The oldest-surviving Christian hymns designed exclusively for Holy Week are a set known as the Idiomele. In the modern Orthodox Church, they are sung during the Royal Hours service of Good Friday morning (the final hymn is sung during two additional services). Apart from their antiquity, the most noteworthy feature of these hymns is that they were the first to blame “the Jews” for the death of Christ. Not only is this accusation historically misleading, it constituted a dramatic break from earlier hymns that reflected on the crucifixion. Based on recent historical research, we are now able to link the introduction of anti-Jewish rhetoric in the Idiomele to precise events in Palestine at the time of their composition. This historical evidence further accentuates our need to address the theological incoherence of the anti-Jewish rhetoric of these hymns and others composed in later centuries.
The Idiomele may be the oldest Holy Week hymns but they were not the first to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Approximately one thousand hymns emphasizing those very themes predate the Idiomele. Those earlier hymns were composed for an eight-week cycle of Sunday services, known as the Octoechos, and survive in a text known as the Jerusalem Georgian Chantbook. While a few of those hymns do contain negative statements about the Jews, on balance they consistently position the whole of humanity as responsible for the death of Christ, precisely because Christ’s death and resurrection save the whole of humanity from death. In other words, our earliest evidence of Christian Liturgy instructs us that, week after week, Christians sang of themselves as the ones most responsible for the death of Christ. It is both historically and theologically significant that the earliest Christians in Jerusalem did not assign blame for the death of Jesus outside of their own community.
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.
St Augustine once observed: “It is longing that makes the heart deep” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 40.10). As a scholar of the early Church, I am often struck by how much early Christians longed. They ached and urged and craved intensely, wanted and thirsted immensely, desired and hungered and yearned for all that was good and beautiful. Their hands longed to touch; their ears wanted to hear; and their eyes just had to see; their mouths awaited tastes as eagerly as their noses anticipated smells. Expressions of overwhelming desire reached a fevered pitch in texts written for liturgical settings; hymns in particular depicted human relationships with the divine in vivid colors. This is not to say that the poets engaged in some form of confused emotionalism; on the contrary, they wove deeply embodied affects—a starving person’s hunger or an impassioned body’s yearning for an embrace—into the fabric of their theological vocabulary. Those listening or singing along could not help but feel the waves of desire pulsating through their own hearts and embodied selves.
The words in the title are from one of the stichera at the Beatitudes chanted on Holy Thursday evening (Triodion, 589). Similar references to “arrogant Israel, people guilty of blood,” “bloodthirsty people, jealous and vengeful,” and “the perverse and crooked people of the Hebrews” occur in the unabbreviated English translation of the Lamentations service printed in the Lenten Triodion.
It is true that this kind of language appears less strident when considered within the context of Byzantine rhetoric; it is also true that the pattern is set by the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Micah 6:1-5; Amos 2:9-12); and it is, yet again, true that we must also take into consideration the larger context of the Church’s growth from a charismatic, egalitarian, theologically innovative, and administratively schismatic group within first-century Judaism into the increasingly Gentile reality of the second century. Indeed, during the early decades of the Christian movement, the context for the vitriolic anti-Judaism found in the Hebrew Bible, in some apocalyptic writings of the Second Temple era, and in the New Testament (e.g., “brood of vipers,” “synagogue of Satan,” “enemies of God,” “sons of the devil”) shifted gradually from harsh intra-Jewish polemics to polemics between the overwhelmingly Gentile Church and “the Jews.” All good and true—but today these invectives are deeply disturbing, and we know that rhetoric of this kind has at times been part of the explosive mix that led to violence against Jews. Continue reading →