Dear Parish Faithful,
I cannot but wonder just how many Orthodox Christians nationwide gathered together at "Super Bowl parties" yesterday evening while our churches were open - but relatively empty? - for the vigil of the Feast of the Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple (February 2). Granted, those same Orthodox Christians may have been to church for the Liturgy in the morning; And granted, further, that returning to church on Sunday evenings is not that popular of a practice as it is (school night, etc.). Nevertheless, I firmly believe that an opportunity was lost here. An opportunity to witness to certain essential priorities and loyalties: that a major Feast commemorating an event in the life of Christ has priority over what is, ultimately, "only a game," regardless of how "super" it may be. That our loyalty to our life in Christ and to the Church is greater than that given to an obsessively over-hyped event that has taken on a life of its own far beyond the proportions of its intrinsic worthfulness. In other words if, in this year, there was a coincidence and clash of dates between the Church's festal cycle and our social/cultural "Super Sunday," then the ecclesial calender should have "trumped" the secular one in our minds, hearts, and actions. It is not about "making a point," but about doing something that would hopefully come to us naturally. Therefore, personally and pastorally, it is my humble opinion that those Orthodox Christians that chose the Super Bowl party and the game over their presence in the Church for the Feast, sadly succumbed to a confused sense of priorities and loyalties. At times we are called to make some really "hard choices" in life.
Be that as it may, this wonderful Feast of The Meeting of our Our Lord in the Temple commemorates the event recorded in the Gospel According to St. Luke (2:22-40). This occurs forty days after the Nativity of Christ. Hence, this particular Feast brings to a close an entire cycle that began eighty days earlier with the onset of the Nativity Fast on November 15. The Circumcision of Christ that occurred eight days after His birth falls between the Feasts of the Nativity and the Meeting. One of the hymns for the Meeting nicely brings out this sequence of events, placing them in the context of fulfilling the Scriptures:
Search the Scriptures, as Christ our God said in the Gospels. For in them we find Him born as a child and bound in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger and fed upon milk, receiving circumcision and carried by Simeon: not in fancy nor in imagination but in very truth has He appeared unto the world. To Him let us cry aloud: Glory to Thee, O pre-eternal God. (Great Vespers, litiya)
It is interesting to note how this hymn stresses the true humanity of the Lord by such expressions as "not in fancy nor in imagination but in very truth." Our Lord did not seem to be human, but He was truly human, otherwise He could not have saved us.
Christ is brought to the Temple in Jerusalem by His mother and Joseph in fulfillment of the Law (LEV. 12). Unable to afford an unblemished lamb, they offer a pair of turtledoves. Yet, the Mother of God is carrying the unblemished Lamb of God in her arms and then offers Him to the righteous Simeon. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, St. Simeon prophecies to the Virgin Mary: "and a sword will pierce through your own soul also" (LK 2:35). This has always been understood as pointing to the maternal suffering of the Mother of God who will behold her Son dying on the Cross.
In a wonderful homily, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov (+1944), revealed the humility of the Lord as the beginning of the path that would lead to His ultimate sacrifice:
The Infant was born on earth - the eternal God in a humble manger, but there was a place for Him in the Temple, for the Temple was built for Him. And He was brought into His Temple, where it pleased His Name to dwell (I Kings 8:29). But He came there not to receive veneration, but to serve many, in the form of a servant, veiling the radiance of His Divinity with the abject humility of the flesh. He came there as a son under the law, obedient to the law which He Himself had given to Moses, manifesting Himself as the model of obedience; for He came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. His Mother came to dedicate Her firstborn Son to God, to give God the Son to God the Father, and to offer the redemptive and purifying sacrifice. In giving birth to the Infant, She did not know sin; but just as He, sinless, came to receive from John the baptism of repentance, so She too, in Her immaculate birth, came to offer a sacrifice for sin, having in Her arms the One who truly was the Sacrifice for the sins of the entire world.... It is not for glory but for the offering of sacrifice that the Lord is brought into His house, which had to receive and encompass the One who cannot be encompassed. (Churchly Joy, p. 59-60)
If we search carefully, we discover that all of the Feasts commemorating the events in the early life of the Lord also point forward to the sacrifice of the Cross and the life-giving death of Christ. Bound in swaddling cloths and lying in a cave at His Nativity anticipates His later entombment when bound in burial cloths. The blood shed at His circumcision anticipates His blood shed upon the Cross. And being offered as a lamb in the Temple anticipates His sacrificial death as the Lamb of God.
In a very wide context, we realize that the Old Testament "meets" the New Testament when the Messiah is brought to the Temple, the dwelling-place of God. Jesus Christ is now the place of the divine presence, for His flesh is the "temple" of His divinity. The representatives of the Chosen People for this meeting are the righteous elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna. The elder Simeon received Christ into his arms and blessed God in the process. We are all quite familiar with the magnificent hymn of St. Simeon, known as the Nunc Dimittis, chanted at every Vespers service:
Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel. (LK 2:32)
If we, too, could depart from this life with those words on our lips and in our hearts, that departure would be glorious!
Sadly, the prophetess Anna would probably be seen as a "fanatic" today because "She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day" (2:37) for the greater part of eighty-four years! Both Simeon and Anna realized that this meeting was of the deepest significance possible, for the young Child promised to be "the redemption of Jerusalem" (2:38). For this reason, the prophtess Anna "gave thanks to God" (2:38).
Considering the depth of the great Feasts of the Church's liturgical cycle, expressed in a kind of theological poetry that amplifies what is found in Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church; revealed in beautiful iconography; and further enhanced in our communal liturgical gatherings; it seems only natural for Orthodox Christians to avail themselves of the opportunity to come together in worship whenever possible. Lacking in "fun," but filled with divine grace, the Feasts make present the events being commemorated by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Actually, nothing is lacking - except perhaps "instant replay." But this is more than made up for by the fact that there are no interminable "commercial breaks" that would break the flow of the service. Expert pre- and post-Feast "analysis" is provided by the writings of the Holy Fathers and contemporary Orthodox theologians who offer insightful commentaries on the deepest levels of meaning of the Feast. There is no final score, but "those who keep my words to the end" are all considered to be "conquerors" promises the Lord (REV. 2:26).