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 →
Much like gender itself, Orthodox understandings of gender span a spectrum of diverse views. Many who address “the problem of gender” or the “role of women in the church” rely on an assumption that any theological interpretation of gender is necessarily situated along a cisgender binary. Simply, individuals with male bodies identify as “men” and display masculinity, and individuals with female bodies identify as “women” and display femininity. Byzantine hymns commemorating prominent saints and feasts, however, evidence that there is an aspect of Orthodox tradition where the performance of gender identities and masculine and feminine attributes does not necessarily correlate with particularly male- or female-sexed bodies. In these hymns, gender functions along traditional patriarchal lines as a means to make a saint’s holiness discernable to a temporally constrained ecclesiastical community. Gender as it is liturgically constructed through the singing of the hymns, however, functions beyond a binary categorization in relation to God. In short, a more encompassing and complex conception of gender is already present in the universally prescribed liturgical voice of the church.
The content of the general hymns for male and female martyrs, for example, reveals striking distinctions drawn along a binary gender divide. Continue Reading…