Macedonian style icon of the Crucifixion of our Lord

A Canon for Holy and Great Saturday

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.”

About the Translator

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.