The music slows down, friends leave the party, cheerful atmosphere fades away, and you are left alone with your thoughts on where your life is going. This is how it might feel when the carnival ends and you go to church on Wednesday to be reminded that you are nothing but ash and dust.
Ash Wednesday opens the gates of Lent, a 40-day period set on three pillars: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. It is a time to examine one’s life closer and grow spiritually before the joy of Resurrection comes back. Apart from all the rites and customs spread commonly throughout the whole Church, like putting ashes from last year’s Palm Sunday palms on the heads of the congragation, or celebrating the Way of the Cross, Poland has a few of its own. Gorzkie Żale (“Bitter Lamentations”) is by far the most widespread of them.
Gorzkie Żale is a devotion celebrated on every Lenten Sunday afternoon in most of Polish churches. It consist of Zachęta (“incentive”) and three parts, connected with adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and a Passion-themed homily. Its structure is a mix of of that of a morning prayer (lauds) and medieval mystery plays, based strongly on hymns and psalms. Each of the three parts talk about a different moment from the Passion of Christ, but only one of them is chanted on a particular Sunday, so two full cycles are done over the six Lenten Sundays.
The first Bitter Lamentations was held on 13th March 1707 in the Holy Cross church in Warsaw, which in itself is one of the major landmarks of the city. It quickly spread out throughout Poland and Lithuania, as the two countries were in union at that time. Today, after over 300 years, the tradition is as lively as ever, so if you are visiting Poland during Lent, try to visit Krakowskie Przedmieście street in Warsaw if you can, to see the Holy Cross church, but make sure you reserve one Sunday afternoon (usually 5:00 or 5:30 PM), in whichever part of the country you are, to take part in this beautiful, solemn, and rare devotion.