Reflections on Yesterday’s Lamentations Service

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.

the tomb is happy

Great and Holy Friday Lamentations (Antiochian):

Verily, Hades was pierced and destroyed by the divine fire when it received in its heart him who was pierced in his side with a spear for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

The tomb is happy, having become Divine when it received within it the Treasure of life, the Creator, as one who slumbereth for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

The life of all was willing to lie in a grave, in accordance with the law of the dead, making it appear as the fountain of the Resurrection for the salvation, of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

The Godhead of Christ was one without separation in Hades, in the tomb, in Eden, and with the Father and the Spirit, for the salvation of us who sing: Blessed art Thou, O delivering God.

Midnight Office for Pascha (Antiochian):

Whether in hades or in the tomb or in Eden, the Godhead of Christ was indivisibly one with the Father and the Spirit, for the salvation of us who sing: “O God our Redeemer, blessed art Thou.”

Life from Inside of Death

“You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.” Elder Sophrony gave this famous reply to a question from Olivier Clement regarding those who will not open their hearts to the love of God. In this Easter season, with Christ’s glorious and victorious resurrection preeminent, it is worthwhile asking if Jesus Christ is still, in any sense, within hell and among the dead. After all, we do see Jesus one time, long after the resurrection, appearing to be dead and yet enthroned in heaven. When we are introduced with John to the glorious “Lion of the tribe of Judah” enthroned in power at the right hand of the Father, what we actually see is “a Lamb as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:2-10). Even while reigning victoriously from heaven, Jesus Christ is revealed as a victim of sacrifice. Jesus remains, in some important sense, dead.

This idea is in keeping with many fundamentals of biblical truth: that we are united with Christ in his death as well as his life, that we are commanded to take up our cross daily as we follow Jesus, and that we feed ourselves repeatedly upon the sacrificed body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Many mothers and fathers of the church have taught that God is most fully revealed, in all of His glory and power, when Jesus is hanging upon the cross. Fr. Thomas Hopko shared in a lecture that, according to Hugo of St. Victor, “God wants to speak to us, to reveal himself to us, …and when he hangs on the Cross and his arms are open, the Book is open. The Book is totally open, like in the book of Revelation.”

Even before sin and death and all of creation, God was a God who emptied himself. Stephen Freeman has written about an “unfallen suffering” that is found within the life of our Trinitarian God even before creation and outside of time. Each person of the Trinity continually empties themselves in relation to the other persons of the Trinity. Within God’s inner life, there is a profound kind of self-giving, and this should not surprise us because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Therefore, God has always been one who gives Himself fully, and this God is only perfectly revealed by God’s entire self-emptying upon the cross.

Another way of understanding this is to recognize God’s entire strategy against sin and death itself. As Saint John Chrysostom said in his Paschal Sermon: “Hell was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. …It took a dead body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.” God’s glorious and all-powerful strategy has always been to enter death itself, to find us at our weakest point and to join us there. Maximus the Confessor said: “Christ, the captain of our salvation, turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” (from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression”). By becoming our sin (2 Corinthians 5:21) and entering death with us, Christ transformed death into something life-giving. Maximus further says that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.” By joining with us at our weakest point, Christ gives suffering and death back to us as great weapons against the ravages of our soul sickness and sin.

God’s strategy (of entry into death to commune with those who flee from him) has not changed since Christ’s resurrection. Although God’s entry into death is only accomplished in Jesus Christ, we now also participate in it through our union with Christ. God is now entering into suffering and death through all those who commune with Jesus. In fact, this is the only place to find full communion with Christ, the “Lamb slain before the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). We see this at work in every Christian life and when Paul says: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Even after the end of time, worship around the throne of our majestic and living king will always include a recognition of his greatest moment: “his voluntary, glorious, and life-giving death” as Christian liturgies repeatedly refer to it. The resurrection power that Jesus Christ displayed on Easter morning came easily to him. His first action after this surge of life brought breath back to his dead body, was to lift the small square of cloth from his face and fold it gently before laying it down. Christ’s great labor came in the final hours of an entire adult life that was directed toward the cross, and this is all that he empowers us to do. If we would seek to exercise the power of God graciously offered to us by Christ’s resurrection, we must shoulder our own cross and pray for the strength to enter death itself. Christ reopened the gates of Paradise that had been shut behind Adam, but he set these gates up just inside the gates of Hades.

Hell took a corpse and encountered God

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden! Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive. Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory? Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

From John Chrysostom’s Easter homily (c. A.D. 400).