The Bridegroom and Judgment

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: 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

29 comments:

  1. How true Father. The Judgment of God is the setting aright of things that have gone awry. It is a declaration of the Year of the Jubilee, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. Thank you for this good reminder.

  2. Fr. Freeman,
    I think you wrote in another article that the cross is the wrath of God. I did not understand what that meant. Your writing here gives light to its meaning. And the cross is also God’s judgment and that no further revelation is needed as to what that means. From the cross his love and forgiveness are powerfully demonstrated for us, as well as his extreme humility. It had long bothered me that God would ask us to forgive our enemies, yet would later exact vengeance upon his. Orthodoxy has fleshed out for me the Father’s love for us I see in the parable of the prodigal son. God’s heart in Christ is not one waiting to exact vengeance but rather the heart of the father longing for his son’s return, running to embrace him when finally he is seen in the distant horizon. Yes, so good to know as we enter Holy Week that mercy triumphs over judgment.

  3. Thank you Fr. Stephen for another insightful and edifying post. I too was raised hearing this distinction between Jesus Christ’s first and second comings:

    “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.”

    I was, however, not told that the “first Jesus” was a pretender but rather manifesting a different aspect of God’s nature, namely love and mercy, and the second would manifest His judgement. It always seemed to me, though, that God’s love and mercy would have to be just as present in Christ’s second coming as the first, and that you can’t “separate out” God’s nature like that.

    John 3:17 was always held up as the archetypal verse describing the first coming. I think you are identifying the problem with this theology to be that it sees judgement as merely condemnation of the wicked (“God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world”). Rather, to use an idea from a recent article of yours about evil being a direction or orientation, judgement is simply revealing where our direction leads, for better or for worse. Is this accurate, or am I missing something? Thanks.

  4. First, Father, let me say this. I and my family were christened yesterday on Lazarus Saturday. I have been moving toward orthodoxy for 17 years and it was a year ago when I finally realized I was just going to have to convert. About that time you wrote a blog against thinking about salvation in legal terms and I asked in the comments “what about all the legal speak in Romans?”. You simply said it wasn’t there (I was so excited you even responded at all I didn’t mind the single sentence). So I read it all the way through in one sitting with my new understanding and lo and behold, it wasn’t! A year later, here​ I am again, but this time I ask you as a fellow Orthodox (do we say “brother”?). Thank you for this blog. It has played a large role in bringing me to the Faith.

    All that to say, I still have a lot of Evangelical learning to undo. My first thought, well, my wife’s first thought actually, was that in Revelation Jesus comes on a white horse. My understanding has always been exactly what you described when you were growing up. Which seems to fit the donkey/horse progression. So why the meek entry now and the conquering warrior motif later?

    I will read it again, I promise. But that book is not nearly as easy reading as Romans.

  5. Ben,
    May God bless you and your family! Many years!

    It has always struck me as strange how the imagery of Revelation has been used to trump the clear presentation of the gospel. The role played by the book in much of American evangelicalism should be scandalous. It is Scripture, but simply should not be the source of core doctrine – unless it is carefully read in the light of the gospels themselves.

    That said, when Revelation is read rightly, it’s wonderful. But thing. The central character and portrayal of Christ in the book isn’t the white horse portrayal – it’s the Lamb Who Was Slain. It is to the Lamb that they sing, “Worthy!” He alone can open the seals, etc.

    Revelation is written in apocalyptic style – which we must remember means “making known what was hidden.” The message and teaching of Revelation is not on the surface, but beneath and within. The Darbyites (in all of their various groupings) have pushed the book to the point of heresy and beyond. Worse still, they have used heretical interpretations in political schemes to influence the policies of war and peace.

    Everything should be read and understood in the light of Christ’s Pascha (death and resurrection). The misuse of Revelation actually changes the character of the most central teaching of the faith. The weakness of God is stronger than death.

    Note that Revelation, though included in the NT canon, is not appointed for reading in the Church in the whole of the Orthodox lectionary. That is a practice of the deepest antiquity. The Fathers knew something.

    By the way, I would encourage reading Fr. John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ. It will strengthen you yet more.

  6. “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.”

    Looking back on where I am leaving, I realize there is something very comforting to the flesh to think that God will avenge me. We tend not only to create God in our own image, but also in the image of that which we cannot be. Whenever someone doesn’t meet our standard, or crosses into our comfort, we scream that they will “be judged by God.” Of course, if we we could, we would be more than happy to carry out that judgement in the here and now. Alas, we cannot, so our passions are both fed and comforted by thinking of all kinds of just destruction that will come upon those who cut us off in traffic or perhaps offend deeply. The true picture of the cross and resurrection not only corrects our sinful blood lust, it gives us a way out. By seeing the grace and love of the cross, we can finally lay down our offerings and go and be reconciled. This is truly amazing. Free to forgive. Free to love.
    Thank you Father

  7. Larry,
    This distortion of Christ seems to me to be bound up in the penal substitution theory. For there, behind the scenes of the Crucifixion, is the God who demands payment and who pours out His wrath on His Son. So, in that world of Christianity, the Cross is not the revelation of Christ, but hides His true nature and it is only revealed at the Second Coming where He can pick up where He left off at the end of Malachi.

    In that sense, the Cross is in no way central to such a theological approach. Rather, it is a distraction from what is really going on.

    I have often thought of this as a theological approach whose most central tenet is hell. Everything revolves around the threat of hell, including demanding the kind of God who can support such a thing. Hell becomes the defining point, the only point that cannot be surrendered or altered.

    When the Cross actually becomes central, things change completely. The Cross must be central, and must be seen as the true defining revelation of God and the lens through which all things are to be read and understood. “I have determined to know nothing among you other than Christ and Him crucified.”

    When you get around to reading Behr’s The Mystery of Christ, you’ll be blown away most wondrously!

  8. Father Stephen,
    Two more things I’m reminded of as we begin Holy Week, as we journey with Christ to the cross. In every liturgy we declare that Christ is “the lover of mankind.” And at every Paschal liturgy, St. John Chrysostom’s sermon is read, part of which says…”Hell, said he (Isaiah ), was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown….” Oh, glorious and wondrous hope in our risen Lord!

  9. I can not tell you how important this is to me, and the timing perfect! Good strength and joy, Father!

  10. Father, it should be emphasized that the Bridegroom reveals the nature of the judgement (if I read correctly). Bridegroom Matins is so peaceful compared to the chaos (in my parish) of Palm Sunday. “I behold the Bridal Chamber…”. The tomb?
    We are also reminded of those who are cut off from the Kingdom.

    The other emphasis is the temptation of the human mind to see in falsely dicotomous terms. (a remnant of our knowledge of good and evil?).

    It seems to be quite difficult to see things as one. PSA relies on false dichotomy completely ignoring the Incarnation IMO. Many heresies begin with choosing one side of a false dichotomy over another rather than reaching for the oneness.

    Thus I would posit that what we tend to see as dicotomy in Scripture is not that at all. For instance that Mercy and Judgement are mutually exclusive.

    I would love to see you explicate the theme on oneness in Scripture, from the first commandment through Revelations. It would be a good expansion of your one storey universe I think.

    The longer I am Orthodox, the more it becomes obvious.

    “Make radiant the garment of my soul oh giver of Light and save me!”

  11. Is there a Hell? What of the Scriptural references? What of the sheep and the goats? I love and believe that the Cross reveals God and His self-surrendering love. Please help!

  12. Bill,
    Yes. I believe that there “is” a hell. I put quotes around it, because the very nature of hell is its movement towards non-existence. The Orthodox formally declared that a literal fire is not true (at the Council of Florence in the work of St. Mark of Ephesus). If I’m mistaken someone please correct me. That, however, does not mean that it is “nothing.” It is a “state of being” – protracted suffering that is self-induced that is constituted by our rejection of the love of God.

    Think carefully with me for a minute. Here (in this life), we tend to think of “love” and such as an idea, not a “reality.” This is not true. The refusal of love means that the presence of love is “painful.” The precise nature of the pain is not easy to express. Some have summarized this by saying hell is being in the presence of God while not wanting to be there.

    The Orthodox Church prays for the departed, even those who might be in hell. We specifically pray that boldly in the Church on the Day of Pentecost. In turn, we believe that our prayers benefit them.

    There are some who hold that hell is entirely curative (it is of benefit to those who are there). That is consistent with the notion of it as God’s love. Others hold that even if it is curative, there are some who will resist that cure forever.

    If you pick a side in that argument, then, among the Orthodox, you’ll soon have an argument. I choose not to pick a side, but to pray for them all. The outcome is God’s business – at least He hasn’t told me what it is.

  13. Thank you again Fr. Stephen, for enlightening me on yet another facet of our faith. I found myself looking at the icon and feeling the weight of his sadness and pain, and thought of the pictures on the internet this morning – of the beautiful child serving at the alter yesterday – just before the bomb went off in Egypt. The little boy holding the woven palm cross and wearing a palm crown – was so proud and happy to be serving – he fairly glowed with his excitement. The sadness in the icon of Jesus reminded me of the pain of the loss of so many on this Palm Sunday. The precious little boy serving at the alter was killed. His last act was one of service to Jesus, in His house. If one must die so young, perhaps that is the best way to go – directly from the alter to Jesus.
    I believe, as my husband Michael said before me – that Mercy and Justice are truly compatible in His perfect love for us. His mercy is beyond our understanding, and His justice will be the salvation of all who come to Him and truly repent. His love is so great that he suffered and died for each of us, that we may be saved.
    It is our choice to turn to Him, or to turn away from Him and be sent to the fire. He does not want to lose any of us. So great is His love and mercy.

  14. Bill,

    I had the opportunity to attend Bridegroom Matins at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Chicago last night. It was something of a pilgrimmage, enabled by my work schedule. At the end of the service, Bishop Paul gave some brief remarks, in which he said the service reminds us, “we are all goats, I am a goat, please have mercy and don’t judge me as one.”

    Fr. Stephen,

    I’m wondering how what you’ve written above relates to the request in the litanies of the Divine Liturgy: “…a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ.”

  15. Matth,
    It’s an interesting question. We tend to have such a firm, fixed idea of what the judgment seat means that it’s hard to reconsider it. I think everyone has in mind an image drawn from some sort of legal proceeding. However, it’s clear from Orthodox liturgical material that the judgment seat and the Cross are one and the same. We stand before the Crucified God at judgment.

    The Crucified Jesus on the Judgment Seat is the same Crucified Jesus on the Cross at Golgotha. So there we are. It doesn’t remove the notion of judgment, but it does alter it in some ways for me. For one, and profoundly, it means that our judgment is utterly and completely before the Lord of Love. But we see at Golgotha how the sheep and the goats react to that reality. One thief found paradise while the other railed and ranted his way into the hell that had already begun for him. The only possible difference between the two cannot be found in their actions: “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds.” They are both guilty. Only the heart makes the difference.

    And that is the strange thing about God’s love. God’s love is also the Truth. There is nothing fake or make-believe that withstands His presence. The truth of the heart is revealed. Before the Judgment Seat of Christ (the Cross) everything is revealed to be what it truly is (or is becoming). There, we see Him “as He is.” And we are revealed to be “As We Are.”

    The good thief’s good defense is put forward in a single moment, “Lord, Remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.” The task of our lives is to live in such a way that these will be the true and voluntary words of our heart before the dread judgment seat of Christ in that Day.

  16. Thank you Father, I have ordered the book.

    There is an old joke about a pastor who preached the same sermon on love every week. When asked why, he said that he would keep preaching it until someone listened to him.

    Keep preaching, Father!

  17. Thank you, Father.

    I looked up images of the icon of the Last Judgment, and I see that the cross is situated on, behind or even as part of the throne.

    I agree that it changes the nature of the judgment seat, to see that the cross is “the throne of His glory.”

  18. It is scandalous, isn’t it, how hell is really the central axis around which so much so-called Christianity pivots. Thank you for this insight, Father, it helps speed my recovery from such a dark mindset. I still seek God more from fear of hell than from love for the Crucified One.

    And the scary thing is that the more one seeks to escape hell, the more one is caught up in it. Yet I am finding that when we bear that painful hell of our shame to the Cross, prostrating ourselves before God’s judgment, there and then we can perceive His rich mercy. For I am convinced that God’s Judgment is nothing other than Mercy for sinners.

    I pray that I would not be scandalized by this mercy like the Pharisees by Christ’s compassion for the harlot, but rather that I too might anoint His feet with tears crying, “Holy, holy, holy are You our God; Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!”

  19. Mary Bauman,
    Thank you for the images shared above and for your words: “If one must die so young, perhaps that is the best way to go – directly from the alter to Jesus.”
    May I plead that this precious child has not died? When you shared, I subsequently saw, a child with all the others of this horror now very much alive! I do not rejoice in this act of violence for it’s evil method and intent, but in the Incarnation of it’s results.
    I weep and ache as one who has seen much bloodshed, but I must now see the transformation of death now into life coming…now and with Christ, still sorrowing with us–as Father has so beautifully sung to us above. And I really hold on to your beautiful icon: “…directly from the altar to Jesus.” This is truth for all of us. Even now while we are dying…we are made ready for life!
    May we wait and watch in these dark hours of “the middle of the night.”

  20. This blog states, “The crucified Christ is the fullness of the revelation of God.” In what sense is that meant? There are frequent references in scriptures to seeing Jesus again. Acts 1:11. “This same Jesus…” Titus 2:13 “we wait for the blessed hope–the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,”

  21. The Ascended Savior, who return again, is “this same Jesus.” That same Jesus bears on His body the marks of His crucifixion. The crucifixion is not a one-time thing that is tragic and then healed in the Resurrection. Those wounds “belong” to Him and reveal Him. The Cross is indeed the “glory” of God, according to St. John’s gospel.

    The Cross reveals the depths of the love of God and the nature of His love – the God “who is love.” It is that same Jesus who returns.

    The tendency to want to “move on past” the Cross is rooted in the Penal Substitutionary Atonement and associated reductionist views of Christ’s Cross. If the Cross is rightly understood – St. Maximus says – then everything, the whole world, is understood.

  22. Thanks Father for the article. Illumining. And can I ask you to elaborate on the statement
    “The crucified Christ is what the wrath of God looks like.”? Have a blessed Holy Week.

  23. Riamof,
    The Crucified Christ, according to St. John’s gospel, is God’s judgment. “Now is the judgment of this world,” Christ says as He moves towards Jerusalem. God’s judgment also includes His wrath. Everything is found in Christ’s Pascha. There is no other “event” the constitutes God’s revelation of Himself to us. I could unpack that…but it’s going to take a book.

  24. Fr. Stephen, I’ve been pondering your striking statement, “The crucified Christ is what the wrath of God looks like.” It reminds me of St. John Chrysostom’s homily on the second half of the first chapter of Romans, the passage that begins, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness…,” and continues with a list of the perversions and depravities that God, “gave them over to.” St. John explains that this is the wrath of God: When men reject Him, He mercifully allows them to do so, allows them to choose what they want, knowing that they will treat themselves more injuriously and shamefully than they would tolerate from their worst enemy. He does this for pastoral reasons, in the hope that these men will recognize what they have done to themselves, come to their senses, and return to Him Who is their Life.

    And thus when God comes in the flesh, He does good to men and allows them to do Him evil, not defending Himself, not hiding Himself, giving them opportunity after opportunity to come to their senses and love Him. And when they will not, He asks forgiveness for them and lets them kill Him, their only source of life. It is the judgment of John 3:19, “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” In His judgment He blesses them with Light, a way of escape from darkness. In His wrath He meekly lets the lovers of darkness extinguish the Light.

    From this viewpoint, it seems the father of the prodigal expressed his wrath against his younger son when he agreed to give him his share of the inheritance.

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