Yesterday was a very busy day with many delightful and exciting professional commitments, but I was also blest to join a small local congregation with a strong and loving priest for the Lamentations at the Tomb (or the Matins of Holy and Great Saturday).
Before the service begins, a “tomb” is erected in the middle of the church building and is decorated with flowers. (At one point, during an outdoor procession, this tomb also serves as a kind of funeral bier.
Before the service, a special icon—embroidered on cloth depicting the dead Savior—is placed in the altar and moved into the tomb during the service. In Greek, this cloth icon is called the epitaphios. In English this icon is often called the winding-sheet.
The church I attended yesterday is located in a tiny converted office space just off a huge traffic circle in the heart of Annapolis, Maryland surrounded by very fancy restaurants and hotels. Their outdoor procession of Christ’s dead body—up on the tomb carried by four men—went all the way around this busy traffic circle, stopping lines of cars and pedestrians in eight places, as we sang and carried candles. Four over an hour before this procession, we had been tightly gathered around the tomb with Christ’s body, singing with candles and incense in a dark church (and many of us weeping quietly).
The hymns of all the services during Holy Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are astounding. Here are a few from this lamentation service yesterday.
When Thou didst descend to death O Life Immortal, Thou didst slay hell with the splendor of Thy Godhead! And when from the depths Thou didst raise the dead, all the powers of heaven cried out: O Giver of Life! Christ our God! Glory to Thee!
Of old Thou didst bury the pursuing tyrant beneath the waves of the sea.
Now the children of those who were saved bury Thee beneath the earth,
but with the maidens let us sing to the Lord,
for gloriously has He been glorified.
Thou didst suspend the earth immovably upon the waters.
Now creation beholds Thee suspended on Calvary.
It quakes with great amazement and cries:
“None is holy but Thee, O Lord.”
Isaiah saw the never-setting light of Thy compassionate
manifestation to us as God, O Christ.
Rising early from the night he cried out:
“The dead shall arise.
Those in the tombs shall awake.
All those on earth shall greatly rejoice.”
O my sweet Lord Jesus
My salvation, my light
How art Thou now by a grave and its darkness hid?
How unspeakable the mystery of Thy Love!
Gone the Light the world knew.
Gone the Light that was mine.
O my Jesus, Thou art all of my heart’ desire;
So the Virgin spake lamenting at Thy grave.
Who will give me water,
For the tears I must weep?
So the maiden wed to God cried with loud lament;
That for my sweet Jesus I may rightly mourn.
How O life canst Thou die?
In a grave how canst dwell?
For the proud domain of death Thou destroyest now
And the dead of hades makest Thou to rise.
Today, in my church community, I participate truly with Christ as He lies a lifeless body in the ground and yet still fully God who harrows hell. I’m deeply comforted to know that not only are my dead loved ones who died in the hope of Christ (recently including my mother) lifted up with Him, but He also lies with them in the darkness of the grave. And He is with me in my own hopeless and dead estate.