feasts

Meeting the Lord

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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.

The Annunciation and the Absence of God

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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

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The Presentation in the Temple, Meister des Marienlebens, ca. 1460-75

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.

2004

Arise, O Lord, Thou and the Ark of Thy holiness

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The Nativity of the Theotokos

The Nativity of the Theotokos, September 8

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

In the Book of Exodus, after the Hebrew people left the land of Egypt, they wandered in the desert for some forty years before they finally came to the Promised Land. During this time, they met with God on the holy mountain of Sinai. There, they worshiped God by offering up sacrifices to Him. One of these sacrifices is described in the 24th chapter of Exodus, and then the next passage is dedicated to a meeting that took place between God and the Prophet Moses.

Moses ascends up the mountain to meet with God, and there God gives Moses some very detailed instructions regarding worship. Everything is there for how to construct the mobile worship space for the Hebrews, called the Tabernacle, including details on dimensions, building materials, tapestries, specific designs for iconography, what the priests should wear, and so on. Anyone who takes the time to read chapters 25 through 29 of Exodus could never come away with the impression that God does not care about the details of how we worship Him.

The first chapter with these instructions is dedicated to an object which is at the very center of the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was a large wooden chest covered with gold and adorned with images of angels. On it was a golden throne called the Mercy Seat. Eventually the Ark was used to contain several holy objects, including the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a bowl of the manna God sent down from heaven to feed the Hebrews, and the miraculously budding staff of Aaron, the brother of Moses.

The Ark was a throne where God communed with His people. It was so holy that to touch it unworthily was to die. It was at the very center of Hebrew worship of the One True God, and it was sometimes even carried into battle with them to bring the power of God to bear in the face of Israel’s enemies. The Old Testament Scriptures mention the Ark a number of times, and several rare scriptural expressions are used when referring to the Ark.

When we come to the New Testament, we see a repeat of some of these rare expressions of language, but this time, this language refers not to the Ark, not to the Temple in Jerusalem, nor to any other object. Rather, this language is used when referring to Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ, the One True God. When the Gospel writers wanted to refer to the Virgin, they realized by the power of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that all the symbolism and real power that surrounded the Ark of the Old Covenant now had been transferred to the Ark of the New Covenant, the Virgin Mary herself, the Theotokos.

This is why when we come to the feasts of the Mother of God, such as we celebrate today, we often hear in the hymns quotations from the Old Testament referring to the Ark of the Covenant. In the Virgin Mary, we approach the new Ark of the New Covenant, no longer a lifeless golden box but a living, breathing human being who mystically and physically contained within herself the Everlasting God of the Universe.

In the Old Testament, to approach the Ark of the Covenant was to approach the Lord God Himself. This was not because God could be contained within a golden box, but rather because God chose that golden box as a place of utmost holiness and divine presence on Earth. There on that Mercy Seat God communed with His people in a powerful, mystical way. And now the Lord has approached us once again, but the locus of His coming to Earth is a human woman.

And just as the Ark of the Old Covenant was carefully constructed and prepared by human hands, so, too, was the new Ark carefully prepared. But instead of the preparation of carpenters and goldsmiths, the preparation of the Virgin Mary was by her quiet and humble obedience to and cooperation with the will of God.

This is why we honor the Virgin Mary, not because we want to elevate her to the status of a goddess and worship her, but because she is the carefully prepared vessel which bore the God of the Universe, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Through her came our salvation. Through her came a new life for every human being and the whole world. Through her came union between God and man.

Therefore, we approach her today and venerate her on her birthday because we desire to approach and come close to the Son of God. We respect her and sing about her glory because that glory is the glory of the awesome God. We call upon her here at the center of our worship just as the Hebrews placed the old Ark at the center of theirs, not because she or a golden box are to be the object of worship, but because the Ark is the place of worship, because the Ark of the Old Covenant and now the Ark of the New Covenant are the place where God has chosen to draw near to His people.

As we look upon the icon of the Holy Virgin, we see that she points us to her Son. Today, as we celebrate her birth into this world, may we hear her call to draw near to her holy Son. As we gaze upon the glory that surrounds her as more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, may we be drawn into a true encounter with that glory, the glory which is God’s and may also be ours if we are in union and communion with Him, just as she is.

To the Holy Trinity therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.