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.

 

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Tree of Jesse

This Sunday’s Gospel reading, from the first chapter of Matthew, has always been one of my absolute favorites. First of all, I love reading the Hebrew names (that’s the philologist in me!). I also like to see St. Matthew organizing world history so that it nicely leads up to the birth of Christ in regular 14 generational units.

But, above all, I like to see the family that our Lord was born into. St. Matthew is establishing our Lord’s legal claim to be the descendant of David, and therefore had a rightful claim to the throne of Israel. But it is also a simple statement of the wonder, and truth, of the Incarnation.

If you look at the pedigree of the Greek heroes, they are always from the best stock, usually descended from gods, and are the most handsome, the strongest, the wisest, the founders of cities and the bringers of civilization. Only the best ancestors for the great heroes. If a person were to invent the lineage of the Messiah, he would certainly emphasize the virtue and stength of character, how all of his ancestors were pious and kept the Law of God strictly. Instead, we find adulters and murderers (David himself, Manasseh), idolators (Solomon, Manasseh, Amos), and generally immoral men. There were also good and holy men as well (David again, Hezekiah, Josiah). Pretty much like everyone else’s families! When God became a human being, he entered into a normal human family with normal human ancestors.

The most interesting aspect of this Gospel, however, are the five women mentioned in the geneology. The last, of course, is the Theotokos. But, besides her, three of the women are women of questionable virtue and the fourth is a foreigner.

The first is Tamar, the mother of Judah’s sons Perez and Zerah. Her story is told in Genesis 38. She was married to Judah’s son Er who died young because of his evil. She was then given to Judah’s son Onan for him to raise up children for his brother. He refused and died. Judah was afraid to give her his last son Shelah, so he sent her back to her father’s house as a widow. Later on, when she heard that Judah was coming, she disguised herself as a prostitute and sat by the road. Judah made a rendevouz and gave his ring and staff as a pledge that he would send the payment later. Tamar became pregnant from the encounter and was accused to Judah of immoral actions as a widow. Judah ordered her burned, but she sent him the ring and the staff as a sign of the one who got her pregnant. Judah relented and saw that she was in the right, since he had not given her his last son as he should have.

The second is Rahab, the wife of Salmon and the mother of Boaz. Her story can be found in Joshua 2; 6:22-25. She was a prostitute in Jericho and saved the Israelite spies when they came to see the vulnerability of the city. She did so because she believed that God had worked wonders for Israel and was giving them the land.

The third is Ruth, a Moabite. The story of her loyalty to and love for her mother-in-law Naomi is told in the Book of Ruth. Although she was a foreigner and a pagan, her love her for mother-in-law, after her husband died, caused her to adopt her mother-in-law’s nation and God.

Where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

Finally there is Bathsheba, the wife of David and the mother of Solomon. Her story can be found in 2 Kings (2 Samuel) 11-12:25. Interestingly, she is not named, but only called the wife of Uriah, in order to emphasize David’s double sin of adultery and murder. David fell in love with Bathsheba;  they had a liason and she became pregnnt. David then had Uriah placed in the front of the battle where he was certainly going to be killed. After Uriah died, David married Bathsheba. However, God was not pleased, and allowed their first child to die.

The character of these women, all ancestors of God-become-man, emphasize the mixture of virtue and vice in God’s family. They also show how God uses the instruments that he has, no matter how unworthy, to bring about his plan for salvation. This fact certainly should give us hope in our own families. Despite our own failings and sins, God can still use us to lead our families to salvation, to a union with God who became part of a very human, fairly dysfunctional family in order to sanctify our own very human, fairly dysfunctional families.

Today is the foreshadowing of the good pleasure of god and the herald of the salvation of men. The Virgin is revealed in the temple of God, and beforehand she announces Christ to all. Let us therefore cry to her with mighty voice: Rejoice! Fulfilment of the Creator’s dispensation. (Apolytikion of the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos)

Entrance of the Theotokos

We don’t find the event in the Gospels. Because of its lack of so-called historical evidence, the feast was supessed in the Roman Church in the reforms of the Missal by Pius V in the 16th century. It is not even a very well known feast among the Orthodox faithful. And yet–our celebration of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple on November 21 is full of profound theological meaning! The story comes from one of the earliest non-canonical Gospels, the Protoevangelion of James. This book tells the story of the birth of Mary and the promise made by her parents, Joachim and Anna, to return their child of promise to the Lord by taking her to the Temple in Jerusalem when she was two years old

When the time came, Joachim reminded his wife of their promise. Anna, however, being a mother, did not want to let her only child go quite so early, and so decided to wait another year, until the child was weaned and would no longer need her mother. A beautiful, human touch to the story. Or is it? This detail is an important sign post that the story is more than it seems; Mary’s offering of herself at the temple becomes the basis for the renewal of God’s covenant with man in the person of Jesus Christ.

Most of the offerings made at the temple were young animals of  a year. There was one exception. In Genesis 15 we read of God’s first covenant with Abram (before he was even given his new name of Abraham). In order to confirm this covenant, God had Abram place a series of three year old victims. While Abram slept, God passed between the victims as a symbol of ratification of the covenant he swore to Abram

Then [God] said to [Abram], “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the chaldeans, to give you this land to possess. But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle dove, and a young pigeon.” He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two…When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites. (Genesis 15:7-10, 17-21

This small detail opens up the greater depths of the story. Like the three year old victims in the original covenant, Mary offers herself up as the sign of the new covenant, one in which Abram would not simply posses a limited piece of property, but the whole world in faith. The new covenant transcends space and time, reconciling all people to God through our Lord Jesus Christ

Let us turn our attention to one further detail of this rich feast. If we look carefully at the scene represented in the Icon, we see that more is going on than a simple narrative of the story.

Entrance of the Theotokos (detail of Mary and altar)

Mary is standing on the temple steps. Behind her is the altar of sacrifice. Or is it? This square structure, covered in rich purple cloths and mounted by a canopy would hardly work for the bloody animal sacrifices that went on daily at the temple. Mary’s position in front of the altar certainly emphasizes her self-sacrifice, that she has replaced the continual animal sacrifice. But what does this unusual structure mean? It is, in fact, an altar from a Byzantine Church, the altar of the continual sacrifice of Christ in the Divine Liturgy. A further detail completes the picture: the curtain which normally obscured the altar in the early churches (and often in our modern churches as well) is drawn back. This indicates that the Divine Liturgy is now being celebrated. Mary’s life becomes a continuous celebration of God’s presence within her, which will in time become also a physical reality. This same reality takes place within us also as we offer ourselves to God in the Divine Liturgy.

When Mary entered the temple, God no longer had a home in a building of wood and stone, but in a human being. This Feast challenges us to live in the same close union with God, so that God also dwells in us, and that we become God’s hands, eyes, and heart in the world.