On Passion Week
Remember what happened during the days of Christ’s Passion: how many people there were—both good and terrible people, who would have given anything to break away from the horror and exhaustion of those days. Those who were close to Christ—how their hearts were torn, how their last strength both physical and emotional was wearing thin during the course of these few, but terrible days… How hundreds of people, to be sure, would have liked to break away from this week, to be free of what was happening: free from the wrath, the fear, and the horrors.
But life would not let them escape it. The Most Pure Virgin Theotokos could not run anywhere from the Lord’s Passion; neither could the Lord’s disciples hide from their terror, even in those moments when fear conquered them and they tried to hide themselves from the people’s wrath. Neither could Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, Christ’s secret disciples, or the true and faithful myrrh-bearing women escape anywhere… There was nowhere to go because terror abode in their hearts; because terror enveloped them both within and without. And those who hatefully, stubbornly, and wrathfully strove to accomplish Christ’s murder also had nowhere to hide from this.
So when you remember this, won’t you find a place in church during the course of these terrible days? Their thoughts also raced, their hearts also went cold, and their strength also failed them; but they lived through these events. And what will be happening during these days is not a dead remembrance of something that happened some time ago; it is an event that resides in the heart of our days, and on it our world and our life is founded and built.
Therefore, no matter what we experience, or no matter how little we experience, let us attend these services, let us immerse ourselves in what they have to say to us. We will not try to forcibly squeeze some feelings out of ourselves: it is enough to watch; it is enough to hear. Let the events themselves—for these are events and not just memories—break us in body and soul. Then, when we forget ourselves and think rather of Christ, about what is really taking place during these days, we will reach also that Great Saturday when Christ is laid to rest in the tomb—and we also will find rest. When at night we hear the announcement of the Resurrection, we too will be able to suddenly come alive from that terrible numbness, from that terrible death of Christ, from Christ’s dying, of which we shall partake at least a little during these days of the Passion. Amen
Translation by OrthoChristian.com
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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 (Matins) 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 (Matins) 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 Monday we commemorate Joseph the Patriarch, the beloved son of Jacob. A major figure of the Old Testament, Joseph's story is told in the final section of the Book of Genesis (chs. 37-50). Because of his exceptional qualities and remarkable life, our patristic and liturgical tradition portrays Joseph as tipos Christou, i.e., as a prototype, prefigurement or image of Christ. The story of Joseph illustrates the mystery of God's providence, promise and redemption. Innocent, chaste and righteous, his life bears witness to the power of God's love and promise. The lesson to be learned from Joseph's life, as it bears upon the ultimate redemption wrought by the death and resurrection of Christ, is summed up in the words he addressed to his brothers who had previously betrayed him, “’Fear not ... As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he reassured them and comforted them” (Genesis 50:19-21). The commemoration of the noble, blessed and saintly Joseph reminds us that in the great events of the Old Testament, the Church recognizes the realities of the New Testament.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew for Holy Monday
Now in the morning as he returned into the city, he hungered. And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. And when the disciples saw it, they marvelled, saying, How soon is the fig tree withered away! Jesus answered and said unto them, Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.
The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree
This parable is written in the Gospel according to Luke:
A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of the vineyard, behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down (Luke 13:6-9).
In Gospel Palestine, people often planted fruit trees in their vineyards. Three years had to pass before the fruit of the fig tree would ripen and be fit for harvest and eating. The fig tree in the parable did not bear fruit after the three-year period. "Why cumbereth it the ground?" says the owner of the vineyard. The roots of this fig tree also soaked up the moisture that the grape vines needed, growing around it, which wasted much water, which was also scarce in Palestine. All the same, the vine dresser tries to persuade the owner to hold off on his decision to destroy the barren fig tree, saying: "Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: and if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down." The Old Testament nowhere mentions use of manure, and an ordinary fig tree does not need any. Thus, this vinedresser is proposing extraordinary measures to help fig tree bear fruit.
The Jewish had people preserved the folk-tale of Achicar (5th century BC). The legend runs "My son, thou art like the tree which did not give fruit, in spite of the fact that it grew next to a spring. Its owner was forced to cut it down. The tree said to him: 'Transplant me, and if I do not bear fruit in the new place either, then cut me down.'" In reply, the owner said: "When thou didst stand next to the water, thou didst not bear fruit. Why then should fruit appear on thy branches if thou shouldest stand in a different place?'" Jesus used this well-known folk tale in His parable, but gave a different end to a different request.
In the parable of the barren fig tree, the theme is God's long suffering with His chosen people, as with the fig tree in the vineyard. The vineyard is the world and its peoples. God expected His chosen people to believe in His Son and to repent and live according to faith in Him. Human failure brings down God's wrath, shown in the guise of the owner's decision to cut down the barren fig tree. But the kind-hearted Christ (the vinedresser), suffers throughout the course of His public ministry to bring the people to the saving faith and the fruits of His labors. He entreats His Father to put off the judgment of people, until His teaching and deeds could save all those who still could be saved (Luke 13:7-9).
The Savior's kind heart is the deeper theme of the parable. The three-years wait of the owner for the vinedresser is the three years of Christ's public ministry. The fourth year is the year of popular rejection of Christ by the people, His crucifixion, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and the subjugation of Israel by the Romans. The Savior also curses the barren fig tree not long before His passion (Matthew 21:18-20, Mark 11:12-14; 20-21).
Archpriest Victor Patapov
From the Triodion service on Monday of Holy Week:
Behold, the Bridegroom cometh at midnight, and blessed in that servant whom He shall find watching; but unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, lest thou be weighed down with sleep; lest thou be given over to death, and be shut out of the kingdom. But rouse thyself and cry: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God; through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.
I see Thy bridal chamber, adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment, that I may enter there. Make the robe of my soul to shine, O, Giver of Life, and save me.