Translation and Introduction by Dr Vitaly Permiakov
Many Orthodox Christians who diligently attend the services of the Holy Week can recall the beautiful and moving canon dedicated to the “Lamentation of the Most Holy Theotokos,” read at Small Compline following the Vespers of Holy Friday. In this hymnographic composition, chanted in front of the epitaphion — an embroidered icon of Christ placed in the Tomb — the Most Holy Mother of God laments the crucifixion of her Divine Son and reflects upon the mystery of the death and burial of Christ, the Author of life, the Creator of heaven and earth.
The canon assigned for the Small Compline of Holy Friday in the current Slavonic editions of the Lenten Triodion is attributed in the manuscripts and printed editions either to Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos (852- 925) or, as in the Slavonic Triodion, to St Symeon Metaphrastes (10th cent.).1
There is, however, another canon dedicated to the same theme, which was never included in the printed editions of the Triodion. This canon, also bearing the inscription “[For the] Lamentation (Thrênos) of the Theotokos,” appears in no less than seven manuscripts, dating between the 11th and the 15th century. It is also attributed to the same St Symeon Metaphrastes, even though one source gives a certain Theophanes as its author. The manuscript sources differ with regards to the exact liturgical context for this canon: some assign this for the Compline of Holy Friday, while some — to the evening or the Compline on Holy Saturday, presumably meaning the Paschal midnight office, celebrated today just before the Paschal procession.
This preliminary, uncorrected translation from the original Greek follows the earliest manuscript version that was possible to find, namely the Triodion ms. Sinai Greek O.742 (1099 AD), folia 180–183. Even though the text of this canon according to the later Greek manuscripts has already been published2, this earliest manuscript witness has not yet been published or included in the previous critical editions.
We offer it now for the first time to the English-speaking Orthodox readers in the hope that this liturgical text may serve for their edification and spiritual nourishment during the holy days of Passion Week, inspiring them in their reflection upon the mystery of the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Pascha, who was sacrificed for our sake.3
On the Holy and Great Saturday, the Canon, sung in place of the Compline, for the Divine Burial of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and for the Lamentation of our most holy Lady Theotokos.
Ode 1, plagal of the 2nd tone. He who in ancient times…4
Willing to give Thy life for Thy creation, O my Saviour, Thou wast suspended on the Cross and wounded by the spear, but Thy spotless Mother, standing before Thee, was deeply troubled, O Master, beholding the wellsprings of Thy blood.
Having inclined Thy divine neck, O my Saviour, Thou hast slept with a life-giving sleep upon the Tree, but all of creation is troubled and the heavenly ranks of Angels are shaken, seeing Thee suffering in the flesh.
Most swiftly and secretly did Thy Mother approach Joseph, Thy secret disciple, and lamenting mystically, she begged him to request Thy pure body from Pilate, the lawless judge.
“Be gracious, O Joseph, to the Stranger who stands speechlessly before me and is pushed by the lawless ones, abandoned by friends and acquaintances, as I am lamenting together with only one disciple.5
“Come before Pilate – quickly, do not tarry! – and ask for the pure Body of Christ God and, taking it down from the Cross, hide it in thy tomb. The unmerciful ones shall no longer pierce His side!”
Ode 3. When the creation beheld thee…
No one dares to petition for the pure Body of the Teacher, dead and hung upon the Cross, naked, marked and covered with insults, unanointed, but rather deeply wounded in its side.
“First, Peter denied him, then all have abandoned the Teacher; feel sympathy, O noble man, and having petitioned, remove the Body of my Master and I alone will be weeping with longing as a Mother over her most beloved Child.”
O my Christ, as Joseph saw Thy Mother crying and heard her words, he felt the pain of sympathy and also raised the lament, and quickly rushed to ask for Thy pure Body.
Giving assent to the pleading, Pilate grants Thy divine Body, and taking it from the Cross with Nicodemus, Joseph made it to recline in the grave, and the earth trembled and hastily gave back the dead out of the tombs.
Ode 4. Foreseeing thy divine kenosis…
Embracing Thee, the blameless Mother kisses the wounds of Thy pure members, saying: “I will die with you, O Child, for I cannot bear the pouring of thine all-pure Blood!”
Embracing also Thy knees, the Birthgiver placed her arms around them, lamenting – she kisses Thy hands and Thy side, which are still dripping with thy divine Blood, O Master.
The Birthgiver cried out, with her song of lamentation, “I embrace the voiceless mouth and the immovable lips of Him who by uttering a word placed a living man upon the earth.”
“The Persian kings, O Master, offered Thee gifts, venerating Thee as God, but now Nicodemus brings Thee burial embalments, O Child, as to a dead man. How shall I bury Thee, O God?”
Ode 5. I seek thee early in the morning…6
“I cannot bear to see Thee, deprived of breath, whom I suckled as a child when thou wast jumping in my arms. If Thou descendest into Hades to Adam, I shall descend as well, proclaiming Thy mystery to Eve!”
“Do not weep, O Mother,” Christ spoke in a divine manner to his Birthgiver, “for thou shalt see me rising again, joyously uttering to thee ‘Rejoice!’, and raising Adam and Eve with Myself.”
“How do I endure, O Child, the pangs in my womb when I kiss Thine eyes, extinguished upon the Cross, which I saw before shining as fair in beauty7, and giving sight to the blind with Thy divine assent.”8
“I shall rather come with Thee, I shall see Thy glory in Hades, O my Son, and then I shall go up with Thee again, for I do not bear beholding Thy Body without breath or movement and kissing Thy wounded members.”
Ode 6. Jonah was enclosed but not held fast…
“How didst thou, O Peter, deny the Saviour9, whom thou didst confess to be Christ, the Son of the living God10, and how didst thou abandon Him alone crucified on the Cross, having neither breath nor countenance11, and didst not hasten swiftly to lower his Body into the tomb?” saith the Undefiled one in her motherly lamentation.
O Word, the Pure and Undefiled [Lady] called together her friends, the myrrh-bearers, and stirred up the lament, crying: “Come, O friends, mourn the hard-toiling Body of the Teacher, come see the voiceless mouth, the lips that do not move, the eyes closed of Him in Whose hand is the breath of all the living beings.”
“Give me a word, do not remain silent, O Word,” cried the Pure and Undefiled One to Thee with weeping, “for I cannot endure to lay Thee breathless in the tomb, O my Son, who dost liberate the dead. O Master, behold Thy Mother who laments ceaselessly, for my heart was pierced with a flaming sword.”
“Come, all ye heavenly powers, see the Body of Christ abandoned by friends and acquaintances, even by the chosen disciples, and shudder in fear: alone I labour in lamenting my murdered Child with only one disciple, thy beloved Apostle.”
Ode 7. Ineffable wonder…
The hosts of angels, gazing from the heavens, were in fear seeing as dead in his Mother’s lap the One before Whom they stand trembling and Whom they behold as being in the bosom of the Father and raising the dead from Hades.12
All the ranks of angels above and below hurried, shaking in agitation, to behold the Body of Christ breathless, lying in His Mother’s lap, and seized with amazement and astounded they turned back in fear.
O Christ, who shall lament Thy striking, scourging, mocking, and spitting, Thy crucifixion, the crown of thorns, gall and vinegar, and the piercing of the side? How shall I lament thee, O Son, Who art dead in the tomb?13
To the mystical herald of thy Nativity, O Master, the Virgin spoke weeping: “Woe to me, O Gabriel, where are the good tidings, where is my ‘Rejoice’, where are (thy words) ‘Blessed (art thou among women)’? The Light which came out of my womb has been extinguished upon the Cross!”
Ode 8. Be astonished, heavens…
“Seeing Thee naked, hanging on the Cross, O sweetest Child, how could the law-transgressing people have no compassion? But like savage beasts they pierced Thy divine side. How was the creation not destroyed in confusion? But it stood, being ever sustained by thy hand, O Word.”
“Be astonished, O earth and heaven! O sun, extinguish the rays of your light! For behold, God the Word, Who established the light for thee and has shone out of my loins, has ascended upon the Cross, as He saw fit, willing to raise Adam. And holding Him breathless, I cannot bear the pains.”
“O my Son and God, how shall I conceal in a dark grave Thine immaculate Body that emptied the tombs, and how shall I return empty-handed, not seeing thee, O Child? I cannot bear to depart from Thee, O my Son; I would rather die and descend into Hades!”
“Hear, O earth and heaven, and incline your ear to my maternal laments! For behold, your Creator was buried by the lawless hands and is seen in the flesh without breath or countenance upon His Mother’s lap, the Fashioner slain for the sake of those who put him to death.”
The Pure One cried, “I wish I could still hear Thy sweetest voice, O Jesus, and that Thy comely lips might move, and thine eyes, fair in beauty, might shine with radiance. I wish I could see Thee rising again, O my Son, and be filled with joy instead of bitter tears!”
Ode 9. Do not lament me, O Mother…
“Instead of swaddling bands, O my Son, I will wrap Thee in a burial shroud, instead of the manger, O my Light, I will lay Thee in a dark tomb; instead of milk, I will rain tears onto thine all-immaculate lips, and instead of hearing Thy living and beautiful words, I will converse with Thee as Thou layest dead.”
“Do not lament me as one dead in the tomb, O Mother, Whom thou didst behold reverently as God in swaddling bands, when the Persian magi worshipped Me and the angelic ranks hymned with fear. When I shall arise, thou wilt be the first to whom I shall appear.”
“Depart, O Child, into Hades, raising as God with Adam those who, being from Adam, fell into corruption! But I will shed for Thee maternal tears, sitting across the entrance to Thy tomb. I will lament until thou shalt rise again.”
“O most blessed Mother, no longer weep and shed tears before the gates of the tomb: for I shall arise and be glorified, and, radiantly saying to thee, ‘Rejoice!’ I will send to thee ineffable joy when I shall ascend into the heavens.”
Dr Vitaly Permiakov is Assistant Professor of Dogmatic and Liturgical Theology at Holy Trinity Seminary and managing editor of the Holy Trinity Seminary Press. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. His research specialty is in the ancient liturgical rites of the Church of Jerusalem.