Behold, the Bridegroom Comes
The King of the Universe enters Jerusalem in humility—He even had to borrow a donkey to ride. And the Pharisees are upset. This One whom they had counted as an enemy is now proclaimed King of Israel.
Thus begins Holy Week. Jesus comes as a humble King. And time as we know it begins to pass away. In the Eucharist, the Passion, the Death, the Resurrection, the Kingdom of God breaks into our time. That which is without time comes to dwell in time. The fathers of the Church underline this by having no assigned tone to this week. The Octoechos has ceased. Time, as we usually measure it in the Church, is going away.
Our services in the parishes underscore this. Morning services begin to be served in the evening, and evening services in the morning. Time is beginning to wobble.
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evening, we celebrate the Bridegroom Matins. The theme of these services is the same as the parables of the Heavenly Banquet. Jesus had said: “The Kingdom of God is like unto a banquet.” The Kingdom of God is that time-outside-of-time. This banquet we prepare for on these days. And we prepare ourselves, for “Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight….” And the great Banquet for which we prepare is the Eucharist that we shall see inaugurated on the coming Thursday, and the Passion that we will encounter later in the week. And the Passion flavours everything we do this week, “for Christ, in His love, hastens to His sufferings.” These first three days are seen as a first-fruit of the Passion.
The daily themes of the Bridegroom Matins focus on the movement towards the end of time as we know it.
The first day of the Bridegroom Matins we focus on the patriarch Joseph, who fled the temptation of Potiphar’s wife, and who was placed by God in a time of famine to preserve his people. He also set in motion the events that would require the Passover. The Gospel focuses on the fig tree. The fig tree was not ready to encounter Jesus, and so it was cursed. This is a rebuke and a warning to us. We go to church services and do our best to appear religious, but we lack the fruits of religion: we do not feed the hungry, give to the poor, visit the sick and imprisoned. Instead we are self-willed, greedy, arrogant, and prideful. Part of our preparation to receive the Kingdom of God is to be watchful over these things in ourselves and to be merciful to others.
On Tuesday, we focus on the ten virgins, half of whom were prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom, and half of whom were not. The service asks us “Are we prepared? Are we ready?” much in the same way that our weekly preparation for Communion asks us. The Kingdom of God is coming to us; that day beyond all days will soon be upon us. And what about the oil? Oil is a play on words for mercy. Five had plenty of mercy, five did not. So we must be merciful to all; for behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight.
On Wednesday, we are given a contrast between the sinful woman who anoints Jesus’ feet, and Judas who betrays Him.
Jesus comes to be anointed before His death. It is both for His death and to indicate Him as the Anointed One, the Christ, that He is anointed. He is anointed not by His host, but by a sinful woman, a harlot. What Simon the Pharisee withheld from Jesus this woman gives freely. The Lord of the universe is recognized by the humble, while the self-righteous miss Him even when He comes to them. All Simon can offer Jesus is his offense at the offering of this woman.
And Judas also takes offense. Jesus rebukes him. He paraphrases Deuteronomy: “The poor you shall always have with you.” This has been used by some as a justification for doing nothing for the poor. But the rest of that verse in Deuteronomy says: “Therefore, I command thee saying: thou shalt open thy hand wide unto thy brother and to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land.” Jesus makes reference to our duty to the poor, but indicates that His time with them in the flesh is limited—that it must be savoured.
Jesus is telling them that there will be plenty of opportunities to minister to Him indirectly by ministering to the poor—but this is a unique opportunity to minister to Him directly.
And lest we exalt ourselves above Judas, let us remember that at the betrayal, in Matthew’s Gospel he kisses Jesus with affection. How do we kiss Jesus? Mostly we kiss him mindlessly, without thought or attention. Judas intentionally betrayed Jesus—we betray Him without intention, but we still betray Him. In the kontakion we acknowledge that we have transgressed more than the harlot. We also transgress more than Judas. Yet we are assured, in the hymn of Kassiani, that Christ has mercy without measure.
Each night we hear in the exapostilarion: Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O Saviour; and I have no wedding garment that I may enter.
What is our wedding garment? It is love: love of God and neighbour. This we must not only feel, we must also do, that the Giver of Light may illumine our souls and save us.
Father Stephen Clark is the rector of St. Innocent of Alaska Orthodox Church (ROCOR) in Silverdale WA.