The word of the day is “compassion.” Today’s reading of Exodus 2:5-10 tells the story of how the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt began.. It started with compassion. An Egyptian princess discovers a basket made of bulrushes floating on the Nile. She opens the ark. Her heart goes out to the baby inside, who is crying. She knows that the infant is a Hebrew boy who should have been killed at birth. But she saves the child and intends to raise him in the palace. The baby’s sister is standing by and runs to fetch the child’s mother. The princess will pay her to nurse the child. In this way, by compassion, Moses is delivered from death to be the one through whom God will rescue the Chosen People from slavery.
The Prayer for Compassion
As this Holy Week unfolds, our prayer is for the divine compassion that will save us from our slavery to sin and death. The Triodion emphasizes this central theme: “Why art thou slothful, O my wretched soul? Why does thou waste thy days in thinking of unprofitable cares? The last hour is at hand… While there is still time, return to soberness and cry: ‘I have sinned against Thee, O my Savior, do not cut me down like the unfruitful fig tree, but, O Christ, in thy compassion take pity on me as I call on Thee in fear (St-Tikhon’s 1984, 525).
This appeal for Lord’s compassion arises from the sense that the Lord’s return as Lord and Judge will happen at once. The beautiful “Bridegroom Services” of the beginning three days of Holy Week express the urgency of our preparation for the Lord’s arrival. These services compare the Lord’s imminent coming to a bridegroom who comes to claim His bride. The basis of these services is the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. In this parable, ten virgins wait for the Bridegroom to appear and the wedding feast to begin. It is night, and all ten virgins bring lamps. But the wise virgins take extra oil for their lamps in case the Bridegroom is delayed. At midnight when the Bridegroom finally arrives, the wise virgins have a supply of oil left. But the foolish virgins have had to go to obtain more oil. Thus, the wise virgins enter into the marriage feast and the foolish virgins miss out.
In keeping with this theme, the Bridegroom services repeat, “Behold the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching but unworthy he whom He shall find in slothfulness” (Mother-Mary 1994, 525). The appeal to the Lord’s compassion is that “we not be shut out of the bridal chamber of Christ when He comes (Mother-Mary 1994, 525).
Preparing Our Souls Like Shining Lamps
But the “Bridegroom Matins” promises that we will not be left out if we are prepared for the Lord’s coming. The Triodion puts this hope in this way, “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” (Mother-Mary 1994, 533). To be ready for the Bridegroom, we need to “Prepare our lamps with care, shining with virtues and right faith that, like the wise virgins, we may be ready to enter with Him into the wedding feast” (Mother-Mary 1994, 524).
What then is the lamp oil that we need to store up for the time of the Lord’s coming? The Triodion holds that that oil consists of vigilance and virtue. As the Parable of the Fig Tree suggests, watchfulness and qualities of a good and godly character are the fruits of repentance that the Lord expects to find when He returns. (See yesterday’s post, “On Bearing the Fruits of Repentance.
What Prevents Us from Being Prepared for the Lord’s Coming
What prevents us from building a stockpile of this oil? The foolishness of our concern for the passing things of life and the slothfulness of our neglect of the life of the spirit prevent us from filling our souls with this oil of righteousness. Yet, we should have hope. If we have been foolish and slothful and have no lamp or oil with which to greet the Master when He comes, we can only appeal to His mercy and compassion. The Triodion puts it, “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 when it is time to act. Close not Thy compassionate heart, against me, Master, but dispel the deep sleep from me and rouse me up and lead me with the wise virgins into Thy bridal chamber” (Mother-Mary 1994, 527).
Thus, our deliverance from slavery to sin and death depends on the Lord’s compassion. Out of compassion, He invites us to His eternal Wedding Feast. And He bids us prepare our hearts for the banquet. Our prayer is that He will help us do so that we are ready to greet Him with the lamp of the soul burning brightly with faith and the fruits of the Spirit.
We might miss the connection between the image of the approaching Bridegroom and the Passion of Christ for which we are preparing. If so, then we should understand that the “Wedding Feast” stands for our eternal salvation in Christ. The Triodion for today calls it the “spiritual feast of Thy bridal chamber.” As the story of Moses suggests, God delivers us from our slavery to sin and death by reason of His compassion. We see the ultimate magnitude and power of that compassion in the Cross of Christ. But as our baptism into the dying and rising of Christ symbolizes, our rescue from sin and corruption is not accomplished when we merely stand at the foot of the Cross and watch. It is achieved when we participate in the Lord’s sufferings. In this vein, the Trisagion prays to the Bridegroom, “Strip from me the disfigurement of sin, through participation in Thy sufferings: clothe me with the glorious robe of Thy beauty, and in thy compassion make me feast with joy at Thy Kingdom (Mother-Mary 1994, 528). Thus as we walk with Christ to the Cross this week, may we so identify with Him that our sinful self is crucified with Him.
Mother-Mary, Archimandrite Kallistos Ware. 1994. The Lenten Triodion. South Canaan, Pennsylvania St, Tikhon’s Seminary Press
St-Tikhon’s. 1984. Service Books of the Orthodox Church. Third ed. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press.