It is striking just how many verses of the central hymn of the most widely attended service in the Orthodox Church assert that Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection provide salvation to everyone—yes, everyone. If hymnography reflects the prayer and thinking of the community, what might this contribute to the millennia-long debate about Universal salvation?
Technically, the Good Friday service that contains the Lamentation is a Saturday morning (Matins) service that was moved to Friday evening for practical reasons. The Lamentation, as appears in the Triodion service book, consists of 185 short independent hymns, the Praises, which are interspersed with verses from Psalm 118 (119), the longest of the Psalms. The Lamentation is divided into three sections, or Stases. Usually, only a part of the 185 hymns are performed in parishes, chosen by the chanters at will. While the Lamentation likely reflects much older theological ideas, it is noteworthy that the service, like all of the Holy Week services, was developed after the fall of Byzantium.
The Praises contain dozens of passages that assert what we might best describe as an affirmation of universal salvation because they repeatedly assert that the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ provide salvation to the whole of humanity. According to the text, Christ’s sacrifice will “raise up the dead as if from sleep, dispersing all the darkness of Hell.” Singing to Christ directly, the congregation declares “You have slept a little while, and brought the dead to life; You have arisen, O Lord, and raised up those that from the beginning of time had fallen asleep.” And, “pierced in your life-giving side, O Jesus, you become a fountain of forgiveness to all.” Elsewhere, the hymn reinforces the possibility of universal salvation by employing the literary device of personification so that the congregation can verbalize what Hell itself has lost in the victory of Christ: “Hell trembled, O Savior, when he saw you, the giver of life, despoiling him of his wealth and raising up the dead from every age.” And, near the end of the second stasis, the congregation boasts, “Great and fearful is the sight now before our eyes, O Savior, for of his own will, the cause of life submits to death, so that he might give life to all.”
Whereas the first and second stases never suggest that there are some humans who are damned, the third section does. Three of the forty-five hymns in this section suggest that Judas is irredeemable. The text declares that he has “become a captive” and has been “cast down to the depths of Hades, to the pit of destruction.” The middle part of the third section also contains sequential verses that extend Judas’ punishment to those Jewish leaders who conspired with him: “All that crucified You, will be destroyed together.”
How are we understand the apparent contradiction between the many verses that do and the few verses that do not imply universal salvation?
First, we need to look carefully at the use of grammatical tense in the relevant verses. What is noteworthy in this regard is that the verses that endorse the idea of universal salvation employ a chronological point of view in which the resurrection has already happened—humanity has already been freed, death has already been destroyed. In other words, even though it is only Good Friday (not the Resurrection service of Sunday), for these particular verses, the congregation sings with the knowledge that the resurrection has already happened, everyone has already been saved. Yes, the community laments Christ’s suffering and death, but it also begins to rejoice in the knowledge that Christ’s sacrifice brings salvation. Surprisingly, this chronological point of view retrenches in the middle portion of third stasis to one in which the resurrection has not yet occurred. Here, the congregation beseeches Christ that salvation might be offered, that the resurrection might happen. Grammatically speaking, in this portion of the hymn, the congregation sings from a point of view in which it has not yet been saved because the resurrection is only a possibility, not yet a historical fact. It is for this reason that Judas and those who conspire with him are presented as suffering for their sin. Conversely, it is the other sections of the hymn that reflect the chronological point of view of the present Church in its post-resurrectional mode.
Another way to understand the juxtaposition of the punishment of Judas in the third section with the implicit universalism elsewhere in the hymn is to look to the way that other hymns in the Lenten cycle invoke Biblical sinners as a means for Christians to scrutinize their own failings. For example, throughout the early weeks of Lent, the Matins hymns frequently position the congregation as the prodigal son. The congregation does not sing of the prodigal as though he is someone else to be observed from afar; they sing as though they, themselves, have acted like the prodigal and that they, as individuals, must come to their senses and return to the Father. Similarly, the Lamentation invites us to understand Judas as a proxy for ourselves. His imprisonment in Hades as a way to remind us of the fate we deserve—but, joyfully, this is a fate set aside by the resurrection. Put another way, the antinomy between those verses that describe the torment of Judas (and his co-conspirators) and the verses that imply universal salvation is a purposeful, poetic balancing between the obligation of the individual to confront personal sin and the communal affirmation that Christ’s death and resurrection enact salvation for all.
To be sure, the Lamentation represents just one in a large number of data points for the place of universal salvation within Orthodox Christian teaching. But there is little doubt that the hymn provides a compelling testimony to a poeticized and ritualized hope that all might be saved.
George Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.
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