As we celebrate the Meeting of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple, I want to offer a few thoughts take from the most fascinating book by biblical scholar Gary Anderson, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis.
The Feast is based upon the Luke 2:22-40 account of Mary and Joseph, fulfilling the Torah command, bring the 40 day old infant Jesus to the Jerusalem temple thus fulfilling righteousness – according to our hymns. In Orthodoxy we often see in this Feast the Jerusalem Temple finally fulfilling its destiny – when Christ is brought into the Temple, God finally and fully enters into and takes His proper place in the Temple. Gary Anderson points out that the temple in so many ways was a type of an “incarnation” of God in the Old Testament. The Scriptures make several references to people going to the temple to see God, and several verses in scripture make references to seeing the form of God – all this despite another stream of theology which says God cannot be seen.
“The first thing the reader must bear in mind is the Bible’s assumption that God has really taken up residence in the tabernacle. Michael Wyschogrod, in an essay on the notion of incarnation in the Jewish tradition, has argued: ‘God has undertaken to enter the world and to dwell in a place.’ But this deeply ‘incarnational’ character of the tabernacle carries a particular danger along with it: individuals will be tempted to co-opt either the building itself (cf. Jer. 7) or its most important artifact—the ark—to their own political and/or religious advantage and so compromise the freedom of God. (Kindle Loc 420-425)
The artifacts in the temple and the ritual of the temple, gave Israel a way to approach God and to be aware of His presence. But, there was a temptation to try to manipulate God by claiming to do all the ritual perfectly, thus making God a servant of the ritual – do the ritual correctly and God is obligated to the priests. Certainly in the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, there is a great emphasis on the fulfilling of the Law, but now it is God who fulfills it when Mary and Joseph bring the incarnate God, Jesus, into the temple. There is an unexpected turn of events where the fulfilling of the Law in not manipulating God but making God present! God is present not in some almighty, transcendent form but incarnate in the infant Jesus!
Anderson goes on to note that whatever the temple represents in terms of God’s own movement into the temple, this same temple always requires human cooperation. The temple is not God’s alone, but exists in and for the people of God who are essential to the revelation.
“The first thing to be observed is the parallelism between the creation of the world in Gen. 1 and the building of the tabernacle in Exod. 25–Lev. 9. As Peter Schäfer has put the matter: ‘The creation of the world is not, if one accepts this view, solely the work of God but also the work of man: only when Moses erects the tabernacle is God’s created order brought to completion.’ The role ascribed to human agency in this narrative is not to be overlooked. Human actions have become a nonnegotiable part of the way God has chosen to direct human history. A second and closely related point is the manner in which this building project succeeds in capturing the presence of God. Moses opens the rites of the eighth day with the warning to do exactly as God has commanded (Lev. 9:6–7). Aaron complies with complete obedience and succeeds in attracting the divine presence to the sacrificial altar (‘Fire came out from the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces,’ 9:24). In allowing the tabernacle to be built and the cult to begin, God has invited Israel to participate in the divine life. But along with this gracious condescension comes considerable risk. Because Israel’s liturgical actions are allowed to attain such theurgic capabilities, God’s freedom is put at risk. Has the priesthood gained the upper hand over the being of God? Can the mastery of cultic law allow the priesthood to conjure the divine presence at will? Mē genoito [May it never be]! As Thomas Hieke puts the matter: ‘This dramatic narrative dispels the misunderstanding that one can compel God to behave in a certain way through human—or more exactly—ritual action.’ (Gary Anderson, Christian Doctrine and the Old Testament: Theology in the Service of Biblical Exegesis, Kindle Loc 665-679)
The temple always meant a synergy between God and humanity. Certainly the Feast of the Meeting places a great deal of emphasis on human activity, fulfilling the law, but again not manipulating God, but rather making God present in the temple through human activity. The incarnate God is not limited in glory or power, but rather holiness, omnipotence and the glory of God are present in a totally unexpected way. This is the depth of God’s mystery revealed in Christ.
According to Anderson, the temple’s every detail were so important in the Old Testament because all of the things of the temple in some way make God “incarnate”.
“Menahem Haran has remarked, ‘The priestly writers find [this] subject so fascinating that . . . [they are] prompted to recapitulate the list of its appurtenances time and again. Their tendency to indulge in technicalities and stereotyped repetitions has here reached its furthest limits.’ I suggest that this is because the tabernacle furniture was understood as possessing something of the very being of the God of Israel.” (Kindle Loc 2731-2735)
Anderson says the list of temple furnishing are repeated no less than six times. While many modern readers just see unnecessary redundancy and boring repetitiveness, Anderson says the text is so otherwise terse and to the point that the repetition stands out and tells us something very important is being detailed. Anderson further notes:
“(1) that the furniture of the temple was treated as quasi-divine in both literary and iconographic sources during the Second Temple period; (2) that the exalted estimation of these pieces of furniture made them dangerous to look at but at the same time, quite paradoxically, desirable or even compulsory to contemplate; (3) that the impossibility of dividing with precision the house of God from the being of God led the early Christians to adopt this Jewish theologoumenon as a means of clarifying how it was that Jesus could be both God and man.” (Kindle Loc 2740-2744)
The temple in other words was a sign in the Old Testament of the incarnation of God. The Israelites paid close attention to all the details of the temple because when the temple was properly put together God was present to the people. God could be seen in some way in the temple properly furnished. The Israelites could in some way see the face of God in the Temple. The Feast of the Meeting of the Lord is when God comes face to face with Himself in the temple.