The distinctive image for Orthodox Christians in this first part of Holy Week is of Christ, the Bridegroom, the one for whom we await, watchful, sober, alert. But he is not depicted in iconography as you might expect. He is not robed in festal garments but in the mocking kingly attire forced on him by his tormentors, bound and humiliated:
The texts that accompany the first appearance of the Bridegroom, on Monday in Holy Week, richly juxtapose scriptural images and give us that tone of ‘bright sadness’ that is so prevalent in Byzantine hymnography for this season. Here is one of the texts from Mattins:
The first-fruits of the Lord’s Passion fill this present day with light. Come then, all who love to keep the feast, and let us welcome it with songs. For the Creator draws near to undergo the Cross; He is questioned, beaten, and brought to Pilate for judgement; a servant strikes Him on the face, and all this He endures that He may save humankind. Therefore let us cry aloud to Him: O Christ our God who lovest humankind, grant remission of sins to those who venerate in faith Thy Holy Passion.
In the Western tradition, we are not so used to thinking of these days as being festal and light-filled, but these Orthodox texts are bold in the way they hold together deeply paradoxical moods of bitterness and joy, exaltation and humiliation, servanthood and glorification. In the same office, we see Joseph, whose loss is lamented by Jacob but who is later ‘enthroned’ on a chariot as a king, offered as a type of Jesus, who humbled himself and was then raised. Christ’s self-emptying in the incarnation is carried right through to his Passover.
I find this paradox to be powerfully appropriate in Holy Week this year. There is, indeed, a great and bitter sadness in these days of pandemic, but the light of hopeful prayer shines brightly, and so does the humble service of so many who are working to relieve the sufferings of others.
Be at peace with one another and with all people; think humbly of yourselves and ye shall be exalted.
Texts from the Lenten Triodion, translated by Mother Mary and Metropolitan Kallistos; Faber and Faber 1978