Behold, the Bridegroom Is Coming

WHEN DOES A DAY BEGIN? The clock says that a new day starts at 12:01 AM, which most people see as the middle of the night. For others a new day begins when the sun rises and reveille (or the alarm clock) is sounded. The Eastern Churches follow the pattern set in the Book of Genesis: “the evening and the morning were the first day” (Genesis 1:5). The liturgical day begins with vespers and continues through the night. Matins (orthros) at dawn followed by the hours and the Divine Liturgy complete the daily cycle of prayer and the next day begins with vespers. Based on this pattern the Great and Holy Week begins at sunset, with vespers, in the evening of Palm Sunday.

There are a great number of services appointed for this week: more than most parishes would schedule. A few important points should be noted about them:

  • Fast Days – Every day of this week (including Saturday) is a fast day, as every day (except Holy Friday) is a Eucharistic day. Either the Presanctified Liturgy or the Liturgy of St Basil is celebrated at vespers. Holy Friday is a strict (i.e. day-long) fast in memory of Christ’s saving death.
  • “Anticipation” – While the praying day begins in the evening and continues through the night, the average parish has only one service, in the early hours of the evening. In some parishes this is vespers; in others it is matins, anticipating the morning’s observance. When the morning service (matins) is anticipated the precious evening, the evening service (vespers) is often anticipated the previous morning!
  • Focus of these services – Some of these services are “thematic”: focusing on the meaning of the paschal mystery in our lives. These include the reconciliation of penitents, holy unction and the baptism of catechumens. Other services are historical, focusing on the events of this week in Christ’s life: the last supper, the crucifixion and His burial. These historical services became popular after shrines were erected in Jerusalem in the time of St Constantine the Great (fourth century). Today several of our services combine both thematic and historical aspects.

Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – The Gospel story of Christ’s teaching in the temple during these days is read at each Matins and Presanctified Liturgy.

The troparion sung on these days is based on the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (cf., Matthew 25:1-13), particularly appropriate for this time: “Behold the Bridegroom is coming in the middle of the night – blessed is the servant He shall find awake! But the one He shall find neglectful will not be worthy of Him. Beware, therefore, O my soul. Do not fall into a deep slumber lest you be delivered to death and the doors of the kingdom be closed on you. Watch instead and cry out, ‘Holy holy, holy are You, O our God…’”

This parable is such a powerful image of the paschal mystery that the services themselves are popularly called “Bridegroom matins” or “Bridegroom Services” and the icon of Christ displayed for veneration on these days is called “the Bridegroom.”

The Wedding and the Bridegroom

When we think of weddings we think almost exclusively of the bride. In Western churches the bride appears with great ceremony and the groom merely joins her at the last moment. Among first century Jews it was very different and it is their practice that we see reflected in Scripture and in our Holy Week observance.

A Jewish marriage of the time consisted of two parts. There was the betrothal in which the bride’s father agreed to the marriage and the marriage covenant was established. The man and woman were considered committed to one another but did not yet live together.

There followed a time of preparation: the bride was prepared to take on the role of a wife. She was kept apart to safeguard her purity and be trained in the conduct befitting a wife. For his part the groom devoted himself to preparing a dwelling place – usually in his father’s house – where they would live. When the time was right the groom would come with great ceremony to claim his wife and bring her to their new home. “And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’” (Matthew 25:6)

This practice is outlined in the Gospel portrayal of Mary and Joseph: “After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife…” (Matthew 1:18-20).

We also see similar imagery both in Scripture and the liturgy concerning our relationship with Christ the Bridegroom. According to St Paul, the Christian has been pledged to Christ. Like their father he tells the Corinthians: “I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2). Christ speaks of Himself in similar terms when He says: “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2).

Our betrothal and time of preparation are mirrored in the Great Fast. At its beginning the catechumens professed their faith (their betrothal). With them the devoted faithful purified themselves during those forty days, preparing to unite with Christ at Pascha. Then, as the Bridegroom takes His own by the hand and leads them to their new homeland, we will sing “O Jerusalem rejoice… for you have seen Christ the King coming out of the tomb as fair as a bridegroom” (Paschalia).

Other Holy Week Observances

Holy Wednesday – The story of Christ’s anointing by Mary at Bethany “for the day of my burial” (cf., John 12:1-11) is read at the Presanctified Liturgy. The mystery of Holy Unction is often served as well, preparing us to die and rise with Christ at Pascha.

Holy Thursday – The betrayal by Judas is remembered: “While the glorious disciples were enlightened at the supper by the washing of their feet, Judas the wicked betrayer, fell into darkness and betrayed You…” (troparion). The bishop reenacts the washing of the feet and the institution of the Eucharist is commemorated at the Vesper-Liturgy of St Basil.

Holy Friday – The arrest and passion of Christ is remembered at orthros/matins and at the royal hours as the passion Gospels are read and the cross is venerated. Christ’s body is taken down from the cross and wrapped in the holy shroud at vespers.

Holy Saturday – The burial of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea and the sealing of the tomb by Roman soldiers is observed at orthros. “The noble Joseph took Your most pure body from the tree, wrapped it in clean linen with aromatic spices and laid it for burial in a new tomb” (troparion).

The Vesper Liturgy of St Basil is the time when (adult) catechumens would be baptized, hear the first proclamation of the resurrection and share for the first time in the Eucharist.