Posted by: Fr Chris | February 2, 2015

Encounter of Our Lord, February 2nd

This feast, on Wednesday this week, marks the end of the forty days of Christmas. Known as the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, in the Slavic tradition it is called The Encounter of Christ, emphasizing the meeting of the Infant Savior with St Symeon and St Anna. The Vespers describes Symeon’s joy at being allowed to cradle in his arms the Savior of the world. 

In icons, Symeon’s hands are covered, out of reverence for the Word Incarnate. 

 On this feast, the Holy Family travels from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, obviously before the Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt. There, under the very nose of the wicked King Herod who would soon be stewing in his palace wondering about the Messiah who the Magi said was born in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph come to fulfill the Law. There were two reasons: one was the purification demanded of Mary by the Jewish law, for in giving birth she had shed blood, and thus was unclean. Second was that of redeeming the first-born male child by giving a sacrifice to God. For the poor, which Mary and Joseph were, they had to offer only a pair of doves or pigeons as the sacrifice. Neither Mary nor Jesus needed this ritual, but they submit out of obedience and to give good example to others. Their humility and desire to avoid scandal should be imitated by us today!

The hymns of this feast emphasize the Encounter theme. Here Christ is meeting His people for the first time, in the Temple where God Himself dwelled behind the veil of the Holy of Holies, and the Temple to which He would give Himself at the age of twelve. He Who gave the Law to Moses on Sinai, now submits to the Law in all humility. Now He is recognized by Symeon and Anna, who exemplify the anawim, the holy little ones of Israel.

God had promised Symeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, and the Holy Spirit prompts him to go to this little family in the midst of the teeming crowds in the temple courtyard. Deeply moved, Symeon utters his marvelous prayer, the Nunc Dimittis, or Now You Shall Dismiss Your Servant. This wonderful prayer is sung at every Vespers service:

 Now you shall dismiss Your servant, O Lord, according to Your word in truth, for my eyes have seen the salvation which You prepared, before the face of all peoples. A light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people, Israel.

Anna told everyone who would listen to her about this marvelous child. Coupled with the tale of the shepherds who raised the lambs for the Temple sacrifices who had seen the marvelous birth in Bethlehem, and then the appearance of the Magi, the holy city would be  filled with rumors among the upper class fearful of the Romans and Herod alike, and the hopeful prayers among the many devout who lived in hope of the messianic coming.

 

Pope Benedict XVI says of the Jewish anawim of old and the Catholic anawim of today in his homily of February 15, 2006: those faithful who not only recognize themselves as ‘poor’ in the detachment from all idolatry of riches and power, but also in the profound humility of a heart emptied of the temptation to pride and open to the bursting in of the divine saving grace.” Bursting in of the divine grace: what a wonderful way to put this!

 

Candles are traditionally blessed on this day, as Jesus is the light of the world. This practice arose in Rome, and gradually spread across Europe. It was picked up by some of the Eastern Churches, especially the Byzantine-Slav Churches. In this ritual, the priest  and people sing the Troparion, and then the priest blesses the candles with holy water, imploring Jesus’ blessing with His grace so that “the light of the candles dispel all darkeness and shadow, so let the invisible flame of the Holy Spirit illuminate our hearts.”

We encounter in a little baby the Son of God, protected by His young mother and foster father, the beginning of revelation to Israel through the holy prophets Simeon and Anna, the Light of the World. Without Him, the world would still be struggling in the darkness of idolatry; with Him, we can walk that narrow road to Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, and so win salvation. He is the light, the way, the truth – He is all those things even as a tiny baby, He is all those things to each of us now, if we are willing to encounter Him today, and all our days.

Mosaic icon from St. George Orthodox Church, Madaba, Jordan 


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