The Matins of Holy Thursday: A Meditation

“Great are you, O Lord, and marvelous are your works, and there is no word which suffices to hymn your wonders!”

These words, which come from the blessing of water at the baptismal service and at the water blessing on Theophany, are probably not the first words that come to mind now, at the midpoint of Holy Week. (The matins of Holy Thursday, a rich and beautiful service, is usually celebrated on the evening of Holy Wednesday. In many parishes in North America, however, the Service of Anointing is celebrated at that time, and the matins service is omitted.) This is hardly a time for celebration.

We are now at the point in Holy Week when things go from bad to worse. The shouts of “Hosanna” have long faded, and the crowds will soon be yelling “Crucify him! Crucify him!” The religious authorities, threatened by Jesus’ popularity and his assaults on their traditions, are plotting to kill him. The civil authorities have their own agendas, focused on maintaining their positions of power and preserving the pax Romana. Judas, one of the Twelve, is laying his own plans to betray the Master even as he eats and drinks at the Last Supper with the Lord and the other disciples. And immediately after the supper, the disciples begin to argue among themselves about which of them is the greatest. Soon, the disciples will abandon him as he undergoes the passion. Peter will deny him three times, and all the apostles will scatter after Jesus’ arrest. Only a few women remain faithful as they accompany him at his crucifixion, and later as they come to anoint his dead body—and for this reason they become the first witnesses to the resurrection.

No one knows or comprehends the cosmic events that are taking place. The world at large is completely oblivious, and the story of Jesus leaves almost no mark on the official historical records of the day. The Jewish nation rejects the Messiah as, at best, another prophet who met a sad end—he was certainly not the triumphant, worldly king they were expecting. Jesus’ followers, bewildered and confused, give up. Even the women who remain faithful do so not because they understand the significance of what is happening, but because of the personal love they feel for him.

And what about us, who gather together some two thousand years later to remember these events? As the texts of the Holy Week services make abundantly clear, we are just like those weak, sinful individuals portrayed in the scripture readings and in the hymnography. Indeed, it is to us that these texts are addressed. We are just like those crowds that yell “Hosanna” one day, and a few days later crucify our Lord. We do this whenever we despise or ignore our neighbor, who is the living image of Christ. We do this when, like the Pharisees, we concern ourselves more with the externals of the faith than with the law of love. We do this when, like Judas, we value the thirty pieces of silver more than the gift of eternal life.

For the Holy Week liturgical cycle functions as one big parable: a story that first draws us in, and then pulls the rug out from under us as it reveals the weakness of all our own arguments, our own rationalizations. We think that it is the Jews who are responsible for crucifying Christ—and at one time people calling themselves Orthodox Christians would launch pogroms against Jews on these days. We may even consider that some of the Holy Thursday and Holy Friday texts are anti-Semitic, and we fail to realize that they are actually speaking about us. For it is by our own sins and actions that we crucify Christ. It is we who stand condemned.

These Holy Week services thus paint a dark picture of the fallen world in which we live. This is a world in which darkness reigns, where individuals and nations commit the vilest atrocities and genocides. Modernity, despite bring much improvement of the lives of so many people, has also made the extermination of entire peoples ever more efficient and impersonal. Our cities are full of suffering and crime, and that in the richest nation on this earth. And in many parts of the world, conditions are far worse.

In short, these services unmask the reality of this world, a reality we try so hard to conceal even from ourselves. Like the emperor in the familiar fairy tale, we are revealed as having no clothes. Or, in the language of the exaposteilarion that we sing at the matins services from Monday to Thursday of this week, we have no “wedding garment” to enter into the bridal chamber.

Yet it is only when we become aware of this absolute emptiness that we can begin to understand why it was necessary for Christ to come into the world in order to overcome this darkness. We begin to see this now, as Christ first washes the feet of his disciples, then offers his Body and Blood to us in anticipation of his own death on the Cross for our sake. He, and He alone, is under no delusion. He alone sees this fallen world for what it is—a world that rejects its Maker. And yet, as we hear in John’s Gospel, God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son, who, by his presence among us, fills the darkness with light. The One who created the world never stops loving his creation, even when that creation does not return his love and chases after idols.

Later today, as we celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy of Holy Thursday, we shall sing “One is holy, one is the Lord, Jesus Christ.” As we do this, we confess not only that he alone is holy, but also that we, because of our sins, are not. Yet we do this with the certainty that through him, we too become holy, not because of anything that we do or have done, but because he freely bestows his holiness on us. We become holy when, at our baptism and chrismation, we are clothed with the “robe of righteousness.” And we reaffirm this each time that we approach the chalice.

The garment that we lack is provided to us freely by the Master. At the time of Christ, the host would provide a wedding garment to all the guests he invited. They did not have to purchase or earn it for themselves. So, in the familiar parable about the wedding feast, the man who comes without the proper attire does so only because he has rejected the free gift of the garment from the Master (Matt 22:11-13).

Our calling today, as we prepare for the liturgy of Holy Thursday, is not to reject that gift, that festal, baptismal garment, but to accept it with gratitude, knowing full well that we do not deserve it. It is for this that Christ comes to us, and why he accepts to suffer and to die on our behalf. This, even more than the many miracles that Jesus performed during his sojourn among us, is the greatest wonder of all.

“Great are you, O Lord, and marvelous are your works, and there is no word which suffices to hymn your wonders!”

Dr. Paul Meyendorff (SVOTS ’75) is a leading specialist in the history, theology, and practice of the Orthodox liturgy and is The Father Alexander Schmemann Professor of Liturgical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Matins of Holy Thursday: A Meditation

  1. Vera Bouteneff

    Thank you Paul. Such useful words and so true. Let us humbly and gratefully accept the wedding garment which is offered to us all.
    Vera Bouteneff

  2. Beautifully written.The meaning of Christ’s appearance here on earth, His journey from the manger to the cross and to resurrection is both simple and yet so profoundly complex that we must be reminded of it again and again. The message and the meaning is love, and such love that it is beyond our human capacity to comprehend fully.