Beginning on the evening of Palm Sunday and continuing through the evening of Holy Tuesday, the Orthodox Church observes a special service known as the Service of the Bridegroom. Each evening service is the Matins or Orthros service of the following day (e.g. the service held on Sunday evening is the Orthros service for Holy Monday). The name of the service is from the figure of the Bridegroom in the parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew 25:1-13.
The first part of Holy Week presents us with an array of themes based chiefly on the last days of Jesus’ earthly life. The story of the Passion, as told and recorded by the Evangelists, is preceded by a series of incidents located in Jerusalem and a collection of parables, sayings and discourses centered on Jesus’ divine sonship, the kingdom of God, the Parousia, and Jesus’ castigation of the hypocrisy and dark motives of the religious leaders. The observances of the first three days of Great Week are rooted in these incidents and sayings. The three days constitute a single liturgical unit. They have the same cycle and system of daily prayer. The Scripture lessons, hymns, commemorations, and ceremonials that make up the festal elements in the respective services of the cycle highlight significant aspects of salvation history, by calling to mind the events that anticipated the Passion and by proclaiming the inevitability and significance of the Parousia.
The Orthros of each of these days is called the Service of the Bridegroom (Akolouthia tou Nimfiou). The name comes from the central figure in the well-known parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). 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 Christ of the Passion is the divine Bridegroom of the Church. The imagery connotes the final union of the Lover and the beloved. The title Bridegroom also suggests the Parousia. In the patristic tradition, the aforementioned parable is related to the Second Coming; and is associated with the need for spiritual vigilance and preparedness, by which we are enabled to keep the divine commandments and receive the blessings of the age to come. The troparion “Behold the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night…”, which is sung at the beginning of the Orthros of Great Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, relates the worshiping community to that essential expectation: watching and waiting for the Lord, who will come again to judge the living and the dead.
On Holy Wednesday the Church invites the faithful to focus their attention on two figures: the sinful woman who anointed the head of Jesus shortly before the passion (Matthew 26:6-13), and Judas, the disciple who betrayed the Lord. The former acknowledged Jesus as Lord, while the latter severed himself from the Master. The one was set free, while the other became a slave. The one inherited the kingdom, while the other fell into perdition. These two people bring before us concerns and issues related to freedom, sin, hell and repentance.
The repentance of the sinful harlot is contrasted with the tragic fall of the chosen disciple. The Triodion make is clear that Judas perished, not simply because he betrayed his Master, but because, having fallen into the sin of betrayal, he then refused to believe in the possibility of forgiveness. If we deplore the actions of Judas, we do so not with vindictive self-righteousness but conscious always of our own guilt. In general, all the passages in the Triodion that seem to be directed against the Jews should be understood in this same way. When the Triodion denounces those who rejected Christ and delivered Him to death, we recognize that these words apply not only to others, but to ourselves: for have we not betrayed the Savior many times in our hearts and crucified Him anew?
I have transgressed more than the harlot, O loving Lord, yet never have I offered You my flowing tears. But in silence I fall down before You and with love I kiss Your most pure feet, beseeching You as Master to grant me remission of sins; and I cry to You, O Savior: Deliver me from the filth of my works.
While the sinful woman brought oil of myrrh, the disciple came to an agreement with the transgressors. She rejoiced to pour out what was very precious, he made haste to sell the One who is above all price. She acknowledged Christ as Lord, he severed himself from the Master. She was set free, but Judas became the slave of the enemy. Grievous was his lack of love. Great was her repentance. Grant such repentance also unto me, O Savior who has suffered for our sake, and save us.
Icon of the Bridegroom
“The Bridegroom” Icon portrays Christ during His Passion, particularly during the period when our Lord was mocked and tortured by the soldiers who crowned Him with thorns, dressed Him in purple and placed a reed in His Hands, jeering Him as the “King of the Jews.”
Orthodox Christian Celebration of the Bridegroom Service
The services conducted on Palm Sunday evening and on the evenings of Holy Monday and Tuesday are the Matins or Orthros services of the following day. After the reading of the Psalms at the beginning of the service the Troparion of the Bridegroom Service is chanted three times. On Palm Sunday evening as this hymn is being chanted, the priest carries the icon of Christ as Bridegroom in procession. The icon is placed in the middle of the solea of the church and remains there until Holy Thursday.
The Matins Gospel readings for each of the Bridegroom Services are: Holy Monday – Matthew 21:18-43; Holy Tuesday – Matthew 22:15-46, 23:1-39; and Holy Wednesday – John 12:17-50).
In most parishes a Presanctified Liturgy will be conducted on the mornings of Holy Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. The Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts has a distinct character and order. It is comprised of three major parts or components: a) the service of Great Vespers peculiar to this Liturgy; b) the solemn transfer of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts to the Holy Table; and c) the preparation for and the distribution of holy Communion. The Liturgy does not contain the Anaphora, the Gifts of the bread and wine having been consecrated at the Divine Liturgy on the previous Sunday or Saturday.
The Scripture readings for each of the Presanctified Liturgies are: Holy Monday – Exodus 1:1-21, Job 1:1-12, Matthew 24:3-35; Holy Tuesday – Exodus 2:5-10, Job 1:13-22, Matthew 24:36-26:2; Holy Wednesday – Exodus 2:11-23, Job 2:1-10, Matthew 26:6-16.
Hymns of the Bridegroom Service
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. Beware, therefore, O my soul, lest thou be overcome with sleep, lest thou be given up to death, and be shut out from the Kingdom. But rouse thyself and cry: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God, through the Mother of God, have mercy on us.
Thy bridal chamber, O my Saviour, do I behold all adorned, and a garment I have not that I may enter therein. Illumine the garment of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me.