Behold the Bridegroom cometh in the midst of the night,
and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching.
But unworth is he whom he shall find heedless.
Beware therefore O my soul,
lest thought be born down with sin.
Lest though be given up to death,
and be shut out of the kingdom.
But ratherdo thou stand and cry:
“Holy, Holy, Holy art thou O God!”
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us.
After the festive respite from Lent of Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday, on Holy Monday and Tuesday the Church once again concentrates upon sin, repentance, and the cost of our salvation. Specifically, we hold the service of Bridegroom Matins, starting Sunday night (liturgical days, both Christian and Jewish, traditionally starts at sundown). Having only been to this perhaps six times in my life, I don’t know it very well: mostly I remember the church being very dark, solemn, with beautiful slow chants.
Remembering this service, the first thing that comes to mind is an icon: the icon of Extreme Humility. That’s the icon to the left here, and also the one on my Holy Week blog banner. It’s painted of the period after Jesus’ arrest, and before the Crucifixion. That icon is placed at the front of the church, in the middle of the isle before the Royal Doors. It is surrounded with flowers – usually red and white carnations. At a certain point in the service we chant “Behold the Bridegroom cometh” (video below), and prostrate to the ground, while the priest lifts the icon and slowly processes around the church. At least that’s what I remember happening – it could be I’m making this up. In any event, it’s very moving. At the end of the service everyone goes up to the icon to venerate it: usually we venerate icons with three bows and a kiss, but during Holy Week it’s three prostrations.
I should probably stop and say a few words here. I’m blogging mostly about services and traditions. That is, of course, insufficient. But, really, what is there to say? God died for us? What is there to say that can possibly make *that* comprehensible? Which doesn’t – and shouldn’t – stop us from talking about it, preaching services on it, and considering it with wonder. But even so… So I write about services. It’s safer: I’m unlikely to say anything really blasphemous. It may be of interest to my Evangelical and Catholic friends who have very different ways of expressing this mystery among themselves.
When I was a teenager – perhaps 17 – I went on a youth outing to Salt Lake City for the annual Evangelical Free Youth Conference. On perhaps the last night there we had this service that aimed at being very touching, where we were supposed to “surrender our lives” and “nail our sins to the Cross.” So after some upbeat music and a rousing sermon, we literally did just that. Th played soft emotional music, had someone up on stage painting pots, which was recorded and projected up onto an enormous screen, and we were given paper and pencils. We wrote down our sins, walked up to a big cross they had propped up in the isle, took nails and a hammer, and nailed the papers to it. I was bemused. On the one hand, it seemed like a good, meaningful thing to do. I was starting to get into it. An hour later I might have begun to repent of my sins – especially the sin of thinking the entire conference manipulative and silly. If I recall correctly I even participated. Then the band went back up. At an event like that the band is not one of us – they’re like stars, and are altogether separate. They got up there and began to sing something like “We’re Gonna Dance in the River” over and over, with very loud repetitive bass guitar chords. Everyone held hands and jumped up and down. They formed a mini mosh pit in the isle. I went back to being an unrepentant curmudgeon.
Three years ago I took part in Holy Week services for the first time. They were magnificent. Even rarer, they were solemn and slow and stately. There were still five more days until Pascha! I could hardly believe my good fortune. There’s a phrase I once heard that sums it up very well: “bright sadness.” People aren’t merely sad, as in a tragedy. They aren’t at all dejected – after all, Pascha is coming and Lent is over; we can feel the joy leaking in already. But it’s just leaking. Because we’re still sinners, and must still repent. We are responsible for killing our God. Without His forgiveness we are lost. Orthodox have no doctrine of “once saved always saved” – if we don’t repent and ask for mercy we may very well be condemned. We certainly deserve to be. And yet, perhaps we shall be saved – not only from hell, but also from sin, which is a much more immediate concern. Perhaps we may become radiant through purification. These first services of Holy Week are about repentance, watchfulness, and sorrow, yet illumined by hope. And so we chant:
I see your bridal chamber
prepared for my Savior
and I have no wedding garment
that I may enter therein.
O giver of life make radiant
the vesture of my soul, and save me!