Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
At the beginning of Holy Week we contemplate "The End" — of the earthly ministry of Christ, of our own lives and the judgment that will lead to, and of the "end of the world." In other words, there is something of an "apocalyptic edge" to the texts of the services, beginning with the Scriptures and extending into the hymnography.
Another term would be "eschatological," meaning the "last things" in relation to the fulfillment of God's design for the world. That may initially sound like a strange combination of themes. After all, our major concern and focus is upon our Lord voluntarily going up to Jerusalem in order to ascend the Cross in the flesh. But right before the Son of Man ascends the Cross, He solemnly declares, "Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out" [John 12:31]. In judging Christ, "the world" judges itself. Sin and darkness seem to prevail when the Innocent Christ is led away to be crucified. The triumph of such darkness can freeze the heart and lead many to despair, the very fate of the disciples at this time. As the prophet Amos said, "The one who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked on that day" [Amos 2:16; cf. Mark 14:51-52]. Where do we stand?
It is striking that in the hymns for the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Tuesday, for example, there are not many direct references to the Passion of Christ. There is much more of a combination of exhortation and warning to us -- the contemporary disciples of Christ -- concerning our relationship to Christ, to the world, and to our neighbor. Are we loyal to our Lord as we remain in the world? As we await the Second Coming of the Lord in glory, do we manifest true discipleship by fulfilling His commandments? If the Bridegroom were to come "at midnight," would He find us "watchful" or "heedless?" Are we "weighed down with sleep" -- the sleep of spiritual sloth and torpor -- or do we "rouse" ourselves in order to glorify God through our faith and deeds? Do we have a "wedding garment" with which to enter the "bridal chamber" of the Lord?
To come to the service is to subject oneself to this deep probing as the Lord searches our hearts for signs of faith and love. This is done through the hymnography which in turn elaborates upon the parables of the talents, the wise and foolish virgins, the wedding banquet, etc. These hymns are far more striking - and convicting - when listened to prayerfully within the context of the actual services as they unfold during Holy Week.
Firmly, but rather relentlessly, the hymns reveal the true state of our souls in order that we turn to the Lord and seek His healing forgiveness:
How shall I, the unworthy one, appear in the splendor of Thy saints? For if I dare enter Thy 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 Thy love for mankind.
O Christ the Bridegroom, my soul has slumbered in laziness. I have no lamp aflame with virtues. Like the foolish virgins I wander aimlessly when it is time for work. But do not close Thy compassionate heart to me, O Master. Rouse me, shake off my heavy sleep. Lead me with the wise virgins into the bridal chamber, that I may hear the pure voice of those that feast and cry unceasingly: "O Lord, glory to Thee!"
Thou art more beautiful than all men, O Bridegroom. Thou hast invited us to the spiritual banquet of Thy bridal chamber. Strip me of the ugly garment of my sins as I participate in Thy passion. Adorn me in the glorious robe of Thy beauty that proclaims me a guest in Thy Kingdom, O merciful Lord.
Contemplating "The End" at the beginning of Holy Week provides the necessary and ultimate perspective on the events of Holy Week that culminate with the Cross of our Lord. "This world" will judge itself -- a judgment from which we flee by remaining loyal to Christ. But to do this meaningfully, we must make a choice: are we like "innocent," but apathetic bystanders, who safely flee from any engagement in the passion of Christ or of any self-denial and a willingness to bear our own personal crosses? Or do we heed the Gospels and the call of the hymnography to rouse ourselves to both the active and contemplative life of authentic discipleship?
The "end" of Christ's ministry on the Cross is the "beginning" of the New Age of the Kingdom of God's presence in this world. The Son of Man will be raised from the dead and glorified to the right hand of the Father on high. We anticipate that as we move through Holy Week, but it will be as "stewards of grace" that the Kingdom will be an experience in our lives and not simply an idea.
Originally published here April 14, 2009.
Republished this week on the OCA website.