincidence, I suspect, that the lighter tune breaks through for the first time during the phrase ‘sha eneh‘, which means ‘forever’. Christ’s infinite and necessary existence has often been thought of as the property which allowed Him to defeat death from within. Death tries to consume Him on the Cross, and even appears to succeed for a moment; but Christ’s divinity, His eternality, His ‘uncontainability’, soon breaks through, so that three days later, He bursts His tomb open from the inside. That is the story which ‘Pek-ethronos’ tells as its melancholy tune slowly comes to match its triumphant words: the seemingly unconquerable empire of death is slowly but surely cracked open from within, as Christ’s uncontainable innocence, joy and love inexorably expand to fill the world with light. This is the story of Christ’s passion, but it is also the story of Creation’s liberation from death and tragedy, through Christ’s healing suffering. It is, in the end, the only story worth telling.
A blessed Good Friday to Christians of the West, and peace and safety to all Christians of the East in the lead-up to Holy Week!