Today in the Christian calendar is Holy Saturday – the day in Holy Week between Good Friday and Easter Day – and in many liturgical churches it is one of the days of Tenebrae (Latin for “darkness”) when candles are progressively extinguished during services so that they end in darkness. Traditionally, Tenebrae is observed over the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (some churches observe it only on the Wednesday of Holy Week), and the Book of Lamentations is read during services. Lamentations mourns the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. It has been described as “literature of catastrophe.” So why is it read in Christian churches during Holy Week?
Lamentations, in Hebrew, is poetry. The five chapters of the book are five distinct poems. The poems are well structured and the first four are “acrostic” and follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet as each verse begins with a new letter of the alphabet. So, the first word of the first poem is אֵיכָה (“how”) which begins with א the first letter of the alphabet, and so on. The five poems are each written from the perspective of someone who has felt the impact of the city’s destruction.
- The first two poems are written from the perspective of the city of Jerusalem, personified as a woman.
- The third poem is written from the perspective of a man (possibly a soldier) who was in the city during its seige.
- The fourth poem begins from the perspective of an observer watching the city’s destruction, and then moves to the collective voice of the people. It ends with a voice addressed to the inhabitants of the city.
- The final poem is a collective prayer addressed to God as the inhabitants of the city call on God to remember them in their affliction.
The poems progress through a sequence describing the destruction of the city and its aftermath. The poetical style is dirge and its metre contributes to its mournfulness. If one were to hear it read without knowing a word of Hebrew they would still pick up that it’s sad and solemn. The third poem – the central one – transitions from despair to hope.
So why is it read over the three days leading up to Easter Sunday? Here are just three possibilities:
- The first two poems in Lamentations personify Jerusalem as a widow. It begins “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.” For some Christian readers this is reminiscient of the loneliness and solitariness of Mary, the mother of Jesus, during the time of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. In Catholic tradition, for example, on Holy Saturday Mary is assigned the title Our Lady of Solitude.
- According to the synoptic gospels, in the week before his crucifixion Jesus prophesied about the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Repeating history, and similar to its destruction by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, Jerusalem was beseiged and then destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. In some non-canonical Jewish literature of that period the Roman destruction of Jerusalem is described using similar phraseology to the earlier Babylonian destruction. The two events are remembered together in the Jewish commemoration known as Tisha B’Av – the traditional date of the destruction of both the first and second temples, as well as other cataclysmic events. Reading Lamentations during Holy Week also recalls Jesus’ prophecies in the days before his death about another impending destruction of Jerusalem.
- As despair turns to hope in the poetry of lamentations, so in the liturgical traditions of Tenebrae all lights are extinguished with just one candle remaining alight (or, in some churches one candle is relit). Like the message of Lamentations, this act is meant to symbolise that even in the darkest times hope remains.
I hope you have a blessed Easter.