Fruits of Repentance: Holy Monday and the withering of the fig tree

Being frightened by the punishment of the fig tree, which withered because it did not bear fruit, O brethren, let us bring worthy fruits of repentance to Christ, who grants us His great mercy.
- Aposticha of Holy Monday Orthros
The Withering of the Fig Tree
The observance of Holy Monday begins and ends in the evening of Palm Sunday with the Nymphios service-- the service of Bridegroom Orthros. For the duration of Holy Week, each liturgical day is pushed back by one. The Vesperal Presanctified Liturgy and Bridegroom Orthros that are celebrated on Holy Monday actually belong to Holy Tuesday, the Orthros of the 12 Passion Gospels that is celebrated in the evening on Holy Thursday actually belongs to Holy Friday, and so on. It is often said that this is an expression of our eagerness to arrive at Holy Pascha.
It is likely that this liturgical time-shifting began during the period of the tourkokratia when Orthodox Christians were under the oppression of the Ottoman Empire. Curfew laws did not allow the Orthodox to celebrate long services in the very early hours of the morning, and so the Orthros services were pushed back to be celebrated the evening before. This likely began with the very long Orthros service for Holy Friday, and then the rest of the services followed suit.
The Bridegroom Orthros services that are celebrated in the evenings from Palm Sunday until Holy Tuesday present us with the stark image of Christ as a bridegroom entering into his bridal chamber. We all know that a couple that is getting married will wear their best clothing on the day of their wedding, often spending exorbitant amounts on the wedding dress and suit. It was the same in Jesus' day; a bridegroom was expected to wear his wedding garment as he entered into his bridal chamber. In Jesus' case the wedding garment is his suffering that we willingly took on for our sake. It is through this suffering that he unites himself to us in a union closer and more intimate than that between a husband and wife.
While the priest processes around the Church with an icon of Christ dressed in the 'purple of mockery,' the following hymn is chanted:
"Behold, the Bridegroom is coming in the middle of the night; and blessed is the servant He shall find awake and watching; unworthy is the other He shall find being lazy. So beware, O soul of mine, be not overcome by sleep, so that you not be handed over to death and be shut out from the Kingdom. Come to your senses and cry aloud: Holy, holy, holy are You our God."
Christ the Bridegroom
The Bridegroom Orthros of Holy Monday is dedicated to two themes: The Old Testament personality of the Patriarch Joseph, who because of his faithful love for and union with Christ refused a sinful union with Potiphar's wife (Genesis 39:1-23); and the withering of the fig tree narrated in the Gospel reading for this service (Matthew 21:18-43).
The withering of the fig tree occurs directly after our Gospel reading for Palm Sunday. After beginning his ministry of healing in the Temple, Jesus returns to Bethany for the night. The next morning, on his way back to Jerusalem, he saw a fig tree by the side of the road and wanted to eat its fruit. Finding that it was bearing no fruit, Jesus curses and withers the fig tree.
The parable that Jesus tells next makes clear the significance of this withering. Jesus relates the story of a man who planted a vineyard, made the vineyard strong and secure, and then lent it out to tenants to cultivate on his behalf. The Gospel reading relates what happened next:
"When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him."
The chief priests to whom Jesus is talking then give Jesus the solution to the problem that the owner of the vineyard is facing: "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons."
Jesus responds: "Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it."
The tenants in this parable represent, not the Jewish people, but rather the religious authorities among the Jewish people. The chief priests and the Pharisees were the inheritors of all the promises of salvation of the Old Testament. As the leaders of God's chosen people, they ought to have themselves been living lives of faithfulness to God's promise. And yet, throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus condemning them for their hypocrisy.
Later on in his ministry, Jesus preaches to a crowd about the unfaithfullness of the religious authorities:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger."
The withering of the fig tree, then, shows us that Jesus has taken away the promises of salvation from those who have not shown the fruits of repentance. 'Fruits of repentance' here means a changed way of life, a way of life that is constantly oriented toward Christ and his Kingdom. The religious authorities have not oriented their lives in this way, and so the promise of salvation is removed from them "and given to a nation producing the fruits of it." 
This occasion is also a prelude to what we will see happening in the book of Acts, when to the astonishment of the Apostles God shows them that the Gentiles, the non-Jewish people, are being received into that promise of salvation and welcomed into the Church (cf. Acts 10).
As Christians, we tend to read this parable and pat ourselves on the back. We tend to read this parable as condemning the religious expressions that came before us and congratulating us for being the new receivers of the promise of salvation. We see ourselves not as the old and wicked tenants, but as the new tenants of the vineyard who will bring the fruits to the owner.
In fact, this parable is a warning to us. This parable tells us that our belonging to the right Church, or our sitting in positions of religious authority, are no guarantee of our salvation if our lives have not produced the fruits of repentance. As the people who have received the promises of salvation, it is our duty to make sure we are always cultivating the vineyard of our soul, pruning the overgrown plants, removing the weeds, tilling the soil. Failure in this task of continuous repentance means that, even for us, "the kingdom of God will be taken away from [us] and given to a nation producing the fruits of it."
Patriarch Joseph the All-Comely
The second commemoration for Holy Monday, that of the Patriarch Joseph, brings us back to the images of the wedding garment and the bridal chamber. Joseph was a servant in a high position of authority in Potiphar's household. When Potiphar's wife attempted to seduce Joseph, it was in the bridal chamber of the house, the room that is reserved for the husband and wife.
Fleeing from her advances, Joseph leaves behind the royal garment that she had taken hold of. He preferred to abandon his place of authority rather than to be unfaithful in his union with Christ. In this case, his nakedness is his wedding garment, since it is the sign of his faithfulness to Christ.
The doxastikon of the aposticha from the Bridegroom Orthros relates the story of Joseph to the unashamed nakedness of Adam and Eve in Paradise:
"The serpent, finding the Egyptian woman to be a second Eve through the words she spoke, hastened through flattery to cause Joseph to fall. But Joseph abandoned his garment, and thus he fled from sin. And though he was naked, he was unashamed, like Adam, the first man, was before he disobeyed."
Today's service, then, is calling us to follow Joseph's example. We are being invited into Christ's bridal chamber, which is his suffering for our sake on the Cross. To respond faithfully to this invitation, we are to put on our 'best clothes,' we are to dress ourselves in the bridal garment of the virtues by living a life the 'bears the fruits of repentance.'
Through this new way of life in Christ, we become united with him as if one flesh while we follow him to his suffering, death, burial and resurrection. Only with the grace and help of God is this new way of life possible, and so we ask for his assistance as we chant together the exapostilarion hymn from this service:
"O my Savior, now I see
Your wedding hall decorated,
and I have not the garment
needed for me to enter it.
Make this raiment of my soul brightly shine,
O Giver-of-Light, and save me."