The Bridegroom and Judgment

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching; and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.  Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.  But rouse yourself crying: Holy, holy, holy, art Thou, O our God.  Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.

+ Troparion of Bridegroom Matins

The services of the first few days of Orthodox Holy Week have a collective theme of judgment. The centerpiece of those days is the service known as “Bridegroom Matins,” so named for the icon of Christ the Bridegroom (pictured here), an interesting name for Christ depicted in His humiliation, crowned with thorns, robed in derision, with the rod of His chastisement in His hand. It is part of the “upside-down” character of Holy Week. Judgment is clearly one of the most upside-down characteristics of the events that unfold in Christ’s last earthly days.

I was nurtured on stories as a child that contrasted Christ’s “non-judging” (“Jesus, meek and mild”) with Christ the coming Judge (at His dread Second Coming). I was told that His second coming would be very unlike His first. There was a sense that Jesus, meek and mild, was something of a pretender, revealing His true and eternal character only later as the avenging Judge.

This, of course, is both distortion and heresy. The judgment of God is revealed in Holy Week. The crucified Christ is the fullness of the revelation of God. There is no further revelation to be made known, no unveiling of a wrath to come. The crucified Christ is what the wrath of God looks like.

The first three days of Holy Week are collectively known as the End. And it is this End that forms the character of judgment. The end of something always reveals the truth of a thing. As the popular saying has it, “Time will tell.” When the End is the end that is brought by God, then the true end of all things is revealed.

And this is the characteristic of the judgment made manifest in Holy Week. Christ is moving towards His end, the consummation of the Incarnation. As He is increasingly revealed, everything around Him is revealed as well. Things are shown to be more clearly what they are. Those who hate Him, begin to be revealed as plotters and murderers. What was once only thoughts and feelings of envy become plots and perjury. The power of Rome is unmasked for its injustice, mere people-pleasing. The High Priest is revealed to believe that the destruction of God is good for his nation. The weakness of the disciples and the empty boasting of Peter and the rest are shown for their true emptiness. The sin of the world is revealed in the death of God.

But this had been prophesied from the beginning:

Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel…that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed  (Luk 2:34-35).

But the righteous are revealed as well. The steadfast love of the Mother of God never wavered before the Cross. Her faithfulness is revealed. The kindness of Joseph of Arimathea is forever marked by an empty tomb. The tears of a harlot reveal the nature of love, even hidden beneath the deeds of her life. In the judgment of God, all things are simply shown to be what they truly are. Sin is seen to be sin. Love is seen to be love. There is clarity.

And in the judgment of God, His own love is shown to be what it truly is – self-sacrificing, forgiving, relentless in its mercy. It is not a love that pronounces forgiveness from the Cross only to pronounce destruction on another occasion. The crucified Christ is not a revelation that is succeeded by another.

For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1Co 2:2)

The Bridegroom comes. Judgment arrives. All things are revealed for what they truly are.

Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.

+ Exaposteilarion of Bridegroom Matins

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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15 responses to “The Bridegroom and Judgment”

  1. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    Good morning Father. Thank you for calling it distortion and heresy. It’s such a difficult belief to undo- bait with His Love, then once you’re in the church it’s about the dread judgment if you don’t follow the outward rules.

  2. Susan Cushman Avatar

    To see God’s love in His judgment can be difficult, but I love what you say about his judgment here, “self-sacrificing, forgiving, relentless in its mercy.” RELENTLESS IN ITS MERCY. That’s what I feel during the sacrament of confession. MERCY. Not the judgment I deserve. Thanks for this, Father. AND . . . I’m almost finished with your amazing book . . . will do a review on my blog soon.

  3. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Susan,
    Indeed, His mercy is relentless.

    Thank you for the kind words regarding the new book. I finished recording the audio version last week. I assume a few weeks of production before it is released.

  4. gigi Avatar
    gigi

    in the night i laid on my bed thinking about everything in the world and suddenly realized i wasn’t praying or considering our Lord. i had an instant pang of fear. will i be ready when He returns? will He say to me “i never knew you” ? am i a for real Christian? i have been so self absorbed, that does anything i do in His name ring true ?
    and immediately (i believe) His still small voice comforted me saying “fear not little sinner. don’t think about what you haven’t done, but what i Have done. “

  5. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, your post revealed the last bit I needed to fully forgive the poor man who was the priest who received me and my family. He was in anguish the whole time we knew him and ended up leaving the Church and his own family years later.
    His Catechesis of us was spotty but it was his sense of the Judgement that was the most distorted.
    He felt as if he was doomed to hell because of the belief you describe here. I never understood it at the time because my experience of Jesus in the Church was one of mercy in all things.
    I do not know how the man could enter the altar with the belief he had and not go crazy if he did not change. But he was unable to. Something in his heart he could not give up to the mercy of our Lord.
    It has taken me a long time to forgive him and the damage he did to my family and me–36 years. But our Lord is merciful and patient. Glory be to Him

  6. Dino Avatar
    Dino

    No wonder it is the same holy face that has the two “expressions” on the famous Sinai icon of Christ. Man’s heart is a unique and ever changing viewing lens.

  7. Jolene M Benson Avatar
    Jolene M Benson

    gigi

    Thank you for sharing

  8. Alexandra Avatar
    Alexandra

    I’m up tonight with two boys having sinus issues and earaches. And we have a house full of little nieces and nephews my brother and sister in law are the process of adopting from variously horrifying backgrounds. It strikes me watching them deal with these profoundly, painfully ashamed little souls, how tender God’s judgment is. He keeps pointing out the cliff and putting up fences because otherwise in our blindness we walk right over the edge. Midnight, here we come! May we be ready for the Bridegroom and not just crazed with sleep-deprivation, haha.

  9. Sinnika Avatar
    Sinnika

    WOW!
    Very profound indeed, I will have to think about this for a while, for it to sink in.

    My first thought was, ‘If this is how the Groom looks, what about the Bride?’

    But then, the Icon depicts the Bridegroom while He is still alive, His Bride the Church, I believe, was born after His Death, while He was still hanging on the Cross.

    The First Adam was in a deep sleep when Eve was fashioned, and the Second Adam was in a deep “sleep” on the Cross when His Bride was born, so I guess the Bride must be beautiful from the beginning.

    Well, this needs a lot of thinking.

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Alexandra,
    May God shelter all of them with His grace!

  11. Justin Avatar
    Justin

    Fr Stephen,

    I was raised, probably very similarly to you, to fear the Last Judgement. Faith in Christ was very tenuously held, and I could fall at any moment, die, then face the wrath of God rather than his forgiveness and redemption. Salvation was not assured, but conditional on God’s justice and my own fallen whims.

    Fast-forward to today. Part of my decision to be received into the Church was this very question to be worked out in my mind. Is God fickle, or does my salvation hinge on my own fickleness?

    I finally came to a conclusion in line with yours, here. The “Son of Man coming in glory” … “throne of his glory” … the “nations all gathered before him” … the sheep and goats, separated on his right and left … all are describing the Cross and what happens at the Cross.

    “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto myself… And if any man hear my sayings, and believe not, I judge him not: for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. He that rejects me, and receives not my sayings, has one that judges him: the word that I spoke, the same shall judge him in the last day.”

    “… there they crucified him, and the two thieves, one on the right hand and the other on the left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’” This is the last word, the Last Judgment.

    To come to understand that Christ’s Passion and the Cross is the culmination of it all is at first unsettling, then overwhelmingly–comforting. I found the answer to those questions.

  12. Dean Brown Avatar
    Dean Brown

    Justin,
    Thank you. What Father Stephen wrote touched my heart in the same manner.

  13. zidane Avatar

    thank you for the article

  14. Martin Avatar
    Martin

    Thank you, Father. There’s an old saying, to the effect, “Just read the black parts.” The Church, following the Lord, teaches “the BRIDEGROOM comes”. Not the judge, not the prosecutor, it’s not about an interrogation,,a trail, it’s the joy and embrace of a wedding. It’s taken me a long time to recognize that..

  15. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Wow, this was awesome, Father. What really helps me to see is about the nature of the “end.” I was thinking about this last night, because the word for end in Greek means something very different from what end indicates in English. In English we think of the end meaning everything is gone, finished, done, over. “Telos” is exactly what you say, it’s the fullness of everything. I just *love* how you explained that what was faint before becomes more full by the end, more developed and delineated. It is like Christ’s expression of chastisement, “You travel land and sea to win one proselyte; and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” In other words, as we move toward the end the fullness of the thing deepens and is more revealed. You helped me recognize this happening with certain things in my life as well. So many images here to continue to ponder, but that the Crucifixion is the Judgment is a paradox that will keep on giving, as the expression goes!

    Dino, thanks for your illuminating words on my favorite icon!

    Kalh Anastasi, Blessed Resurrection to all

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