Great and Holy Monday

Great and Holy Monday is the first day of Great and Holy Week - the final week before the feast of Pascha. During the days of Great and Holy Week, we follow the events in the life of our Savior from his entry into Jerusalem to his glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday.

The days of the Bridegroom

Each of the evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) provide a slightly different account of the events of this week, as befits the fact that each one had particular concerns and vantage points. On some occasions, the account chosen by the Church for use in her liturgy affects other aspects of the services.

Great and Holy Week is a case in point. On the first days of this week, the Church presents us with the events as recounted by Saint Matthew: the Lord's entry into Jerusalem is followed by a series of discourses on the end times. While revealing some of the "signs of the end", our Lord counsels his disciples to watchfulness, since "no one knows the day or the hour."

The Church takes this to heart during Great and Holy Week, and at Matins on each of the first three days of the week we sing the following troparion:

Behold, the Bridegroom is coming in the middle of the night.
Blessed is the servant He shall find awake.
But the one He shall find neglectful is not worthy of Him,
Beware, therefore, O my soul! Do not fall into a deep slumber,
lest you be delivered to death and the door of the Kingdom be closed to you.
Watch, instead, and cry out:
Holy, holy, holy are You, O God.
Through the intercession of the Theotokos, have mercy on us.

and on Monday through Thursday, we sing the following Hymn of Light at Matins:

I see your bridal chamber completely engulfed with light, O my Savior,
and I do not have a wedding garment to enter and enjoy your brightness;
fill the garment of my soul with light,
and save me, O Lord, save me.

Both of these hymns refer to the parable of the ten bridesmaids, which is read at Matins on Tuesday. By effort and attentiveness, we must await the Bridegroom's appointed day, and be ready when the time comes. This has a twofold meaning: we must strive to be ready as our Savior approaches his Passion; and we must strive to be ready for his second and glorious coming. (An ancient legend, which holds that our Savior will return on the morning of Pascha, ties these events even closer together.)

This emphasis on watchfulness, and on our Savior's journey to his salvific death - expressed in the hymns quoted above - leads to the special name for the first three days of Great Week: the days of the Bridegroom.

At Matins

The morning Matins on the first three days of Great and Holy Week is often called Bridegroom Matins; it is sometimes celebrated by anticipation on the previous evening. Toward the beginning on the service, after the "Alleluia" that replaces "The Lord is God" on fast days, we sing the troparion "Behold, the bridegroom is coming" to a beautiful traditional melody.

The Gospel at Matins on Monday (Matthew 21:18-43) recounts the story of the fig tree which bore no fruit, and two of our Lord's parables of the vineyard: the first parable, of two sons, one of whom was outwardly obedient but would not go to his work, and one who appeared to disobey but went in the end to obey his father; and the second parable, of tenants who refused to give the owner of the vineyard his due, and killed first a messenger, then the owner's son. These stories applied to those Jews who rejected Jesus and had decided to have him put to death; but they also apply to us, who recognize God's authority but often reject it in practice.

In the kontakion, we are reminded of Joseph, who was unjustly accused of sin, and after being thrown into prison, came to a position of great authority in Egypt. Throughout Great and Holy Week, we will be presented with a number of these "types" (prophetic foreshadowings) of Christ.

At the end of the canon, we sing (slowly and solemnly) the Hymn of Light, "I see your bridal chamber", to a special melody of its own.

At the Hours

At the sixth hour, in place of the readings from Isaiah that we heard throughout the Great Feast, we turn to the prophecies of Ezekiel. On Monday, we hear of the calling of the prophet Ezekiel (corresponding to the story of the call of the prophet Isaiah, which we heard on the second Sunday of the Great Fast). In the course of the first three days, we will hear Ezekiel's highly symbolic vision of the "four animals", which the Fathers relate to the four Evangelists, and which also have something about them of the seraphim of Isaiah's vision of heaven.

More important, perhaps, is the connection with the rest of the prophecies of Ezekiel, which are not read. In Ezekiel 40-43, the prophet describes a "heavenly Jerusalem" which transcends the material realm. At the very time when our Lord was scandalizing his hearers with the prediction that the Temple would be destroyed, we are reminded indirectly of the Jerusalem "which is above" and which is eternal.

In monasteries, it is the custom on the first three days of Great Week to read the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in their entirety, and the Gospel according Saint John, stopping just before the account of the Last or Mystical Supper:

At the Third and Ninth Hours, the Gospel is read after the troparion of the hour; at the Sixth Hour, it is read after the second prokeimenon.

At the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts

On each of the first three days of Great and Holy Week, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated in the evening. In the hymns of Vespers, we look ahead to the Passion, and what lies beyond:

As the Lord approached his voluntary passion, he said to his disciples on the way:
Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem,
and the Son of Man will be betrayed as it is written concerning him
Come, then, let us also go up with him, having purified our minds.
Let us die with him to the pleasures of life, so that we may live with him and hear him exclaim:
Never again will I go up to the earthly Jerusalem to suffer,
but I ascend to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,
and I will raise you up with me
to the Jerusalem on high
in the kingdom of heaven.

The Old Testament readings on these days are taken from Exodus and Job, in succession from the books of Genesis and Proverbs which we heard during the Great Fast. The readings from Exodus recount the story of the life of Moses, rich in types of the life of Christ, and also serve as a prelude to the story of the Passover, which we will hear on the vigil of Pascha. Job is a type of Christ - a just man who suffered much, but remained obedient and refused to sin, and who was restored in the end to greater glory than he had before.

On each of these days a Gospel is read at the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (unlike a feast day Presanctified Liturgy, there is no Epistle). On Great and Holy Monday, the Gospel (Matthew 24:36 - 26:2) is a long discourse by our Lord on the coming of the end times.

Recommended Reading