Monday, October 17, 2016

Vespers and the Fulfillment of Time


Dear Parish Faithful,



I understand that our Church School studied the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple in their respective classes yesterday.  To remind everyone, the Church School curriculum this year is "The Life of Christ."  They have already covered the Lord's Nativity, so the Meeting of the Lord (LK. 2) follows chronologically.  They are well ahead of the liturgical cycle! 

Some of the younger children colored an icon of the Meeting of the Lord. The Righteous Symeon, one of the key figures found and described by St. Luke the Evangelist in his Gospel is, of course, in that icon. One of the most beautiful hymns in the Scriptures was uttered by St. Symeon when he behold and then held the Christ Child in his arms. 

Often, this hymn is referred by the Latin of its opening words - Nunc Dimittis. We all know that hymn by heart as it is invariably sung or chanted at every single Vespers service - Daily, Great or Festal. But we can include it hear to help us focus on the power of its words:


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 Thy people.
a light to enlighten the Gentiles
   and the glory of Thy people Israel.
  (Lk. 2:29-32)


I bring this to our attention because I spoke of this hymn in the homily yesterday in the context of pointing out the theological structure of the Vespers service. 

This first of the services of our daily liturgical cycle has a profound theological structure to it that embraces and expresses the four essential components of an Orthodox Christian world view. And these are: 1) Creation; 2) Fall; 3) Redemption; and 4)  Kingdom. 

I would like to write about this in more detail in the future; but for the moment, I will simply point out that St. Symeon's Hymn points us toward the Kingdom which is to come, and which he speaks confidently about entering having - by the grace of the Holy Spirit - recognized the Messiah in the little Child cradled in his arms.  St. Symeon thus believes that he can now "depart" - that is, die - "in peace," with that inner certainty that he will now be held within the embrace of God. 

Thus, this hymn is eschatological in its orientation, pointing us toward the End, which is the beginning of life in God's eternal Kingdom. With his usual eloquence, Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes the experience of St. Symeon as follows:

Symeon ... stood for the whole world in its expectation and longing, and the words he used to express his thanksgiving have become our own.... He had beheld the One he had longed for. He had completed his purpose in life, and he was ready to die. 

But death to him was no catastrophe. It was only a natural expression of the fulfillment of his waiting.  He was not closing his eyes to the light he had at last seen; his death was only the beginning of more inward vision of that light. 
In the same way Vespers is the recognition that the evening of this world has come, which announces that Day that has no evening. In this world, every day faces night; the world itself is facing night. It cannot last forever.
Yet the Church is affirming that an evening is not only an end, but also a beginning, just as the evening is also the beginning of another day.  In Christ and through Christ it may become the beginning of a new life, of the day that has no evening...
We come into the presence of Christ to offer Him our time, we extend our arms to receive Him.  And He fills this time with Himself.  He heals it  and makes it - again and again - the time of salvation.  (For the Life of the World, p. 44-45)

A wonderful vision by which we end one day and begin another in the grace-filled life of the Church.

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