April 26, 2019

A Lamentation of the Lamentations

By John Sanidopoulos

Most Orthodox Christians consider the highlight of the Service of Matins of Holy and Great Saturday, which takes place during the evening of Holy and Great Friday, to be the singing of the Lamentations around the Epitaphios, which symbolizes Christ in His Tomb. What many do not realize, however, are the violations committed against the typikon, which reflects the authorized right order, when we chant the Lamentations.

1. The Placement and Naming of the Lamentations

The original and correct placement of the Lamentations has been forgotten, especially by the Greeks, though there are some signs there may be a return to the original placement. A mistake people often make is that the Matins Service of Holy Saturday centers around the Lamentations. This is false, and this false notion would be corrected if the Lamentations were placed in their original and correct placement. The original and correct placement of the Lamentations is towards the beginning of the Matins, just after we chant "God is the Lord" and the Dismissal Hymn "The Noble Joseph", in conjunction with the verses of Psalm 118, known as the Amomos. However, the custom today is to chant the Lamentations not with Psalm 118, but after the ninth ode of the Canon, towards the end of Matins, though just prior to the procession of the Epitaphios. This was probably done in order for late-comers to Matins to be able to hear them. This sequence causes the Lamentations to be regarded, falsely, as the most important and essential element of the Matins Service. However, according to Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite, the Canon is the most instructive section of Matins, but modern practice, alas, has made the Canon into anticipatory hymns as we wait for the Lamentations.

What is the root cause of this transition? An overemphasis on sentimentality and emotionalism, which should be absent from Orthodox services and can usually be found more in the expressions of Christianity coming out of the West. Furthermore, the Lamentations are not really supposed to be viewed as lamentations, as if we are lamenting and mourning the Passion of the Lord. In Greek this section of hymns are called Εγκώμιον (Engomion, or Encomium), which is a panegerical hymn or discourse of praise and celebration. Therefore, we should stop calling them "Lamentations." To call them Lamentations is unsuitable to the character of the Service, which is a celebratory service, even a resurrectional service. This is made evident by the fact that we chant "God is the Lord" instead of "Allelluia", the Eulogetaria for the Resurrection, and the Great Doxology. These three indicate a celebration service. Unfortunately, the fact of the Resurrection is overlooked when we make the Lamentations the central focus of Matins and the Sacrifice of the Lord is exalted, which, however, without the Resurrection, according to Saint Paul, alters our preaching into empty words and futility.

The Lamentations took their poetic form around the 12th century, which is why the Slavs, when they received the original placement of the Lamentations, have kept them intact properly till this day. It is proposed, therefore, that the Lamentations no longer be called "Lamentations" but instead "Engomia," and that they be placed towards the beginning of Matins when it is proper to contemplate the Passion of the Lord, before the Canon and before the sections where the Resurrection of Christ is emphasized. Instead, as we have it today, we go from the heights of the Canon, to the depths of the Lamentations.

2. The Singing of the Lamentations

A second error when chanting the Lamentations is that in many parishes all the people are encouraged to chant the Lamentations together. However, the Church Fathers and the Canons of the Church are clear that the chanting of hymns should be done by those properly ordained and trained to do so. When everyone is encouraged to chant these hymns, then they become centralized and emotionalized improperly. These hymns are supposed to be chanted with a particular melody. When everyone chants them together, this melody is for the most part lost and disfigured. In the original melody according to the typikon, each of the three stasis' of the Lamentations is supposed to be chanted initially as a dirge and be led into a more triumphant tone. The melody and tone of these hymns are important towards their proper understanding and purpose.

3. The Number of Lamentations

A third error of the Lamentations as they are practiced today is how many of the Lamentations are chanted. There are supposed to be 185 verses of Lamentations corresponding to the number of verses in Psalm 118 (according to the Septuagint). Today however, because the Lamentations have been placed towards the end of Matins and separated from Psalm 118, and because we want the people to chant them all together, these Lamentations have been reduced to about thirty or forty, maybe a bit more. Eradicating Psalm 118 and drastically reducing the Lamentations is a liturgical catastrophe that does not contribute to our ecclesiastical life and growth.


In conclusion, the hymns of the Church are meant to benefit the faithful, and they only do so when done with complete propriety in accordance with the tradition of the Church, otherwise they can be a means by which theology is destabilized. It is a shame this is being done with one of the finest poetic and theological expressions of our Church. Let them be humbly and simply chanted with the techniques known to priests and chanters, as the typikon says, with the lyrics of the Amomos, the eradication of which is criminal. When the Lamentations are thus properly done, the common liturgical mindset of the Church, which is the the joyful sorrow of the Engomia, will replace the lament and emotionalism of the Lamentations.