Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Held by the One in His Arms
(How the Orthodox Pray the Feast of our Lord's Presentation)


One of my favorite courses in divinity school was an iconography class taught by the legendary (to me) theologian Geoffrey Wainwright. One of my favorite icons (1) in that favorite class was the icon of the Presentation of Our Lord. In the Orthodox tradition, the feast often goes by the title, "The Meeting (η Υπαπαντη) of our Lord Jesus Christ." 

Unsurprisingly, "meeting" carries multiple meanings in the icon. Most straightforwardly, Mary and Joseph occasion Simeon's meeting the Christ child, occasioning this beautiful, now-famous hymn from Simeon: 

Lord, you now have set your servant free *
    to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
    whom you have prepared for all the world to see;
A Light to enlighten the nations, *
    and the glory of your people Israel.


The other meanings of "meeting" build on the first. The meeting of Simeon and the Christ child is, to the Orthodox mind, nothing less than the meeting of the Old and New Testaments. Simeon is the prophets and Jesus is their fulfillment. When Simeon meets Jesus, the Law meets its author.

That the meeting is recorded in Luke's gospel is significant. The rest of Luke's gospel could be characterized as a kind of tug of war between the Law and its author, Jesus inviting the people of Israel (and us) to find in the Law's fulfillment a new imagination. So Jesus calls himself the Jubilee (Luke 4:18, ff.), reclaims the Sabbath (Luke 6, ff.), challenges the people's objections to his festal nature (Luke 7:31, ff.), anoints and heals the wrong people, from the wrong places, on the wrong days (multiple), and challenges the Pharisees' stewardship and enactment of the Law (multiple, but perhaps most blisteringly in Luke 21, where Jesus decries a system of sacrificial temple giving that is being encouraged and practiced in ways that leave the poor with nothing). Indeed, one of the most poignant and excruciating moments in Luke's gospel occurs in Luke 23, when after laying Jesus in the tomb the women go home, resting "on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment" (23:56b). 

All of this is to say that if Simeon's encounter with the Christ child is the Law's reception of its author, the encounter is not without its pain. It is at this moment that the icon of The Meeting, as it is prayed by the Orthodox tradition, becomes spectacularly beautiful to me.

In the Orthodox tradition, ode 9 of the Matins (morning prayers) uses imagination and creative liberty to make the Christ child say, “I am not held by the old man: it is I Who hold him, for he asks Me forgiveness.”

When the Law meets its author there is pain, the need for forgiveness, and, yes, forgiveness itself. In Christ is the Law's fulfillment and forgiveness.

I find this image especially helpful for those who have been 1) let down by institutions of faith or 2) a part of institutions of faith that have let others down. I find the image useful for conversations exploring the relationship between the Old and New Testament, where people ask hard and honest questions like whether it is the same God that is found in each of them. I find the image healing for those times when truth compels me to confess (as it will with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, if not many times before then) that my own relationship with God likewise always and only rests on the strength of the Christ child in my arms or, in the Eucharist, that I receive on my hands.

Elsewhere, I've written that
As Jean Vanier writes - echoing Bonhoeffer, and countless saints before him - each of us comes to the community of faith with our ambitions, agendas, dreams, and goals. And every ambition, agenda, dream, and goal fails us - kills us - until it dies, and we realize that the only real purpose living in the community of faith is to forgive the other seventy-times-seven, and to be forgiven at least as much. Moreover, the risen Christ is not simply the possibility of such a community; he is our necessary center.
So I thank God today for the Ode of the Matins that makes the Christ child say, “I am not held by the old man: it is I Who hold him, for he asks Me forgiveness.” May we hold this Meeting forever before our days.
_____________


(1) After the Dormition of Mary. Clearly.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Entering Winter, Leaving the House:
Reflections on Braving the Winter (& Finding it Blessed)


I love to hike on Mondays. On all days, actually, but I take Mondays off of work (a happy consolation for never having weekends free) and so, of all the days I love to hike, Mondays are the days I am most likely to be found doing the thing I love.

Surprisingly, it takes considerable effort to do the things I love the thought of.

To love hiking is to love seasons. To live in Wisconsin is to have more seasons to love! I love each season in the way I love my children: equally, differently, appreciating quirks and strengths and wonders in this one that I know better than to look for in the others. Best to receive each one open-heartedly. Thankfully.

In spring, the ice melt on the marsh, with its stratified, moldering layers of leaf, can look disarmingly (and sometimes dangerously) like land. Summers bring the captivating sparkle of the sunlight on the waters. Autumn in Wisconsin is fireworks of foliage in slow motion, brought to life by angles of the sun's light peculiar to this season. Winter is a lot of things. For a few weeks every year, from this Texan's perspective, winter is simply too cold to enjoy.

I am predictably reluctant to embrace winter in the way that hiking requires. Ever-available, and without much effort, is the aesthetic appreciation of winter through windows by fireside. Of course, to truly enter winter involves exiting the house. Winter, for me, is a challenge to love.

But today I remembered what my heart never quite fully forgets: winter is worth it.

Today it was the footprints in the snow. When I am alone on a hike in the snow, the footprints around me make the similarly solitary wanderings of others visible. The footsteps could have been from other days, but when I see them I feel the company of the ones who, at least not too long ago, likewise indulged an impulse to brave the cold and go out wandering. They wear all kinds of shoes and boots. Some of those shoes and boots lead up to the snowman ahead of me. The steps of the builders are distinct from those of later admirers, which stop short of the piece. Some, maybe most, of the prints today belong to animals. (The hoof prints of deer inevitably leave me all too aware of my physical limitations.) Whether booted or hooved, alone or with others, the wanderings of all of these creatures led them to this place of wandering, the place of my present wandering, even if none of us has words to say why.

Sometimes, when I arrive at the St. Francis House Chapel before the last night's snowfall has been removed, I see the snow prints of seekers who tried the chapel door in the middle of the night and, finding it locked, turned back. Ironically, the search for God made in the cover of darkness, with the promise of secrecy - à la Nicodemus - is memorialized, exposed, by the inch deep footprints cast in snow.

Footprints profess the possibilities perceived by the ones who make them. I try to learn from footprints.

I find comfort in footprints, too. Other children of God wandered this way, found that trail interesting. Sometimes, they see possibilities off the trail I hadn't seen. Sometimes, as today with the frozen creeks, they see possibilities off the trail I will lack the courage to take. Other times, though, I follow those footsteps. Learn from them. Try on a new "possible" and discover new worlds. Walk on frozen waters.

These are my communion of saints.