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 are You, O our God!
Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!
I am absolutely, positively in love with Bridegroom Matins. Sung only four times a year, from Palm Sunday evening through Holy Wednesday evening, this gentle service paves the road to the Passion in a way that cannot be described but only experienced. The highlight of the service is the above hymn sung to a haunting, profound melody. Like any of the other hymns common to Orthodoxy, each ethnic tradition has its own special way of singing it. I couldn't find the version we use sung in English, but I did find this lovely clip from Russia using the melody I know and love:
We've been so fortunate to attend all of the Holy Week services so far...twice daily from Saturday to Tuesday and three times on Wednesday. The story builds little by little each day. For Holy Monday, we remember the Cursing of the Fig Tree. Christ warns us that we must bear fruit. My priest gave a lovely sermon explaining this story. He said that all our observances...coming to church, praying, fasting, etc....those things are not the fruit. They are the leaves that protect and develop the fruit. The fruit itself: humility, love, patience, etc. is under the leaves and sheltered within the tree. You can't have one without the other. They go together. If we've struggled through Lent and kept "the rules" only to think that observance is the fruit, we've lost sight of the big picture. It doesn't matter how much we fast or act like good little Christians on the outside. It's the inside that must change and grow and bear real, tangible fruit in our lives. If not, then we're wasting our time just sprouting leaves.
Here's the learning box for Holy Monday:
* "Behold! The Bridegroom comes at midnight!"
* A tree for the withered fig tree and a block with a drawing of a fig.
* Grapes for the fruit we should bear.
* The Old Testament Joseph, who we remember this day. In icons, he is shown with regal Egyptian garb on, so I was pleased to find this Egyptian figure I thought would go well.
* Also on this day, we read the prophecy in Ezekiel of the four-faced figure with faces of an angel, a lion, an eagle, and an ox. The Church sees these to be symbols the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Jared drew the images on the block for us.
On Holy Tuesday, we remember the Parable of the Ten Virgins. Here's that reference to the Bridegroom! Five wise virgins were prepared and had enough oil for their lamps, as they waited for the bridegroom. Five foolish virgins were not prepared and did not have enough oil. While they went off to buy some, the bridegroom arrived and only the wise virgins were allowed into the wedding feast. When the foolish virgins returned, it was too late. Christ is coming..are you ready?
When I first experienced the Orthodox Church, I was perplexed by the services. Every Sunday morning it was the same thing. Over and over with only slight differences. How boring it sounded on the surface! As I began to experience more of the services and really started paying attention to the Divine Liturgy, I saw that no two services are ever exactly the same, and they are far from boring! Yes, we have consistent parts that do appear over and over, but that sameness is comforting...not monotonous. Each time I hear the words, it adds a new layer of meaning in my heart. You can never hear the Truth too many times. I also used to think there was very little Scripture in Orthodox services. That one makes me laugh out loud when I think about it now! There is Scripture everywhere in our hymnography. Every hymn overflows with it. I just didn't know my Scripture as well as I thought I did, so I didn't recognize it!
The beauty of the Bridegroom Matins service is how they daily set up the story of Holy Week. The structure is the same each day, and some of the readings and hymns are the same, but verses change daily and cry out with a depth I found so lacking in my previous experiences.
How shall I, the unworthy one,
Appear in the splendor of Your saints?
For if I dare to enter Your bridal chamber with them,
My garments will betray me;
They are unfit for a wedding.
The angels will cast me out in chains.
Cleanse the filth of my soul, O Lord,
And save me in Your love for mankind.
Verse after verse. Song after song. Each word carefully crafted to tell a story...the story of our salvation. No boring repetitiveness. No mindless chatter. The Orthodox services drip with meaning from every breath. We do not cater to individual preference. We do not perform. We do not entertain. We pray...we pray...we pray to God with all of our unworthiness and strive to have communion with Him in every part of our lives. We do not separate life and church. Orthodoxy is not a worship style. Orthodoxy is a lifestyle.
The learning box for Holy Tuesday:
* "Let us love the Bridegroom, O brethren. Let us keep our lamps aflame with virtues and true faith, so that we, like the wise virgins of the Lord, may be ready to enter with Him into the marriage feast, for the Bridegroom, as God, grants unto all an incorruptible crown."
* Hilary drew the figures of the virgins. The wise virgin has a smiley face. The foolish virgin has a frown. Between them is their lamp.
* The Parable of the Talents is also read today, so a coin is included. We sing much about using what God has given us for others and not just burying our resources and our heads in the ground.
* Lastly today, we remember the Last Judgment and the sheep and the goats. Another reminder that when the Bridegroom comes, we need to be ready!
Holy Wednesday has a third service added to it with Holy Unction. Unction is the Orthodox version of an old time healing service. Seven Epistle readings and seven Gospel readings about healing and love comprise the majority of the service. At each Gospel reading, the priest turns to the crowd and asks for a sick person to come forth. He lays the Gospel book on the head of that person as he reads aloud. Everyone else circles around and kneels or stands while touching the priest or the person closest to them. There is an intimacy that is palpable. Everyone lays their pretense aside and comes together to pray for the healing of ourselves and those around us.
I've had the pleasure of attending this service at a couple different monasteries. There, it is truly magnificent with perhaps a dozen priests and hundreds of people. It feels like you just became best friends with a crowd of strangers. It's the true representation of loving your brother. Peace fills the air...oh, the peace! No falling down on the ground or emotionally charged hype that other traditions have in their healing services. Unction is a sweetness, a quietness, a vulnerability that is unique and precious.
It might be a physical ailment that brings us to our knees, but Unction isn't just about healing the body. Emotional and spiritual healing are sought as well. At the end of the service, everyone is anointed with oil and we leave with a brightness and comfort.
The learning box for Holy Wednesday:
* "With his hands the betrayer receives the Bread. With his hands he secretly receives the silver, the price of Him who fashioned man with His hands; So the servant and deceiver Judas remains depraved"
* Today we remember two extremes involving money. The harlot approaches Jesus at dinner and anoints Him with oil valued at almost a year's wages. She does this in symbol of His coming burial, which she probably didn't understand. She just knew she loved Him and wanted to show it in an extravagant way. A perfume bottle is included to represent her gift as well as a figure of her. At the other end of the spectrum, Judas agrees this day to betray Christ...for thirty measly pieces of silver. I'll be keeping my eye out for some silver coins to include, but I couldn't find any locally. Instead, we wrapped wooden circles in aluminum foil. Good enough for now! What a contrast today between the giver and the betrayer. What am I willing to sell Christ for? What earthly pleasure will I give up my soul to have? I caution myself not to just assume I'm the loving harlot. I can be just like Judas, too.
* Lastly, a bottle of oil is included to represent Holy Unction.
The Passion is close now. The deal is done. The preparations are being made. It won't be long now.
I don't know if I'll be back to write about the rest of the boxes before Pascha. So much to do and yet so much not to do. We're trying to just rest between services and pray continually. I'll be back when I'm able to complete the learning box series and share some pictures of other things we did during Holy Week.