O Christ, the Lord, You were laid in the tomb, and the ranks of Angels were amazed, glorifying Your condescension.
~Stanza One of the Lamentations, Good Friday Evening, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the Body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the Body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulcher.
Matthew 27: 57-61
The service on Good Friday evening is affectionately called “The Lamentations.” In reality, the “Lamentations” are only a portion of the service. The service is actually the Orthros/Matins of Holy Saturday. As has been the case with all of Holy Week, the services are celebrated several hours ahead of when they should be conducted. The Orthros service ends with the Doxology which coincides with the rising of the sun. Hence, a lengthy service like the Orthros of Holy Saturday would properly be done in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning. Centuries ago, as a practical matter, the service was moved to the preceding evening, hence we hold it as the sun goes down on Good Friday.
The “Lamentations” are the centerpiece, if you will, of the Good Friday evening service. This series of hymns is unique to the Orthros of Holy Saturday. In fact, they are added to the Orthros service in the middle. The service Good Friday evening is for all intents and purposes, the funeral of Christ. In the Orthodox tradition, the funeral service has three stanzas. Each stanza contains six verses from Psalm 119. Psalm 119 has 176 verses. However, only a representative eighteen as sung at the funeral service.
There are 176 Lamentations, one for each verse of Psalm 119. Traditionally, one verse of Psalm 119 is followed by each Lamentation. In modern parish usage, a representative number of the 176 Lamentations is chanted. In the Holy Week book by Fr. George Papadeas (of blessed memory), which we quote often in this study, there are 17 verses from the first stanza, 12 of the second and 30 of the third, so 59 overall. (This is what we do in our parish. Others may do more or less or the same.) What is usually eliminated from the singing of the Lamentations are the verses from Psalm 119.
The first verse of the first stanza of the Lamentations is affectionately known as “I Zoi en Tafo,” and says “O Christ, the Life, You were laid in the tomb, and the ranks of Angels were amazed, glorifying Your condescension.” While this service functions as the funeral for Christ, His “funeral” is not like our funerals. Our funerals are a plea for God’s mercies and forgiveness, a place to give thought to the life of the decease and an opportunity to reflect on our own lives and that one day we will be the guest of honor at a funeral. The purpose of this “funeral” is to glorify and thank Christ for His sacrifice that opens the gates to Paradise for us. In the Orthodox funeral service, there is a hymn which says “O Lord, Your death gave rise to immortality; for if You had not been enclosed in a tomb, then Paradise would not have been opened. Therefore, grant repose to the departed, in Your love for humanity.” (From the funeral service, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes) The Lamentations glorify and praise Christ for doing this for us.
“I Zoi en Tafo” paints a beautiful picture for us. At the Nativity, the heavens were filled with angels who praised and glorified God Incarnate. The cave in the icon of the Nativity represents heaven, an infinite space. It also represents the tomb of Christ, foreshadowing His purpose in being incarnated, to one day die and lay in the tomb before rising for our salvation. The angels are seen filling the sky over the cave, amazed at the incarnation of their Creator in the flesh.
At the burial of Christ, the armies of angels again are present, amazed and awed that their Creator has shown the most extreme humility by laying down His life for everyone. While there is no reference to angels filling the skies at the entombment of Christ, again the hymn writers have taken literary license to capture for us that just as happened at the Nativity, the entire created world, including the angels, bowed its head to the Creator, now dead and buried.
When You, the Immortal Life, descended to death, You struck Hades dead with the lightning of the Godhead; and when You raised up the dead from the abyss, all the powers of Heaven cried aloud: “O Life-giver Christ, our God, glory to You.” Apolytikion, Lamentations, Good Friday night, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas)
There are so many things we thank Christ for and for which we give Him glory. One thing that is so important, and that we so often forget, is thanksgiving and awe for the love and sacrifice that led Him to die for us.