Let’s be honest. In our minds, many of us split Holy Pascha Week into two:
- The not-so-important stuff until Wednesday Morning, and then
- The important part beginning Wednesday night when Judas betrays Christ, followed by Covenant Thursday where we have the washing of feet and partake in the Mystical Supper with Christ, and then of course Great (or “Good”) Friday.
Many of us will only attend just Great Friday services, or at best will just attend “the important part” beginning Wednesday night.
So let’s try to make Sunday night through Wednesday more significant. (Note: For a PowerPoint Lesson to go along with this, click here to download)
SHARED THEME AMONG THE COPTIC AND EASTERN ORTHODOX
Did you know that both the Coptic Church as well as the Eastern Orthodox share the same theme for those days?
The overarching theme: Christ our Bridegroom.
It is explicitly exposed in the rituals of the Eastern Church, but in the Coptic Church one can find the same theme, albeit more subtly expressed in its readings.
To understand further, we must turn to what can be considered the foundational passage of this theme: the parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins and the bridegroom. In this story one finds Christ our Bridegroom, but two groups of people whose outcomes differed based on their preparedness (Mt. 25:1–13):
- Five wise virgins, whose lamps were full
- Five foolish virgins, whose lamps were empty, and missed the wedding with the bridegroom, because the door was shut
UNDERSTANDING THE BASIS OF THIS THEME
Who is this about? St. Augustine tells us that “this parable relates to us all, that is to the whole Church together.”[i]
How does “virgin” apply to all of us? St. Augustine agrees with St. John Chrysostom that the term “virgin” is to be understood as meaning all souls who “remain unpolluted.”
“For the uncorrupt soul is a virgin, though she has a husband [or he has a wife]: she is a virgin as to that which is virginity indeed, that which is worthy of admiration…. This let us cultivate, and so shall we be able with cheerful countenance to behold the Bridegroom, to enter in with bright torches, if the oil does not fail us, if … we procure such oil as makes our lamps bright.”[ii]
What about the oil? Many of the Early Church Fathers indicate the oil signifies various good works and almsgiving (e.g., St. Gregory the Great, St. Augustine, St John Chrysostom).[iii]
This parable is about both our union with Christ and separation from Him, pivoted on our preparedness and readiness to meet Christ, depending on whether we lived a life where we “bear fruits worthy of repentance” or not (Matthew 3:8). While we enjoy uniting with Christ here, the culmination of our union is focused on being ready for Christ’s Second Coming (or our own death, since after death the opportunity for repentance has ceased, and the door is shut, as the Bible and Church Fathers teach).
This whole wedding analogy when it comes to our union with Christ is not something we find just in this parable, but comes from several other sources in the Bible and is expounded upon by the Church Fathers.
In the Old Testament, the people of God, the people of Israel, were regarded as being “the Lord’s wife,” as He said, “I was a husband to them” (Jeremiah 31:32; cf. Isaiah 54:5). When the people turned away from God and worshipped idols, this was referred to as “adultery” and “fornication” by an “unfaithful wife” (cf. Num. 25:1; Judges 2:17; Jer. 3:20; Ezek 16:17; Hosea 1:2; Is. 50:1; Jer. 3:8). Yet, in compassion God called His “wife” back to Himself, so that she may be faithful, in whom the Bridegroom delighted (cf. Is. 52:4-5; 54; 62:12).
In the New Testament we see the Church taking the place of the people of Israel as being Christ’s Bride (cf. Eph. 5:23). St. Paul tells us His purpose for the Church: “For I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:2). At the end of times, after Christ’s Second Coming, we see in the Book of Revelation the culmination of this wedding imagery:
“’Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.’ And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.’” (Revelation 19:6–8)
EASTERN AND COPTIC ORTHODOX RITUALS AND SIMILARITIES
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, they make it very clear in their rites that these first few days of Pascha are about Christ the Bridegroom, referring to it as the “Bridegroom Services” or the “Service of the Bridegroom.” After the reading of the Psalms on Palm Sunday evening service, a hymn is chanted while the priest carries what is titled the “Bridegroom Icon” of Christ (pictured above) in procession to be placed in the middle of the solea of the church and it remains there until Holy Thursday.
What’s phenomenal is that the Bridegroom Service “Troparion” hymn that is sung as this icon is being placed is IDENTICAL to the first litany of the First Watch of the Midnight Hour (in the Coptic Prayer Book of Hours—the Agpeya), which comes after we read the gospel passage about—you guessed it—the five wise and five foolish virgins waiting to see Christ the Bridegroom.
Behold, the Bridegroom is coming at midnight, blessed is the servant whom He finds watching. But he whom He finds sleeping is unworthy of going with Him. Therefore, take heed, O my soul, that you may not fall into deep sleep, and then be cast out of the Kingdom. But watch and cry out saying “Holy, Holy, Holy are You, O God; for the sake of the Theotokos, have mercy on us.”
To hear the Eastern Orthodox chant, click here and look for “Troparion”:
The similarities don’t stop there! When you look at the READINGS of each day, you will find that you can find virtually the SAME passages being read in both the Coptic and Eastern Orthodox Church:
|Eastern Orthodox Matins||Coptic Orthodox Pascha|
|Monday||Mt. 21:18–43||Mt. 21:23-27—ninth hour|
|Tuesday||Mt. 22:15–46; 23:1–39||Mt. 23:37–24:2—third hour|
|Wednesday||Jn. 12:17–50||Jn. 12:27–36—eleventh hour|
COPTIC CHURCH BRIDEGROOM THEME IN ITS PASCHAL READINGS
The Coptic Church readings weaves the theme of the Christ as our Bridegroom throughout several of the readings, by expressing the dichotomy between preparedness for our union and the wisdom of such preparedness, and the lack of preparedness along with the eternal consequences of such foolishness. For a detailed walk-through of how this is the case, see “Appendix A” below.
[i] St. Augustine, Sermon 43 (NPNF 1:6 pp. 401-402)
[ii] St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Hebrews (NPNF 1:14, p.1067)
[iii] St. Augustine, Sermon 43 (on Matt. 25:1) (NPNF 1:6, p. 855); St. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Galations (NPNF 1:13, pp. 105, 798).
OTHER SOURCES/FURTHER RESOURCES
Greek Orthodox Archidocese of America: http://lent.goarch.org/bridegroom_services/learn/
— APPENDIX A —
Further Details RE: COPTIC CHURCH BRIDEGROOM THEME IN ITS PASCHAL READINGS
After we read several passages on Sunday night about Christ preparing His disciples for His impending death, we can find the following:
Monday Morning: On this day the Church reminds us about the story of Adam and Eve and how all of this suffering Christ endured was related to those events. Then we read a song of love from Isaiah, “Now let me sing to my well-beloved” (Isaiah 5:1), and later learn about wisdom from the book of Sirach. We also read many readings about the wrath of God upon those who reject His love. The gospel readings throughout the day then bring to mind the fig tree which Christ cursed for not having fruit, which withered away; this is analogous to the five foolish virgins who had no oil and were unable to enjoy the blessings of union with the Bridegroom. We are also confronted with the gospel passages that evince the lack of wisdom of Jewish leaders in being unable to accept Christ’s claims.
Monday Evening: The readings here relate to preparation necessary for the Church to meet its true Bridegroom. In the first hour we read passages about the need to return to God and enter through the “narrow gate.” The third hour we read about God calling us with love to Himself, as in the passage from Malachi where God says “I have loved you” and the gospel where we hear Christ saying “How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! The sixth hour brings to mind what happens when we turn away from Christ’s call to love Him—we are said to “commit harlotry” in the book of Hosea when we choose another love. The gospel tells us therefore to “watch … and pray” so that the “Day” does not “come on you unexpectedly” as it did for the five foolish virgins. Similar language of love and the need for preparedness can be found in the remainder of the day.
Tuesday Morning: In the first hour we read about a desire to have a heart for God. The third hour tells us that those who seek God will still suffer tribulation. The sixth hour tells us about the suffering that people will endure if they do not choose to respond to God’s love. The ninth hour contrasts the judgment of both the righteous and the wicked. The eleventh hour tells us of Christ’s Second Coming, and we prepare a throne in our hearts for Him by setting Him as we sing the hymn “Your Throne” (Pekethronos) in this hour.
Tuesday Evening: This entire evening is where you find the most obvious correlation to the overall theme of our marriage with the Bridegroom. The first hour focuses on how we must wear a garment (which resembles goodness and righteousness) to be prepared for the wedding feats or otherwise be denied the marriage and salvation. In the third hour we read more about readiness, and we also read about how the Lord wears the house of Israel as a “sash” that clings to Him, which symbolizes our union and fellowship with Him. The sixth hour is where we finally read the parable of the five wise and foolish virgins. The ninth hour contrasts the rejected bride (including a reading about the harlot in the book of Hosea), with the wise bride.
Wednesday Morning and Evening: While we could mark the end of this Bridegroom Theme as being Tuesday night, one may also consider that Wednesday extends the theme of the Bridegroom, where we see two extremes of love: the kisses of Mary, contrasted with the kiss of Judas, kisses of love compared with the kiss of betrayal.