Introduction to the hymn
Palm Sunday is one of the Major Feasts of our Lord, and it is the day on which the Lord Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem as a King, riding on a donkey and a colt, the foal of a donkey. Accordingly, the crowds with palm and olive branches, who joyfully chanted “Hosanna, Son of David”, greeted Him. “Hosanna” is an Aramaic word meaning “save us”. Perhaps the most popular hymn of Palm Sunday is Evlogimenos. the full hymn in Coptic is as follows:
The full hymn in Coptic is as follows:
|Evlogi-menos, o erkho-menos en onomati kereio, palin en onomati kereio.|
|O-sana to eio Daveed, palin to eio Daveed.|
|O-sana en tees ep-sistes, palin en tees ep-sistes.|
|O-sana va-sili too Esraeel, palin va-sili too Esraeel|
Pi`wou va Pennou] pe@ palin pi`wou va Pennou] pe.
|Ten-erep-salin engo emmos:
Alleloia, alleloia, alleloia. Pi-o-oo fa Pen-noti pe, palin pi-o-oo fa Pen-noti pe
One of the seven major feasts, and one of the most popular feasts among the Copts, Palm Sunday occurs on the seventh Sunday of Lent and has been celebrated by the Coptic church from early Christian times, to commemorate the entry of our Lord Christ into Jerusalem. This feast begins the Holy Week journey as Christ returned to Jerusalem from Bethany in preparation for His own crucifixion.
Historically, Copts would decorate their churches from the eve of the feast, carrying with them palm branches in the shapes of crosses, donkeys, and other shapes, decorated with olive twigs and flowers.
In the early centuries of Coptic history, a special procession is said to have been conducted outside the church, throughout the city or town, in observance of Palm Sunday. This procession was headed by the clergy and followed by the community of the faithful. This tradition remained in practice in Egypt until it was forbidden by the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim at the turn of the tenth century.
History and Use
The earliest textual evidence of the hymn available as of now, is found in “Mesbah el Zolma.” A Lamp in the Darkness is a 13th-14th century document written by Ibn Kabar, who was a priest of the “Hanging Church” and at one point in his life, a scribe for the government. He is considered a major source in the history and rites of our Church. Ibn Kabar mentions the hymn’s use on Palm Sunday here:
Note that we do not have much textual evidence of the rites and hymns of our Church from the 7th century until the 13th century or so, as a result of the Muslim conquest of Egypt. So even though this is the oldest evidence available, the hymn itself may have existed before the time of the textual evidence.
Today, we chant this hymn on Palm Sunday after Evnoti Nai Nan during Vespers, Matins, and during Liturgy after the reading of Acts. We also chant it when receiving the Patriarch or Metropolitan into a church.
Contemplation on the hymn and Church Rite
Below is a translation of the hymn from Coptic to English:
|Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord; again in the Name of the Lord|
|Hosanna to the Son of David; again to the Son of David.|
|Hosanna in the Highest; again in the Highest.|
|Hosanna to the King of Israel; again to the King of Israel.|
Pi`wou va Pennou] pe@ palin pi`wou va Pennou] pe.
|Let us praise saying: Alleluia (3).
Glory be to our God; again glory be to our God.
Notice how we receive the King of Kings? “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Christ Himself is the One who taught us this saying, as stated in Matthew 23:39 “for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’”
Why does the Church remind us of this phrase?
- So we are reminded that we receive Christ as a King
- So we can remember to receive Christ into our Hearts like the Children of Israel, into our hearts through communion.
- So we are reminded of Christ’s role as the sacrificial lamb – entering into the homes of our hearts and we receive Him with joy, only then to be slaughtered on the 4th day like the sacrificial lamb of the Israelites.
Most of the hymn’s is taken directly from the biblical accounts of the entry of the Lord into Jerusalem:
Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:
“Hosanna to the Son of David!
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’
Hosanna in the highest!”
The last line of the text (“let us praise…”) is not biblically derived; however, the following quote from the commentary of St. John Chrysostom on the Gospel of St. Matthew, may shed some light on its inclusion:
“Let us also do likewise, and let us sing hymns, and give up our garments to them that bear Him.”
St. John here calls us to participate with those who received our Lord with praise, and to sing hymns to the King of kings. Thus, while we are commemorating the events of our Lord’s life on earth, we are also partaking in His Life through the liturgical celebrations. It is of utmost importance that we practice this concept each time we attend the liturgy. It is not a remembrance alone, but rather a heart-felt participation, which sets our Church rites apart from the rest of Christianity- as Christ said “Do this in remembrance of Me…”.
What’s the significance of repetition?
Typically, 2 Choruses chant this in our Church taking turns, a musical technique known as ‘antiphonia’. This signifies the union between the earthly and the heavenly, which is a theme that is repeated in the rites of the day, for example, the procession of the Cross/Palm Sunday. There are 12 stations: each in front of an Icon, where the Icons represent the Heavenly, and the procession represents the earthly. We pray the litany of the Gospel, representing us, the earthly. Then we read the Psalm, representing the righteous ones of Old Testament, and the Gospel, representing the righteous ones of the New Testament. Thus, we are uniting the Heavenly with the earthly, and the Old Testament with the New Testament, in rejoicing over our salvation, and accepting Christ as our eternal King.
Significance of Palm and Olive Branches
Because of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem as King on Palm Sunday, palm branches became a symbol of triumph among Copts. Therefore, in Coptic iconography palm branches are often drawn into the hands of martyrs to denote their triumph.
The use of palm branches was an ancient tradition used on the Jewish Festival of Tabernacles, as they were commanded in Leviticus, “Take for yourselves … the fronds of palm trees and rejoice before Jehovah your God seven days.” They waved the palm branches as they processed through Jerusalem and the temple while reciting parts from Psalm 118 including “Save us, we beseech you, O Lord.” In Hebrew, the word hosanna means ‘save us’.
Thus, Palm branches represent victory, and crowns of those who prevail, as we learn in Revelation 7:9,
“After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Through the use of palm branches, the church encourages us to have victory over sins, that we may inherit the Kingdom.
While Palm branches are symbolic of victory, olive branches represent peace. Recall in the story of Noah, how the dove first returned when an olive leaf in its mouth? This signified the end of the flood and the beginning of peace. In the same way, Christ’s entry into Jerusalem was a peaceful one, not a hostile turnover of the Roman rule, as some of the Jews had hoped for.
In this way, the divergence of the Old Testament mindset versus that of the New Testament becomes apparent. While our Lord Jesus Christ’s entry was that of royalty, power and victory (Palm branches), He was as peaceful as a lamb, entering on the foal of a donkey in peace. He was not looking to overturn the physical kingdom on earth, rather elevate His people to the Heavenly Kingdom above.
Musicality of the Hymn
Musically, the common tune of the hymn is divided into two portions. The 1st portion is through “…again to the King of Israel”. This part has 1 line of tune that repeats 10 times. The reason for this is to ensure the entire congregation chants it. It’s a simple line of tune, and it’s thought to be the same tune used to greet Christ during His Entry into Jerusalem. Even though it is a beautiful melodic chant, one can imagine how much it troubled the Romans and the leaders of the people, as the tune of the hymn showed the royalty of Christ and His Kingdom.
The second portion of the hymn, starting with “Let us Praise…” is a more solemn tune. Much like the discrepancy between the palm and olive branches, the second half of the hymn is calm in its tune to represent the peaceful and meek entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. While the beginning half of the hymn is full of royalty and power, we are reminded with the tune of the second half that it is the humility of Christ which led Him to enter Jerusalem riding on a colt, and eventually to the Cross, that is the real power.
There is also a melismatic version of this hymn that is not frequently chanted in our Church. It’s a long and beautiful melody that represents Christ’s cries over Jerusalem before re-entering, as stated in Matthew 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate;”
During Palm Sunday, let us cheerfully accept Christ as the King of our own hearts. Let us remember that Christ’s entry to earth, entry into Jerusalem, and entry into Hades through the Cross, was full of meekness and humility. He, while being God, humbled Himself for me out of His great Love for us, in order to save us. Indeed, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Let us glorify Him and exalt His name for His great love and humility, and ask Him as our King to save us.
Sources and where to go to learn more:
- “Behind the Hymns” Aired on March 13, 2015. SAT7 Production. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/hMziWMJQoHA
- “Behind the Hymns” Aired on March 20, 2015. SAT7 Production. Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/5XPWCtNCwGY
- Girgis, Daniel. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Mar 21, 2016. Retrieved from: http://danielngirgis.com/2016/03/21/blessed-is-he-who-comes-in-the-name-of-the-lord/
- Basilios, Archbishop. “Feasts, Major.” Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia, Claremont Graduate University. School of Religion, 1991
- Mikhail, Deacon Albair Gamal. The Essentials in the Deacon’s Service, (Shobra, Egypt: Shikolani, 2002), p. 355 – 357.