Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, February 2, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
We arrive now at the fortieth day from our Lord’s birth, when His mother and foster father Joseph bring Him to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill what was written in the Law of Moses concerning the first-born son of any family, that he should be dedicated to the Lord and a worthy sacrifice be offered as part of this special moment in the life of the family. The Lord Jesus is received there into the arms of the righteous Simeon, who had been waiting to see the promised Messiah for many long years and then prophesied about what was to come for this newly-born King of the Jews.
There is so much that may be said here that we do not have time to say it all, but today, on this great feast, I would like us to meditate on a few things.
First, we are brought to consider that this same custom is retained in the Orthodox Church, though it is altered in a few ways. On the fortieth day from a child’s birth, he and his mother come to the church and are received there by the priest. The priest prays over both the child and his mother, and then carries the child into the church temple.
The prayers for the mother are said to provide a preparation for her to be received back into the communion of the Eucharist. She has stayed home for these forty days and has been out of communion for an extended time. Normally, when someone has been absent from communion for at least three Sundays, he is in essence excommunicated and needs to be brought back in to communion through the mystery of confession. But a new mother has been absent from communion involuntarily and for a laudable reason. Yet that separation has occurred. Thus, instead of receiving her back into communion through confession, these special prayers are said on the fortieth day from her giving birth.
Prayers are also said for the child, and there is variation here between different Orthodox traditions. In some cases, these prayers of “churching” are done only after the child has been baptized. In our tradition, however, these prayers are said before the baptism and include content hoping that the child will soon be baptized, which can occur even immediately. Indeed, for many reasons it is preferable to baptize a child as soon as possible after this point.
I want to draw our attention to one particular detail here, one of the ways in which the Church has altered the Jewish custom. In the Law of Moses, it is only the first-born son who is brought in this way into the Temple. Yet we bring every child, whether boy or girl, first-born or last-born. Why is that?
It is because the reason we bring children to the church temple on their fortieth day includes not only the Jewish notion of dedication to God and thanksgiving for the birth of a child, but also we add to it identification with Christ. Jews dedicated the first-born sons because Moses told them to, but we Christians dedicate all our children because Christ Himself deigned to be dedicated in this way. And imitating Christ and becoming one with Christ is available not only to first-born sons but to every human person.
This broadening of such customs fits in with the larger narrative of how the Church has appropriated and received its Jewish inheritance. Prior to the coming of Christ, the Jews were the chosen people and had access to a revelation not given to the rest of mankind. But with the coming of Christ, the age of the New Israel is inaugurated, and every human person is now welcome to enter into the New Israel, whatever his nationality, ethnicity or status from birth. There is no one who cannot become one with Christ. And so we bring all of our children to begin their life of becoming one with Christ by this custom of dedication on the fortieth day from their birth.
Besides our personal connection with this feast, however, there is also something cosmic going on. This is not only a moment that each of us can connect to individually, but it is a moment in the Big Story, the story of how God is saving the world, which is what gives it its power and meaning. When we bring our forty day old children to be dedicated here in this holy temple, we are not only asking for a blessing for them and their mothers but we are also entering them into the cosmic narrative of salvation itself.
For we see here the passing of one covenant and the inauguration of another. The Old Covenant, represented here in the person of Simeon, is nearing its final days. The age of the ethnic, biological definition of Israel is coming to a close, and a age of entrance into the New Israel through baptism is now dawning. The age of shadows and figures is passing, and the age of direct revelation in its fullness has now come.
Here in that Temple in Jerusalem that was made for the worship of God before the Incarnation now comes the incarnate God-man Himself. He is being dedicated to the Lord, but He is Himself the Lord. This earthly mother, accompanied by a foster-father, offers Him up to the heavenly Father, and He is offered up in the Temple that was made to worship Him.
Here, the Creator is being held in the arms of His creation. Here, the One Who is infinite and omnipotent appears as finite and helpless, sheltered from harm in the arms of His own creatures, whom He Himself shelters from harm. His parents come full of hope for the future of this child, and yet it is He Who is hope itself, the hope of all the ends of the earth, the hope of every creature.
It is such a beautiful, powerful moment. I love this feast because of how tenderly, how gently, how poetically it teaches us about the incarnation of the Son of God, met here in the Temple as both the Son of God and the Son of Mary.
As we contemplate this great feast of the Church, we should see ourselves becoming part of this story. The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple is not just “the reason” that we bring forty day old babies to the Church, though we can indeed understand it that way. Rather, this is one of many ways in which we enter into the life of Christ.
Because He is born into this world, we meet Him there. When He is dedicated in the Temple, we meet Him there. When He is baptized, we meet Him there. When He suffers and dies, we meet Him there. And when He is raised from the dead and ascends into Heaven, we meet Him there. Wherever Christ is, that is where we long to be.
We join ourselves to every part of His life and experience, not just in terms of mental remembrance but in mystical solidarity and identity with the God Who became man. We go to be with Him because we want to know Him, to be one with Him, to receive the divine power by grace that is His by nature.
And so here we have another opportunity to meet Him. So let us go out to meet Him, this Lord of glory Who became incarnate as a little child and is now being brought by His blessed mother and His righteous foster father into the Temple of His own glory.
Let us not only dedicate our little children in imitation of Christ’s dedication, but let us dedicate ourselves—perhaps again, perhaps for the first time—so that we may also be found held in the arms of the righteous Simeon, so that we also may see the salvation that he saw and know the mercy and peace and beauty of the Lord that will last not only into our departure from this life as it did with him, but also through all eternity.
To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Sunday after Theophany, January 12, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
A recording of this sermon can be heard via Ancient Faith Radio.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today is the Sunday after the Great Feast of Theophany, and even though the feast is now past, we are still within the afterfeast of Theophany, which is completed on January 14th. The content of this feast is of course the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan at the hand of John the Forerunner, and it is taught by the Church that this baptism was not for the forgiveness of any sins committed by Jesus—God forbid!—but rather to make Christian baptism possible and indeed to begin the sanctification of the whole world.
As we contemplate these themes, I would like to focus in on one of them, and that is that Christ’s baptism inaugurates Christian baptism.
We think of baptism as a quintessentially Christian practice nowadays, but there are other religions that baptize, and first-century Judaism was one of them. Before Jesus Himself was baptized, His cousin John was out in the wilderness baptizing people. Certainly John was not baptizing anyone into the Church with Christian baptism, because it hadn’t been established yet by Christ. So what is John’s baptism about? The baptism of John was a Jewish ritual that was associated with repentance and the remission of sins.
Now, this was not an invention of John’s but was already an established part of Jewish tradition. Ancient Judaism had a number of different kinds of ritual washings for various purposes, and a few of them included full-body immersion as in Christian baptism. The Scriptures tell us in this case that John was baptizing people as part of repentance and forgiveness of sins, doing his job as the “voice crying in the wilderness” prophesied in the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, preparing people for the coming of Jesus. And there is also a traditional Jewish use of full-immersion washing that is required in order to convert to Judaism.
So we see here three elements of Jewish baptism that are familiar to us—repentance, forgiveness and conversion. All three of these aspects to baptism are retained in Christian baptism. We may not think too much about repentance and forgiveness or even conversion when a baby is being baptized, but these things are still operative. Even a newborn infant who has not committed any personal sins still bears the inheritance of the infection of sin from Adam and Eve that needs baptism in order to begin its cure. This aspect is a bit clearer when we baptize an adult, which is always preceded by confession, because adults have indeed committed personal sins.
Yet when Jesus is baptized, He is not merely co-opting the Jewish ritual cleansing for Christian purposes. He is adding something to it. When people are baptized into the Church, they are not only repenting, being forgiven and converting. They are also putting on Christ, as St. Paul says in Galatians 3:27 and as we sing at the baptismal service and on certain feast days: “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
“Putting on Christ” is not just a metaphor. When someone is baptized, Christ comes to dwell in him and His identity begins to work on the newly-baptized person’s identity. The image of God in that person can begin to grow that person into God’s likeness, as well. That potential is activated. Someone who is baptized begins to become like Christ. The union of the divine and human that is Christ’s by nature can become ours by grace. He is both God and man, and we can become human beings in union with God.
But what is activated by baptism is not absolute and perfect for all time. It has to be cultivated and built upon over time for it to become truly effective. Baptism is not a magic spell that guarantees the recipient a place in the resurrection of the righteous at the end of time. It is rather a preparation for the synergistic working together of God and man that is the spiritual life, which has the potential to lead to everlasting life, but only if worked out, as St. Paul says, “with fear and trembling.” If it is not worked out throughout life, then the result is not everlasting life but rather everlasting dying.
So we can put on Christ, but we can also put off Christ. Even though baptism would never be repeated for someone who throws off its power, and even though he will always have that great grace of baptism, it is only effective for him if he keeps it and nurtures it and helps it to grow by cooperating with it.
And that is part of what Christian baptism retains from Jewish baptism, that characteristic of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. In order for baptism to continue its work in us, we have to continue to repent. It is not a one-time event that permanently seals our eternal destiny. It is the beginning of a journey.
And as we journey with Christ to become more like Christ, we will also see that the sanctification given in baptism begins to work on what is around us, as well. It works on other people, in that the hope and grace within us also draw other people to Christ. When they see that love of God genuinely within us, that humble spirit of kindness and compassion, then they are also attracted to God’s love and may also become filled with God’s grace, which is His real presence within.
But the sanctification which baptism gives us also works on even the world around us on a cosmic scale. Many of the saints saw the natural world begin to work differently around them, no longer bound by the curse that was laid when Adam and Eve sinned. Wild animals became tame. The earth and the elements of water and so forth became more easily fertile and helpful to them rather than as obstacles that have to be overcome. And someday, that harmony of creation that is seen in a small amount around the saints will grow to encompass the whole cosmos at the end of all things.
For when Christ comes to be baptized in the Jordan, He does so to begin His reclamation of all creation, with mankind at the very center of it all. His love and power and glory and healing flow into that water and from there flow into the world. And it can flow through us, as well, if we will open ourselves up to it.
I know that life often can be complicated, confusing, painful and even tragic. What makes it possible for Orthodox Christians not only to endure all this but actually to thrive and to progress in holiness and love is knowing that someday this will all pass away. Someday, the disharmony will again become harmony. Someday, all the tears will be wiped from every eye. Someday, what began there in the Jordan 2,000 years ago will finally be complete and will reach into every place.
In the meantime, we muddle forward. And we do so with hope and love, because God has called us not only to endure the suffering of this world, but actually to participate in His sanctification and transformation of it. He has called us to be blessed with His holiness by means, among other things, of the purification and operation holy water. And He has also called us to bless those around us with that same holy water, to bless the world with it, as well, to bring His power everywhere.
Holy water is one of the many means of blessing that God has given us, but of all those means, it is perhaps the most primal and the most universal. It is sprinkled everywhere without hesitation. There is nothing that cannot be touched by it and changed by it, given the possibility for revealing God’s goodness in everything. Sometimes, that revelation is invisible to us, but sometimes, it also becomes visible.
And the greatest of all the blessings of holy water is that great mystery of holy baptism, which was given to us so many centuries ago and yet remains new as today for all who would come and receive its cleansing power.
To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor, power and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Annunciation of the Theotokos, 2012
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who was the Orthodox Church of Russia’s bishop in London from 1957 to 2003, in the opening paragraphs of his book Beginning to Pray, directly addresses what is perhaps the most central struggle and disappointment of anyone who has ever even begun to contemplate whether there is a God or gods—namely, the absence of God. His book is about what its title suggests, beginning to pray, and he writes the following:
At the outset there is, then, one very important problem: the situation of one for whom God seems to be absent. This is what I would like to speak about now. Obviously I am not speaking of a real absence—God is never really absent—but of the sense of absence which we have. We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply. We turn in all directions and He is not to be found (pp. 25-26).
Is this not so for each of us who have ever wondered whether there is indeed a God? Such a question comes into the hearts even of those who have believed for their whole lives that God is real and that He loves us. Sometimes, in the dark of the night, or perhaps in the midst of some nightmare of suffering that seems to have no meaning, as Metropolitan Anthony says, “We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply.”
In some ways, this sense of God’s absence, that we are missing Him—which is not quite the same as simply having no sense of His presence—is a peculiarly modern problem. You see, as one looks at the history of mankind on this Earth, there is hardly a question to anyone almost anywhere at any time that there is some God or gods, “a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will,” in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Gods and demons and sprites and elves and faeries and spirits—all of these things were quite real to our forebears. They knew for certain not merely that they “believed in” such things, but that they had real evidence for their existence, that they interacted with them, that they were a normal, everyday part of life.
I mention all this because our thoughts turn today to one of the greatest of the feasts of the Christian year, the Annunciation—that moment when the invisible, immaterial God becomes incarnate as a human person in the womb of the Virgin Mary, at the announcement of the Archangel Gabriel and which we confess in our Creed. So why is former generations’ sense of the reality of the divine relevant to this feast? It is because the world into which God chose to become incarnate was not one that didn’t think He was “out there.”
The Jewish context of Jesus’ conception was one that very much believed that there was a God. Likewise, even the intellectuals among the Greeks and Romans who surrounded the Jews had basically settled on monotheism by then, despite the continuance of polytheism in the broader culture. But what they all had in common was the idea that God was “above” us, that He was “beyond” this world, that the created order was something too low, too dirty and unworthy of the divine presence.
From this image of the ancient world, we can see that, even if Jesus was not born into a world of atheists and skeptics, He was nevertheless conceived at a time when the idea of God being conceived was utterly unthinkable. What happens at the Annunciation was utter foolishness to both the Jew and the Greek. For the Jew, God would never become a man, and for the Greek and other Gentiles, God would not only not become a man, He certainly wouldn’t become a Jewish man! In the eyes of the citizens of Rome, the Jews were a subjugated people, not remotely worthy of such a divine manifestation.
But nevertheless, the true revolution began at that moment, the only real revolution that this world has ever seen. And if the coming of God as a material being into this world was an unbelievable and shocking claim to the first century, it is perhaps all the more shocking now. The revolution continues, because in our own time, our sense of things like metaphysics and religion and philosophy have all simply expanded upon that sense present in the first century. If, for them, God was forever apart from this material world, properly high in His Heaven, then for us, God has left this material world, never to return—if He was ever here in the first place.
Whatever the case, whatever our sense of separation and alienation from God, the feast of the Annunciation has arrived once again, for the unthinkable has happened: God has become man. He was and remains incarnate, a term that has its origins in the Latin word for “meat.” God became meat; He became flesh. He became visible and material—touchable. The separation is over.
In our loss and disappointment and separation, God Himself chose to overcome the divide between us so that we might encounter Him. The Greek word for this feast is Evangelismos, literally meaning the giving of the good news, closely related to Evangelion, the word for “the Gospel.” And yet, somehow, even 2,000 years after the proclamation of this good news began, people still remain separated from God. Why is this?
If you ever happen to be present at mealtime at my house, you may hear the voices of small people making various requests, whether it is for papa’s doughnut, to be released from the high chair, to be exempted from what everyone else is eating, and so forth. Much like your home, no doubt, whether and how those requests are answered depends very much on the manner in which the request is made. The same holds true for so much in life—if we want something, we have to know how to ask for it or perhaps how to look for it. The same is very much true for the presence of God Almighty. We cannot simply turn around in a circle, announce that we have not seen God, and thus declare Him not to exist.
As he continues his book Beginning to Pray, Metropolitan Anthony addresses this question, as well. So often, when we desire for God to make an appearance, it is because we want something from Him. We usually have little sense of developing an actual mutual relationship when we lay out our expectations of God. We may ask respectfully, but if all we ever do with God is to make claims on His providence, are we really seeking to overcome that separation, that absence?
We may complain that God does not answer our prayers, that He does not come running when we call, but, as Metropolitan Anthony writes,
If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationship, you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about Him. We complain that He does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer ‘I am busy, I am sorry’ or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain of the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than He ever is (p. 26).
The Lord God Almighty, the Creator of the universe Himself, has stepped into our world, our time, onto our planet, into our humanity, by being conceived of the Holy Spirit all those many centuries ago. He entered into human experience in that most intimate, secret and sacred of human places—the womb of a virgin. That is the kind of closeness and intimacy that He desires with us.
But we must also remember that while God is both giving and faithful (not to mention, relentless!), He is also free. He is free not to show up when we call. The gift that He offers us is not really about merely “going to Heaven when we die” or even about doing helpful stuff for us in this life, like curing diseases or easing our financial problems. Rather, what He offers is Himself. That is how He defined eternal life, saying, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).
Metropolitan Anthony puts it this way: “…we should be aware that He cannot come to us [when] we are not there to receive Him. We want something from Him, not Him at all. Is that a relationship? Do we behave that way with our friends? Do we aim at what friendship can give us or is it the friend whom we love? Is this true with regard to the Lord?” (p. 29).
This is the Annunciation. God has come to you by becoming a human person like you, and He has come to you precisely for you, not for anything He can get from you. That is how you know His love is true. He needs nothing from you. He is here because it’s you. Are you here because it’s Him?
To the incarnate Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Canticle for the Meeting of Our Lord
Long years ago I heard the Voice of God—
foreshadowing to me the news of Christ,
that death I would not see ’til I had seen
th’awaited coming of the Son of Man.
“Behold, the Virgin shall conceive,” I read,
Isaiah’s vision did foretell the One
to bring salvation to old Israel,
His flesh and blood to feed the race of man.
And so I prayed, my face upon the ground,
to see the Son of God, the great I AM,
the icon of the mighty Father God,
incarnate for us sons of Israel.
Both night and light, at every hour and time,
with tears I prayed: O Lord, O Lord! How long?
A Light we need, for revelation true,
the glory of Thy people Israel.
Then came the day, within the Temple’s gates,
wherein we saw the coming of the Lord—
a host of angels gathered ’round, I felt,
as two from Galilee did enter in:
The good old man, the righteous Joseph there,
and at his side a young and spotless Maid;
she held within her arms a newborn Child,
Who’d breathed our earthly air but forty days.
They brought with them the sacrifice, two birds,
according to the Law of Moses’ words.
And then, she brought to me the Child—my God
was laid so tenderly within my arms,
His infant breath upon my hands I felt,
His holy breath upon my sinful hands.
I stood, Creator held by creature’s arms,
the Living Word and Son of Most High God
now meets the tired and war-worn Israel,
the faithless bride has now beheld her groom.
“O Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant part
in peace, according to Thy word of truth:
Behold! my eyes have seen salvation’s birth,
which Thou prepared before the face of all,
the Light we need, for revelation true,
the glory of Thy people Israel.”
Then Joseph and the Virgin stood amazed,
to hear such truths as these which God had shown
to me so many long, long years before.
I gave to them the blessing of the Lord,
the Lord Who slept there as an infant Child,
then said to them, “Behold, O Virgin pure,
this Child will be the rise and fall of men
of Israel, a sign which shall be mocked;
And, lo, a sword will pierce thy soul as well,
the thoughts of many men will be revealed.”
Then prophetess, the righteous Anna, came,
and she rejoiced as well to see His day,
thanksgiving sang unto the Lord Most High,
and preached of the Redeemer’s blessed birth.
The Virgin and the good old man returned
to Galilee, performing all the things
required by Moses’ ancient Jewish Law.
The Child, He grew, His spirit strong and good,
with wisdom filled and filled with grace;
He bore mankind’s salvation on His back,
our essence taken to Himself, while yet
retaining without change His place as God.
Our God became a man that we might live
and grow as gods, to fullness of the Christ.
In honor of the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch today, I’m reposting links to all the parts of my podcast series, Voice from Antioch: An Ignatian Catechism, which covers major themes in Orthodox Christianity from the writings of the third bishop of Antioch and great hieromartyr of the early Church. Happy feast!
Behold Elizabeth as she speaketh with the Virgin Mary: Wherefore art thou, the Mother of my Lord, come unto me? Thou carriest the King, and I the soldier; thou the Giver of the Law, and I the expounder of the Law; thou the Word, and I the Voice that shall proclaim the Kingdom of the Heavens. (Theotokion of the Aposticha, Nativity of the Forerunner
Today’s festal commemoration is the birth of John the Forerunner, known to most English speakers as John the Baptist, which is narrated for us in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel.
A major thematic element for today is the Voice. Zachariah, not believing the archangel, is made bereft of his voice until such time as he participates in the naming of his son. Some might see in this a curiously arbitrary punishment, but for one who is a priest, as Zachariah was, losing one’s voice is no small thing. And this was not merely laryngitis, either. Zachariah could not function as a priest without his voice, and so for nine months, he is made to fast from his priestly office, and his voice is held fast and in check until his wife Elizabeth should give birth.
And then the one to whom Elizabeth gives birth is the Voice par excellence. He is the Voice crying in the wilderness, prophesied by Isaiah so many centuries before. And this Voice speaks only one Word, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the Word of God.
Yes, we may say that Zachariah was “punished” for his lack of faith when the archangel spoke to him, but may we not also look deeper? Was it not appropriate that the priesthood of the Old Covenant, the Aaronic priesthood, should fall silent at the coming of the one who introduces us to the true, fulfilled priesthood of the New Covenant? In the Old Covenant, there was a priesthood of the flesh, a priesthood of Levites, but in the New Covenant there is now a priesthood into which all mankind may be initiated, the priesthood of Christ, which lasts forever, after the order of Melchizedek. Zachariah, a priest of the old priesthood, himself was ordained in this new priesthood when he named his son.
And so we too must lift our voices with the Voice, proclaiming that same Word.
GREAT AND HOLY PASCHA 2011
Beloved brother Hierarchs, Reverend Clergy, God-fearing Monastics, and all my Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ our True God:
Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!
We are again drawn to contemplate and stand in awe at the holy Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the God-man and our Savior. This year, I pray that we will not mark Pascha as a mere remembrance on the calendar, a happy annual festival that is anticipated and enjoyed but whose power does not provoke us to a radical change in ourselves, a challenge toward holiness and perfection in the Holy Trinity. Indeed, I think many times we enjoy these delightful feasts but have so “institutionalized” them within ourselves that we do not actually let them touch us.
Fundamentally, Christ’s Resurrection is a cataclysmic event. It marks not merely the beginning of a religious movement, but truly the utter reversal of history, the moment that death itself was turned back, when the ultimate catastrophe befell the powers of darkness and bright hope came again into the world. When the God-man died, as St. Basil tells us, “the Author of life could not be held by corruption.” And so He rose again! And so we can be saved from death and from all corruption.
May we ourselves be not simply emotionally moved or cheered by this Gospel; may we never be the same! If even time and history could not stand to remain as they were, how can we ever be content with a mere recollection of past events? Let us once again shout out in victory to the Conqueror of death, casting aside all of our earthly entanglements and entering with Him into that glory that will never fade.
Yours in Christ,
Rt. Rev. Bishop THOMAS (Joseph)