Once the forty days of Great Lent are complete, the Orthodox Church enters into Holy Week, a time of intense reflection and joyful sorrow.
Beginning with the Saturday of Lazarus, and the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the next three nights are marked by one of the most beautiful services of the year: the Service of the Bridegroom.
The Bridegroom Orthros (or ‘Matins’) is a service one might expect to occur in the morning, as with all other Orthros or ‘morning prayer’ services. But during Holy Week, these services take place following sunset. On Monday through Thursday, a Vesperal Liturgy is celebrated in the morning rather than evening. For these few days, the world and even time itself has been turned upside down, as we sing these services in anticipation.
In a real sense, all of Holy Week is about anticipation. During his earthly ministry, Jesus’ disciples began to anticipate and expect that he was leading them down a certain path. This anxiety even led to a Roman soldier losing his ear! But the Lord had an unexpected mission in mind, both for himself and his apostles.
The three Bridegroom services—on the evenings of Palm Sunday, Holy Monday, and Holy Tuesday—make reference to the Bridegroom in the Parable of the Ten Maidens (Matt. 25:1–13):
Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
The Bridegroom, of course, is Jesus Christ, and as His Bride we are called to be watchful for his return. This is one of the reasons why Orthodox Christians pray facing the east, knowing that Christ will return from the direction of Paradise:
Thus we all look to the East at our prayers, but few of us know that we are seeking our own old country, Paradise, which God planted in Eden in the East. —St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit 27.66
These services are a powerful reminder of our eschatological anticipation—of our past, present, and future, all rolled into one. For example, the wedding feast is something yet to come, and yet is made present for us in the holy Eucharist each Sunday. By celebrating as we do on the first day of the week, we are celebrating in anticipation of ‘the eighth day’ and a new age—of an age ‘yet to come.’
As the Bride of Christ, the Church is betrothed to a victorious Bridegroom, leading us from darkness into light; from death into life. In these prayers and hymns, we are reminded of the coming triumph over death and Satan, and our own resurrection in Christ.
Different figures and events during the earthly ministry of Christ are noted on each of the three nights.
The service for Holy Monday (celebrated on the evening of Palm Sunday) commemorates the old covenant patriarch Joseph, as well as the cursing of the fig tree (Matt. 21:18–20). In Joseph’s story, we are reminded that things meant for evil can be used for good by God. This applies to the death of Jesus, as St. Peter notes on the following Pentecost (Acts 2:23–24).
On Holy Tuesday, the parables of both the Ten Maidens and the Talents (Matt. 25:14–30) are highlighted, reminding us of the Last Day and enduring to the end. We are reminded not to be like those found sleeping when Jesus returned from prayer.
The final service of Holy Wednesday focuses on two sinners: a harlot (Matt. 26:6–13) and the apostle Judas. While the woman anoints Jesus and finds repentance, Judas—even as a disciple chosen by Christ—betrays the Lord willfully and with full knowledge. What’s worse, he refuses to believe in his own possibility of forgiveness.
The most distinctive part of these services is the troparion, sung on all three nights:
Behold, the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom he finds watching; but unworthy is the one whom he finds slothful. Take care then, my soul, not to be overcome with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and be shut out of the kingdom; but rouse yourself and cry: Holy, holy, holy are you, O God.
God wants his disciples to be wise maidens who trim their lamps. Watchfulness for the return of Christ is not something that can be done idly, but takes continual effort. Just as one cannot simply light a lamp and leave it be—lamps require continual care and attention, or they will become foul and burn out—we must remain at watch, anticipating the Day of the Lord.