It begins with the Agpeya prayer in which the gospel of the meeting with the virgins who lit their lamps (Mat 25:1-13) is read, then the gospel of repentance out of love for Christ, offering feelings of their love with the fragrant oil which the woman poured (Luke 7:36-50). Then it concludes the appointed times of the Lord for the little flock separated from the world whom the Lord became their share (Luke 12:32-46).
“Arise, O you sons of light”:
The Midnight Praise begins with the hymn ten theenou, “Arise, O you sons of light so we may praise the Lord of powers.” Here the mystery of watchfulness is disclosed. Watchfulness is standing in the light of Christ in order to praise the Lord of powers, because in His light, we shall see light. In the light of Christ, Christ’s person is revealed to us, so we praise Him. Thus, the Lord Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12) “who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Cor 4:6). And concerning this the Apostle goes on saying, “You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober…But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation (1Thess 5:4-8).Indeed, those who have the right to rise with the sons of light are those who shine their lamps. Because of this, this hymn is considered permission for the possessors of the shining lamps to enter the wedding with the bridegroom when the cry comes, “Behold the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him.” Because of this, the Apostle says, “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Eph 5:14).
The Word “Watch”:It is one of the most repeated words in the Bible. Watchfulness is spiritual gratification. It is difficult to become accustomed to it devoid of the church praises, for watchfulness in praise and glorification with the saints is practicing being with God. It is preparation for an everlasting meeting with the heavenly bridegroom. Watchfulness, in the beginning, is heavy work. It ends with the love of Christ and His grace leading to a customary and delightful desire which the person seeks out with diligence.
The Divisions of the Midnight Praises
The First Canticle (hos):
It is the praise of Moses the Prophet after crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 15). “Let us praise the Lord for with glory he is glorified…” The Red Sea was a symbol of baptism which is considered a complete barrier between Pharaoh and his soldiers and between the people that passed through the wilderness with their God. Also, the Church with the baptismal crossing of its children, currently in the wilderness of this world, sings the praise of victory and salvation (the song of Moses). It sings it every day until it sings it in complete victory and triumph in eternity. “And I saw something like a sea of glass mingled with fire, and those who have the victory over the beast, over his image and over his mark and over the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, having harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb…” (Rev 15:1-4).
From what preceded, we see a powerful connection between the church of the Old Testament in its symbols and the New Testament with its perfection in the heavenly glory. Indeed, today’s Church sings the song of victory while it is passing the sea of this world in assurance of triumph and lifting of its spiritual soul in its unseen war with Satan and assurance of God’s power in it and assurance of the insignificance of Satan who plunged as lead in the sea and has no rest –in the baptismal font.
Read (Exodus 15) and learn it and sing it every night. You will find your spiritual life in the power of victory and triumph and the lifting up of the spirit the length of the journey of our lives for the sake of our faith in God who conquered Satan with the Cross. This high spirit will give us certain victory and power in our spiritual war.
The Second Canticle (Psalm 135):
“Give thanks to the Lord for He is good, for His mercy endures forever.” It is the praise of thanksgiving which the Church offers to God for the sake of His love for us — which saved us when it crossed with us the sea of death. He sustained us and supports us today in the wilderness and nourishes us with His body and His blood and His love and His tenderness, and guides us with His Holy Spirit dwelling in us. This is the Spirit which takes from what is Christ’s and gives to us…
Indeed, thankfulness is the nature of the struggling Church every day since it “is not a gift without surplus except that which is without thanks.” (Mar Isaac) We thank Him because He bears our bodily weaknesses and the weakness of our nature, and He washes our feet from the filth of the world with repentance and confession, and He leads us from glory to glory.
The Third Canticle: (The Praise of the Three Saintly Youths)
It is the praise of the three saintly youths. (It is a writing in the Holy Bible and the Protestants omitted it in the Beirut edition). It can be summed up that the king commanded the elimination of the three youths in the fiery furnace. Even though the fire did not go out, it did not touch them with any harm. The king found the presence of a fourth person walking with them in the midst of the furnace and this person resembled the sons of the gods. This canticle is sung by the church with the tune of joy in order to reveal to us these beautiful meanings:
- That the fire of the world is necessary for the trials of the church, but God is in the midst of the furnace changing the fire into cool dew.
- That inner peace does not mean the cessation of trials and sufferings from us. But it does mean the presence of God with us in the midst of the fire. Tribulation in Christianity is not resolved by its disappearance but with the passing of the Lord with us in it and with His carrying the cross with us and the everlasting presence with us. Stephen was being stoned and was seeing the Son of Man standing on the right of the majesty.
- That praise carries meanings of triumph with the power of the cross. With [the mystery of] the fourth, the resemblance of the sons of the gods, we cheer, “praise Him, glorify Him, and exceedingly exalt Him.”
- This praise gathers into one view its presence at the present distressing time and its presence in the joyful eternity. Thus, it is in the fire of the world and it is in the presence of God and the heavenly bliss.
- This praise is consistent with the Lord’s promise, “and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” (Mat 16:18)
The Congregation of the Saints (The Diptych)
After the praise of the third canticle, and the church’s feelings of the presence of God with the three saintly youths in the fiery furnace, this world, the feelings of the worshippers progress into the depth of the communion between the struggling church and the victorious church. The one purpose and the one spirit assembles them, and also the membership in the one body. What brings them closer together is the longing for meeting the Lord on the clouds where we will be with the Lord always. (1Thess 4:17) They find between them the tie of a unifying love. The heavenly support the earthly with prayer and the earthly express their wish to them with prayer. What is called death does not separate them from one another because it is not death but a crossing and a transfer.
The diptych begins with the intercessions of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, and the archangels and the rest of the heavenly ranks, and John the Baptist, then the prayers of the saints beginning with the fathers the patriarchs, then the apostles and prophets and martyrs and ascetics and monks.
The entreating intercession is special to the Virgin, the archangels, the rest of the heavenly ranks and John the Baptist. Intercession here means the powerful liberty in granting the request to the level of trust in the fulfillment even if the time has not yet come and the Lord says, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me?” But He changed the water to wine.
As for the rest of the apostles, prophets, the fathers the atriarchs and the martyrs – they are the cloud of witnesses who are for us in heaven asking on our behalf night and day. Each of them strives to be like his predecessor, imitating his way of life, asking for his help. Those present beneath the altar in heaven pray on behalf of the persecuted and hard pressed for the sake of the name of Christ. And the 144,000 virgins ask on behalf of those who desire a life of chastity and holiness in Christ. And the victorious at the sea of crystal ask on behalf of our youth struggling, even to blood, against sin, etc.
The diptych is a glimpse from the moments of transfiguration on the peak of the high mountain of the Lord (the church) where the Lord Jesus is [lofty] between Moses and Elijah. And at a lower level of the mountain (in the church), Peter, James and John become aware of them, heavy with sleep while saying, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”
The transfiguration is nothing but the state of prayer that gathers the Lord and His saints without being distinguished between the elements of time or place… Truly, it is eternity.
The Fourth Canticle (Psalms 148, 149, 150)
Some say that the midnight service ends with the diptych and the doxologies. Because of this, the fourth canticle begins with (ELEYCON YMAC – eleyson eemas) and it is sung: “Sing to the Lord a new song.”
The fourth canticle is made up of Psalms 148, 149, and 150 and it is all about praise. Praise is the work of the angels, and the continuous act of the church in heaven, and the act of His saints and the succession of animals, plants, and material things. God is glorified in an unequaled picture in His saints — “Praise God in all His saints.”
The Mystery of the Incarnation: The Theotokias
Indeed, the personality of the Virgin, the Mother of God, has above the greatest importance concerning the mystery of the incarnation. We cannot taste or touch it and feel or live it and take its blessings except after comprehending the divine connection between the divine and human natures in the divine factory (the womb of the Virgin Mary). Since the mystery of incarnation is the foundation of all mysteries of Christianity, the prophets became expert in the Old Testament with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in casting the large light on this mystery–that is in their description for the Virgin as the Second Heaven. Thus the Virgin is not a box which has a jewel from which we took the jewel and discarded the box. NO! These words are dangerous for two reasons: First: Because God the Word became flesh. He took from the flesh and blood of the Virgin and was weaned with her milk (Heb 2:14).
Thus, the Virgin is not just a box for the divine body. Second: If she was just a box, those who say this destroy the mystery of the incarnation from the view of its benefits to mankind. So the intention of the mystery of the incarnation is what the church says in the Theotokia of Friday: “He took from what is ours and gave us what is His.” He took our flesh — He was born with it; He acted and worked with it; then with it He died; and with it He rose; and He raised us with Him; He ascended with it; thus He lifted us up with it to the heavens, and He sat at the right of His Father, and He prepared a place for us (Eph 2:5,6)… Thus He became the firstborn among many brethren, and He is bringing them to glory (Heb 2:10). Consequently, the expression of the box and the jewel is an expression that separates the body of the Virgin from the body of Christ. Subsequently, it is a separation of the body of Christ from my body. Indeed, this separation leads us to the person isolated from God. The truth is that Christianity is built on an important foundation: “It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me,” (Gal 2:20) our believing in the inability of the person to comprehend God without God.
From the marvelous symbols that the Theotokias record for us in this matter:
- The Holiest of Holies: It is symbolic of the Virgin in that it is separated from the rest of the temple, anointed and consecrated for the incarnation of God in it. With this the Virgin became the living model to the way that makes us participants in the divine nature — not unless there is the detachment from sin and the sanctifying of the heart and its consecration to God.
- The Ark Overlaid with Gold: The ark made with wood that does not rot, overlaid with gold. For the wood that does not rot is a symbol for the purity of the Virgin and the gold is a symbol for the divinity. This is a symbol that all the heavenly gifts are not from our wooden nature, but it is a heavenly gift of gold that covers our nature. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you.” In addition to this, we put in front of our eyes that purity is a divine grace related with the presence of God with us.
- The Covering of the Ark with the Cherubim Overshadowing it: This expression is synonymous with the saying of the Bible, “The power of the Highest will overshadow you.” This symbol uncovers to us the depth of God’s concern for us who overshadows us with His caring and protects us with the protection of His wings so that the sun shall not strike us by day nor the moon by night.
- The Golden Pot and the Manna that was Hidden in it: If the golden pot received honor in the Old Testament with the placement of the manna in it, so the Virgin with her giving a body to Christ has received great honor and carried the True Manna and presented Him to us — that whoever eats from it will never die.
- The Golden Lampstand Carrying the Light: It was a symbol for the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Light. “We exalt you, O Mother of the True Light” because she carried the True Light that gives light to every person that comes into the world. The Virgin is a lampstand. Subsequently, the church (i.e. the community of believers) became lampstands. “And the lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.” (Rev 1:20) It also alludes to the seven orders of the church.
- The Golden Censer — a symbol of the Virgin. The gold is a symbol of her purity, and the censer carries the live coal of divinity and does not burn. The censer is used in prayer, and therefore the Virgin lays for us the way of being with God — that is prayer.
- The Rod of Aaron that Blossomed: It was a symbol for the conception of the Virgin without a blemish.
- The Blossom of Incense: It was a symbol of the Virgin whose fragrance spread in the world.
- The Burning Bush which was Blazing with Fire and was not Burned: It was a symbol of the divine conception from the Virgin.
- A comparison between the Virgin the Mother of Salvation — and Eve the mother of death.
- The Ladder which Jacob Saw — firm on the earth and ascending to heaven and the angels descending on it… It was a symbol for the Virgin whose body God used for coming down from heaven to our nature. Then He ascended our nature to His heaven.
- Mount Sinai: The word of God coming down on it was a symbol of the Virgin, the carrier of the Word.
- The Mountain which Daniel Saw and had Cut a Rock from: It was a symbol of the Virgin from whom Christ took a body from without anyone touching the mountain.
- The Gate that Ezekiel the Prophet Saw Closed, not opened or a person entering it. “Because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut.” (Ezekiel 44:2) This was a symbol of the Virgin, the Ever-Virgin.
- A symbol for the Virgin is that she is the city of God, the dwelling of the joyous (Ps 87:7). “The Gentiles shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (Is 60:3)
- The cloud is a symbol of the Virgin: “Behold, the Lord rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt.” (Is 19:1)
- Mary is the Rational Paradise that the Second Adam dwelt in (the Lord Jesus).
- Mary is a new second heaven that the Sun of Righteousness shined from. (Mal 4:2)
- Mary is the dough of all mankind who presented herself to Christ so that He would take a body from her.
- Mary is the woman clothed with the sun with the moon under her feet, and the twelve stars crown her head. The woman is the Virgin, the sun is Christ, and the moon is John the Baptist, and the twelve stars are the pure apostles. (Rev 12:1-2)
- She became higher than the Cherubim and elevated above the Seraphim because she became a throne for God carried by the Cherubim and the Seraphim.
- Isaiah the prophet said about her, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel which is translated, ‘God with us.’”
- The Tablets of the Covenant Written with the Finger of God were a symbol of the Virgin from whom the Word of God took flesh. And from the marvelous expressions which were recorded in the Theotokias:
“The Father looked from heaven and did not find anyone that resembles you, He sent His Only-Begotten, He came and took flesh from you.” “The unincorporeal incarnated; and the Word took a form; and the One without a beginning began; and the eternal became temporal; and they handled the incomprehensible; and they saw the unseen.” (The Wednesday Theotokia)
“He did not cease to be God and became a Son of Man, but He is the true God, He came and saved us.” “The womb that fell under the condemnation and gave birth to children with heartache became a spring for the absence of death.” (Friday Theotokia)
Connected with the four Canticles and the seven Theotokias are seven Epsalias. The word “epsalia” means a hymn. The hymn in our Coptic Church is distinguishable in that the reply in each verse ends with the name of Jesus. An example of this:
- The Epsalia for Monday: “My Lord Jesus”
- The Epsalia for Tuesday: “Your Holy Name My Lord Jesus is…” is in its phrasing.
- The Epsalia for Wednesday: “The sweet name full of glory is that of our Lord Jesus Christ…” is in its phrasing.
- The Epsalia for Thursday: It begins with the clause, “O Lord Jesus Christ who…”
- The Epsalia for Friday: It begins with the clause, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, give a sign (the Cross).”
- The Epsalia for Saturday: Every verse ends saying, “My Lord Jesus Christ, my Good Savior.”
- The Epsalia for Sunday: Every verse ends saying, “My Lord Jesus Christ, help me.”
With this we discover that the Coptic hymn is a dialogue with the Name of Salvation, the Name of Jesus Christ. It is not just a regular song. The Coptic fathers truly brought out the value of repeating the name of Jesus for the salvation of the person. It even became the center of their worship, and they breathed it since there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. This is a brief summary about the daily Church praises, especially the Eve of Sunday. During the month of Kiahk, hymns (epsalias) and beautiful praises for every canticle and Theotokia are interposed in. And with this the evening gathering is transformed into a night we spend in heaven pertaining to the topic of the divine incarnation by way of the Virgin Mary. In this doctrine, the saintly fathers discuss in their worship with all depth:
- “Whoever does not believe that Saint Mary is the Mother of God is foreign to God.” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus)
- “I am Your sister from the house of David our father. I am Your mother since I carried You within me, and I am Your daughter from water and blood with which
- You bought me and baptized me.” (Mar Ephraem)
- “Mother and throne and virgin” (Glorification)
- “Her Embryo is her Creator and she was made by His hands.” (Glorification)
- “Hail to the saint, the mother of all living.” (Theotokia of Tuesday)
- “Rejoice, O Mary the mother and servant” (The Liturgy)
- “The honor of the virgin is not from her being created a queen but from her sitting on the right of the Father.”
- “She is the rational net that catches Christians.” (Lobsh of Friday)
How should we praise in the Church?
Besides the great awe of this inheritance, yet how much we distort it whenever the worship is changed to just a ritual and this appears a lot in:
- The competition of voices in the church, so that some people try to reply and sing the hymn before the people in church. They cannot even bear staying in church unless their voices are apparent to the people. The truth is that the hymns are a delight and a personal pleasure as a means for worship and the spiritual highness resembling the angels.
- The loud voices in the praises are not from the character of the angels. But it is a means by which the enemy misleads us so that by it we lose the tranquillity of the hymn and its magnificence.
- Chanting and praising — it is prayer — then how do we stand for prayer? Possibly we stand for prayer with submission, but at the moment of chanting the submission escapes. Indeed, worship uses the senses from the raising of hands and heart and thoughts and tunes that express the depth of the soul more than it expresses the words.
- And above all of this, we ought not forget that “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” We should say again, “Arise, O you sons of light to praise the Lord of powers…” We ought to say, “Let us praise with the angels..” We should say, “My heart and my tongue praise the Trinity.” Let us praise the praise of the four incorporeal beasts, “Holy, holy, holy,” and with the twenty-four priests cast our crowns before the throne and chant the new hymn, “For He redeemed us out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation,” and also say with them, “We thank You, O Lord God Almighty …Amen. Alleluia.”
- Truly, the successful Kiahk evening gathering is that which the church is transformed to a part of heaven. May God have mercy on us for the worthless evening gatherings which is not credited to us, but on the contrary is reckoned as judgment on us.