Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sorrowful Wonder and Joyful Impatience: Jerusalem Matins

One of my favorite services of the Church year in the Byzantine tradition is Holy Saturday morning, Jerusalem Matins. It's two hours long and is full of haunting melodies and beautiful texts that are never sung any other time. The highlight of the service is the three Stations, a series of short hymns sung in between verses of Psalm 118. The first theme, in these lines from the First Station, is the sheer strangeness of God in a grave:

In a grave they laid you, O my Life and my Christ,
yet the Lord of Death has been destroyed by your death,
and from you, the world now drinks rich streams of life.

Lo! how fair his beauty! Never was man so fair!
but how strangely death has changed that face that we knew
though all nature owes her beauty to him.

O my sweet Lord Jesus, my Salvation, my Light,
how are you by a grave and by its darkness hid?
How unspeakable the mystery of your love!

That last line--how unspeakable is His love--has been a major theme in my own reflections this Holy Week. The familiarity of the salvation story, I think, allows many of us, myself included, to take the whole thing for granted far too often. Why does God love us? I will not attempt to answer the question myself; but the simple fact of God's love still stands, like the "rich streams of life", incredible and alive and waiting to be drunk.

The second theme of the stations is the grief of the Virgin Mother:

When the Ewe that bore him saw them slaying her Lamb,
tossed by swelling waves of pain she sobbed for her woe,
and moved all the flock to join her bitter cries:

"Who will give me water for the tears I must weep,"
so the Maiden wed to God cried out in loud lament,
"that for my sweet Jesus I might rightly mourn?"

And from the Third Station:

"O my precious Springtime!
O my Son beloved,
O whither fades your beauty?"

This is some of the most emotional hymnity in the Byzantine Ruthenian tradition, at least in my experience. That last verse I especially love--"O my precious Springtime!" Spring has gone into the grave; winter has come instead of summer.

But by the middle of the Third Station we are already talking about the Resurrection again:

Rise, O Lord of mercy,
raising us up also
who languish deep in Hades.

"Rise, O life-bestower!"
said the one who bore you,
your grief-torn weeping Mother.

Hasten with your rising
and release from sorrow
the spotless Maid who bore you.

With typical Byzantine enthusiasm, we actually beg Christ to hurry up and rise from the dead so we can start celebrating!

Jerusalem Matins is a unique and gorgeous service and a wonderful meditation for the end of Holy Week. I hope everyone has a beautiful Holy Saturday and a glorious Pascha!

Christ is Risen (almost)!