“Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” (St. Simeon, Luke 2:29-32)
“In the Old Testament, Moses entered into that light, that luminous cloud on the mountaintop. In Exodus, when Moses is coming down from the mountain, his face is shining with the light, and they have to put a veil over his face because people could not look at him (see Ex. 34:29–35). In the synoptic Gospels, at the Transfiguration, Jesus goes up on Mt. Tabor with Peter, James, and John and is transfigured, shining with the uncreated light. The disciples see Him, but they have to hide their faces (see Matt. 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–10; Luke 9:28–36).
These passages show the real, divine light that is in the world, a light that human beings can actually experience. We can know it and see it, and as creatures we can participate in it. The mystical saints, when speaking of this light, name it Jesus. If there are holy and righteous people anywhere who have pure hearts and seek the true God, God in His mercy may reveal to them His divine light.
We, as Christians, would say it is Jesus Christ they see. The others may not know it is Jesus, but we do. This glory St. John speaks about—“we have beheld his glory” (John 1:14)—is the uncreated splendor of God that Moses, Elijah, and Isaiah in the temple saw in the Old Testament.
It is the light St. Paul saw when he was struck down on the road to Damascus. This light of God, we Christians confess, is hypostatically, personally, Jesus Christ. Not only does this light shine from Jesus’ face in the Transfiguration, but in St. John’s Gospel Jesus says, ‘I am this Light.‘ Jesus Christ is the Light and the source of light.”
The Feast of the Meeting of the Lord Jesus in the Temple is based upon the events recorded in Luke 2:22-40 when Mary and Joseph, fulfilling the Torah command and thus righteousness, bring the 40 day old infant Jesus to the Jerusalem temple. Biblical scholar Richard Hays says both ancient Jewish and Christian sources saw the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70AD as being theologically significant.
“Once the Temple has been destroyed and the holy of holies no longer stands in a building made with hands, the community must seek to discern how the God of all the earth will be made known in the world. In this situation, Matthew emphatically locates the divine presence in the figure of Jesus himself, who promises (in a saying that anticipates the resurrection and the ending of the Gospel) to be forever present wherever his followers gather and invoke his name.
In short, in Matthew 18:20 Jesus now declares himself, for the first time, to be the Emmanuel promised in the narrator’s opening fulfillment citation in 1:23. ‘My words will not pass away.’ Precisely because Jesus is Emmanuel, in his subsequent discourse on the end of the age (Matthew 24) he can offer the further remarkable assurance that his words will outlast all creation: ‘Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away‘ (24:35). If we ask ourselves who might legitimately say such a thing, once again there can be only one answer: we find ourselves face-to-face with the God of the Old Testament. Isaiah gives definitive expression to this theological truth: The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isa 40:7-8) (Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness, Kindle Loc 1197-1209)
Christ in the temple is God in the temple. The temple was a sign of God’s incarnation and Christ is that incarnation in the temple. The Christian understanding of Jesus as the incarnate God is the Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel. It is not the Christians reading “into” the text but recognizing the claims of the text in Jesus Christ.
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.
“Time! Jews in Jesus’s day and Jews in our own day have a very special sense of time. Time is moving forward in a linear fashion, with a beginning, a middle, and an end—unlike some other visions of time, in which everything is cyclical, going around and around and constantly returning to the same point. The Jewish view of time is part of the Jewish view of God and creation: God has a purpose for his good creation, a purpose to be worked out in time. Indeed, the Jewish people think of themselves as living within the long story of how that purpose is to be worked out.
But already, in the opening of the Bible, there is another feature. When God made the world, he “rested” on the seventh day. This doesn’t just mean that God took a day off. It means that in the previous six days God was making a world—heaven and earth together—for his own use. Like someone building a home, God finished the job and then went in to take up residence, to enjoy what he had built. Creation was itself a temple, the Temple, the heaven-and-earth structure built for God to live in. And the seventh-day “rest” was therefore a sign pointing forward into successive ages of time, a forward-looking signpost that said that one day, when God’s purposes for creation were accomplished, there would be a moment of ultimate completion, a moment when the word would finally be done, and God, with his people, would take his rest, would enjoy what he had accomplished. –N. T. Wright, Simply Jesus, p. 136
And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting 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 would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.So he came by the Spirit 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 You are letting Your servant depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.”
In the Old Testament, the idea of The Temple is a place where the invisible God might meet His people. Many believe the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2 is really God laying out the design for His Temple – which was supposed to be creation itself. Humans however in wanting a life apart from God forced God to abandon His plans and to expel us out of Paradise, the intended Temple, and put us on earth where we could lives separated from God as we had chosen.
The Temple in Jerusalem was built based upon the original design which God revealed to Moses. It was still designed to be the place where God met His people, however events on earth made it difficult for this to be realized. God’s people were not always faithful, the Temple as an earthly building became a target for destruction.
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.” And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Simeon the Righteous meets God in stages: 1) He had been told he wouldn’t die until He saw the Lord’s Christ. He was looking for someone but he didn’t know who or what he looked like. 2) He is inspired by the Spirit to come to the temple – he whom he had been looking for was now present and could be seen. 3) He sees Christ as a child. He sees what the child, the Messiah, is to be and so is able to prophecy about Him.
The basic narrative is that Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph, fulfilling Torah commandments, bring the 40 day old infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem. There they are met by the Righteous Elder Simeon who when he sees Jesus prophesies that this indeed is God’s Messiah.
Simeon, receive Him Whom Moses once beheld in darkness, granting the Law on Sinai, now that He has become a Babe subject to the Law! This is He Who spoke through the Law. This is He, of Whom the Prophets spoke, Who, for our sakes, has taken flesh and has saved man. Let us worship Him!
The above hymn teaches the truth held by Orthodoxy that the encounters with God which Old Testament saints had were in fact encounters with the pre-incarnate Christ. So Simeon recieves in his arm the infant Christ, but it is the same Christ, who as God gave Moses the stone tablets of the 10 Commandments. Both Moses and Simeon receive in their arms the Word of God! Moses receives the Law from the Word, and Simeon receives the Word as a baby. He who gave the Torah to Moses, namely Christ, which defined righteous behavior in the temple, will enter the Temple as a baby subject to the Law! This is the great mystery of the incarnation of God. Christ spoke about His incarnation.
They hymn playfully celebrates the mystery of the incarnation – Christ is He who spoke through the Law centuries before He was born. Christ is the one of whom the prophets spoke. The Old Testament is the history of a people being prepared for the coming of their Messiah.
Today Simeon takes in his arms the Lord of Glory, Whom Moses saw of old in the darkness when he received the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai. This is He Who speaks through the Prophets and Who is the Creator of the Law. This is He Whom David announced; He is fearful to all, yet great and abundant in mercy.
The above hymn presents Christ – a 40 day old baby in the Gospel who is also the Lord of Glory who Moses encountered when he received the Law on Mount Sinai. Christ as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity speaks through the Torah and the prophets centuries before He is born, and these prophets are speaking of His birth which occurs centuries after they spoke or wrote.
The Ancient of Days, as a Child in the flesh, is brought by His Mother, the Virgin, into the Holy Temple, fulfilling the promise announced by His own Law. Receiving Him, Simeon said: “Now let your servant depart in peace, according to Your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, O Lord!”
It is Christ who is identified as being the “Ancient of Days” from the prophecy of Daniel 7. The mystery of the incarnation means Christ is both the Ancient of days as well as the one like the Son of Man who Daniel mentions. The Feast of the Meeting of the Lord sees the prophesies being fulfilled in Christ who is the incarnate God.
It is 40 days after the Nativity of Christ, and His parents, Mary and Joseph, bring the infant Jesus into the Jerusalem Temple in fulfillment of the Torah commandments concerning the birth of a son. The Feast celebrates the fulfilling of the Torah concerning the Temple’s role in salvation and also celebrates Christ being THE High Priest of God forever. Christ fulfills and supersedes both the Temple and the Levitical Priesthood in beginning the New Covenant.
We can consider what the Temple is in Judaism and what it means that Jesus Christ both fulfills and supersedes the Temple. Our understanding of the Temple comes from Adolfo Roitman’s book, ENVISIONING THE TEMPLE.
1] The Temple in Jerusalem, like the Tabernacle in the Desert, was to be made according to a heavenly model which was revealed first to Moses and then to King David.
“As related in the Bible, the initiative for the construction of the Tabernacle in the desert came from on high: when Moses was on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights, God commanded, ‘And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you – the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings – so shall you make it’ (Exod 25:8-9). [footnote – Note that underlying this account is the assumption that the desert Tabernacle was built according to a heavenly prototype.]” (p 49)
“Significantly, David, like Moses at Sinai (cf. Exod 25:9), was said to have received a ‘blueprint’ in God’s own hand (1 Chron 28:19). [footnote: In antiquity people clearly believed that earthly temples were built on the basis of a transcendental, heavenly, prototype.]” (p 50)
The fact that the earthly Temple was meant to be built in the image of a heavenly prototype allows for a number of interesting comparisons.
A) The Temple in some way was thought to imitate Paradise, which was the image used by God to construct the world in the beginning. God was building Himself a Temple when He created Paradise and earth – a place to reside within His creation.
B) Christ is thought to be in some form the real Temple, of which the Jerusalem Temple and the desert Tabernacle were simply shadowy images. When Christ appears in the Temple, the purpose of the Temple is fulfilled and it reveals the Christ who is the real dwelling place of God on earth. What Solomon built was a temple based on a blueprint, but with the arrival of Christ, we have the real temple of God and no longer are in need of a blueprint.
C) The Theotokos is also portrayed as the living Temple in as much as she is God’s dwelling place on earth.
D) Christians, the Church, are to be the living Temple, replacing the need for a building of stone and bricks. Christians did not bemoan the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70AD, for they believed the true Temple was eternal and had already been raised up!
2] The temple is all about holiness/separation:
“In sum, the anonymous architect intended to protect the House of God from any contact with impurity and to enhance its sanctity by means of the three concentric courts and the moat around them. The source of sanctity, where God’s Presence would reside – the Temple – would stand in the center of the inner court, radiating its holiness to the whole of the Jewish people and the land of Israel, just as at the time of the Israelite’s wanderings in the desert.” (p 45)
The holiness of Israel comes from God. The Temple is made holy by God’s presence there. So too it is Christ, God incarnate, who brings holiness to the Temple, and makes the people of God Holy.
“In the biblical account, the Tabernacle had three main roles. To begin with, it provided a place for God to ‘dwell among the Israelites‘ (Exod 25:8; 29:45-46). It was also a cultic space in which, for example, a daily burnt-offering was sacrificed twice a day (ibid. 29:38-43)… Finally, it was in the Tabernacle – the ‘Tent of the Meeting‘ – that the Divine Presence revealed itself to Moses (ibid. 25:22; 30:6). ” (p 50)
There is a very important connection between the Tent/ Tabernacle of the meeting and the meeting of the Lord in the Temple. The Feast celebrates the fulfillment of all the Temple was intended to be. When the Christ child, the incarnate God, enters the temple, the Divine Presence is in the Temple and the purpose of the Temple is fulfilled.
3] The Temple is God’s dwelling place on earth.
“According to ancient beliefs, the main purpose of Solomon’s Temple was to provide an earthly dwelling place for God. This is clearly demonstrated by the account in the first book of Kings of the Ark of the Covenant being brought into the Holy of Holies: ‘. . . the cloud had filled the House of the Lord and the priests were not able to remain and perform the service because of the cloud, for the Presence of the Lord filled the House of the Lord’ (8:10-11). [footnote: However, this idea is deliberately revised in the present text of 1 Kings. In Solomon’s prayer… the possibility that God could dwell in the Temple is emphatically rejected (8:27). The text states that only God’s ‘name‘ dwells in the Temple (v. 29); the actual ‘abode‘ of the Almighty is in heaven (vv. 39, 43, etc.). The conception of the Temple’s primary purpose therefore changes accordingly, and the focus is no longer on the sacrifices, but on the prayers that will be offered up (vv. 28ff).] (p 53)
We see in the above what is often true in the Holy Scriptures: there is often a tension between conflicting ideas about God. This is no doubt intentional in the Scriptures to help prevent us from being overly literal in our reading of the text. The Temple is the dwelling place for God and/or the Temple is the place where God’s Name dwells on earth. God is both imminent and transcendent. This truly is fulfilled in the incarnation in which Christ is both fully human and fully God. Christ walks on earth and yet never ceases to reside with God in heaven.
4] Christ the eschatological Temple.
“In the last part of the book of Ezekiel … (Ezekiel 38-39), the prophet describes the future restoration of the people of Israel to its land, including an eschatological vision of the Temple and its cult (chaps. 40-48). The prophet’s guiding principle is the necessity for an entirely new Temple, free of any impurity and quite different from the unclean Temple that stood in Jerusalem prior to the destruction of 586 BCE (see Ezek 43:1-12; 434:6-8). . . . Ezekiel’s Temple no longer houses the Ark of the Covenant that occupied the heart of Solomon’s Temple; instead, the ‘Presence of the Lord’ fills the Temple (43:4-5). This is God’s abode: ‘. . . It said to me: O mortal, this is the place of My throne and the place for the soles of My feet, where I will dwell in the midst of the people Israel forever. …’ (Ezek 43:7). The prophet’s eschatological Temple will thus resemble the Tabernacle in the wilderness, built in fulfillment of the Divine command, ‘And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them’ (Exod 25:80).” (pp 53, 55)
We can note the literal fulfillment of what God says to Ezekiel that the Temple is “the place for the soles of My feet”. In the Meeting of the Lord, God is present in the soles of the feet of the infant Jesus. This is an unexpected literal fulfillment of what God promised!
It is not the Ark of the Covenant and the Ten Commandments which represent the Divine Presence in the Temple. For now Christ, the incarnate God, dwells in the Temple. Christ dwells in the Temple and is Himself the pure Temple of God. So too the Virgin Mary is portrayed in the same way as the Pure Temple of God prophesied by Ezekiel. Thus all that God promised and prophesied in the Jewish Scriptures come to fulfillment in Christ.
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!
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”
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.” And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.” And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. And when they had performed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:21-40)
“The Ancient of Days, who in times past gave Moses the Law on Sinai, appears this day as a babe. As Maker of the Law He fulfills the Law, and according to the Law He is brought into the temple and given over to the Elder. Simeon the righteous receives Him, and beholding the fulfillment of the divine ordinance now brought to pass, rejoicing he cries aloud: My eyes have seen the mystery hidden from the ages, made manifest in these latter days, the Light that disperses the dark folly of the Gentiles without faith and the Glory of the newly chosen Israel. Therefore let Your servant depart from the bonds of this flesh to the life filled with wonder that knows neither age nor end, O You Who grant the world great mercy.”
In this hymn we see some of the theological understanding of this Major Feast of the Orthodox calendar year. Jesus is identified as the Ancient of Days from Daniel’s prophecy. Central to this Feast and to Orthodox theology is the fact that Jesus is the incarnate God. Symeon is holding in his hands, God become a little child. The incarnation is the salvation of the human race: the restoration of humanity, reconciliation with God and the reunion of divinity with humanity. Symeon says he physically sees salvation – salvation is Jesus Christ, the incarnate God. This Feast becomes a new way for us to celebrate the love and salvation of God.