|Rev. Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes - Spiritual Nourishment for the Soul - The Service of Bridegroom during Holy Week In the Orthodox Church|
The Service of Bridegroom during Holy Week In the Orthodox Church
Great & Holy Week
Beginning in the evening of Palm Sunday and continuing through the evening of Great and Holy Tuesday, the Orthodox Church observes a special service known as the Service of the Bridegroom. Each evening service we chant the Matins service of the following day (e.g. the service held on Sunday evening is the Matins service for Great and Holy Monday). The name “Service of the Bridegroom” is derived from the parable of the Ten Virgins, in which Christ speaks of mystical marriages in which the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night. Some of the brides were prepared with lamps to receive Him; others had come unprepared and consequently were left out of the wedding feast (Matthew 25:1-13). The term “Bridegroom” suggests the unifying intimacy of Christ’s divine-human love for us all and is of great significance; in the parable He compares the Kingdom of God to a bridal chamber. The “Bridegroom” also suggests the Parousia, and in the patristic tradition the parable is also related to His Second Coming: it is associated with the need for spiritual vigilance and preparedness, by which we are enabled to keep the divine commandments and receive the blessing of Union with God both in this life and in the age to come.
The first part of Great & Holy Week presents us with an array of themes based chiefly on the last day of Jesus’ earthly life. The story of the Passion, as told and recorded by the Evangelists, is preceded by a series of incidents located in Jerusalem and a collectin of parables, sayings and discourses centered on Jesus’ divine sonship, the kingdom of God, the Parousia, and Jesus’ castigation of the hypocrisy and dark motives of the Jewish leaders. The observances of the first three days of Great and Holy Week are rooted in these incidents and sayings, and the services constitute a single liturgical unit having the same cycle and structure of daily prayer. The central theme of the services for the Matins of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Holy Week is that we must always be prepared to receive Christ, Who is predestine Bridegroom of all humanity. This teaching is appropriately expressed in the Troparion of the Bridegroom: Behold the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night… The Scripture lessons, hymns, and commemorations highlight significant aspects of salvation history, by calling to mind the events that anticipated the Passion and by proclaiming the inevitability and significance of the Parousia. On Great and Holy Monday (celebrated on Palm Sunday night) we commemorate the beloved son of Jacob, Saint Joseph the Patriarch, a major figure of the Old Testament. Joseph’s story is told in the final section of the Book of Genesis (chapters 37-50). Because of his virtuous and remarkable life, in the patristic and liturgical traditions Joseph understood as prefiguring Christ’s Life and Death. The story of Joseph, his bondage, sale into slavery in Egypt and final restoration there illustrates the mystery of God’s providence, promise and redemption in Christ. The lesson to be learned from Joseph’s life is that his slavery or “death in Egypt” was turned into a glorious life. In this biblical narrative the descent of Christ as a slave into Hades where He turned His slavery and death into eternal life for all humanity, was unknowingly prefigured.
On the same day, the Church commemorates the event of the cursing of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-20). The episode is quite relevant to Holy Week, for together with the event of the cleansing of the Temple this episode is another manifestation of Jesus’ divine power and authority and a revelation as well of God’s judgment upon the faithlessness of the Jewish religious leadership. The fig tree is symbolic of Israel’s bareness by her failure to recognize and receive Christ and His teachings. The cursing of the fig tree is a parable in action, a symbolic gesture. Its meaning should not be lost on any one in any generation. The withering of the fig tree, then, is a reminder that any religious traditions which bear no fruits will wither and die just as the fig tree which was full of beautiful and healthy leaves, but had not fruit.
During the Great and Holy Week the Old Testament Lessons read out in the church at Vespers are taken from the books of Exodus and Job. The reason for this choice is obvious: In Exodus we have the narrative of the Jewish Passover which prefigured the passing of all humanity from the affliction of death into Eternal Life through Christ’s self sacrifice and Resurrection. In the book of Job we have the very same experience of overcoming death through perseverance and absolute trust in God from the point of view of a Saint who was not a Jew; yet He received Divine Revelation and enjoyed Vision of God thus prefiguring in himself not only the Passion and the Resurrection of Christ but also the universality of Salvation.
Great & Holy Monday
The Orthodox Church inaugurates the beginning of Passion Week with the biblical image of the noble Joseph. It is a moving and deeply instructive story, he is hated to death by his eleven brothers who throw him into a ditch; he is sold to merchants for a pittance by his brothers who then tell their inconsolable father that all they had found were the bloody remains of his extraordinary garment.
Their father believes them and falls into grief, but Joseph becomes a king in Egypt, having escaped from the wiles of the woman who loved him madly. In the end, he forgives his brothers and even feeds them in a time of famine.
Even more compelling than this biblical narrative is the use that the Orthodox Church makes of it. It calls Joseph “utterly good” (1) not “utterly virtuous” and in this way demonstrates the true understanding that early Christianity had of “Goodness.” Theirs was not an aesthetic approach but rather a sincere appreciation of an ultimate reality; every bearer of the good possesses primordial beauty. Not a beauty which is blinding but real Goodness which is overwhelming. This understanding of beauty as ultimate Goodness is deeply biblical; First of all the Creator, in Genesis, looked upon the whole of His creation, on “everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31)
The Fathers and Theologians of the East justifiably identify “Being” with both Goodness and Beauty. It suffices that something or someone exists as a creature, that its existence is owned directly to the Creator for it to be imbued with ultimate Beauty; this type of beauty has no relation at all to what cultured people and aesthetes call beauty. Worms, snakes, and lizards, wild animals and poisonous insects are “very good”) (hence “very beautiful” (Gen. 1:31) since they are divine creations; this is true especially of mankind, the crown of creation which is innately adorned with every virtue. Every one who sets all these virtues into full motion, proves himself to be Good indeed (Beautiful), and as noble as is Joseph. In effect, this means great hardship and much pain. He fled easy and cheap pleasure and for that reason was imprisoned and tortured.
In his image, the Church recognizes a prefiguring of the Passion of Christ, and thus, he stands out in the Service of Holy Monday. And this prominence is a powerful scourging of our insane preconceptions of “beauty.” It is not beauty to charm the masses with one’s smile or knowledge or artistry. Beauty is not that which provokes an irrational attraction on the souls of people. Joseph embraced the pain and death which his brothers offered him and transformed that pain into forgiveness, goodness, mercy and benefaction heralding thus the role of Christ. He remained noble exactly because he did not allow evil, hatred and human passions to dominate him. He demonstrated just how beautiful one remains when one willingly accepts to live with pain and anguish, what a most excellent accomplishment it is to accept pain and death, not from enemies, but from one’s own brothers.
In contemporary societies around the globe, where every type of fratricide is by now common and daily routine, even today the all beautiful face of Joseph gives nourishment of the type we are totally lacking: it offers the seeds of love into the hands of those who have hated involuntarily not only their brother and fellow man, but the very Creator of this unparalleled human Beauty. It is with this boundless goodness and with this unseen beauty that the Orthodox Church chooses to celebrate the “beginnings of the Passion of the Lord.”
Saint Ambrose of Milan
The lives of the Saints are for the rest of mankind a pattern of how to live. Thus we come to know Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the other Righteous Men and Women by our reading of the Bible, we may, as it were, follow in their footsteps along a kind of path of sinless life opened up to us by their virtues. Therefore, let now Saint Joseph be set before us as a mirror of purity. For in his character and in his actions modesty shines forth and the splendor of Divine Grace as if a companion brightens up his chastity.
His Father Jacob was right to make for his son a tunic of many colors, to indicate by it that Joseph was to be preferred to his brothers with his clothing of manifold virtues.
Indeed, Divine Grace shone on Joseph even in his boyhood. For he had a dream that when he was binding sheaves with his brothers – so it appeared to him in the vision – his sheaf rose up and stood straight, while the sheaves of his brothers turned and bowed down to his sheaf. Now in this resurrection of the Lord Jesus that was to come was revealed. When they say Him at Jerusalem, the eleven disciples and all the risen Saints (Mat. 27:52) bearing the fruits of their good works, bowed down, just as it is written “Coming they shall come with joyfulness, carrying their sheave” (Ps. 126.6).
Moreover, Joseph saw another dream and told it to his father and brothers, that the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to him. On this account his father reproved him and said: “What will be the meaning of this vision that you have a dream? Can it be that I and your mother and your brothers will come and bow to the ground before you?” Joseph and His Mother with the disciples bowed down before Him and confessed in the that the Body the true God of whom alone it was written: “Praise Him sun and moon; praise Him all you stars and light” (Ps. 148:3).
Therefore, Joseph was sent by his father to his brothers to see if it was well with the sheep, or rather by that Father “who has not spared his own Son but delivered Him for us all” (Rom. 8:32), by that Father of whom it is written: “God sending his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3). His brothers abused him in whom “The blessing prevailed over the blessings of the enduring mountains and was stronger than the desires of everlasting hills.”(Gen. 49.26). Who did he understand was being prefigured in himself “whose praise is not of men, but of God”? (Rom. 2:29). Only He who is “fairer than the children of men” (Ps. 44.2) and “is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worked in us” (Up. 3:20). And so in the case of the Patriarchs, enmity is remitted by Divine Grace, for they are excused from their guilt and made remitted by Divine Grace, for they are excused from their guilt a made Saints by the Gift of Revelation. Their descendents assumed the character of a sinner to receive Divine Grace of their Lord and Redeemer. Assuredly that Grace destroyed guilt; but guild could not diminish Grace…
And so that we may recognize that all this is a mystery in reference to the chosen people of God and to the Lord Jesus, “Come let us sell Joseph to Ishmaelite” (Gen. 37:27). Judah, his brother, said. What is the interpretation of the name of Joseph? Only that it means “God’s Grace” and “express image of the God the Highest” And so who is being sold? Only that man who “since He was in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but emptied Himself taking the form of a servant.” (Phil. 2:6-9). And we would not have bought Him, unless His own people had sold Him. Thus we find that Joseph was bought for twenty gold pieces by one account, for twenty five by another, and thirty by another, because Christ is not valued at the same price by all human beings. To some He is worth less, to others more. The faith of the buyer determines the increase in the price. To one who is more pious, God is more valuable; to a sinner a Redeemer is more valuable. He is also more valuable to one who receives more Grace. And He is more valuable as well to one whom many Gifts have been given, because this one loves more to whom more has been forgiven.
Hence His tunic, that is, His Flesh, was stained with Blood, but not His Divinity; and His enemies were able to take from Him His covering of Flesh, but not His Immortal Life. Now the fact that Joseph’s brothers sprinkled his tunic with the blood of a goat seems to have this meaning that they attacked with false testimony and brought into enmity for sin Him who forgives the sins of all human beings. For us He is a Lamb; for them a Goat. For us the Lamb of God has been killed, who took from us the sins of the world, whereas for them a goat piled up the sins and amassed offences. Christ was sold because He took our condition upon Himself, not our fault; He is not held to the price of sin, because He Himself did not commit sin; so He made a contract at a price for our debt, not for money for Himself. He took away the debtor’s bond, set aside the money lender; freed debtor. He alone paid what was owed by all. He undertook this on our behalf, that He might drive away the slavery of the world, restore this liberty of paradise and grant New Grace though the Glory we received by His sharing of our nature.
As for what pertains to the moral interpretation, because our God wishes all humans to be saved, He also gave consolation through Joseph to those who are in slavery and He gave them instruction. Even in the lowliest status, people should learn that their character can be superior and that no state of life is devoid of virtue if a human being knows itself. The flesh is subject to slavery, not the spirit, and many humble servants are freer than their masters. Every sin is slavish, while sinless life is free.
Joseph led a sinless life; for although he was comely to look upon and very handsome in appearance, he did not direct the charm of his countenance towards another’s wrongdoing, but kept it to attract Divine Grace for himself. He thought he would be more attractive if he were proved more beautiful not by the loss of his chastity but by the cultivation of modesty. That is true Beauty that does no seduce the eyes of others or wound their fragile hearts but gains the approval of all people. Such a Beauty does not harm to none but wins praise for Itself. That is why he left the clothing, which the adulteress held back in her hands, as if were not his, and considered foreign to him the garments that the impure woman had been able to touch and seize. He was, after all, a great man; although sold, he never came to know the nature of slavery; although much loved by the Egyptian dignitary, he did not love in return; although asked, he did not acquiesce, although seized, he fled away, but not naked, as he was covered by the coat of modesty. Yes, a man is not naked unless guild has made him naked. Joseph kept on the incorruptible garment of all virtues and stripped himself “of the old man with his actions so that he might put on the new; who is being renewed in perfect knowledge according to the image of his Creator” (Col. 3:9-10)…
Saint John of Damascus
He is coming, therefore, tenacious in His determination to endure the Passion, hastening to drink the cup of death – a cup of salvation for the whole world. He is coming hungering for mankind’s salvation. For who, ever, eats in the morning? Has The King, the Lord, the Teacher, been hungering in the morning, unable to hold back the desire of eating food, unable to rule over His own humanity or command it? Is He rushing headlong, unbridled, into eating food when He should not? How can He then teach the disciples to fast and to be not defeated by prompting of desire? No, this is certainly not the case; now He is simply acting the parables out, as He previously taught them in words.
He approached the fig tree being hungry; the fig tree shadowed forth humanity. Sweet the fruit of the tree, rough the leaves and useless and ready for burning. Likewise, humanity once produced the sweetest ever fruity of virtue, having been ordered by God to bear this fruit, but it then acquired the roughness of the leaves by unfruitfulness of virtue. For what is rougher than the cares of this life?
Once upon a time, Adam and Eve were naked and were not ashamed; naked they were by virtue of simplicity and unsophisticated living. There were neither artistry and craftsmanship skills not cares of this life with them; they toiled not, neither did they formed any plans as to how they shrouded the nakedness of the body; they were not ashamed at having no property, nor at their rudimentary living, but though bodily naked, they were covered by Divine Grace. There was no bodily cover round them but the raiment of incorruption; for as much as they identified with God by obedience, so much they were clothed with the raiment of incorruption. When they disobeyed they shrugged off His covering grace, they were stripped of God’s ecstasy and vision, they saw the nakedness of their body, they longed for the pleasures of this life, they were ashamed at their paltry lives and poor existence, “they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (Gen. 3:7), the speculated a great deal upon every variety and novelty of ideas and thus invented this rough, toilsome and painful manner of life: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread”, “cursed is the ground in thy labours” (Septuagint), “thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee” (Gen. 3: 17-19); but also “dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return”. Thou hast acquired dusty mind, thy submission shall be to dust. Thou has become without understanding like the sensual beasts; for thou understandeth not that thou are in honour (Psalm 49:20). Having being in God, yet not adept in bearing virtue as fruit, you have instead preferred the enjoyment of earthy affairs by falling in love with the bestial manner of life. “Dust thou art and unto dust shall thou return”; like the beasts that perish thou shalt inherit death. Hence, he was covered up with the coats of skin; for having been originally created in between life and mortality according to the body and dwelling in the garden of Delight (Gen. 2:15) Septuagint) and within the royal courts, afterwards he obtained a mortal and rough body capable of enduring toil. Coarse indeed are the leaves of the fig tree which is our human nature!
To this fig tree, namely humanity, the Saviour came hungry and seeking after
its sweetest fruit, the most pleasing to God, that is to say, virtue, which
culminates in salvation, yet He found no fruit, only bristly leaves, the
roughest and most calamitous failure, which is sin and all banes which spring
from it. This why He declares to it His verdict; “No fruit shall grow of thee
henceforward; for salvation springs not of mankind, although virtue is within
human capacity. I myself bring about salvation by granting Resurrection though
my Passion; I am also causing the leaves to wither away and am destroying this
rough rude manner of life”. Both of which He has achieved…
Source: Inside CD booklet: GREAT & HOLY MONDAY The Bridegroom Service. Romeiko Ensemble.
Humbly in Christ our Lord,
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(c) Reverend Archimandrite Nektarios Serfes