Are you prepared to meet the Bridegroom this week?

By | March 24, 2013

Starting on Palm Sunday, Orthodox and Eastern Catholics begin the Bridegroom Service, or Bridegroom Matins. (In Greek, the bridegroom is called Nymphios.) The bridegroom, of course, is Christ. This image appears in a sacred icon used for these services, which take place from Palm Sunday until the morning of Holy Thursday. Western Catholics would probably recognize the image as similar to “Ecce Homo,” or “Behold the man.”

The icon shows Christ in his Passion, robed in scarlet, crowned with thorns, bearing a reed, with his hands bound.

Not exactly our first image of a groom attired for his wedding, is it?

Christ calls himself the bridegroom several times in the Gospel: Mt 9:15; Lk 5:35; Mt 25:1-12; Mk 2:19-20. John the Baptist called Jesus the bridegroom (Jn. 3:29). And Jesus’ first miracle in John’s Gospel is the wedding at Cana.

Christ’s Passion reveals his great love for us and, remembering this, the image of the suffering Christ as a bridegroom becomes more clear. His crown of thorns is like the crown a groom receives from his wife in an Orthodox wedding; he wears a royal robe of scarlet; the reed is his royal scepter and yet symbolizes the humility with which he cares for his bride the church; the rope around his wrists is loosely tied to show how he willingly died for his beloved.

“A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons” explains the icon: “While we are still as unfaithful as harlots, Christ is betrothed to us. This is divine love, that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. … we ‘behold the man’: the bridegroom who burns with such love for us that he suffers death on the cross.”

A central theme for these first days of Lent for Byzantine Catholics and the Orthodox Church is the parable of the 10 virgins (Mt 25:1-12). We can all see ourselves waiting late into the night for the bridegroom. As we approach Holy Thursday, the image reminds us of the Apostles waiting in Gethsemane for Jesus. They fell asleep, just as the virgins in the parable. How do we compare with the virgins or the apostles? Are we alert for Jesus’ coming?

Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, an Orthodox priest of the Brotherhood of St. Symeon the New Theologian, explains the bridegroom icon this way: “Christ does not look like a spouse prepared for a wedding. Grooms usually are neatly dressed in the best suit of clothes. How could He possibly be the bridegroom? … But such an icon portrays a mystery. He is the spouse who must suffer birth pangs, because he is birthing the members of the new humanity. As the new Adam, he is the progenitor of the new human race. When Adam fell asleep, God took one of his ribs and created Eve. This time the new Adam fell asleep on the cross, and while his soul was in Hades, the bride of Christ was birthed.”

In the Orthodox Church, the first part of Holy Week is spent waiting and reflecting. Just as all Catholics call the time between Holy Thursday evening and the Easter Vigil the Triduum – three days of one celebration — Byzantine Catholics also consider the days of Bridegroom Matins as one event.

Each night, the same troparion (hymn) is sung: “Behold, the bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom he shall find watching; and again unworthy is he whom he shall find heedless. …”

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday each have a focus: first is the patriarch Joseph, who is seen as an image of Christ; then come the 10 virgins and, on Wednesday, the woman who anointed Christ’s feet. She is contrasted in her repentance with Judas. The images are powerful and evoke deep reflection.

As we Western Catholics approach the Triduum of Holy Week, how do we reflect upon Christ drawing near his Passion and death?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that when Jesus warns us to be on guard — as he did with the parable of the 10 virgins, “he always relates it to himself, to his coming on the last day and every day: today. The bridegroom comes in the middle of the night; the light that must not be extinguished is that of faith …” (n. 2730).

It is hard to think of a wedding as we contemplate the sufferings of Christ. And yet it is true, he died for love of us. His death began the life of the church — which is often referred to as “the bride of Christ” — and his death gave us a gift beyond compare: eternal life in union with him.

The Greek Orthodox Church in America says of the Bridegroom Service: “The title ‘bridegroom’ suggests the intimacy of love. It is not without significance that the kingdom of God is compared to a bridal feast and a bridal chamber. … The imagery connotes the final union of the lover and the beloved.”

Since we have few special liturgical services in the Western church for the first days of Holy Week, perhaps we would want to take some time to prepare our thoughts for the coming of the bridegroom.

Holy Resurrection Monastery in St. Nazianz is a Byzantine community and celebrates the Bridegroom Matins. For a Holy Week schedule, visit http://hrmonline.org.

Sources: goarch.org; “A Reader’s Guide to Orthodox Icons;” stsymeon.org; SS Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Seminary, Pittsburgh, Pa., at bcs.edu.

Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.

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