Jesus Christ the Bridegroom ... the theme for the Monday in Holy Week in the Orthodox tradition
This week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter Day, is the last week of Lent. This week is known in the Western Church as Holy Week, and in the Orthodox Church as Great and Holy Week.
The dates of Lent, Holy Week and Easter fall on the same days this year for the Western Church and the Orthodox Church. In the Western Church, this week lasts from Palm Sunday until but not including Easter Day. In the Orthodox Church, Great Week lasts from Lazarus until but not including Easter Day.
On this week, we recall the last week of Christ’s earthly life culminating in his crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Day. The earliest reference to the custom of marking this week as a whole with special observances is found in the Apostolic Constitutions (v. 18, 19), dating from the late third century and early fourth century. Abstinence from meat is expected for all the days of week, and in addition, on the Friday and Saturday, an absolute fast is commanded.
In his canonical epistle (AD 260), Dionysius Alexandrinus refers to the 91 fasting days. This probably implies that their observance had already become an established usage in his time. The Codex Theodosianus suspended all legal and court actions at this time, shutting the doors of all courts of law during the week before and the week after Easter Day (1. ii. tit. viii.).
The Pilgrimage of Egeria is an early text describing the traditions of the Early Church, with complete details of the observance of Holy Week during the time of her pilgrimage to Jerusalem around 381 to 384.
The Cleansing of the Temple, Giotto, the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
In the Roman Catholic tradition, the days between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday are known as Holy Monday (Fig Monday), Holy Tuesday, and Holy Wednesday, sometimes called Spy Wednesday. The Gospels of these days recount events not all of which occurred on the corresponding days between Christ’s entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper. For instance, the Monday Gospel tells of the Anointing at Bethany (John 12: 1-9), which occurred before the Palm Sunday event described in John 12: 12-19.
This morning, in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, we begin a series of readings of dramatised versions of the Passion Narrative, beginning with the Gospel according to Saint Matthew.
In the Western Church, the Monday in Holy Week is not a major feast. Traditionally, the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem is thought to have taken place on this Monday. This was when Jesus overturned the tables of the money-changers, saying to them: ‘It is written, “My house shall be called a house of prayer”; but you are making it a den of robbers’ (Matthew 21: 13).
In the Orthodox Church, Holy Week is known as “Great and Holy Week,” or simply as Great Week (Μεγάλη Εβδομάδα). Fasting during Great and Holy Week is very strict for the Orthodox: dairy products and meat products are strictly forbidden, on most days, no alcohol drinks are allowed and no oil is used in the cooking. Friday and Saturday are observed as strict fast days, so that nothing should be eaten on those days. However, fasting is always adjusted to the needs of the individual, and those who are very young, ill or elderly are not expected to fast so strictly.
The entire Psalter is chanted on the first three days of Holy Week. And the pattern of the services is the same for these three days.
As the day begins at sunset in Orthodoxy, Matins (ὄρθρος Orthros) is usually anticipated the previous evening, with Matins services for each day on the preceding evening. And so, the Matins service of today, Great Monday, was sung yesterday evening, on the evening of Palm Sunday evening, and so on.
Matins on these first three days of Holy Week – Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday – are known popularly as “The Bridegroom Service.” Its name comes from the Troparion: “Look! The bridegroom comes at midnight.”
This theme is drawn from the parable of the ten bridesmaids, which forms part of the Gospel reading at Vespers tomorrow [Tuesday] evening. The Orthros services these days include the “Bridegroom Prayer” with the theme of Christ as the Bridegroom of the Church, a theme expressed in the troparion that is chanted solemnly these days. This same theme is repeated in the exapostilarion, a hymn sung near the end of the service.
Christ the Bridegroom, a modern icon by Sally Thayer of Toronto
On these days, an icon of Christ the Bridegroom is placed on an analogion in the centre of the Church, showing Christ wearing the robe of mockery and crowned with the crown of thorns.
Early in the morning, before Vespers, the Hours are celebrated, one after the other, and over the three days of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of these days, all four Gospels are read, spread over the Third, Sixth and Ninth Hours.
The first service of each day is then Vespers, at which the stichera are chanted commemorating the theme of the day.
On Great and Holy Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is then celebrated, and those present receive Holy Communion from the Holy Mysteries reserved from the Divine Liturgy yesterday, Palm Sunday.
Each of these services has a reading from the Gospel which sets out the theme for the day. But, alongside the suffering of Christ, three other themes mark Orthodox services on this Monday:
● The story of Joseph (Genesis chapters 37 and 39-40), whose innocent suffering and his persecution by Potiphar’s wife prefigures the suffering of the innocent Christ.
● The cursing of the barren fig tree by Jesus on his way into Jerusalem (Matthew 21: 18-22). This serves as an image of the judgment that befalls all of us if we do not produce the fruits of repentance and holy living. Those fruits including turning our backs on the pride that seeks rank and privilege for ourselves.
● The demand by the mother of Zebedee’s sons for a place of privilege in the Kingdom for James and John (Matthew 20: 20-28). James and John are seeking pride of place in the Kingdom, which is in sharp contrast to the humility of Christ, who renounces his status as Creator in order to suffer with and for those he has created.
Collect of the Day:
whose most dear Son went not up to joy,
but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified:
Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of his cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation.
Give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin