The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple
In the first Old Testament reading we heard yesterday evening at Vespers, God gives Moses the following commandment: “Sanctify unto Me every first-born, the first offspring, whatsoever openeth the womb among the sons of Israel” (Exodus 13:2). Of course, if you think about it, no child actually opens their mother’s womb. The only time when a child truly opened the womb of its mother, it was when the Virgin gave birth to the Son of God. The Church Fathers therefore see this commandment as a prophecy signifying the incarnation of the Word of God.
The reading continues: “If a woman shall bring forth a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days…and thirty three days she shall not come into the sanctuary of God to the priest, until the days of purifying be fulfilled” (Leviticus 12:2–4).
For this reason the Virgin Mary brings her divine Child to the Temple today, forty days after Christmas, in order for this commandment to be fulfilled. As we sung last night during the procession of the festal icon: “The Ancient of Days, Who of old gave the Law to Moses on Sinai, today is seen as a babe; and in accordance with the Law, as the Author of the Law, He fulfilleth Law, as He is brought into the Temple and given to the Elder” (first idiomelon of the Lity).
Of course, just as Christ, being sinless, was baptised in the River Jordan not to wash away his sins but to sanctify the waters, so also the Blessed Virgin — the Most Pure Temple of the Saviour — did not come to the Temple to be purified, but brought her child to the Temple in order for the one who would purify all things from the stain of sin and death to be revealed.
Because Christ was not only the first-born of the Virgin Mary. In the Scriptures he is also described as “the firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:18). He was the first who emerged from Hades and opened its gates with his resurrection, thus setting us free by this “birth”, so to speak.
And this idea of being set free is the central message of today’s feast.
According to one tradition, Symeon was one of the seventy elders in Alexandria who, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, translated the books of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek. When Symeon reached the part of the Book of Isaiah where it says, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel” (7:14), he disbelieved. He couldn’t accept the idea of a virgin giving birth. In response to his unbelief, God told him that he would remain alive until the prophecy had been fulfilled. This happened around 250 years before the birth of Christ, and all those years Symeon waited for the moment we celebrate today. That’s why, as soon as he received Christ into his arms and realised who he was, he spoke the words with which we conclude every service of Vespers: “Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Master”. Here, the Greek word απολύω, which is usually translated ‘depart’ literally means to unbind.
The hymns of last night’s vesper service offer us a commentary on Symeon’s words: “Now am I freed, for I have beheld my Saviour. This is He that is born of a Virgin; this is He, God the Word, Who came forth from God; Who is incarnate for our sakes, and hath saved the race of man. Let us worship Him”.
“Now am I freed”. Symeon isn’t speaking here only about being freed from his prolonged earthly life. He is first and foremost speaking about how our meeting with the Lord (the Greek name for the feast, hypapantē, means ‘meeting’) sets us free from every delusion and lie, every worry and fear, every form of sin and vanity. This is why the dismissal at the end of every service is called apolysis, a setting free. Not in the sense of being set free from the service, able to return to the world to continue our lives as before, but rather in the sense that the service, as a meeting with the Lord, has set us free from slavery to the world, and that we can therefore return to the world as free persons, able to steer our lives onto a new course.
Fr Kristian Akselberg