The Bread of Heaven

It’s easy for those of us who partake of the Eucharist weekly to forget the stunning, world-inverting power of the Christian liturgy. This post, probably the first in a series, is a collection of texts from the early Church which give a sense of the wonder and awe with which the early Christians approached the Liturgy, most of which are prefaced with a quick introduction to explain their relevance. Naturally, they are only scratching the surface of early Christian writing on the Eucharist, and given that most early Christians could not read, these words scratched out on papyri can hardly be expected to express the fullness of what the liturgy meant to Churches of the ancient world.

“You have mixed for us a cup from a true vine: Your divine and unblemished side, from which after You had given up the spirit, let flow unto us blood and water for the purification of the whole world.” ~ A Fraction Prayer

The Book of Revelation, John of Patmos, c. 90AD

Few people appreciate the heavily Eucharistic imagery of the Book of Revelation. Mike Aquilina, a Catholic scholar says in his fantastic book, ‘The Mass of the Early Christians’, “John’s description of heaven’s court mirrored the arrangement of the bishop and his priests around the Church’s altar in the early liturgy. John’s hymns and chants reappear in many ancient liturgies.”

This passage, for example, very likely mirrors the arrangement of the early church around the bishop who was officiating the Eucharist:

“Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and on the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white robes; they had crowns of gold on their head. And from the throne proceeded lightnings, thunderings, and voices.” (Rev 4:2-5)

In this next passage, all the hosts of heaven gather to worship the slain Lamb, a term we still use repeatedly in the Liturgy to refer to the Eucharistic Christ, who is offering Himself up for us …

“(Chapter 5 verse 6) And I looked, and behold, in the midst of the throne and of the four living creatures, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as though it had been slain … (v. 11) Then I looked around, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and srrengtg and honour and glory and blessing!’ And every creature which is in heaven and on earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea and all that are in them, I heard saying: ‘Blessing and honour and glory and power be to Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, forever and ever!’ Then the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the twenty-four elders fell down and worshipped Him who lives forever and ever.” (Rev 5:6 & 11-14) Continue reading

“Your Throne O God” – The Theology of ‘Pek-Ethronos’

“Your Throne O God, is forever and ever. A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.” (Psalm 45:6)

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!