This article was originally published as part of Ad Cenam Agni, a 2023 virtual Lenten Retreat hosted by the Abbot's Circle.
Nothing so beautifully yet sadly bespeaks the approaching liturgical climax of Lent like the morning offices of Tenebrae, a central feature of which is the chanting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. In the year 586 the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and carried away the populace into exile hundreds of miles away. On the smoking ruins of the city, horrified at the fallen wall and desecrated temple, the prophet sat and sang, “How solitary sits the city, once filled with people. She who was great among the nations is now like a widow. Once a princess among the provinces, now a toiling slave.” So moving is this poem of grief that the English word threnody, which means “a hymn of grief,” is taken from the Greek word which is also the name for this book of the Bible.
And yet, as catastrophic as was the overthrow of the last remnant of the Jewish kingdom, it was but a pale foreshadowing of the death of Jesus Christ, the true temple of the living God. In us God dwells as in His temple through sanctifying grace. In Christ God dwelt in the fullness of divinity, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity united to true humanity taken from the Blessed Virgin Mary. This glorious temple was taken down from the cross and laid limp in His Mother’s arms. She, more than anyone in the history of the world, knew what Jeremiah meant.
And so every year the Church has us return to this dirge even as we sing God’s daily praises. By listening to its simple tone and absorbing its tragic sentiment, we enter more deeply into the wonderful mystery of the Lord’s saving passion and death.