Last night after Vespers I had the great joy and privilege to join in singing the Dormition Lamentations. Some 15 years ago, the service from which these hymns are taken served as my introduction to devotion to the Theotokos. But, since this service is no longer done by either Melkites or Antiochians (and, as far as I can tell, never was done by anyone else in this country), I was afraid I would never hear these hymns again.
At Holy Transfiguration Melkite Greek Catholic Church, they used to have a service on the Eve of the Dormition known as the Epitaphios of the Theotokos. It is exactly parallel to the Epitaphios service of Holy Friday, a service of lamentation for the death of Christ. Central features of that service include the singing of three long, beautiful lamentation hymns and the veneration of the epitaphios, an embroidered icon of the preparation of Christ’s body for burial by Joseph and Nicodemus, which is placed in a flower-covered bier. The Dormition Eve service included lamentation hymns for Our Lady, sung to the same tunes as those of Holy Friday, and veneration of an embroidered Dormition icon.
The first time I visited Holy Transfiguration for its title feast on 6 August, Fr. Joseph encouraged everyone to return the following week for the Epitaphios of the Theotokos, emphasizing its similarity to the service of Holy Friday, which is by far the parish’s best attended service. The Dormition Eve service was not nearly as well attended, but that just made it feel more intimate. The hymns gave me the sense of attending the funeral of a stranger who was universally loved, making me wish I had the privilege of knowing her. At Holy Transfiguration their custom is to come forward and gather close around the priest for the reading of the Gospel. On this occasion, since the congregation was so small, Fr. Joseph invited us all to remain up close for the homily. After the service I went forward again to venerate the icon and to receive a flower from the bier.
I returned every year, always inviting friends to join me for my favorite service. After serveral years of declined invitations, one friend finally joined me. But the service was not the one I remembered – instead of the Lamentation service they were doing Vespers. My friend Mary was impressed, but I was disappointed. Hoping this was just a one-off aberration, I returned the next few years, but it was always Vespers. I finally asked their cantor about it, and he informed me that they were no longer permitted to do the service because there were problems with the English translation they had been using. Until they had an approved translation, they could not do the service. And no one was working on a new translation.
Around the same time, I have learned, Metropolitan Philip also discontinued the service in the Antiochian Archdiocese, reportedly because he felt there was a danger of excessive devotion to Mary in some Middle Eastern ethnic parishes.
This past Thursday evening I had planned to be out of town, but a mishap forced me to return home. Therefore I was able to attend the Vesperal Liturgy for the Dormition at Holy Cross. During communion, standing at the front near the chanters’ stand, I heard some women of the choir singing the opening words of a hymn:
In a grave they laid thee, O my life and my Christ.
In a grave as well, the Mother of Life;
A strange sight both to angels and mankind.
Even though I had not heard the hymn in a decade and the tune was a bit different than the one the Melkites used, I knew instantly that I was hearing the first Dormition lamentation, and I moved to the back of the church, right in front of the choir, to hear it better. After the Liturgy, during the veneration of the cross, they sang the other two lamentation hymns. Afterwards, I thanked protopsalti Emily for these hymns. On Saturday evening after Vespers, when the lamentations were sung again, I joined in.
My favorite verse comes from the second of the three hymns:
Heaven now becomes passable by men and women:
Come, all you Christ-bearing people,
and rise with the Mother of God!
Here is the old Melkite translation of the same verse:
Now Heaven is opened even unto all the members of mankind;
Come, then, all you baptized who bear Christ the Lord,
Let us enter with the Mother of God.
Our veneration of the Theotokos is not entirely disinterested. We see in her a basis for our own hope of admission into heaven. She is a type of the Church, and, as such, she represents all Christians. Other hymns of the Epitaphios of the Theotokos, as I recall, are quite explicit in presenting Our Lady’s Assumption in terms of bridal imagery: Christ invites his Mother, representing his Bride the Church, into his heavenly marriage bower. This touches on the eschatological and soteriological implications of the Dormition.
The back cover of today’s bulletin related how the service is celebrated in Jerusalem, where it originated:
Nowhere is this feast celebrated with as much solemnity as in Jerusalem itself. On the eve of the feast, a large procession begins at the Jerusalem Patriarchate and winds its way through the narrow streets of the Old City, slowly making its way to Gethsemane. An icon of the Dormition leads the procession, with clergy, monks, nuns, and pilgrims following closely by. The two-hour walk ends at the church there, with the Lamentations Service celebrated at that time. In front of the altar in the edifice – beyond the burial chamber of the Mother of God – is a raised spot, upon which rests the shroud in which the body of the Virgin was wrapped. It is customary for those in attendance to venerate the processional icon of the Dormition and then stoop down and go beneath it as a sign of piety.