In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the hero discovers the answer to the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything: it is 42. Actually, he got it wrong. It is 41.

The Coptic Rite frequently uses a hymn which consists basically of one phrase repeated 41 times. I am referring of course, to the KYRIE ELEISON.

The words are Greek, not Coptic, harking back to the early days of Christianity when Greek was the common language in use throughout most of the Mediterranean civilisations. The Gospels were originally written in Greek and the liturgies we use in the Coptic Church were originally all in Greek. It is only as time went on that they wee translated to the vernacular Coptic. Even today, the standard form of the “Coptic” liturgies we pray – when we say we are praying in Coptic – has a pretty significant percentage that is Greek, not Coptic.

But I’m actually not interested in the language side of things today – I wanted to contemplate on the spiritual significance of the 41 Kyrie Eleisons. You might have asked yourself at some stage, “Why do we just repeat the one phrase over and over like that? Didn’t Jesus warn us against just such a practice?”

“And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:7)

Yes, God knows that we need His mercy. But the prayer is for our benefit, not His. It is a reminder to us of that need for mercy, lest we should ever forget and think ourselves self-sufficient without Him. As I sing the repetitions of “Lord have mercy!” I can have two things running through my mind. One is my deep need for the mercy of God; the other is the mercy of God itself, and the God of Mercy Himself.

Our need for mercy stems from our inherent weakness and moral frailty. God is all-good. We desire to be one with God. Yet we sin. By sinning, we exclude ourselves from being one with God. Oops. How is this problem to be solved? There is nothing we can do about it, for it does not lie within our power. Only He can do something about it … and He did.

God’s solution to the problem was to become one of us, to suffer for us and to die for us, and then to rise again from the dead, satisfying the law of justice, yet opening a door to the infinite possibilities of mercy. On His way to completing this course, He was tied to a post and whipped. The 41 Kyrie Eleisons bring us to the very Roman pavement upon which his tired knees rested, and challenge us to look on as the sadistic whip, sharp stones and rusty nails tied to its cords, is scraped over and over across the bare back of the Humble Servant.

Can you stand here unmoved?

What heart of stone would not cry out, “Stop!” Not only is this inhuman, it is uniquely unjust, for all have sinned, all deserve the reward of their evil … but not his Man. Anyone but this Man. This is He whose gentle eyes gave hope to the woman caught in adultery after He saved her life from the bloodthirsty mob … the same eyes that now weep in pain and agony. This is He whose strong voice echoed over the Mount as He taught the multitudes to be meek, lowly, poor in spirit … the same voice that cries out now uncontrollably in suffering. Anyone but this Man.

Imagine that from the midst of His blood and spasming muscles His eyes glanced out for a moment through tangled, sweaty hair and met with yours … And what will you say now? Can anyone remain silent? There is no “I will do something to save You!” You will find no comforting if futile action to ease the burden of this monstrous event. It is done. It is finished. It has happened. And all because of our sins. He took what is ours, and gave us what is His.

What then will you say? Is there anything else we can say, other than “Lord have mercy!”?

Sometimes we pray this hymn with a fast tempo, as if the pain of it is such that we only wish to bring it to an end as soon as we can. At other times, we pray it more slowly, as befits a dirge of sadness. Always, we should pray it with this image firmly held before the eyes of our minds: the broken Body, leaking blood from a thousand points, submitting to this suffering … that I deserved instead.

We cry for mercy because we never meant it to come to this. All those times we gave in to sin … it was never meant to end like this! We cry for mercy for the chains that bind us still to our frail humanity, the undependable, unfaithful, unthankful and brute nature that drags our eternal spirits down into the dust of sin again and again … only the Suffering Servant has the power to break those chains, and so, even while He suffers, we cry out for His mercy. It should be He who cries out for mercy from His tormentors, but instead, it was He who administered mercy to them as He hung on the Cross, asking for His Father’s forgiveness for them. He has taught us to ask, and so we do.

No, this is no vain repetition. This is not multiplying empty useless words (or at least, it never should be). This is our witness, so many times each day, that we know and appreciate the sacrifice of profound love that our loving Saviour offered for us. If any words of prayer have meaning, it is surely these simple words!

Fr Ant

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5 Replies to “41”

  1. Thank you, I tried to explain this to someone the other day, but didn’t have such clear words.
    rabina ma’ak
    helena (new copt)

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  2. Just to wrap this issue which i believe all of us learned from it and i believe myself i learned a lot and clarified for me a lot of meaningful points and put things together …… i believe ,Father Antonios highlighted and pin point for us the solution above in his message for all our worldly problems and how we deal with them and that only and only way through a complete way of life and that we must live and stick to it all the time thankfully without winging , it is THE LIFE OF THE CROSS …sometimes we find some people talking about the worldly expression MEANINGFUL LIFE , do you know what it is or even heard about this expression before ??? did you try to practice it or even to live it fully ???!!all of us in life in one way or another are trying to live a meaningful life , it is a life, to love and to be loved , to care and to be cared , to give and take even to go the extra mile of giving more than taking , to share and not to be selfish , to develop all these skills and gifts God gave us according to our ability such patience , kindness , compassion , wisdom ,discretion , love , hope , faith ,humility ,forgiveness , knowledge , experience etc .and use them wisely on daily life …so THE LIFE OF THE CROSS equal to THE MEANINGFUL LIFE which we try to chess but we must use and stick to the right tools and strategies and gifts and guidelines which God gave us together in the bible …also we have to notice that God always give us the suitable cross according to our own each ability to carry in this way of life “i believe God will never give us a cross heavier than our ability and ” strengthen us with those gifts “Holy Spirit “, and this cross must be carried with our own will to have that Meaningful life and its guidelines which will lead us eventually to our eternal life with our lord JESUS CHRIST , amen …..we must suffer with our lord JESUS on the cross if we want to be risen with him and enjoy eternal life , amen …try to strengthen your tools “gifts given by God ” by the holy spirit which will get you there with the support of the HOLY SPIRIT , for example , if you use the worldly word ” MY RIGHT “instead of patience , forgiveness , love and kindness in any situation or scenario in life you will find definitely your self a looser and not winner ….do you know according to the statistics that the word MY RIGHT is puting the divorce rate in this part of the world is one of the highest raaaaates in the world !!!!??? do you cross the road with your car if you see a car coming on the red despite you are in the green ?????i believe the world is changing if we look at the time of our mams and grand mams , the rate of divorce was nil , why was that ???!! truly life is changing , my grand kids before a couple of years they used to come every morning and ask “Gido Hat fifty cents “, now they say ” Gido Hat dollar ” , i wonder tomorrow what they will be asking , and i hope it is not going to turn to a right because i will not be able to afford it!!! LORD HAVE MERCY and get us safely over there ….

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  3. Today in the Mass i enjoyed one of the nice practical sermons of Abouna Antonios which is really simple,practical and applicable in our life …his sermon main message is to make your mind and to take your decision which way you want to go , to carry the cross with our lord Jesus Christ and suffer and rise with him or to follow the Devil and be a looser ….several years ago i personally experienced that , i was sitting over the fence and i believe a lot of us are sitting over the fence today specially when the person is young and the whole world and life at own tip of his fingers ….just i would like to share a bit of this experience with you so we can learn from those experiences …..i used to be busy all the time, traveling all over the continent and no time for God at all ..like others with great ambitions .i made a lot of money , i developed a lot of qualifications , i developed a lot of connections , i worked a lot of years in my professional job but guess what i always used to feel an EMPTINESS inside myself and i did not know exactly why was that ????!!! till one day somebody told me mate read the bible and check what the wisest man who dwell d in our world said about life ???!!! i read ECCLESIASTES as he suggested by King Solomon for several times to understand it , oh mate at the end i discovered the unexpected opinion and view of that king which God gave him all the wisdom as he asked for and who had all the great life and its enjoyment at his own tip fingers , imagine everything in life he did and everything he enjoyed !!!!!???King Solomon revealed at the end his view and that “LIFE IS RUBBISH ” ….i thank God to have that experience and that he opened my eyes to have that meaningful balanced life which is the life of the cross which filled my emptyness …so mate do not sit over the fence , repent , confess , learn , have a balanced meaningful life , the life of the cross and fill your emptiness with our lord Jesus Christ to dwell in your pure heart and his love to spread on to the others …may God strengthen our faith and deeds to be acceptable in front of the eyes of the Lord , amen …..

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  4. Thanks for your beautiful contemplation and explanation abouna.
    This is the first time I actually understand the phrase “He took what is ours, and gave us what is His.” God took our punishment upon himself and gave us His glory, His eternal life and His love.

    It’s like that verse that goes like “If indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified with Him”

    Pray for me

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  5. Thank you for your wonderful explanation.

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