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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49 responses to “The Bridegroom and Judgment”

  1. Arlene Doulopoulos Avatar
    Arlene Doulopoulos

    ☦️❤️‍🔥🙏

  2. Burt Noyes Avatar
    Burt Noyes

    “The crucified Christ is what the wrath of God looks like.” Wow! Glory to God!

  3. Ja Avatar
    Ja

    Wow, so much to think about. Truly awesome. Beautiful, Father. Thank you

  4. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Burt,
    And (I should have been careful to say) that it is not the wrath of God being poured out on the Crucified Christ (as in Calvinist doctrine).

  5. Sonthe Bokas Burge Avatar
    Sonthe Bokas Burge

    So beautiful. I will read again and again.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    As a history buff, I find it interesting that Christianity in the old countries went from Orthodox to RC to Protestant. That kind of greater to lesser organization is quite normal historically and shows entropy.

    In the colonies that became the US it seems to be following a reverse course, following the different faiths of the immigrants who came.

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    I do not think that “entropy” is an accurate descriptor for the history of the Church. FWIW.

  8. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    How are we, then, to understand the Creed when it says “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”?

    This seems to indicate a coming judgment though the Creed does not explain what future judgment ultimately will look like.

  9. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    What I find fascinating, even if it is not entropy, is what I see in history is the movement away from the Truth in Orthodoxy to the lies of secularism. Now, IMO, there is a movement in the other direction.

    Just in my parish there is quite a few young men who are dedicated to living the Christian life some professing various vocations, including family. At St. Mary’s there were a number of young convert men which was heartening too.

  10. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Yes, He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Interestingly, however, the liturgical texts of the Church sing of the Cross as the Judgment Seat of Christ. The One who will come again is the One who has already come. And, in that coming (already), there is the judgment of the living and the dead. If you will, there is something of that judgment revealed in how we respond to, “What think ye of Christ?” It is already at work in the world.

  11. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Michael,
    There is certain a trend of people coming to the faith (just as there is a trend of people leaving). I think we do well to avoid drawing conclusions about “trends.” The harvest is plentiful…and we do well to work while it is day. But of the day and the hour…none of us has a clue.

  12. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father, you wrote
    Interestingly, however, the liturgical texts of the Church sing of the Cross as the Judgment Seat of Christ. The One who will come again is the One who has already come. And, in that coming (already), there is the judgment of the living and the dead. If you will, there is something of that judgment revealed in how we respond to, “What think ye of Christ?” It is already at work in the world.

    Thank you! This is just so stunning. I believe it with all my heart.

  13. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father, it hit me that Christ’s words about the work of the Holy Spirit, at the Last Supper, support what you say here. I am wondering if you agree. If this is part of the work of the Holy Spirit, as seems to be indicated, then this is truly going on “in real time” I suppose we could say? It seems even that this active judgment is the work of the Holy Spirit, do you think?

    John 16:7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. 8 And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: 9 of sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; 11 of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

  14. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Janine,
    Yes, I think you are right. There are all sorts of problems that are created when we marry our thoughts to a literal, historical timeline with regard to the work of Christ/God. Some of the silliest schemes imaginable have been concocted by such an imagination. That, as well as strange notions, such as “Christ can’t be present in the sacrament because He’s seated at the right hand of the Father,” and other such mistaken ideas.

  15. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Back in my college days, I once went to what was supposed to be a discussion between a Protestant and a Islamic “preachers”. The Islamic man immediately pulled out a list of why Jesus can’t be God statements, one of which was “If Jesus is God and He died, then who was watching over Creation while He was dead?”. It struck me as silly then and even moreso now. As if God is hindered by death? So much wrong with that line of thinking….

  16. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you for your reply Father. This timeless sense would also seem to indicate that nothing is lost either. Wherever there has been faith, whatever good or beauty or truth has been lived, it exists still in this place of timelessness. Coming from the background I do, there are so many once beautiful, astonishing churches throughout the centuries that, due to genocide or ethnic cleansing/warfare have either been left to fall to ruin, or have been destroyed, some turned into mosques. And this has recently expanded as well to include many treasures of faith and worship. But I think that the timeless reality is true!

  17. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Janine,
    Scripture tells us that He is gathering together in one, all things in Christ Jesus. That is the reality in which we live.

  18. Kenneth Avatar
    Kenneth

    This week is my first time to experience the bridegroom services. What amazing beauty! Having experienced this I begin to understand how beauty will save the world.

  19. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Kenneth,
    I agree!

  20. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    As I move through my day and as I continue to think about this latest article, more questions are coming to the surface:

    “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.” —

    What does this mean in terms of judgment?

    Ok … so the cross is where judgment takes place. What does that mean practically?

    Who is judged? How are they judged? etc.

  21. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Byron,
    Obviously, the Islamic preacher had not learned anything about the two natures of Christ or the Trinity, even if he didn’t understand them.

  22. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Matthew,
    My understanding is that all of creation is ‘judged,’ so to speak, in the sense of Christ’s love, His Passion, and Resurrection, which transforms all things of the universe into His goodness. Such a process will feel like hell to some who are unprepared (and in some cases resistant) and heaven to others who wait and watch for Christ.

  23. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks Dee. For me, though, I find myself wondering if I will be prepared. God´s love and judgment shouldn´t make us anxious.

  24. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Matthew,

    I found myself thinking the same kind of thoughts earlier. “Am I prepared enough? What if I’m lacking?

    I recall Father said once, when he had a heart attack, that he was thinking, “I’m not ready” (as in not prepared).

    I think that we are never ready, and that makes us anxious. And how does one prep for the process of dying? And that makes us anxious. But I have hope that the Holy Spirit will make up the difference. I don’t know how, but I trust in Him. He has proven trustworthy, so I let my anxiety go and just go back to prayer and thanksgiving.

    Kenneth,

    I too agree! I have been so uplifted in the Matins services! They are beautiful!

  25. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    By “the Holy Spirit will make up the difference” I meant He will fill “what is lacking”. A much better way of saying it, I think.

  26. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much Byron.

  27. Kenneth Avatar
    Kenneth

    The Palm Sunday and Bridegroom services have had moments of intense beauty that melt even my hardened soul. It reminded me of the message from Prince Vladimir’s envoys in Constantinople in 987, “We can never forget that beauty.”

  28. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    There is always a poetic use of language in liturgies. Essentially, judgment means that things (and people) will be revealed to be what they truly are. “All things will be made manifest.” Christ is always “coming to be our judge” – that is – to encounter Christ is also to see the truth of who we are. It rightly brings forth repentance in us (where needed). The phrase, “Beware, lest you be shut out of the Kingdom…” could also be rendered, “Wake up! The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”

    “The Cross is where judgment takes place.” What does that mean practically?

    Where do we see Christ crucified – is one way to answer the question. Hungry, thirsty, sick, in prison, naked, etc. What did/do we do with the Crucified Christ? The answer can and should be quite practical.

    How are we judged? Who is judged?

    All are judged. How are we judged? We see/are shown ourselves in the truth as we encounter the crucified Christ. We either rush to Him in love, or we turn from Him (for all sorts of reasons). St. Isaac of Syria taught that the fire of hell is nothing other than the love of God. Those whom it burns are those who hate it or do not love. Others find it to be light and grace, etc.

    On a practical level: try to be kind to all around you. Be gentle. Be generous. Forgive. Do what love asks of us. Allow your heart to be softened.

    That’s a much shorter answer than the questions deserved.

  29. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    Psalm 54: “Save me, O God, by thy name, And judge me by thy strength. Hear my prayer, O God; Give ear to the words of my mouth.” Something has gotten twisted in our minds. The Psalmist asked to be judged. We’ve often twisted God into something He is not in our minds. It’s why I point to the Crucified Christ as the image of the Judge. What do you hear Him say from the Cross? Should we be afraid of Him?

  30. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Byron,
    On the heart-attack story. I told the men who were doing the procedure (when they asked if I wanted anything to sort of chill me out) that I didn’t want anything – that I had work to do (prayer) – while they did their work. I was working to make what little preparation that I could in case…

    But, I suspect that very few of us are “ready.” I know that “I’m not finished.” But God alone knows who much time remains.

  31. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Kenneth,
    The Holy Week services are a “deep dive” into the reality of Christ’s work. It is rich beyond words.

  32. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Dee, beautifully put.

  33. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father wrote:
    “All are judged. How are we judged? We see/are shown ourselves in the truth as we encounter the crucified Christ. We either rush to Him in love, or we turn from Him (for all sorts of reasons). St. Isaac of Syria taught that the fire of hell is nothing other than the love of God. Those whom it burns are those who hate it or do not love. Others find it to be light and grace, etc. “

    Thank you. I truly believe this, and affirmatively St. Isaac’s teaching.

  34. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father I have a question that might be off topic, and I confess it’s because I’m writing something about the subject. But maybe it’s not so off topic in terms of in-gathering, so to speak.

    So it’s about the Lord’s Prayer. It struck me that in teaching us to pray to Our Father, Jesus is including Himself together with us in some sense. Or maybe the human Jesus does? Does that makes sense to you?

  35. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    PS I guess I’m always thinking I’m praying to Jesus, when maybe I should think I’m praying with Jesus, or just following His commandment (?). (Please feel free to ignore if too off topic)

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janine, perhaps all of our prayer comes from Jesus and He joins us?????

  37. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Janine,
    In Romans 8:15, St. Paul writes: For you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’

    This describes what is happening in prayer. The Spirit prays within us, with the voice of the Son, calling “Father.” We pray “our” Father, because we are always praying through the Spirit in the voice of the Son.

  38. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Janine,
    I can think of prayers that are addressed to Jesus (like the Jesus Prayer), prayers addressed to the Spirit (O heavenly king), and to the Father. There is no jealousy in the Godhead – no wrong way to offer such prayers.

  39. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thank you so much Michael and Father!!

  40. Byron Avatar
    Byron

    Father, thank you for that clarification! Please forgive me for misremembering the full story.

    And thank you very much for your reply to Matthew! How wonderfully beautiful!

  41. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Fr. would it be alright if I quoted you and added the link to your blog? Thanks.

  42. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Janine,
    Yes, of course! Thank you!

  43. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Thanks again, Fr. Stephen

  44. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    One of my recurring thoughts is, “Don’t mistake your neurosis for God.” (I apply that to myself). That’s one of the reasons that I focus on the Cross – Christ Crucified. That image is not of our own imagining, but God as He has revealed Himself to us. So, I constantly bring myself back to the Crucified Christ in order that I might pray without delusion – not enthroning my own neurosis.

  45. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    Father, that is indeed a powerful argument for Christ Crucified present in our thoughts and hearts

  46. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Matthew,
    An additional thought (having just gotten home from this evening’s Bridegroom Matins). There is a strong theme in some of the Bridegroom services (especially tonight) where the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and bathed them with her hair and tears is contrasted with Judas. The theme will continue as we move along in the week. It’s the contrast between his betrayal (for money!) with her generosity. It is the example of a “terrible” sinner who finds God utterly welcoming and forgiving, contrasted with a hardened heart that would sell God out.

    God is so welcoming!

  47. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Thanks so much for the numerous helpful responses Fr. Stephen.

    The way you describe Christ Crucified and the judgment that takes place at the cross is indeed beautiful. I have never heard such things before. When I think of the cross as the place of judgment most all of my anxiety melts away. The Christ-judge of Revelation (that judge that is going to slay so many people at Armageddon!) that I learned about for so many years is really just a figment of a poor interpreter´s imagination so it seems.

    It is also revealing and telling that the Psalmist asks to be judged. Interesting. Finally, I agree, I think neurosis can make a mess for us in terms of how we imagine God to be. Many people are simply creating a God out of their own thoughts rather than allowing God to be revealed the way He is indeed revealing Himself to be.

  48. Matthew Avatar
    Matthew

    Fr. Stephen said:

    “try to be kind to all around you. Be gentle. Be generous. Forgive. Do what love asks of us. Allow your heart to be softened.”

    Amen

  49. Sam Avatar
    Sam

    Dear Fr Stephen

    Thanks for another helpful post. I do love the bridegroom matins. The quote Janine mentioned of yours about St Isaac the Syrian and judgment being an encounter with the love of Christ reminded me of a section from Spe Salvi, an encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, which I was recommended to read recently. I was interested to see that the Eastern concept of “judgement” in the presence of Christ was taken up, perhaps in a way that makes it compatible with the Western concept of the beatific vision. Either way, the idea of judgment being an encounter with the face of Christ is very interesting:

    “Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ[39]. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).”

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  1. Carlos, thanks for your reply. Even if the prayers are first person singular, they are for all of us to…

  2. Janine, Yes! I’ve read about the ancient corporate sense and its interpretive power in scripture, but I’m hesitant to apply…

  3. Kenneth, thanks for that reminder about John the Baptist. Carlos, I kind of think that we are confusing ancient forms…

  4. Janine, Thank you for replying! I understand what you’re saying about unworthiness and I totally agree, it is absolutely by…

  5. Father Stephen, Thank you for zeroing in on the shame and recommending your book. I look forward to reading it!


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