Coming Closer: Bridegroom Matins
Sermon preached by Stephani Nur Colby on Sunday, March 1, 2015 as part of Antiochian Women's Month
This year’s theme for the Women’s Month sermons centers on the astonishing, grace-filled services of Holy Week. As Fr. Antony has said, Holy Week is in itself a meditation, a time set apart for us to draw closer to our Lord in a more intimate and powerful way as we follow Him on His lonely, terrifying, beautiful, and glorious road. Today we will be taking a look at the Bridegroom Matins that occur on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evenings of Holy Week.
Each night of these hauntingly beautiful Matins, where we contemplate the Lord as the beloved Bridegroom of our own souls, has its own theme: on the first night, the Last Judgment; on the second night, the Ten Virgins, five wise, with their spiritual lamps full of oil, and five foolish, with empty lamps; and on Tuesday night, we meditate upon the enormous contrast between the sinful woman who washed our Lord’s feet with her tears out of great, self-forgetting love and the betrayal of Judas, who hardened his heart against all the blessing and goodness he had received from his Lord. On all three nights the lovely hymn to the Bridegroom is sung: “Behold, the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is he whom He shall find watching.”
A verse sung during the Praises on the third night tells us: “While the sinful woman brought oil of myrrh, the disciple came to an agreement with the transgressors. She rejoiced to pour out what was very precious, he made haste to sell the One who is above all price. She acknowledged Christ as Lord, he severed himself from the Master. She was set free, but Judas became the slave of the enemy. Grievous was his lack of love! Great was her repentance! Grant such repentance also unto me, o Savior who has suffered for our sake, and save us.”
Two of the themes mentioned for the Bridegroom Matins are “repentance and vigilance.” Important as these are, they can often be “wooden words” to us – “shoulds” rather than heartfelt feelings. Of what are we repenting and for what are we being vigilant? Certainly we all have things we feel sorry for, overt sins that we acknowledge and regret, and we all try, with varying success at different times, to stay awake to the “still, small” voice from within. But what stands in our way to making these words, these feelings, more “living” to us and more constant? An emanation from our hearts rather than primarily an intellectual conviction?
Let us look to this story. This woman’s act of publicly anointing and adoring our Lord at a banquet was an outrageous act, what we might call the act of a fool for Christ. Just imagine us all sitting in a nice restaurant and an uninvited woman with long, unbound hair suddenly appearing at the table and pouring a jar of precious oil over the head of one of our guests, sobbing and washing his feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. What would really be our immediate and honest reactions? Would we not most likely be scandalized and upset, perhaps outraged? Might we not conclude that she must be drunk or mentally ill, and want to distance ourselves from her as much as possible? Would we not ask the waiters to immediately take her out?
Our materialistic culture, with which we are deeply dyed, despite our faith, tends to whisper to us that this kind of drama, such gestures, even miracles, belong to ancient times and don’t really occur in the same way now. Most of us live in thermostat-controlled houses; we also are taught that to be a proper adult we must manifest a similar type of unvarying “evenness” where we don’t feel too much too often and certainly don’t express the deeper impulses from within our hearts in a public way. So we often suffer from what at first appears to be only an innocuous sin: a sense of limitation. But our sense of limitation, which we tend to justify to ourselves as “real” and reasonable, places barriers between what can happen between ourselves and our Lord. Our sense of propriety, our worry about what others might think, our vain self-consciousness, and perhaps even some coldness in our hearts can keep us sleeping when we need to be awake to the Spirit’s call, unlike this woman who cast aside concern about herself and the consequences of her drastic act, to serve our Lord in a needful way, impelled by great love and the powerful spirit of prophecy. The spirit of prophecy treads convention and cultural norms underfoot. Jesus Himself said that this woman had come to anoint Him beforehand for His own burial. He spoke aloud, for those who could hear, the prophetic meaning of her act.
Love, humility, and wakefulness are all intimately tied together. Love gives birth to humility and wakefulness, and the other two can lead to love. Not much over a year ago, a great miracle took place at my childhood church, St. Paraskevi, in Greenlawn, New York. St. Paraskevi was an early martyr of the Church, known as a great preacher and healer, especially of the eyes. A grotto containing her holy water exists at the church, and many people have been healed by it up to the present day. But on this particular day in November, 2013, Fr. Dimitrios Moraitis, then the church pastor, was hearing the confession of a non-Orthodox blind man named Michael. Both had been going through difficult times that were bringing each man separately to the breaking point. Michael, blinded by a caustic chemical encountered in his work as a fire department rescue diver, had learned from his doctors that he would probably soon lose his hearing, also as a result of the chemical’s damage. A short time before he met Fr. Dimitri, Michael was contemplating suicide and only just controlled an impulse to throw himself in front of a bus. Fr. Dimitri was feeling tortured by difficulties he was experiencing with some members of the church board regarding church administration, and his heart was heavy with a sense of persistent persecution. Around the time that Michael came into Fr. Dimitri’s life, Fr. Dimitri had come finally to a hard-won decision: to, without exception, “respond only with love to anything and everything that came [to him] from then on.”
Despite his despair, Michael, in his turn, felt a deep draw to offering a heartfelt confession and, despite his distress, spent two weeks preparing one. Fr. Dimitri heard Michael’s moving, two-hour confession and, as he put his hand on Michael’s head with the prayer of absolution, they both felt a great shock. Now both weeping, together they descended to St. Paraskevi’s grotto where, as Michael washed his eyes in St. Paraskevi’s holy water and Fr. Dimitri spoke healing prayers, Michael suddenly received a complete healing of his eyes.
These men were not perfect but, like the sinful woman, they loved much. They struggled to be awake without limitation, so far as possible, to our Bridegroom Lord. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable, bearing their pain of heart but still reaching for hope. And our Lord, our Holy Mother, and St. Paraskevi richly rewarded them, to the benefit of many.
We are not different from these men or from the sinful woman whose humility of honesty, responsiveness to the Holy Spirit, and aching love St. Kassiani so famously hymns at the Wednesday Bridegroom Matins. Miracles still happen now. We must try to live in hope that transcends our customary boundaries and enter into the humility of knowing, that with God, anything can happen. As we strive to let down our hair and go beyond limitation in order to love and adore our Lord, we too may begin to see miracles happening all around us.
Next week’s sermon for Women’s Month will examine Holy Unction, Healing, and Forgiveness.
(for an online interview with Fr. Dimitrios Moraitis about the miraculous healing: http://myocn.net/modern-day-miracle