Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Holy Week 2009: Bridegroom Vespers

In the ACCA, as in the Byzantine Rite, there is a special service of Vespers, or Evening Prayer, which is offered on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week, called "Bridegroom Vespers". It is called this because the focus of the service is Jesus' Parable of the Bridegroom, also known as the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins.

The Scripture reference is Matthew 25:1-13 (RSV):
[Jesus said,] "Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, `Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, 'Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.' And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying, `Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, `Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.' Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
This homily was originally given a year ago at St. Demetrios in Knoxville.

In each of the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, just prior to the recounting of His death and resurrection, Jesus discusses the Eschaton, the end of history. The approach of the Gospel of John is slightly different, but in all four gospels, one thing is clear: the end of history, “the last days” begins with the execution and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In this parable, the Lord concludes by calling upon us to “watch.” We can know neither the day nor the hour of his appearing. This applies not only to the end of history, to the Lord’s return “in glory to judge both the living and the dead,” but to the moment of our own personal eschaton, our own death. Now we do not know if we shall be alive in the flesh when the Lord returns; however, we do know, barring the Second Coming, that each of us one day will leave this earthly life behind, and for that, we are called to be ready, our lamps full of the oil of the Holy Spirit, and with oil to spare, oil that we have purchased with our very life, in which we have been, and are being, "crucified with Christ". This is indeed our own personal apocalypse, and mine is mine alone, and yours, yours alone.

One major difference between our Tradition and Evangelicalism is that we take very seriously the communitarian aspects of the Christian faith. For us, in one sense, everything begins and ends with the Church. However, within the context of this Community, founded by the Lord himself and enlivened by the burning oil of the Holy Spirit, there is, in another sense, an individual relationship with the Lord that is uniquely mine, uniquely yours. There is a place in my heart, the wedding chamber if you will, the Holy of Holies, where no one can enter but myself and the Lord. In this sense, I cannot share my oil with you, nor you with me. I cannot be baptized for you, nor receive the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit in chrismation on your behalf. I cannot be absolved for your sins, nor you for mine. I cannot receive the Body and Blood of the Lord in your place, nor you in mine.

We can and should pray for each other, but I cannot do your praying for you, nor you for me. Hence, this message to watch, to be ready, to stay awake, is uniquely addressed to each of us as distinct persons. And yet, because the bridegroom is delayed, it is assumed that we will, each of us, fall asleep, only to awaken when the call is given: “The Bridegroom is coming.” Therefore, knowing this, we must, when awake, take care to have stored up for ourselves an adequate supply of oil. This is one reason why the Church gives us the seasons of Lent and Advent, so that, for a few weeks, we might focus on repentance, on acquiring the oil that we need. This is why we are called to fast regularly, usually twice a week, in order to focus more carefully on prayer, and are called, upon all occasions, to give of ourselves, and of our time, talent, and treasure, in service to others.

However, we cannot stress enough that the God-given context for this individual relationship with Christ is the Community of the Church, the very Body of Christ. Indeed, in the Orthodox traditions, temples are designed, on the basis of the old Temple in Jerusalem, with this in mind. Our temples are macrocosms of the microcosmic temple of the heart, and vice-versa. Further, if you keep your individual lamp burning, you will shed its light on us, and will encourage each of us to do the same. While there are some things that only I can do, things that only you can do, there is nothing that I do, that you do, that does not impact the Community, the Church, as a whole, either for good or for ill.

We are a team, but as on every team, each member has his or her own role to play, and each of these roles is indispensable. The Church, this Community, is the Body of Christ, and because we are each “members of Christ,” we are, as St. Paul also writes, “members one of another” just as the Divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are “members one of another” from all eternity. Thus, the Church, the Body of Christ, who is "the Last Adam," is humanity re-created in the image and likeness of God and is therefore the ikon of the eternally communitarian Godhead.

Therefore, at the end of the Great Fast, as we prepare to enter into the Passover mystery of our Lord’s death and resurrection, let us, indeed, obtain for ourselves an ever greater measure of this precious oil. If we have not yet gone to Confession during the Fast, let us by all means do so. If we need to reconcile ourselves with someone, let us do that. Whatever the Lord is calling each of us to do in this regard, let us accomplish it, and by all means, let us continue to watch and pray, and to pray for those who have left our community. We are at this moment awake, it may be later than we think, and the Bridegroom is indeed arriving soon. To Him be all glory, honor, power, and worship, together with His unoriginate Father+, and the all-Holy, Good, and Lifegiving Spirit, One God in both worlds unto the Aeon of aeons. Amen.

Also, Fr. Stephen has already posted an excellent meditation on the Bridegroom motiff in the context of Holy Week (even though for the Byzantine Orthodox, Holy Week is next week). In it, Fr. Stephen writes:
"It is time again to forgive one another. If I stand with the humble Bridegroom and hear His words of humility: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (he offers no blame), how can I not with Him readily forgive all who have reason to hate me, or who hate me for no reason at all, or whom I hate (sinner that I am) even though their sins against me justly invite my wrath? Do I even dare to think of justice when the judgment of God looms so near? No, forgiveness can and must be given now! Rush to forgive - tell them quickly that their debt has been reduced or even taken away.

"The coins with which we must purchase oil for our lamps as we follow the Bridegroom into His bridal chamber, can only be obtained by giving away the currency of our self-righteousness and the wealth of our grudges."
It is found here. Do read it all.

"Love covers a multitude of sins."

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