The hymns of the Orthodox Church offer us not only a rich theology but also insight into the Orthodox and Patristic way of reading Scripture. Taking a look at a few hymns from Matins for the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (February 2), we encounter the treasury of theology afforded to us in our hymnology.
IN DAYS OF OLD ON MOUNT SINAI,
MOSES SAW THE BACK OF GOD
AND WAS COUNTED WORTHY IN DARKNESS AND A STORM OF WIND
TO HEAR FAINTLY THE DIVINE VOICE.
BUT NOW SIMEON HAS TAKEN GOD IN HIS ARMS,
WHO FOR OUR SAKES TOOK FLESH WITHOUT CHANGE!
JOYFULLY HE HASTENS TO DEPART TO THE LIFE ETERNAL,
AND THEREFORE HE CRIES ALOUD://
LORD, NOW LET YOUR SERVANT DEPART IN PEACE!
In Exodus 33:20-23 God tells Moses that He intends to let Moses see God, but with the mystical notion that Moses may only see God’s back but not God’s face. The idea expressed here is again rich in theology but also gives us insight into the depth of Scripture’s meaning and purpose. This is especially true since in Exodus 33:11 we are told that Moses conversed face to face with God as a man speaks with his friend. Literal readings of these texts are confounded by the texts themselves – they require interpretation to be understood, which is what Tradition is.
The Feast of the Meeting brings in a new aspect of this story – Moses, God’s friend, was denied permission to see the face of God, but with the incarnation of God in Christ, Simeon the Righteous is now able to look into the face of God in the form of the Christ child whom Simeon is holding in his hands. Thus the Exodus account of Moses’ own encounter with God illumines the depth of the revelation which is found in the incarnate Christ.
Simeon was amazed when he beheld incarnate
the Word that is without beginning,
carried by the Virgin as on the throne of the cherubim;
the Cause of all being, Himself become a babe;
and he cried aloud to Him:
The whole world has been filled with Your praise!
The hymn above credits, poetically yet anachronistically, Simeon with a complete knowledge and understanding of who the Christ child is – the incarnate Son of God. Simeon in the Scriptures (Luke 2:22-40) is credited only with being granted the privilege of seeing the Lord’s Messiah before he (Simeon) dies. In this sense Moses serves as a type of Simeon or Simeon is like Moses who was able to see the promised land from a distance but not allowed to enter it. Simeon proclaims in seeing the infant Jesus that he has seen the Lord’s salvation. Yet Simeon like Moses is allowed only to see the potential of what God’s plan is and does not live to see Christ’s active ministry as Moses was not allowed to enter into the promised land which was the destination all along of the 40 year wandering in the desert (Deuteronomy 34). Both Simeon and Moses experienced an anticipatory drought before being allowed to glimpse what God had planned as the fulfillment.
Another theological aspect of the Feast of the Meeting mentioned in the hymnology comes from Isaiah’s vision of the heavenly throne (Isaiah 6 – which is also one of the Old Testament readings for the eve of the Feast).
IN FIGURE, ISAIAH SAW GOD ON A THRONE,
LIFTED HIGH UP AND BORNE IN TRIUMPH BY ANGELS IN GLORY,
AND HE CRIED: WOE IS ME, FOR I HAVE SEEN BEFOREHAND GOD INCARNATE;
LORD OF THE LIGHT THAT KNOWS NO EVENING AND KING OF PEACE!
In this hymn we do encounter a particularly Orthodox hermeneutic. Isaiah’s vision of God is cast first of all as a typology or a foreshadowing. Isaiah is said to have seen God “in figure.” The hymn is suggesting Isaiah doesn’t fully or clearly see God but his vision is some sort of foreshadowing of a direct vision – like the “vision” Simeon receives when he is holding the Christ in his arms and looking into the face of the incarnate God. Isaiah in the hymn acknowledges that he is being given a vision of “pre-incarnate” God. Much of Orthodox interpretation of the Old Testament assumes that visions of God are actually visions of the pre-incarnate Christ. The prophets in seeing God are actually being given a shadowy insight into the incarnation – they are seeing Christ thus God is left without image – invisible, inconceivable and ineffable, as the priest prays in the Divine Liturgy.
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