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.

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