The Apolytikion of the Meeting of the Lord with the Elder Symeon in the Temple

The feast of the Meeting of the Lord with the Elder Symeon occurs on February 2nd, about halfway between Christmas and Pascha. We celebrate the day when Mary and Joseph brought the Christ Child to the Temple to fulfill two commandments of the Law: the purification of the mother from the flow of blood from giving birth (Leviticus 12:1-8); and the “buying back” of the first born male from God (Exodus 13:11-16).

Greek Text

Χαῖρε κεχαριτωμένη Θεοτόκε Παρθένε,
ἐκ σοῦ γὰρ ἀνέτειλεν ὁ Ἥλιος τῆς δικαιοσύνης,
Χριστὸς ὁ Θεὸς ἡμῶν, φωτίζων τοὺς ἐν σκότει.
Εὐφραίνου καὶ σὺ Πρεσβύτα δίκαιε,
δεξάμενος ἐν ἀγκάλαις τὸν ἐλευθερωτὴν τῶν ψυχῶν ἡμῶν,
χαριζόμενον ἡμῖν καὶ τὴν Ἀνάστασιν.

English Transliteration

Chere kecharitomeni Theotoke Parthene,
ek sou gar anetilen o Ilios tis dikeosynis,
Christos o Theos imon, photizon tous en skoti.
Efphrenou ke si Presvita dikee,
dexamenos en angales ton eleftherotin ton psychon imon,
charizomenon imin ke tin Anastasin.

English Translation

Rejoice full of grace Theotokos Virgin,
For from you arose the Sun of Righteousness,
Christ our God, enlightening those in darkness.
Rejoice also, righteous Elder,
having received in your arms the Liberator of our souls,
who grants us also the Resurrection.

The Hymn Sung in Greek and in English

A Dance Around Christ

The hymn, as is typical of many hymns, falls into two parts. Each part looks at a main character of the story, and directs the characters to the overarching main character, Christ.

The first part addresses the Thetokos, the second the Elder Symeon. Each is given a command to rejoice.

Chere kecharitomeni Theotoke Parthene

Efphrenou ke si Presvita dikee

They are then given the reason for this: the Theotokos has given birth to Christ; Symeon has received the Christ child in his arms.

The third line then applies a participle to Christ, attributing an aspect of our Salvation to the particular description of Christ.

  • In the first part, Christ is addressed as the Sun of Righteousness. His action is to enlighten those in darkness.
  • In the second part, Christ is called the Liberator of our souls. His action is to grant the Resurrection, the ultimate liberation from sin and death.

From Christmas to Pascha and Back

Since this feast fall roughly midway between Christmas and Pascha, it looks in both directions, thereby joining the themes of the two feasts together. In order to express this aspect of the feast, the Apolytikion uses language which captures all the highlights of the various feasts, melding them into one hymn.

The Previous Feasts

The first line:

Chere kecharitomeni Theotoke Parthene

is a variation on the greeting of the Angel Gabriel to Mary when he announced to her that she was chosen to be the mother of God (Luke 1:28).

Chere kecharitomeni, o Kyrios meta sou

Thus, the hymn begins at the beginning, at the Annunciation.

The second line:

ek sou gar aneteile o Ilios tis dikeosynis

mimics a line from the Apolytikion of the Nativity:

[tous magous] se proskynin ton Ilion tis dikeosynis

quickly moving from the Annunciation to the Birth of Christ.

The third line:

Christos o Theos imon, photizon tous en skotis

connects the hymn to the Feast of Lights, Theophany. In the Gospel for the Sunday after Theophany, we read how St. Matthew refers this prophecy of Isaiah to our Lord (Matthew 4:16):

O laos o kathimenos en skoti phos eiden mega, ke tis kathimenis en chora ke skia thanatou phos anetile aftis.

The people who were sitting in the shadow saw a great light, and upon those sitting in the land and the shadow of death a light has arisen.

The Future Feasts

The shift to the righteous Elder Symeon also shifts the perspective to the future, just as Symeon himself looks to the future of the child in his arms.

Symeon has received the liberator of our souls:

dexamenos en angales ton eleftherotin ton psychon imon.

The title eleftherotis is appropriate for our Lord’s death on the cross, since through His death He liberated us from sin and death.

Finally, through His conquest of death, Christ also grants to us the Resurrection, the promise of renewed life.

From Christmas and Pascha and Back…to Us

On this Feast Day, we too stand poised between Christmas and Pascha. Our hymn reminds us that we cannot separate the two events, that they are inextricably bound up with each other. Christmas can never be for the Orthodox Christian a warm cuddly feeling about a little child in a manger with cute little animals all around. Christmas must always point to God’s great sacrifice for us, it shows us the Child, not a sweet little boy, but as the Liberator of our souls. In the same way, the great acts of our salvation, our Lord’s Death and Resurrection, can never be separated from the initial sacrifice of the Son of God in becoming a human being, in taking on our human nature and living and sanctifying every aspect of our human lives. Very often in our “religious thought” we consider the only events of our Lord’s life to be Christmas and Pascha, and that these are two very distinct events. This Feast and its apolytikion remind us that these events frame a whole life and that they can never be separated but must be joined together into one whole continuum of salvation.

 

As another Christmas gift, during this period of preparation for Christmas, I would like to offer some verses (troparia) from the Canon of Christmas, a beautiful set of hymns sung during Orthros. These hymns are small poetical gems through which we get glances of the depth of the mystery of the Incarnation.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Ode 1

 

Christ is born: glorify Him! Christ has come down from heaven: receive Him! Christ is now on earth; exalt Him! O earth, sing to the Lord! O nations, praise Him in joy, for He has been glorified!

Man fell from the divine life of grace. though made in the image and likeness of God, he became completely subject to corruption and decay through sin. but now the wise Creator re-creates man again, for He has been glorified.

When He saw man perishing, whom He ahd made with His own hands, the Creator bowed the heavens and came down. He took man’s nature from the pure Virgin and He truly became a man, for He has been glorified.

Ode 3

To the Son, born of the Father before all ages and without any change, to Christ our god who in these times was pleased to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary, let us lift up our voices an dsay, “Holy are You, O Lord: You have lifted us up from our fallen state!”

Though formed from dust, Adam shared in the breath of life from God; yet through the beguilement of a woman, he slipped and fell into corruption. but now, seeing Christ born of a woman, he cries aloud: “For my sake, You have become like me! Holy are You, O Lord!”

O Christ, You became a creature made of the clay from the earth; by sharing in our human nature, You made us share in Your divine nature. You became a mortal man, but You are still God. Holy are You, O Lord: You have lifted us up from our fallen state!”

People talk about the “meaning” of Christmas as love or peace or family or presents. How many of us think of the meaning of Christmas as “re-creation”, that by becoming a human being God is renewing human nature, He is making us over again by making Himself in our image and likeness. Unless we appreciate the tranformation brought about by the Incarnation, then we have missed the entire point of Christmas. As Orthodox Christians we need to reclaim the “true meaning of Christmas”!

Christmas time in our society seems to bring with it a lot of depression and down feelings. Perhaps it is from an unsuccessful attempt to recreate the innocent joy we all experienced as children on Christmas morning, getting up at the crack of dawn to see the presents Santa Claus brought. I still remember carefully averting my eyes if I needed to go to the bathroom during the night, since there was a clear view of the living from the hallway leading to the bathroom. The last thing I wanted to do was to ruin that pure surprise of seeing the presents. Now as adults, we can no longer experience that pure joy; maturity, society, our own skepticism have tarnished the experience for us.

I think, however, that there is another source for this depression. If you look around, if you listen to the “Christmas Songs” piped over radio and department store loudspeakers, you notice the unreality of the Christmas that is being presented. There should be “peace on earth”, we should all be “holly jolly” and “mistletoing”. War can cease, as long as we want it; people miraculously find their way home for the holidays. Even snowmen manage not to melt for the season.

We as human beings simply cannot exist in such an atmosphere of shallow yet pervasive happiness. Like a plant that has no roots, it quickly withers and dies; nothing is left but emptiness. Even though society has effectively removed Christ from Christmas, and even our own faithful seem to think that parties on Christmas Eve are the way to worship the new-born King, instead of the Divine Liturgy and Holy Communion, yet we still have to schlog through the “Happy Holidays” without any protest. Society does not allow us to doubt and struggle and come to faith, because the mystery has been removed from Christmas. All that remains is vapid happiness.

The true celebration of Christmas, however, leaves a lot of room for what we might call “the darkness”. When we approach Christmas not as “for the children”, or “all about hope and joy”, but see it for the profound mystery that it really is–God emptying himself to take on our human nature–“willing to be gazed on as a young child, the God from before the ages” (Kontakion for the Preparation of the Nativity), we are confronted with something that our meager human minds cannot really comprehend. And so we struggle and wrestle with the mystery; we believe and we doubt, and in the struggle between the two our faith becomes stronger.

The Nativity of our Lord

Look at the icon of the Nativity. The mystery of God becoming man stands at the center; the little child and his mother immediately attract our attention. The two are surrounded by the actors in the story: the angels, the shepherds and the magi. But down in the corner, sometimes the right, sometimes the left, depending on the tradition–that is where we are. There we see the righteous Joseph huddled, deep in thought, struggling with everything he has seen and experienced. Unlike Mary, Joseph has been an outsider to the events (which is why he is placed at the outskirts of the icon), and has to come to some understanding and faith. But before him stands a figure in black–Satan; he engages Joseph in conversation, trying to turn his faith into disbelief. The most beautiful aspect of the icon is the face of the Theotokos–she does not look at her new-born son; nor does she look at the worshipper before the icon. Rather, she looks toward Joseph, praying that his faith will not wane, that he will be victorious in his struggle with doubt.

Mary looking toward Joseph

The hymns from the Royal Hours of Christmas also express this “permission” to struggle with doubt. In a doxastikon from the First Hour we sing:

Joseph spoke to the Virgin in this way: “What is this that I see happening in you, O Mary? I fail to understand and I am amazed! My mind is struck with dismay. Leave my sight therefore, with all speed! What is this which I see in you, O Mary? Instead of honor, you have brought me shame! Instead of gladness, sorrow! Instead of praise, rebuke! No longer can I bear the reproach of men. I was married to you by the priests in the Temple as one blameless before the Lord. And what is this that I now see?”

You can hear the hurt disbelief in the hymn. In a sense, the Church gives us the same permission to struggle and question, to wrestle with this profound mystery, so far beyond our understanding.

A doxastikon from the Ninth Hour approaches the same struggle of doubt from Mary’s perspective:

O Virgin, when Joseph went up to Bethlehem distressed by sorrow, you said to him: “why are you downcast and troubled at seeing me pregnant? Why do you not know the mystery which has come to pass in my? Cast every fear aside and understand this strange marvel: in my womb, God is coming down to earth for the sake of mercy, and He has taken flesh in me! you shall see Him when he is born! Filled with joy, you shall worship Him as your Creator! The angels ceaselessly praise Him in song and they glorify Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit!”

Even on the way to Bethlehem, Joseph is presented as sorrowful and confused. He is immediately obedient to the command of the angel, but he doesn’t really understand. But, the struggle cannot stay at this stage; if it does, it will only degenerate into rejection. There has to be some action; we have to pray, we have to read, we have to trust. Joseph does not remain unbelieving, but comes out of the other end of the struggle victorious, as we sing in the Doxastikon of the Third Hour:

Joseph, how can you bring to Bethlehem, pregnant with child, the Maiden whom you married in the sanctuary? “I have searched the prophets and have been warned by an angel. I am convinced that mary will give birth to God in a way surpassing all understanding. magi shall come from the East to worship Him with precious gifts!

Unlike polyanna society, the Church leaves us room to struggle with the mystery, to engage our doubt, to learn and to come to a strong and lasting faith. There is nothing superficial in this story; the strains of joy and relief that we hear in this last hymn are true and lasting, because a honest doubt and a prayerful inquiry into this great mystery will lead to a fuller participation in the life of God, who willed to become a baby out of love for us.

It might seem strange talking about the Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem just a few weeks before Christmas. But our New Testament Challenge today has us follow with the crowds as they shout their hymns of “Hosanna!” and wave branches in the air. (Mark 11:1-19)

And yet, the stories match perfectly. The theme of Kingship runs throughout all the Gospels, and especially the Gospel of Mark. How could it not? The “good news” that Mark proclaims begins with the Voice from Heaven proclaiming, “This is my beloved son.” In the Old Testament, the king of Israel was the “beloved son” of God.  Our Lord constantly laid claim to the Messianic title through the code of his parables.

As he marches to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover, a celebration (of freedom (like our Independence Day) and the time when the Jews expected the Messiah to take Jerusalem as his own, to mount to the highest point of the Temple and to lead the revolution against the pagan Romans. Passover was always a dangerous time for the ruling Romans, and this Passover was even more tense than usual with the young Rabbi from Galilee who had hinted to his followers about royal pretensions (just yesterday we heard the blind Bartimaeus crying out to him as “the Son of David”!) coming into the city.

The Entrance into Jerusalem

But then it broke. The crowds began to throw their garments on the ground before him (something you would not normally do in the dusty conditions of Palestine) and to wave branches around him. Their cries of welcome to the “coming kingdom” were cries of revolution under the guise of a religious procession.

For anyone who knew recent history, the symbols could not be mistaken. A little more than a hundred years before, they celebrated the purification of the temple by their great liberator Judas Macchabaeus who had defeated the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, and had entered Jerusalem as conqueror and king (2 Maccabees 10:1-9; cf. the same celebration when Judas’ brother Simon enters Jerusalem 1 Maccabees 13:51).

The King was riding into his city; his people were singing hymns of welcome. All was ready for revolution. So when our Lord went to the Temple, he looked around and went back to Bethany where he and the disciples were staying. Nothing. No revolution. No call to kill Romans.  The King seems to have become a tourist.

The crowd just didn’t understand. From the passage we read yesterday, it seems the disciples also still did not understand. They saw our Lord as an earthly king, and they were ready to be his courtiers, to receive the honor of the crowd as the “inner circle”. There was going to be a revolution, but not the revolution the crowd was expecting. The King was going to his enthronement, but that throne would turn out to be the cross, and the royal proclamation would be a piece of wood inscribed with “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”

The royal throne had not changed. The new-born King had already been born in a cave-stable for animals in an obscure town in Judea, far away from the royal palace of the man who claimed to be king. His throne then was a manger, a trough for feeding animals, the rough wood already anticipating the cross. And yet, this hidden King received the adoration of the shepherds and the gifts of the Magi. God began overturning all our worldly sensibilities in that cave.

“Where is he who is born King of the Jews?” the Magi asked Herod. From today’s reading we could answer: “He is entering like a victor into his city to go to be enthroned on the wood of the cross.” And through the cross, joy has come to all the world!

Mother Maria Skobtsova

People make a choice between the sorrowful face of Christ and the joy of life. He who rejects the sorrowful face of Christ in the name of the joys of life believes in those joys, but tragedy is born at the moment when he discovers that those joys are not joyful. Forced, mechanized labor gives us no joy; entertainment, more or less monotonous, differing only in the degree to which it exhausts our nerves, gives us no joy; the whole of this bitter life gives us no joy. Without Christ the world attains the maximum of bitterness, because it attains the maximum of meaninglessness.

These words which come towards the end of Mother Maria’s essay The Mysticism of Human Communion (Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, tr. R. Pevear and L Volokhonsky, New York, 2003, p. 83) are a stinging indictment of our materialism, especially as we start preparing for Christmas. Why is the celebration of the good news of the Incarnation so bitter for so many people? Because it is meaningless; society has removed the Incarnation from Christmas and has replaced it with Santa Claus, the god of materialism.

Mother Maria

True Christianity can never be bitter or sad because the central message is so joyful: the victory of life over death. Mother Maria continues in her essay:

Christianity is Paschal joy, Christianity is collaboration with God, Christianity is an obligation newly undertaken by mankind to cltivate the Lord’s paradise, once rejected in the fall, and in the thicket of this paradise, overgrown with the weeds of many centuries of sin and the thorns of our dry and loveless life, Christianity commands us to root up, plow, sow, weed, and harvest.

As the Christmas icon shows us, where Christ is, there is Paradise. The death of this world is replaced by life. But in order to take part in this paradise, we need to do a lot of gardening in our souls and in our society. For Mother Maria, the two cannot be separated! This is the thought with which she concludes the essay:

It is necessary to build our relations to man and to the world not on human and worldly laws, but within the revelation of the divine commandment. To see in man the image of God and in the world God’s creation. It is necessary to understand that Christianity demands of us not only the mysticism of communion with God, but also the mysticism of communion with man.

As we begin planning our Christmas celebrations, Mother Maria’s words should be ringing in our ears. We cannot have a meaningful celebration without a relationship with God and our fellow human beings. Anything short of this vertical and horizontal communion can only result in the “maximum of bitterness”.