Monday, April 10, 2006

The Bridegroom Comes

“Behold! The Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is that 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 the door of the Kingdom be closed on you. Watch instead, and cry out: Holy, holy, holy are You, O God! Through the prayers of the Mother of God, have mercy on us!”

Thus begins Matins of Great and Holy Monday (through Wednesday). It is a call to vigilance, for the great and awesome mysteries of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection are about to unfold, and we can’t afford to be caught napping or unprepared when the Lord comes into our midst to renew the grace of these saving events.

There is a beautiful icon of Christ, robed in the scarlet cloak, crowned with thorns, hands bound. There is a sense of sadness about it, but also of inner strength and courage, and especially of his tender love for mankind through which He allowed Himself to be subject to humiliation and torture. The name of this icon? The Bridegroom. This manifests a deep sensitivity in Byzantine spirituality. The Lord is not primarily a warrior but a lover. Yet He comes as the Crucified, the Man of Sorrows. For his bride has been grievously unfaithful, yet rather than punishing her He sacrifices Himself for her.

Instead of a wedding garment, the Bridegroom is clothed in a cloak of mockery. Instead of being free to embrace his beloved, his hands are bound. In the Byzantine tradition, the bride and groom are crowned during the marriage rite, symbolic of the dignity of marriage and of the heavenly crowns for which they are to strive together. But behold, instead of a golden or flowery crown, the Bridegroom wears a crown of thorns. This is how He comes to his wedding day, how he approaches the altar of the Cross.

“Behold your King!” cried Pilate, but no one understood the meaning of Jesus’ rude and thorny crown; no one recognized royalty in the crimson streams flowing down his sacred face. Perhaps the Bridegroom heard the echoes of angels, singing in what must have seemed a very distant Paradise at that moment: “Alleluia! The Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come…” (Rev. 19:6-7). While such hymns bespeak a future and ultimate consummation, there is still a note of glory in the Lamb’s noble march to the slaughter—the Lamb, whose sacrificed flesh and blood are our holy supper until all is fulfilled in the Kingdom. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (19:9). But as the Bridegroom walks toward his self-oblation, the angels come to earth to surround Him with silent adoration.

The days of this week are the most sacred of the whole year, and we too must worship Him in reverence and awe. Though there are many preparations to be made, they must be given only their secondary importance. This week we are to meet the Bridegroom, in his agony and in his glory. That is the primary preparation. Have oil in your lamps, stay awake, for the Bridegroom comes. We need to be aware of the price He paid to redeem us for Himself, and we must respond to Love with love and gratitude. We may shrink from sharing his crown of pain, but it is the only way to receive the crown of glory and everlasting joy. Come, the Bridegroom awaits you.