>L is for Lamentations: A Sinner’s Lenten Alphabet Continues


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L is for Lamentations

Our society isn’t big on expressing grief. We don’t like to mourn. Funeral homes go to great lengths to sterilize the process, making it as neat and easy for friends and family as possible. Unless you’re African American. The black funerals I’ve been to are a lot more “real” than most of the white protestant funerals I have experienced.

When my father died in 1998, the pastor and others who organized the funeral service called it a “Celebration of Life.” Everyone said nice things about my dad and we sang uplifting hymns. The church was packed to overflowing with more than 500 people that day. Dad was well known and well loved. People wanted to celebrate his life, but they didn’t know what to do with their pain. They had lost a friend in his prime—he was only 68 years old and was still running marathons just a little over a year before his death. A leader in the business community and at his church, his death was a huge loss to many. But they showed up with their best smiles that day. Until I got up to speak.

I talked about suffering—Dad’s and Mom’s—and how it changed their marriage during the 14 months that he suffered with cancer. I talked about the pain of loss and the frustration and helplessness we all felt. People wept. And afterwards, at the reception, several people thanked me for “giving them permission to mourn.”

Two months later, at the funeral service for my 20-year-old Goddaughter, Mary Allison Callaway, there was plenty of weeping and wailing. The Orthodox Church makes room for human emotions to express themselves at the intersection of the physical and the spiritual worlds. These words, which are part of the Orthodox Funeral Service, express the true feeling of mourning—of lamentation—at the death of a loved one:

“I weep and I wail when I contemplate death
And behold our beauty, fashioned after the image of our God lying in the tomb disfigured, dishonored and stripped of all form.”

During Orthodox Holy Week, there’s a service on Holy Friday called The Lamentations. Jesus’s body has been taken down from the cross and is laid in a funeral bier, decorated with flowers. As the people come forward to venerate the bier, these beautiful lamentations are sung. As we enter into Christ’s death, we also lament our own sins.

Click here to see pictures and videos of Holy Friday at Saint John in 2008.

Lamenting isn’t about being “down” or negative. It’s about being real. It’s about letting ourselves experience the grief that death brings. Death isn’t “natural” or “beautiful.” God didn’t create man to die. Death is a result of man’s sinfulness. And so we mourn for our own sins and for the suffering that death brings. But we do not mourn “as those who have no hope.” (I Thessalonians 4:13). The cycles of services during Great Lent and Holy Week in the Orthodox Church lead up to the pinnacle of our hope–Holy Pascha.

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