Fr. Maximos Constas is Senior Research Scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, in Brookline, Mass. He holds a Ph.D. in Patristics and Historical Theology from the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C. He was a professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School, after which he became a monk at Simonopetra (Mt. Athos). He is the author of The Art of Seeing: Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography (Brookline: Holy Cross Press, forthcoming 2014); an edition and translation of Maximos the Confessor, The Ambigua to Thomas and the Ambigua to John, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014); and Proclus of Constantinople and the Cult of the Virgin in Late Antiquity (Leiden: Brill, 2003); as well as numerous articles and translations. His work focuses on the patristic and Byzantine theological tradition, Orthodox spirituality, the history of the reception of biblical and patristic sources in the late Byzantine era, and the theological study of Byzantine art, icons and iconography.
This evening I would like to offer a few thoughts and reflections on the hymn, which is so characteristic of these first days of Holy Week, “Behold the Bridegroom is Coming.” This hymn is directly inspired by the Parable of the Ten Virgins in the Gospel of Matthew, and virtually every word and phrase in it comes directly from Scripture. The Parable is found in chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, and was one of the last things Christ said before his betrayal and arrest.
It is a popular and beloved hymn, one of the highlights of Holy Week, and many of you will know that it is also read every night in the Midnight Service. It is also a very ancient hymn, and we know it was sung at least as far back as the eighth century and probably much earlier.
The hymn is a poem, and the hymnographers of the Church are poets, and their hymns merit and stand up to close readings and repay our spiritual study of them with spiritual benefits, especially a hymn like this one, which is essentially the language of Scripture elevated to the level of poetry.
Ἰδού – Look, see, open your eyes! Where is the center of your attention? What do your thoughts consistently turn to? What comes repeatedly to your mind? What is your heart forever rushing to? Society places ever-increasing demands on our attention, which has become a commodity, something that is trafficked and traded by interested parties. But we must not let ourselves be distracted from God, we cannot allow this most precious gift to be taken from us—and when it is, the Church calls us back, and says: Look – behold – ἰδού …
ὁ Νυμφίος ἔρχεται – the Bridegroom is coming; the verb is in the present tense, which means he is coming NOW, in this very moment. In the mystery of Orthodox worship, time and eternity mingle; Christ is ὁ ἐλθών καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος, the one who came, and the one who is to come. He encompasses past, present, and future, and in His presence the temporal limitations of the world fall away.
The image of Christ as the Bridegroom is taken directly from the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and occurs elsewhere in the New Testament. In Matthew 9:15, Christ calls Himself the “bridegroom”; John the Baptist is the “friend of the bridegroom” (John 3:29); St. Paul says that marriage is an image of “Christ and the Church” (Eph 5), and so on.
The image of the Bridegroom associates Christ directly with God, for in the Old Testament God takes Israel as his wife, enters into a covenant with her, and He remains faithful to her despite her infidelities, despite all her spiritual adulteries with false gods and idols.
St. John Chrysostom says that Christ as the Bridegroom loves his wife so much—that is, the Church, or the individual soul—that when she abandons Him, He does not regret having betrothed her; when she sins against Him, He does not renounce her, but rather He pursues his fallen bride even into the very depths of hell. There is an old tradition that after Eve ate from the tree, and after Adam saw what befell her, he also partook of it, so that he could continue to be with her, even in her fallen state, so that he would never be separated from her—so great was his love for her.
Christ the Bridegroom is an image that conveys the mystery of God’s love for us; it says something about the lengths that He goes to in order to find what is lost; how he never lets go of those He loves, no matter the cost.
ἐν τῷ μέσῳ τῆς νυκτός – “in the middle of the night,” or “midnight.” This phrase is also from the Parable. A moment ago, I mentioned the Midnight Service, which represents the ancient practice of rising at midnight for prayer, which was considered the ideal time for prayer, for at that moment all creation was hushed, every creature was still and offered praises to the Lord, in a kind of cosmic psalm of praise.
St. John Chrysostom, again, says: “Imagine the darkest of nights, when all men and all living creatures are fast asleep in the midst of the greatest silence, and you alone are awake, speaking freely and openly with God. Is sleep sweet? And yet nothing is sweeter than prayer.”
But there is also a warning here, because in the Parable, the “middle of the night” means that the Bridegroom will arrive suddenly, unexpectedly, at a time when no one knows.
In what state will God find us? If we were to die suddenly, what would our family and friends find in our home, in our apartment, on our computers? We must strive always to be ready, to be prepared, to understand that we have been betrothed to God, that our lives, our bodies, are not our own anymore, but they belong to another.
καὶ μακάριος ὁ δούλος ὄν εὐρήσει γρηγορούντα – γρηγορῶ, γρήγορσις, γρηγόρησις are words that mean wakefulness, watchfulness, a state of spiritual readiness, alertness, vigilance. In Matthew 24, Jesus says: “Concerning that day and hour, no one knows, therefore be vigilant (δια τούτο γρηγορείτε) for you do not know when the Lord is coming.”
ἀνάξιος ὁ δούλος ὄν εὑρήσει ῥαθυμούντα – ράθυμος, ραθυμία, means to be slow, lazy, indifferent – it is like the “spirit of sloth” (πνεύμα αργίας) mentioned in the Lenten Prayer of St Ephraim, and it means being indifferent to the things of God, being indifferent to one’s own salvation.
So the hymn presents us with two contrasting figures, two very different individuals, and this contrast will be presented to us even more forcefully at tomorrow’s Bridegroom Service, in the person of the sinful woman who repented, and in the disciple who by his own actions shut himself outside of the bridal chamber. This is why the hymn continues and says:
Βλέπε οὖν ψυχὴ μου, “Behold, therefore, O my soul” – βλέπε means look, behold, like the ιδού, but now the poet addresses himself, and because his voice is our voice, it marks a turn to the self, to self-examination, and is an appeal to the self, just like in the Great Canon of St Andrew: ψυχή μου, ψυχή μου, ανάστα, τι καθεύδεις; το τέλος εγγίζει. “My soul, my soul, wake up, why are you sleeping, the end is drawing near!” And so the sense is watch, beware, take care, be careful. Why? So that …
Μὴ τῷ ὑπνῳ κατενεχθής – “lest you be dragged down by sleep” – “sleep” is another image from the Parable. The word κατενεχθεὶς is from καταφέω, which means to be dragged down, pulled down, weighed down, to descend, to sink, like a sun setting into darkness. “Sleep” is a metaphor for being inactive, for living in a world of dreams, a state of un-reality, and is ultimately a symbol of death, which is why the next line of the hymn says:
ἵνα μὴ τῷ θανάτῳ παραδοθής καὶ τῆς βασιλείας ἔξω κλεισθής – “lest you be handed over to death, and be shut out of the kingdom.” And rather than suffer such a fate, the poet says:
Αλλά ἀνάνηψον κράζουσα, ἅγιος, ἅγιος, ἅγιος εἰ ὁ Θεός ἡμῶν – “Rise up and cry: holy, holy, holy are you O God” – this is the Trisagion, the hymn of the angels; it is an acknowledgement of God’s holiness, which is at the same the recognition of our own un-holiness, and that the source of our holiness is not found within us, but comes to us from God. Later in the week, when Peter declares to Christ: “I will never deny you,” he doesn’t understand that with those words he has already denied Christ, because he thinks that the source of fidelity to Christ is within himself.
Finally, the light shining in the lamp, and the shining wedding garment, are nothing other than the grace of God, the grace of the Holy Spirit that we received at baptism. That grace was like a garment covering the soul, and it was given to us without spot or stain, but afterwards we dirtied and defiled it. And this garment is Christ Himself, for: “All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ; have been clothed in Christ.” And it was purchased with a price, for in order to clothe us, He was stripped naked; to fill us with His grace, He emptied Himself; He became poor so that we might become rich; He was humiliated so that we might be exalted and glorified; He was put to death so that we might live.
Today Christ is asking us: “Is your lamp lit, is it shining with light? If it is, I will not say: Bravo, είσαι καλό παιδί, or offer congratulations, or reward you with anything earthly or perishable, but instead I will take you to myself, I will join myself to you, in complete union; I will love you forever, and I will never let you go. You gave only a little, but you will receive much. If you give me your heart, you will receive all the fullness of God; I will open your mind and fill it with my light; every moment of your life will be sanctified, and you will know the joy of the resurrection.” So keep the lamp of your faith, keep the lamp of your love for God, burning bright! Allow that light and that love to express itself in your life, and live the joy of Pascha, not just ten minutes after midnight this Saturday night, but every day of your life.
A Sermon Delivered in the Holy Cross Chapel Holy Monday
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