In our reflections on the first three days of Holy Week—Great and Holy Monday, Great and Holy Tuesday, Great and Holy Wednesday—we said that there are certain themes that pass through all of the services on these three days in various ways. It’s kind of woven as a tapestry. It’s not like: first we have one, then we have another, then we have another; but we have emphases in the various days, but the material, so to speak, the vision is the same in every single one of them, and it has to do with the end of the ages, the crucifixion of Christ, his going up to Jerusalem, our going with him in order to enter the heavenly Jerusalem which is the bridal chamber of the Christ himself which is the kingdom of God to come at the end of the ages. We have to be ready for that, we have to be expecting it, watching it, both in view of our own personal death—each one of us has our own death to die—and then there is the end of history and the end of the ages as a whole, when the divine Bridegroom returns in glory, the risen and glorified Christ, to take us into the marriage supper of the Lamb, which we can read about the end of the apocalypse in the New Testament, to live forever in the mansions of God with the just. That’s our hope and our prayer.
So this Great and Holy Week begins with these themes, and today we’d like to take a look more closely at the theme of the Bridegroom, because as we said last time we begin the service after the six morning psalms and the great litany by a very solemn chanting of, “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,” with verses taken from the 26th chapter of Isaiah, which entire chapter is the canticle of Isaiah, which always provides the material for the fifth ode at all Church canons of matins and compline. The first is the song of Moses, then there’s the penitential song of Moses, then you have Hannah, then you have Habakkuk, then you have Isaiah, then you have Jonah, then you have the Three Youths and the fiery furnace, and then you have the Theotokos—her song, the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord”—and the song of Zacharias. These form the basic hymnology of Eastern Orthodox worship at canons on compline and matins services.
So this Isaian canticle is sung, these verses:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. In the night season my soul rises early unto thee, O Lord, for your commandments are a light upon the earth.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Learn righteous, O ye who dwell upon the earth.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Jealousy shall grasp an untaught people, or anger shall fall upon those who have not corrected themselves.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. Render evils unto them, Lord; render evils unto them, even to the glorious, the proud ones of the earth.
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
And we commented how that horrible sentence in the canticle, “Render evils to them,” which we sing in church, it’s actually a prayer for their salvation, because wicked people cannot be converted by good acts; they can only be converted if they have to undergo evils and calamities, which then may turn them to God. You know, I always think of September 11: everybody was repenting after that horrible day when the terrorists went into the towers in New York City and into the Pentagon in Washington, but about six to eight months later, the churches were back to normal, the crowds disappeared, people forgot all about it, and life went on. So very often crises and tragedies don’t really convert people, but according to the Scripture, those who are stuck in wickedness, if they’re going to be converted at all, can only be converted by undergoing evils and calamities and tragedies, and God uses those things to try to convert us.
Now, once that is done, you have the singing of the main hymn of these three services, and it goes like this, sung with very solemn music.
Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching (keeping vigil), but unworthy is he whom he shall find heedless (or in slothfulness). Beware, then, O my soul! Be not overcome by sleep, lest thou be given over to death and shut out from the kingdom; but return to soberness and cry aloud: Holy, holy, holy art thou, O God! Through the Theotokos, have mercy upon us!
And that hymn is sung three times, together with a great incensing of the church.
I just read that in the translation of Kallistos (Ware) and Mother Maria in England, this song, “Behold, the Bridegroom comes,” and I’d like to just read how it is in the translation of the Orthodox Church in America translation.
Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching, and (again) unworthy is the servant whom he shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul! Do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the kingdom; but rouse yourself, crying out: Holy, holy, holy art thou, O God! Through the Theotokos, have mercy upon us!
So this is the main hymn.
In my podcasts on the names and titles of Jesus in holy Scripture, I have in that series—I think it’s on March 29; I’m not sure of the year: I have it written down, but of course I can’t find it now—but I have a whole podcast on the bridegroom, and how the bridegroom is used in the Bible, how the bridegroom theme is in the Old Testament, how we find it in the Prophets, how we find it in the gospels, how we find it in St. Paul, how we find it in the apocalypse. So I will not repeat all of the biblical allusions to the nuptial imagery, Christ as the Bridegroom, the Church as the Body and the Bride, but you can definitely find that. So if you are interested in Christ as the Bridegroom, just go to the podcasts on the names and titles of Jesus and scroll down until you find the one about Christ the Bridegroom.
But what we want to see here for now is that [in] the songs and the hymns of this day you are picking up this theme all the time, and in the Bible readings you have this imagery being used about the bridegroom. So I would just like to now read to you a couple of the hymns in these services that contain that particular imagery that continues this imagery. After we sing this, “Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed are the servants who are found keeping vigil, and unworthy are those who are found heedless,” and so on, and you end with the trisagion: “Holy, holy, holy art thou, O God! Through the prayers of your holy Mother, have mercy upon us!” Then you have these kind of hymns and songs during the service. For example, on the Tuesday matins:
Let us cast aside slothfulness and go to meet Christ, the immortal Bridegroom, with brightly shining lamps and with hymns, crying: O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord!
Into the splendor of thy saints, how shall I enter? For I am unworthy, and if I dare to come into the bridal chamber, my clothing will accuse me, since it is not a wedding garment, and I shall be cast out by the angels, bound hand and foot. Cleanse, O Lord, the filth from my soul and save me in thy love for mankind.
And another hymn:
I slumber in slothfulness of soul, O Christ the Bridegroom. I have no lamp that burns with virtue, and like the foolish virgins I go wandering about when it is time to act. Close not thy compassionate heart against me, Master, but dispel dark sleep from me; rouse me up, and lead me with the wise virgins into the bridal chamber, where those who feast sing with pure voice unceasingly: O Lord, glory to thee!
And another one:
O Bridegroom, surpassing all in beauty, thou hast called us to the spiritual feast of the bridal chamber. Strip from us the disfigurement of sin through participation in your sufferings. Clothe me in the glorious robe of thy beauty, and in thy compassion make me feast with joy at thy kingdom.
Just another one, quickly:
Let us prepare our souls like shining lamps, and when the Bridegroom comes let us enter with him into the eternal marriage feast before the door is shut.
So we have these kind of hymns during these days, about the beautiful Bridegroom, Christ, who takes us to himself, the Bridegroom who takes the virgins into the chamber, but they have to be ready, they have to have their oil lamps lit, they have to be watching, they have to be prepared. This theme is just done over and over in different ways through the services of these three days, and, of course, the Scripture readings are also containing these parables about the virgins and the bridal chamber and so on.
Every matins in an Orthodox liturgy has a hymn that is called the Hymn of Light. It’s done at the conclusion of the canon of the service, and it is done when the sun is coming up, because the end of the matins service, which is kind of a nightly vigil ending with the lauds, the praises, in Eastern liturgy, when the light begins to shine in the morning, then the people sing at the service: “Glory to thee who has shown us the light.” And then they sing the Great Doxology: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men. We praise thee, we bless thee, we hymn thee, we worship thee, we glorify thee…” So that Great Doxology is sung.
As a young man I was on Mt. Athos in 1961, which is an awful long time ago, over 50 years ago, and it was pretty bad there in those days, but I can remember keeping vigil with the monks on Mt. Athos back in ‘61, and if they reached that point in the service and it was still dark outside—the light hadn’t begun to show on the horizon and the sun had not yet begun to rise—they would stall. They would sing more hymns, they would sing them other ways, until finally the light came up and then they would say, “Glory to thee who has shown us the light,” and sing the Great Doxology.
Then at the end of the Great Doxology, the trisagion is sung again: “Holy God, holy Mighty, holy Immortal,” but at the end of the canon, before that, there is a hymn that is called the Hymn of Light. That’s what it’s actually called: Photagōgikon in Greek, the Hymn of Light, Svetilen in Slavonic, the Hymn of the Light. And on each of these days—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday—the Hymn of Light is the same hymn each of the days, and this is the very simple words, and it’s sung three times, with a “Glory…” and a “Now and ever…” in between. So the Hymn of Light of these matins services goes like this:
I see thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter therein. Make the robe of my soul to shine, O Giver of life, and save me.
That’s the English translation. The OCA translation of the same hymn is as follows:
Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of light, enlighten the vesture of my soul and save me.
Now, very often in the churches that’s sung very solemnly, especially in the Russian tradition. Russians love this particular thing. Usually the church is darkened, only a little light is on in the altar area, the royal doors are often open, the priest kneels before the altar table, and everybody sings, “Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter therein. Make the robe of my soul to shine, O Giver of light, and save me.”
Now, one comment that has to be made about this wedding garment, because in the services the gospel reading is about that wedding garment, because you not only have a parable of the virgins, but you have the parable of the marriage supper of the king. You know, the king, God, makes a marriage supper for his son, and people are invited and they don’t come; they’re not ready, they’re not keeping vigil, they’re not expecting Christ, they’re not living in anticipation of the end and their own end and the end of all things. They’re just living in this world with the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life; they could care less about God or anything else; they’re just satisfying their own carnal desires and sensual pleasures and all those kind of things, and they don’t want to come to the wedding feast, and then they’re shut out. Then of course the parables, even the vineyard, when the master comes, they won’t give the fruit; they keep it for themselves.
So the teaching is that the people who are ready are ready because they have borne fruit, they have brought forth fruit, the fruit worthy of repentance, and that imagery is in the gospel readings for these three days. In fact, the gospel reading that begins matins on the first Monday and ends the gospel reading at the Presanctified on the vespers of that same day, has to do with the fig tree and the fruit, because Jesus comes to a fig tree and there’s no fruit on it and he curses it, and then it says even that tree will be cut down that is fruitless. So we are ready for Christ at his coming by bearing fruit. And sometimes even it’s considered by attaining and achieving and acquiring virtue, like the oil lamps, that we can offer.
However, there is a very important point that has to be made here, and that is that, in that parable about the wedding feast, when people are to be prepared to enter into the wedding feast, you have that parable, which is read at these services, about how everybody is gathered in the wedding feast, and the lord goes out into the byways and the highways and brings in the poor and the maimed and the blind and the needy, and those for whom it was prepared are cast out, because they’re not worthy, they’re not bringing forth fruit, and they don’t want to come; but then the others come and they celebrate the feast. But then one of the parables says, as we know, that there was a man at the marriage feast who did not have on a wedding garment. He had on no wedding garment. And in this parable, the lord of the feast sees him there and says to him, “How did you get in here without having a wedding garment? Why do you not have the wedding garment?” And then, according to this parable about the wedding garment, he says, “Bind him hand and foot and throw him out. Put him out of the gathering, because he has no wedding garment.”
Now, this creates a kind of a difficulty in understanding things, because if the people who were brought in according to that parable were the poor, the needy, the blind, the lame, the naked, the sinners, the harlots, and God-knows-who, who are taken in in place of those who have been chosen, why would someone be cast out because he does not have any wedding garment? How do we understand that? And I’ve read children’s Bible story books—I used to read them to my own kids—where they said, “Oh, this man was thrown out of the wedding feast because he was dirty and he was crummy and his clothes were ragged and tattered and he showed disrespect by coming in that way. He probably snuck in,” and everything like that. So that for that very particular reason he was thrown out.
But it seems to me that that can’t be the proper understanding, because none of those people who were there had any good clothes, and most of them were probably dirty and maimed and blind and on the street and laying on the byways and on the roads. So what’s going on here? Well, I think that the resolution, the answer, is that in the time of Christ, when someone had a festival and a party and a banquet for whatever reason, those who were holding the feast not only provided the food and the drink and the music for the dancing and so on, but they also provided the clothing.
So if you were invited to such a feast, when you came to it and when you were even compelled by the one putting on the feast, and of course the parable would refer that to God Almighty, the Lord, and the feast being for his Son, you would be given a robe to wear. The one putting on the feast would give you a robe to wear, and so if someone was there and didn’t have one on, it meant he didn’t take the robe that was given to him by the one who held the feast. He didn’t put it on, or maybe he snuck in, and therefore wasn’t even offered the robe, or maybe he was offered the robe and he didn’t want to put it on. So if we read it—actually, it’s in Matthew 22—it says:
But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” The man was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. There men will weep and gnash their teeth, for many (or the multitude) are called, but only few are chosen.”
Now it seems to me, according to our Church tradition, that the point of this story is not that the wedding garment and the robe and the vesture symbolizes the good deeds and all the virtues that we have that allow us to enter into the wedding feast, because nobody has virtues and good deeds that could really allow him into the wedding feast. Everyone has to be saved, everyone has to be brought in by the grace of Christ, everyone is a sinner, everyone is covered with filth. “No, not one is righteous to enter.” But the Christian Gospel tells us that the king, the Lord, gives us a robe, and that robe is connected to our baptismal garment, the white robe that is put upon us on the day we were baptized.
When we died with Christ in baptism and we’re raised up with him in baptism, and all our sins were washed away and our transgressions were forgiven and all the effects of the ancestral, primordial sins were done away with in our humanity, the demons were cast out of us that may be in us through the biological birth from sinful parents, and then the unction is put on us: we are made christs by the unction, the ointment of chrism, that’s put in our Church sacraments on our forehead, on our eyes, on our ears, on our nose, on our mouth, on our chest, on our back, on our hands, on our feet—it’s all a gift, it’s all grace.
The grace is given to us, and that wedding robe is the sign that we accept God’s grace, that we receive the wedding garment that he gives to us to wear at the marriage supper of the Lamb at the end of the ages, because in the Book of Revelation all who are in the wedding feast, they’re all clothed with white garments, and I make the point very strongly in my podcast about the Divine Liturgy that the vestment of the celebrant of the Divine Liturgy, the bishop or the priest, has to be white, because it is the baptismal garment, which symbolizes the robe of the coming kingdom. It actually symbolizes, in Hebrew tradition, the risen body, the glorified body, which is symbolized in that robe.
So I think it’s important to understand that if I would say, “I have no vesture to enter in; have mercy on me,” what we’re saying to God in that hymn is, “I have not taken the garment of baptism that you have given to me. I have not loved it. I have not cherished it. I have not put it on. I have not kept it clean.” In some sense, even, “I have refused it, or I neglected it, or I scorned it. I didn’t need it,” and I think that’s what this parable is trying to say. It’s not trying to say that we have to have certain virtues and achievements to enter the kingdom of God for which we will be rewarded. However, it is a very clear teaching that if we do keep the commandments of God by his grace and by faith, if we do do the good works that prove we are believers, that will prove that we accept our baptism, but we will know that we have that power only because of the gift given to us by God by being redeemed by the blood of Christ, through his death and resurrection and glorification, and to the outpouring upon us of his Holy Spirit, the Spirit of grace.
What we have to understand is that, when we sing this song about the bridal chamber and confess that we’re lazy and slothful and we stand outside and we’re not vigilant and we’re not keeping it, what we’re saying is that this action shows that we’re not accepting the grace of salvation given to us by Christ. It’s not saying that we didn’t achieve what we should achieve. Of course, if we, by God’s grace, do good things, that’s marvelous, and he will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord,” but nevertheless it is also teaching—and we find this at the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom on the very Divine Liturgy of the blessed Pascha—that those who come at the eleventh hour and have hardly worked, as long as they come and they want to come and accept the royal garment, the beautiful festal garment from the Bridegroom Christ who gives it to us at his marriage feast, then we will enter into the kingdom.
Of course, the last chance for all of us is the second coming of Christ, and it’s the second coming of Christ which will prove whether or not we accepted him at his coming. It will prove whether or not we loved him. It will prove whether or not we lived in expectation of him. It will prove whether or not we are truly repenting people who know our own sins and know that we are only saved by faith and by grace in him who loved us and not by any virtues of our own, and that’s what that festal garment, that wedding garment, that we sing about at these services, I believe that’s what it’s all about. It’s all about being ready to meet him when he comes.
Now we should have had our candles lit, we should have our robes ready, if you have the parable of the virgins, and then we enter in, but in the parable of the wedding, we have to know that when we are called and even compelled by our Lord to enter into the feast of his coming kingdom in the risen Christ, we must receive the clothing, the clothing of light, the clothing of Christ himself, who is our robe, because all those who have been baptized into Christ have clothed themselves in Christ, and we sing this on the raising of Lazarus and we sing this also on the holy Pascha and on every great feast of the Church. We sing, in place even of the “Holy, holy, holy” at the Liturgy; we sing, “All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” and he becomes our vesture; he becomes our clothing.
And we even say in other podcasts how he becomes our vesture and our clothing by becoming naked himself. He became naked in the world—naked in the Bethlehem cave, naked on the table of circumcision, naked in the Jordan streams, naked hanging on the cross, naked in the tomb—in order to clothe us with himself and to give us this resplendent garment of salvation, the wedding garment of the wedding feast of the Son of God that is the kingdom of God.
So this is what we are contemplating and praying about and singing about at each of the services of these three days of Holy Week. Next time we will talk a bit more about that fig tree and about the fruits that we are to produce, which are given to us when we accept our baptism, when Christ’s grace acts within us.