The Bridegroom and Judgment

bridegroomBehold, 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: Holy, holy, holy, art Thou, O our God.  Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.

+ Troparion of Bridegroom Matins

The services of the first few days of Orthodox Holy Week have a collective theme of judgment. The centerpiece of those days is the service known as “Bridegroom Matins,” so named for the icon of Christ the Bridegroom (pictured here), an interesting name for Christ depicted in His humiliation, crowned with thorns, robed in derision, with the rod of His chastisement in His hand. It is part of the “upside-down” character of Holy Week. Judgment is clearly one of the most upside-down characteristics of the events that unfold in Christ’s last earthly days.

I was nurtured on stories as a child that contrasted Christ’s “non-judging” (“Jesus, meek and mild”) with Christ the coming Judge (at His dread Second Coming). I was told that His second coming would be very unlike His first. There was a sense that Jesus, meek and mild, was something of a pretender, revealing His true and eternal character only later as the avenging Judge.

This, of course, is both distortion and heresy. The judgment of God is revealed in Holy Week. The crucified Christ is the fullness of the revelation of God. There is no further revelation to be made known, no unveiling of a wrath to come. The crucified Christ is what the wrath of God looks like.

The first three days of Holy Week are collectively known as the End. And it is this End that forms the character of judgment. The end of something always reveals the truth of a thing. As the popular saying has it, “Time will tell.” When the End is the end that is brought by God, then the true end of all things is revealed.

And this is the characteristic of the judgment made manifest in Holy Week. Christ is moving towards His end, the consummation of the Incarnation. As He is increasingly revealed, everything around Him is revealed as well. Things are shown to be more clearly what they are. Those who hate Him, begin to be revealed as plotters and murderers. What was once only thoughts and feelings of envy become plots and perjury. The power of Rome is unmasked for its injustice, mere people-pleasing. The High Priest is revealed to believe that the destruction of God is good for his nation. The weakness of the disciples and the empty boasting of Peter and the rest are shown for their true emptiness. The sin of the world is revealed in the death of God.

But this had been prophesied from the beginning:

Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel…that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed  (Luk 2:34-35).

But the righteous are revealed as well. The steadfast love of the Mother of God never wavered before the Cross. Her faithfulness is revealed. The kindness of Joseph of Arimathea is forever marked by an empty tomb. The tears of a harlot reveal the nature of love, even hidden beneath the deeds of her life. In the judgment of God, all things are simply shown to be what they truly are. Sin is seen to be sin. Love is seen to be love. There is clarity.

And in the judgment of God, His own love is shown to be what it truly is – self-sacrificing, forgiving, relentless in its mercy. It is not a love that pronounces forgiveness from the Cross only to pronounce destruction on another occasion. The crucified Christ is not a revelation that is succeeded by another.

For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1Co 2:2)

The Bridegroom comes. Judgment arrives. All things are revealed for what they truly are.

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.

+ Exaposteilarion of Bridegroom Matins



  1. “I have run to the fragrance of your myrrh, O Christ God,
    For I have been wounded by your love;
    do not part from me, O heavenly Bridegroom.”
    “Wounded by Love” (Elder Porphyrios)

    My heart understands what my mind cannot comprehend. God could have saved us by any means that He wanted – and this was the manner He chose. No explanation makes sense except complete and absolute love.

    (Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for stirring the Bridegroom image.)

  2. If you read about the ancient Jewish marriage and wedding contracts (google), this will enrich your understanding of what Jesus talked and what the writers of the NT wrote for us to understand this rich and deep mystery of marriage, the 10 virgins and the midnight coming.

  3. The service has the capability to shock me into, or at least something closer to, silence–at least for a time. Even now, contemplating it in the middle of my office a certain peace and quietness results.

  4. I’ve been meditating on the Passover story. We often think that the “pass over” refers to Israel’s exodus from Egypt. That is perhaps a secondary (albeit important) meaning, but the primary meaning is the “pass over” of the Angel of Death. Passover includes two movements: (1) salvation (2) judgment. A close reading of Exodus reveals that the latter is the basis of the former: the judgment of Egypt enables the salvation of Israel.

    The new Passover possesses the same dynamic of salvation/judgment. The cross is the judgment of God leading to salvation. But what exactly is judged? What is the fulfillment of the Egyptian type? Sin, death, and Satan! To partake of the paschal mystery is to die to sin, death, and Satan, and to receive righteousness, life, and friendship with God.

    “He endured death, then; but death He hanged on the cross, and mortal men are delivered from death … Shall I hesitate to utter that which the Lord has deigned to do for me? Is not Christ the life? And yet Christ hung on the cross. Is not Christ life? And yet Christ was dead. But in Christ’s death, death died. Life dead slew death; the fullness of life swallowed up death; death was absorbed in the body of Christ. So also shall we say in the resurrection, when now triumphant we shall sing, ‘Where, O death, is your contest? Where, O death, is your sting'” (St. Augustine).

  5. PJ,
    I think this is an important meditation. In one way, for me it clears up some of the Atonement debate. Christ death and resurrection is Christ’s Passover (Pascha). And seeing how Passover reconciles us with God is clarifying on the issues. Sin is an enemy (of ours and God’s, rather than so much moral stain – though, of course, it has that aspect as well). But the “Christus Victor” or “Classical model” as Gustav Aulen dubbed it, simply better describes this quite primitive (as in “first”) layer of atonement thought.

    The Passover connection is quite primary in the gospel relating of Christ’s suffering and death. And St. Paul calls Christ “our Passover.” This clearly precedes any thinking of those events in terms of the Day of Atonement or other atoning images. I assume that it fulfills all those images – but that the Paschal imagery is primary.

    Good Augustine quote.

  6. Father Stephen
    As an early Orthodox believer, now years back, I wondered why many icons of Christ showed Him with almost a scowl. Someone commented to me that the face showed judgment but went on to point out that His hand was raised in blessing. As I sit here on the phone I am looking up at the icon of Christ, I believe from St. Catherine’s in the Sinai. It is my favorite icon of Christ showing as it does the two aspects of mercy and judgment in the face of Christ…the left side depicting a stern demeanor while the right side is soft and pleasant. So right that mercy triumphs over judgment.

  7. Dean,
    The face on many/most icons is intended to show “apatheia” or “passionlessness” (not “apathy”). However, this is very difficult for American eyes. Unlike most cultures across the world, Americans are in love with smiles. Look at photos from before the 1940’s or so. The “smile for the birdie” is a very late invention. Americans look very silly to many other cultures because of our constant smiles. I know that some of my Russian members are taken aback at first by my smiling, or even of some laughter during my sermons. It’s extremely American.

    I think I would be totally “creeped out” were I to see a smiling icon – whether of Christ or anybody. I don’t know why, but I would.

    But I think we may see more “judgment” than is actually present.

  8. Father,

    The proper interpretation of the Passover type is essential, for an improper interpretation quickly leads to the disturbing belief that man needs saving from God rather than from sin and death. Behold, the power of hermeneutics!

    The popular idea that the cross constitutes a kind of judgment/condemnation is not altogether wrong. It’s just that the target of this judgment/condemnation is often mistaken or distorted.

    There is much to appreciate in the “Christus Victor” model, although it sometimes risks mythologizing the economy of salvation. I don’t think it’s accidental that the Scriptures employ a panoply of images — images which are themselves mutli-faceted — to illuminate the pasch of Christ.

  9. Quick comment on Dean’s post on April 15, 2014 at 1:31 pm, if I may:

    Nothing could be further from the truth. The effulgence of the Incarnate Logos can only be described as “All-Merciful”, and perhaps therein lies the problem — we are incapable of responding adequately. It is precisely this which brings “judgment” for which one must add, the cure is provided and always at hand.

    You may wish to read through Lossky’s treatment of the way in which the 2nd and 3rd Persons of the Holy Trinity work, in utter complimentarity yet in very different ways (see relevant section in The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church).

  10. Steve
    I am not sure that the effulgence of the face of Christ and judgment are mutually exclusive. St. John writing of the one pierced says, “…in his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” reminiscent of Christ at the transfiguration. In the letters to the 7 churches that follow we see Christ wielding that two edged sword to those unrepentant. Of course, he judges temporally so that we not be judged eternally. After all, we do pray at each liturgy for a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ. I do agree that I do not respond adequately to the Christ I see before me in the icon. May He show me mercy for the sinner I am.

  11. None of which matters if one has not encountered Him. He judges me by showing me the darkness of my soul as I stand in His light (what little of it I can take). At the same time inviting me to turn away from the darkness and accept His love.

    I am constantly astounded by His patience mercy in the face of my willfulness.

    Glory to Him.

  12. Dean,

    The acceptable response to such sublime All-Mercifulness is to participate in the divine liturgy that is by invitation only, the means by which we become known as persons just as He is known in His Persons. It is a response “in kind”, the holy for the holy, etc..

    Well quoted by the way!

  13. Jumping ahead to the Rush Procession proclamation that hell is harrowed and the victorious King will enter everlasting. Psalm 23(24):

    “Lift up your heads, O you gates!
    And be lifted up, you everlasting doors!
    And the King of glory shall come in.

    Who is this King of glory?
    The Lord strong and mighty,
    The Lord mighty in battle.

    Lift up your heads, O you gates!
    Lift up, you everlasting doors!
    And the King of glory shall come in.

    Who is this King of glory?
    The Lord of hosts,
    He is the King of glory.”

    Amen. Christus Victor!

  14. “I was nurtured on stories as a child that contrasted Christ’s ‘non-judging’ (‘Jesus, meek and mild’) with Christ the coming Judge (at His dread Second Coming). I was told that His second coming would be very unlike His first. There was a sense that Jesus, meek and mild, was something of a pretender, revealing His true and eternal character only later as the avenging Judge.

    This, of course, is both distortion and heresy.”

    If it is true that this is distortion and heresy, it is good news indeed. Can you elaborate/assure me that this is the case? What about Revelation? How did this distortion develop? How do we know it’s heresy?

  15. I echo Boyd’s question Fr. I was going to ask the exact same thing. What of the dread and terrible day of The Lord, and judgment that is ti “begin with the house of God”? I was also raised with a fbelieve in a future that held no consequence to any action for the “believer”. Now my Preist speaks of ”toll booths” and the fire of God’s love. Can you elaborate? Heresy?

    Thank you

  16. Mark and Boyd,
    A preliminary comment…

    It is possible to take a very “flat,” more or less “linear” view of the Scriptures and the nature of our relationship with God. This approach tends to see things in a very historical manner, one event after another, etc., ignoring the deeper levels with the Scriptures and God’s work. The fathers sometimes comment on this and describe it as, more or less, an understanding for beginners. Much (most) of Protestant theology is exactly of this sort – without any understanding of the mystery – not “mystical” theology in its proper sense.

    There are Orthodox who work and teach in this manner as well. I’ve often hesitated to use this sort of language lest it seem like I’m saying that someone else is a beginner, while I’m not – for that’s not true. But it is an important distinction to think about as we approach this topic.

    I noted that the Cross is the Judgment. It certainly reveals the Judgment. Christ Himself says “Now is the Judgment of this world…” as He approaches Good Friday.

    The Cross is also called the Altar. It is His Throne. It is His Footstool. It is also the Dread Judgment Seat. Note that in Revelation, when it uses the imagery of God’s Judgment, etc., it is the Lamb (the sacrifice) on the altar.

    Christ on the Cross is also Christ the Judge. There is not another Christ, coming with a different attitude. The Judgment (and its dread) is not within Him, but within us. To stand before the reality of the Crucified God with the very truth of our lives and our heart revealed is indeed a dread thing. And the fire of His love will burn:

    For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1Co 3:11-15 NKJ)

    Even now (as Judgment has begun in the House of God), as we stand before the Cross of Christ and contemplate on that Reality, the Holy Spirit searches our hearts, and by grace we are brought to repentance. And taking our broken and contrite heart to confession we pour out our souls to God and allow the fire of His love to burn away the dross.

    Is this a consequence? Yes. We “suffer loss,” though we are saved. If you have experienced this burning love of God, then you know it is both sweet and painful. I think of the image of Eustace in the Chronicles of Narnia. Turned into a dragon by his greed, Aslan the Lion frees him, by tearing through his dragon self with his claws and revealing Eustace – painful but sweet. It’s a wonderful imagery of the judgment of Christ!

    There are many images of judgment. The toll houses have their value as imagery. But, again, it is possible for some to be very flat and literal about things. That, too, has its usefulness. But I think it is best that we pursue understanding. We preach the Gospel in a very jaded and skeptical world. The imagery that was useful for a peasant of the 18th century in Russia is not always useful in our context.

    “Wisdom is the principal thing; Therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding.” (Pro 4:7 NKJ)

    A blessed Pascha!

  17. Thank you Father for taking the time to try to explain what was said. Though I am a fairly new convert (5yrs) I have been a seeker of Christ for 50 years. I completely understand your thoughts and love the imagery they hold. However, I am still having a great deal of trouble reconciling them with what little I have read on the subject from other Orthodox teachers. Are you saying then that there is NOT any judgment remaining for those who are in Christ? Are you saying that we will not stand and give account for ever idle word spoken? I am NOT trying to be argumentative I am asking from a place of seeking to understand truth. What I have understood you to say, though a beautiful image of God’s love and mercy, seems to contradict what I have read and heard from other Orthodox teachers. Honestly Father, it sounds more like the protestant world I spent 50 years in; 30 of those as a teacher and pastor.

    “Wisdom is the principal thing; Therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding.” (Pro 4:7 NKJ)

    Exactly what I’m looking for.

  18. Marki,
    I am not saying that no judgment remains. Thank God, judgment remains until we are fully free, fully saved. But the purpose of judgment is not condemnation, but salvation. And salvation can be dread even if the fruit of it is sweet.

    You can describe these things with the imagery of a time line…”and then the judgment…” etc. Or you can also understand that everything is collapsed and revealed in Christ’s Pascha. The Cross reveals His judgment. Many teachers do not think of these things, though I think they should.

    But the Christ we know, revealed to us on the Cross, is also the Christ of judgment. There is no change of character or countenance, etc. If this sounds syrupy (all “love and mercy”) then, I would suggest, that your concept of love and mercy is not deep enough, not fierce enough. It is indeed a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But would you rather not be in His hands?

    The Cross is eternal (the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the earth). And it is God’s Judgment seat. Read St. Isaac. He is unrelenting in his proclamation of the love of God – but that love is truly extreme – not syrupy.

  19. Mark,

    These verses are something I am including in these thoughts:

    For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world. (1Co 11:31-32 NKJ)

    We may clearly now come to Christ (at the Judgment Seat of His Cross) and submit ourselves to Judgment. And in the fire of His love be cleansed. And we do not “give account” for that which He has already forgiven (burned). Else what we be the sense of true repentance and confession? or these verses?

  20. I do read and love St. Isaac. I confess to the idea of judgement not being all about condemnation being a very difficult thing for me to wrap heart around. Lord be merciful to me a sinner.

  21. Let’s say a man comes to me with an alcohol addiction. And as his priest I help arrange an intervention. All hell breaks loose and for a while his life falls completely apart. His wife has the courage to leave him, his job is threatened, etc. But he comes to his senses and goes into treatment. Then begins the very hard process of getting sober and getting his life back on track. The whole thing begins to improve but now he’s working through, making amends, dealing with resentments and character defects, etc.

    All of this is because I loved him as his priest. But giving him the truth of his addiction is judgment (fiery indeed). Arranging an intervention was bringing the fire down on his head. To his credit, he eventually gets help and is healed. That is a proper way of looking at judgment.

    But many would look at judgment as simply legally categorizing and punishing someone. In which case, I would be the police officer who arrested him for DUI and the judge who sentenced him to five years in prison. His life is messed up and he gets out of jail and goes back to drinking and driving and kill a woman and her child in a drunken accident.

    God is a good God and loves mankind. The judgments of the Lord are pure and righteous altogether. Christ said, “I did not come into the world to condemn the world…” Of what possible use is the legal notion of judgment? Of what possible use is sending someone to eternal hell for punishment? The Protestants talk about “God’s justice being satisfied.” That’s nonsense. God does not need anything, least of all to be satisfied. God certainly does not “need” anyone to burn in hell. That’s outrageous.

    Not that no one burns – but not for God’s sake – only for our own. And only because of the love of God.

  22. Fr. Stephen,

    Since you bring up Alcoholism, might I ask if you are aware of any any resources that speak to recovery for Adult Children of Alcoholics from an Orthodox or other Christian perspective?

  23. Boyd,
    Archm. Meletios Webber’s fine book Steps of Transformation is an Orthodox commentary on the 12 steps. I heartily recommend it.

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