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

38 comments:

  1. Father, can you explain why we use the term “Bridegroom”? I really am not sure what that term (metaphor if that is an appropriate term?) is trying to convey?

  2. Joseph,
    The image is drawn from the parable of the 10 virgins in Matthew 25. Five are wise (and have extra oil) and five are foolish (and have too little oil). On its surface, it is a parable that teaches us to be prepared for the day of judgment.

    But, the Church has always seen in the Bridegroom an image of Christ Himself. The Church, in St. Paul’s imagery (Ephesians) is described as the “Bride of Christ.” It is a powerful image, incorporating the fact that our goal is union with Christ. Bride and Groom become “one body, one flesh.” So, too, we seek to become one body, one flesh with Christ. It is an image of love.

  3. We use a slightly different wording for the Exaposteailarion and our choir director and chanters sing it with such haunting voices it never fails to bring me to tears of sorrow, joy and hope and thanksgiving all at once. Bridegroom Matins is my favorite service. It embodies the full pathos of the Christian life in such a clear way while simultaneously foreshadows the Glory of His Ressurection.

    I behold the Bridal Chamber richly adorned for my Savior. But I have no wedding garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the garment of my soul oh Giver of Light and save me.

  4. Father
    The rhyming of: “ὄψονται” (“they shall see” ) and “κόψονται” (and shall mourn) of Matthew 24-30 and other places has always been coupled for me with: “ὅν ἐξεκέντησαν” (“the One they had pierced”) – with the understanding of ‘eternally piercing’ the love of the humble God with our ego-worship.
    It is an ‘inverted’ judgement insofar as the prideful is being judged by the lovinkindness of the humble, but it is certainly a ‘classic’ judgement insofar as it is the inevitable fullness of revelation of the truth which the judged one resisted and wouldn’t want revealed.

  5. Father, I still do not understand this. “ The crucified Christ is what the wrath of God looks like.” I have always rejected the idea substitutionary atonement before I knew the words for it. This did not sound like a loving God to me. How is the wrath of God in the crucifixion of Christ?

  6. Cori, I meant by that that the wrath of God is directed at the destruction of sin and death. It is not the Father torturing the Son, but the Son willingly entering sin and death to set us free.

  7. Thank you Father. This resonated with me as I have been struggling with some fear and the thought that you mentioned “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.” There are scary parts in the Old Testament and Revelation is scary and sometimes I experience some fear in my love for Christ. Like maybe we don’t know what we’re getting into. I don’t go with these thoughts but it can be difficult. Jordan Peterson said recently in a video that if a person really believes that Christ is real, it’s terrifying and I felt that he expressed what I had been feeling.
    Father you had a post a couple of years ago about a man coming to you who was afraid. I am wondering if these feelings are common in people’s faith journey and are a stage people go through.

  8. Catherine,
    Such fear is not uncommon. Even for those who were not raised with this as part of their teaching, it can still be a problem. It is a sort of projection of our own shame onto the blank screen of the universe. It is a reason that I suggest that the Scriptures always be read and interpreted through the lens of the crucified and risen Christ. He is not a projection, but is the definitive revelation of God.

  9. I think as an American Protestant, nurtured by our history, and the First Great Awakening, to think of ourselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God”, per the famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards. As Father Stephen has said before there is a lot in modern American Protestant theology that emolliates that view. Nevertheless, we always have it in the back of our minds as we move around throughout our days.

    It is a view that is terrifying if dwelt upon, and begs the question – if this is truly our God, what separates him from demons? Might makes right?

    The Bridegroom Matins is powerful – I could listen to the Halleluiahs forever (and have, on YouTube a few times – or at least as long as a mortal can pay attention before being called away to something else.)

    The Christian God, as understood properly, is utterly unique, and I have absolutely no doubt in his love for me based on the traditional view.

  10. I should have edited more before sending –
    I think it is natural as an American Protestant, nurtured by our history, and the First Great Awakening, to think of ourselves as “sinners in the hands of an angry God”, per the famous sermon by Jonathan Edwards.

    ameliorates not emolliates.

  11. thank you Father for the truths and insights
    that you have shared
    All praise to our Lord & Saviour

  12. Yet another beautiful piece Father. And as always (for me) a couple of paragraphs stand out. This time it’s these two:
    “But the righteous are revealed as well…The tears of a harlot reveal the nature of love, even hidden beneath the deeds of her life…There is clarity.
    And in the judgment of God, His own love is shown to be what it truly is…succeeded by another.”

    And His love being “relentless in its mercy” is so true.
    p.s.
    The frequency of your writing has increased (or so i think?). Any particular reasons Father?

  13. Santiago,
    We’re heading into Pascha. Each day now reveals yet another significant situation or step toward the Cross and the Resurrection through which Christ reveals who He is.

    All of creation, heaven and earth, is moving to the Cross.

    If I were to hazard a guess, these reasons alone are enough impetus to write about each step. Because, God willing, we are walking with Him and we will step up to the cross with Him.

  14. Sorry Santosh, spell check zapped my writing. My last comment was intended for you. May God grant you peace and joy as we near the end of Holy Week!

  15. Santosh,
    Dee, is correct. I’ve increased postings this week to keep pace with Holy Week, at least in a minimal fashion. There are nearly 2500 posts, I think, in the archives of the blog, representing my writings over the past 15 years. Some of the postings are drawn from the archives…so my new writing is much prolific than it might seem.

    I injured my back last week, and have been confined to bed most of the day. I’m getting physical therapy but my recovery is going slow. I’m unable to sit for long periods so my actual writing is slow. I’m currently working from an iPad in bed that is mounted to a swinging arm…but it limits me to 2 finger typing which is slow and tedious.

    My Pascha will largely be an interior event this year. I’m able to attend bits and pieces of the services but then scurry back home and to bed.

    Good strength to all!

  16. Father, Lord have mercy on you and heal you in body mind and soul and raise you up from your bed of pain.

  17. Dear Father Stephen,
    I’m so sorry about your back. Such injuries are very painful. I understand how difficult it is to stay prone and rest during this period, but rest is often the best medicine. May God grant you speedy healing and patience! You have my prayers!

  18. There is an image of a river running from the foot of God’s Throne. (Apocalypse 22) For many, these waters are life giving, while for others, it has been said, they are a burning fire. When I wish to be united with God, and this happens, I am filled with happiness. If I have turned my back on God, then when I am in His Presence, it is torment. God is always the Loving God, my state of heart and mind affects how I react when I am surrounded by this Love. Thinking that Christ is looking for ways to condemn me rather than save me, is not Christian!

  19. Dee, Michael,
    I pounding the pavement, so to speak, looking for various therapies to help. It’s not a structural problem (like a disk or such), but muscular, a result of a too sedentary existence. But a fall last week resulted in a very serious complication with a spasm and it has yet to really release. I’m doing PT, and today I’m seeing a chiropractor. I’m taking muscle relaxants, and doing what I’m told (icing, exercises, very mild). But small things keep triggering the spasms over and over. My participation this week in liturgical celebrations will be quite minimal. So, patience. Prayers appreciated.

  20. Father, both my late wife and Merry have had persistent back pain. My late wife never found relief but Merry just had an appointment with a pain management specialist and is enthused by the possibilities. If your pain persists, think about seeing one near you. The modalities available are quite diverse. Many more than I realized and most were not available to my late wife.

  21. Michael,
    I have to say that as back problems go, mine is pretty benign. No mechanical or nerve issues. But the muscle spasms, which are correctible are, at present, plenty painful. I’m making progress, one therapy at a time. It was bad timing on my part.

    Interestingly, I was putting some of the last touches on an outdoor altar table I was making for the Church as we’ve found it necessary to move liturgies outdoors for the season. So, as I’m making those touches, suddenly this particular place in my back spasmed, causing me to fall down and make it worse. My mind wandered to Uzzah – the young man who was struck dead for touching and steadying the Ark of the Covenant. So, having come out alive, I suppose I got off easy.

  22. Fr. Stephen,
    Our prayers are with you as well. This old body of mine has had back spasms off and on since my 20’s. Doesn’t take much to trigger one. May your healing be speedy.

  23. Dear Fr Stephen,
    praying for you for physical relief, and for much grace for you this Pascha.

    Dana

  24. Thank you all for the prayers. I am learning that I have to be more careful of things, and to be patient while giving thanks in this small hardship. The physical therapy I’m doing is also laying a foundation for better health that I can maintain when this has passed…

  25. Hi, Father Stephen. CBD oil for the back has had a soothing effect for me. Just a possibility.

  26. Fr. Stephen,

    “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.”

    I just want to put in a good word for Pilate. I thought he wonderfully played in “The Passion of Christ”, his wife warning him not to crucify Jesus in a dream, him being in danger of execution himself if he allowed one more Jewish insurrection, wondering aloud just what truth was anyway. I think he was just a typical, unenlightened human being trying to make it through life and do right by those around him.

    As simplistic as this sounds, I hope it all worked out well for him. He strikes me as the servant who did NOT know his master’s will and whose punishment will be all the lighter when the master returns. Fortunately we serve a good God who does love us.

  27. Drewster

    There are various versions of what happened to Pontius Pilate all pointing to a tragic end. Perhaps Eusebius of Caesaria is most reliable and he mentions a suicide in exile, from Caligula. If this is true it means an unrepentant death like Judas and there is little to mitigate his totally inadequate, by Roman standards, delivery of justice via a proper judicial process.

    More importantly St Nicodimos the Agiorite mentions Pilate’s wife, by the name of Procla, who was baptised and lived a holy life. We celebrate her on Oct 27th but she’s eclipsed by St Nestor the disciple of St Dimitrios on that day.

    St Paul refers to Claudia in Timothy 2 4:21 and this may be the same person as Procla.

    Happy Resurrection to all

  28. Fr. Freeman,

    I understand much of what you are saying, but, maybe you could clarify. It seems so entirely obvious from the Gospel readings during Lent, Holy Week, after Pascha – that the destruction of Jerusalem – due to the rejection of Messiah – is a judgement. You could call it a revelation of what already was, and I have no real issue with that, I don’t think there’s huge difference. But the expectation that Christ was to become King by the disciples, the Palm Sunday crowd, etc. – they weren’t so much wrong, but wrong about the timing, and their expectations were lower than what God’s intentions were. It is understandable from the prophecies that they expected a successor like David to reestablish the golden days of Israel. The Day of the Lord is the revealing of Christ as King. “We do not yet see everything in subjection to HIm…” We know it, we haven’t seen it. So, if anything, we are more prone to take the gentle Christ who reveals the Kingdom and then project Him onto the eschaton. But we are being selective even here often because the same Christ who receives children in joy, pronounces judgement on Israel, yet while weeping over it.

    I think it is fairly obvious again, that yes, Christ is fully revealed, but the Day of the Lord is a revealing that has not taken place, though we commemorate it. This is Paul’s concern for many shaken Christians. Christ is revealed in the Angel of the Lord, but not fully. Christ is revealed on Tabor but not fully. Christ is revealed in the Gospels but He has not yet been revealed, neither have we been revealed, as in the eschaton. I think there is an assumption that if something deeper/more than the Christ revealed in Scripture is to come, then it is a change, but I don’t think Christians typically believe this, they are just compartmentalizing Jesus and cannot hold a larger picture together.

    I understand there’s an emotional difference between “revealing” what is, and acting in time in reaction – one makes Christ much more emotive/reactionary and the other makes Him calm and emotionally disaffected in one sense. In this way, I do see this as less problematic than Edwardsian ideas. In another way, it seems to deny the Psalms we pray this time of year and the prayers that God would arise and judge His enemies. The problem I’ve always had with those who would make God’s love personal but His judgment impersonal/revelatory, is that, it seems to me, if you make love personal, judgement should also be personal. I don’t know how to uphold the love of God for me if He statically judges me.

    I don’t know if my concern is expressed well, but, the Christ of Revelation, the Christ of “let the little ones come to me” are the same person. The Christ of the “little ones” is the Christ who says it’s better for the millstone to be hung around the neck of those who would offend the little ones. It is because He loves the little ones that He avenges the little ones. And the prayers for God to arise, whether to destroy enemies or demons, are based on the same love, same with the prayers in Revelation from under the altar.

    If you’re saying, those prayers are akin to saying, “God reveal what is”, I suppose I agree.

    Always appreciate your time and effort…

    Matthew

  29. Matthew, 1st Corinthians 13 addresses the difference of which you speak, especially verse 12. We live in the hope of the Resurrection even the midst of suffering and death. A death that seems to have no reason. Young mothers with children dir leaving behind children and husbands and communities who love them and need them and creating a hole that could be filled with darkness as it seems unjust.
    Yet charity which I take to be mercy is greater than and even our grief must be filled with it.
    Even knowing the reality of Jesus’ trampling down death as I do and bestowing life to those in the tombs, the darkened glass and the fullness have not yet come so we wait and hope in sorrow and longing crying Lord have mercy on us and save us.

  30. Matthew, some quick thoughts:

    Primarily, the reasoning you offer reveals the problems inherent in sola scriptura (which I know you’re not advocating). But, it is reasoning based on the text, per se, but not set within the larger context of the tradition. For example, the liturgical texts of the Church make clear that the Cross itself is the “Judgment Seat” of Christ. It is also His throne. The One who is to come is not in anyway changed from the One made known to us in His humility, death, and resurrection. St. Paul makes clear that the Cross remains the single, primary lens for understanding Christ. He preaches “only Christ and Him crucified.”

    A problem, for example, with a literalist reading on judgment is its massive inner contradictions. Those who have caused the children to stumble, are, themselves, somebody’s child. The Scriptures use the imagery of judgment in a very violent manner, and yet, the tradition (at its deepest) has always taken that into the mystery of the Cross and the healing that Christ’s suffering and death makes possible.

    The judgment of God revealing things to be what they truly are is the only purpose of judgment – there is no punishment that can establish “justice.” Only healing can ever make justice possible. Justice is wholeness and there is no wholeness created by smashing and violence. But wholeness cannot occur except in the truth – things must be revealed to be what they are before they can become what they should be.

    The mystery of how, when, where, and who is something I leave in the silence of God’s love, lest I say more than I know. But I know Christ crucified and the unmitigated love of the Cross that reveals all things to be what they truly are.

  31. Fr. Stephen,
    Thank you on this eve of the celebration of Christ’s glorious Pascha. Your comments for me always go to the pith.
    Were it not for the Church and Her tradition, I would not know truth.
    Blessed Pascha and healing!

  32. Father that the Cross reveals all things to be what they truly are is a hard saying. It requires me to look at my own heart and once I do I can only pray for mercy and hope our Lord is not “just” in any way.

    One of the Epistle readings for today makes that clear I think: 1 Cor 5:6-8.

    One of the tragic hallmarks of modernity is the quest for “justice” or worse “fairness” and “equity”. It is a Procrustean Bed.

    So should I give thanks for modernity? It does seem to be doing the job of revealing, on a small scale, the true disposition of each and every heart.

    Or do I give thanks only for His mercy in the midst of the darkness of fake justice?

    BTW, an honest question not meant in a snarky way at all.

  33. Father, your comment on the nature of justice (wholeness) and that smashing and violence does not create it is quite radical these days. It is aa deep a critique of modernity as anything I have read — even your 9wn writings.
    I find it throughily Incarnational. An exposure of the heresy of iconoclastic impulses of modernity, especially the current justice jihad going on these days.

    Thank you.

  34. “Give thanks for modernity?” I like Chesterton’s observation that the modern period represents the old virtues run amok – they’ve been unleashed from their proper moorings. Thus, there is a wonderful concern for justice, and a lot of desire that people prosper, etc. Those are never bad things in and of themselves. But, when taken out of context (which is classical Christianity) they can become dangerous weapons. Thus “modernity” is, more or less, using death as an organizing principle for the virtues. Christ will trample it down…and rescue the virtues.

  35. But first “things have to be revealed for what they truly are” right?
    That is hard enough in my own soul but to experience it writ large in society is difficult some days. Death seems so real.

  36. Nikolaos,

    I understand. But God wants that none should perish. Love could not bear that. And I would never put Pilate in the same category with Judas.

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