In its long 2000 year history, the Orthodox Church made use of a written and oral tradition to come to an understanding of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. The written tradition includes the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures. It became clear that, however the original authors/editors understood what they wrote, these texts were prophecies and promises of God which found their fulfillment in Jesus Christ. And it was clear that Christ Himself is the key to interpreting and understanding these scriptures. Christ reveals the full meaning of the scriptures even to the original authors. The texts were appropriated by a community of faith which continued to reflect on them and to follow the interpretations of these scriptures as revealed by the apostles and the writers of the New Testament. Succeeding generations of Christians followed their methods in interpreting the scriptures, making ever more clear God’s revelation. We encounter this interpretive tradition in the hymns and feasts of the Church.
So one hymn from the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple sees one of Isaiah’s prophecies finding its fulfillment and meaning in the events of Luke 2 in which the 40 day old Jesus is brought to the temple by His parents. First, here is the text from Luke 2:25-32 which describes part of the events which form the basis for the Feast in the Church:
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.”
Simeon is identified as being righteous, something all Israel was supposed to be but in its long history few of its members had been called righteous by God. Simeon is thus portrayed as being righteous in contrast to faithless Israel. Simeon had been promised that he would not die until “he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” Not only does he see the Christ, he actually picks Christ up in his aged arms and claims to be seeing God’s salvation! He sees God’s glory as he looks at the Christ.
One hymn of the Feast takes this image of Simeon the Righteous holding God’s salvation in his arms – holding Jesus Christ and looking into His face – and recalls the reaction of the Prophet Isaiah when Isaiah was allowed to see a vision of God. Here is the text from Isaiah:
And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” (Isaiah 6:5-7)
Isaiah merely sees God and is humbled in his heart, fearing that since he belongs to a people who are not righteous, that he will not be able to survive seeing the Holy God. In Exodus 33:20, God told Moses that no one can see God’s face and live. No wonder Isaiah fears for his life – he knows God’s word that he cannot look at God and live and yet he, Isaiah, has just looked at God!
With all this in mind we realize how much more amazing is the New Testament’s description of the elder Simeon the Righteous who not only sees the incarnate God, but holds Him in his arms! The revelation of God in Jesus Christ is giving entirely new meaning to each and every Old Testament text. Isaiah sees God in a vision and yet is saved from perishing by an angel taking a burning charcoal for the altar of God and touching Isaiah’s mouth with it. The coal does not burn Isaiah but takes away his guilt and forgives his sin. Though he is unrighteous and unworthy to see God, Isaiah is pardoned and this burning coal becomes the means of his healing and salvation.
The hymn of the Feast makes sense of the salvation of Isaiah saying Isaiah actually encounters the Messiah in the burning coal. The coal prefigures Christ, the incarnate God. The coal burning with the divine fire, does not burn Isaiah, just as in the incarnation God does not burn up Christ’s humanity but rather in Christ divinity is united to human nature and flesh. This is the salvation of humankind. Isaiah still does not see the reality clearly – he sees Christ but under the form of a burning coal and so does not fully comprehend the mystery being revealed.
The hymn of the Feast portrays what happened to Isaiah as prefiguring what happens to Simeon and all humankind. In the Isaiah event, it is not clear what this burning coal is that it can save Isaiah. In the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, we are shown that the coal prefigures the incarnate God. The fire of divinity united to the physical charcoal is a foreshadowing of the incarnation – in which God fully unites Himself to humanity in Christ for the salvation of the entire human race. So the festal hymn reads:
CHRIST APPEARED TO THE DIVINE ISAIAH
AS A BURNING EMBER.
NOW AS WITH TONGS
HE IS BROUGHT TO THE ELDER
BY THE HANDS OF THE THEOTOKOS
The New Testament reveals the Old, and the Old finds its purpose and meaning in the New. So we come to understand how each event in the Gospels fulfills the Old Testament prophecies. We see how each Feast is an interpretation of the scriptures. If we have the eyes to see, the eyes of faith, we see how Christ reveals and gives meaning to the Old Testament.
TODAY SIMEON TAKES IN HIS ARMS THE LORD OF GLORY
WHOM MOSES SAW OF OLD IN THE DARKNESS
WHEN HE RECEIVED THE TABLES OF THE LAW ON MOUNT SINAI.
THIS IS HE WHO SPEAKS THROUGH THE PROPHETS;
HE IS THE CREATOR OF THE LAW!
THIS IS HE WHOM DAVID ANNOUNCED;
HE IS FEARFUL TO ALL, YET HAS GREAT AND ABUNDANT MERCY!