This Censer of Pure Gold
The crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ is an event that can never be adequately described by mere words. It defies all human understanding and is itself a paradox. The Almighty God, who is justice itself, was made to be criminal. He who clothes the world and its inhabitants was stripped naked. Life died for His own creation, which by sinning separated itself from Him. Therefore, the hymns chanted on Good Friday in the Coptic Orthodox Church play an immense role in expressing what words cannot contain or utter. Even with these beautiful, ancient melodies, the hanging of our Savior on the cross remains ineffable.
Hymns of the Sixth Hour of Good Friday
The sixth hour of Good Friday allows us to walk with Christ through His suffering before and during His crucifixion. He was stripped of His garments, was given a crown of thorns for His head, a scarlet robe to wear and a reed to hold in His right hand. He was mocked, spat on, beaten, and led out to be crucified. He was nailed to the cross, taunted and shamed. Heinous acts were committed against the King of Kings. It is only fitting then that the hymns of the Church reflect the specific events of the gospel readings of this hour.
The word sou in Coptic means altar, and the word ry is the name of the god of the sun “Ra”. The two words together, forming “the altar of Ra”, became what we know today as the censer, or “shourya”. Notice that the word shourya is Coptic not Arabic, and that the Arabic word is “magmara”. This also leads us back to what the original pronunciation would be.
The earliest mention of the hymn is in Ibn Kabar’s text, in the section on the annual liturgy. Here he states that the congregation chants the hymn Saved Amen – Cw;ic Amyn and continues to describe the actions of the Patriarch saying: “The Patriarch takes off his ‘bornos’ (outer garment) and wears the suit, and these are the names of its pieces”. He continues to depict each garment. Ibn Kabar then says:
“After exchanging [the garments] the absolution is read over the servants and the congregation chants the hymn All the wise men – Nicabeu tyrou.“ It is amazing to connect the chant to its purpose. Here is the text of this hymn:
“All the wise men of Israel, who craft threads of gold, make a garment of Aaron according to the honor of the priesthood of our honored father, the high priest, Pope Abba (…), the beloved of Christ.”
Afterwards, and more importantly for this post, Ibn Kabar writes in Lamp in the Darkness: “And when the incense is raised, they say a bwhem hymn for our Lady the Virgin and it is Taisoury `nnoub `nka;aroc and its paralex a combined word used as explanation (literally = “beside the words”) }soury `nnou] pe ]par;enoc. There are several important things to note here:
Bwhem nem Paralex
Many chants in our church follow the structure of bwhem and paralex. Examples of this are Pipneuma and Acswpi @ Pijinmici and Gene;lion @ Ouran `nsousou and ` K[oci @ `N;wten de and Amwini @ Nirwmi and Kurioc @ Wouniatk and Acswpi which I will discuss soon. The statement that the latter }soury is the paralex of the first Taisoury indicates that essentially the both are actually one hymn. If we put the text of both hymns together it gives a new meaning!
Taisoury – This censer of pure gold, bearing the aroma, in the hands of Aaron the priest, offering up incense on the altar.
}soury – The golden censer is the Virgin. Her aroma is our Savior. She gave birth to Him; He saved us, and forgave us our sins.
Thus we can see that the latter is actually the explanation of the former. It describes the living symbol that is the censer. This is the reason why, on certain occasions, there is confusion regarding which to say.
}soury `nnou]? – In my opinion, it is most likely a spelling mistake. If it isn’t a mistake, it is still applicable in this case; calling the censer divine does not take away from the meaning.
Notice how they chanted Hiten after Tenouwst.
Afterwards, Pope Gabriel also mentions the hymn in Ritual Order here:
After Cw;ic Amyn they chant either `n;o pe ]soury or taisoury for the virgin if the pace is slow, and after that tenouwst. This leads us to the assumption that taisoury is longer than `n;o pe ]soury which is most likely due to the fact that ]soury would have been chanted as part of taisoury.
Notice how Pope Gabriel says, `n;o pe ]soury as opposed to the modern `n;o te ]soury. This is because in conversation you address the other party, whether male or female, with the formal pe saying “You are”. Other examples that are still remnant in our hymns include Pilampac `nat[eno from the Lobsh of the Saturday Theotokia, `n;o pe `;mau `mV] from the Morning Doxology, and `n;o pe ;ye;meh `nhmot from the last litany of the sixth hour prayers. This can be seen in all the old manuscripts and is also affirmed by Fr. Shenouda Maher, Ph.D.
From Youssef Habashy’s Holy Week Book 1898 for the Sixth Hour:
The following photos are taken from the Coptic Catholic Patriarchate library regarding the hymns’ use during Good Friday:
This manuscript is from 1896, and I have underlined that in the sixth hour it says that ]soury is said, contrary to what we currently practice. Then in the ninth hour the same manuscript says that taisoury is chanted.
This may or may not be accurate but I have mentioned it because it furthers the understanding that the two were one hymn.
I would like to mention that this hymn is chanted while “the high priest uncovers his head, along with the rest of the priests who also uncover their heads. They wear the ‘bornos’ and each of them will come forward, take a censer and begin with the fellowship of incense. They will raise it as it is the rite before the icon of the honorable cross with 3 handfuls of incense.”
The first handful of incense: “We worship you, O Christ, and your life giving cross, upon which you were crucified, to deliver us from our sins”
The second handful of incense: “My Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified upon the cross, trample down satan under our feet”
The third handful of incense: “Hail to the cross, which Christ the King was crucified upon, in order save us from our sins”
When discussing the musical aspect of this hymn, the first thing that comes to mind is how deeply soothing it is to the soul. In all honesty, the tune of this treasure is as convicting as it is consoling. Here are some amazing and important renditions of this hymn.
Musical Notation of Ernest Newlandsmith
Notice that the word nenjij ends and the next word begins separately contrary to what is chanted in many churches today. It’s all in the little details!
Deacon Ibrahim Ayad
Holy Week Album 2004
Old Holy Week Album
Holy Week Live 1984 with Ramzy Boshra
With the Seminary Chorus “Eklirikeya”
Higher Institute of Coptic Studies with Deacon Ibrahim Ayad
Cantor Fahim Girgis
Live – 1980
Live – Unknown Date
Fr. Raphael Anis (Nagy Anis) Solo in Cathedral 1983
Cantor Tawfik Youssef – learned this hymn in the tradition of Cairo, but there is one part that is very similar to the rendition of Cantor Habib Hennawy of Upper Egypt.
Recorded for Cantor Wissa Attia
Cantor Farag Abdelmessih
Cantor Gad Lewis
Cantor Zaher Andrawis
Cantor Amir Saleh
Cantor Habib Hanna – chanted both Taisoury and ]soury in this same tune. He is the only one to preserve this tune.
Cantor Naeem Hanna Boulis
Cantor Habib Hennawy Nasef
Cantor Wissa Attia – these recordings are live from Good Friday. He chants the hymn at first in a slow rendition then gets cut off by the priest to begin the prayers of the sixth hour. He then chants a shortened version in its appropriate time and then also chants ]soury as well in the sixth hour, furthering the fact that they are one hymn.
Farah Balha – this recording was found in Cantor Wissa Attia’s tapes and was mistakenly released as though it were him. However, it is not Cantor Wissa, and it is in fact a recording of the hymn for Good Friday.
It is also important that in other live recordings both Cantor Wissa Attia and Cantor Wadee el kommos Matta chanted this hymn in its regular liturgical tune.
As I stand before You Lord, I ask that You give me tears to express what my words fail to utter. I ask that You give me repentance and healing through Your sacrifice on the cross. I am full of sin and devoid of goodness, but You are merciful and forgiving. Not only do You love me, regardless of how harsh and unfaithful I am, but You continue to draw me near to You. You were left to hang on that cross, You didn’t care about the cost, You gave yourself completely and held nothing back from me. Your death saves me, yet I live so far away from You. Your blood washes me, but I continue to corrupt myself with the world around me. You weren’t ashamed to be lifted up naked and beaten for all eyes to see, while I hide from the mere mention of Your name. Oh how I long to finally be rid of my iniquities and be with You, to love You for who You are and never look back! I wish to return and be wrapped in the arms stretched out for me on the cross.
Father, You planned out my salvation, giving Your only Son to be emptied and die in my place, so that You may fill me with Your Spirit and live with me forever. Lord Jesus you became the incense pardoning my iniquities. Your offering restored me, and gave me a rightful place as a son once more. I am weak and unable to offer anything worthy of Your love Lord. Have mercy on my ignorance O Master. You are deserving of the utmost praise, unceasing thanksgiving, and humble worship. Yours is the glory, the blessing, and the majesty forever Amen.