A HOMILY FOR THE FOREFEAST OF THE MEETING OF THE LORD
A Summary of the Events About to be Celebrated and the Lessons They Teach Us
Brothers and sisters!
This evening and tomorrow we will be celebrating the great feast of the Meeting of the Lord, so I would like to use this opportunity to review the events connected with it. This way, when you return to church in the evening and tomorrow morning, your memory will be refreshed, and you will be spiritually prepared for the services.
Forty days after the Saviour’s birth, in her profound humility, the immaculate Virgin (who had no need whatsoever of cleansing) went down from Nazareth to the temple of Jerusalem to fulfill the requirements of the Old Testament Law concerning mothers and the children to whom they had recently given birth. Besides the cleansing of the mothers, these ordinances required that firstborn sons be “redeemed” or bought back from God at the price of five silver shekels. And when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for Him after the custom of the Law, says the Holy Gospel, they were met by a man of Jerusalem whose name was Symeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Spirit, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
According to devout tradition, the promise given to Saint Symeon was delivered to him some two hundred and seventy years earlier, when he was one of the seventy-two translators sent by the High Priest Eleazar to Egypt in order to assist with a translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek for King Ptolemy. When Symeon reached the passage in the Book of Isaiah telling of the birth of Emmanuel from the Virgin, he doubted the prophecy and wanted to alter the text, but an angel appeared, seized his hand, and declared, “Trust the prophet’s words, for you shall see their fulfillment.” According to this tradition, by the time the Saviour was brought to the temple, Symeon had reached the age of 360.
During the intervening years, the Jewish nation underwent many trials and tribulations, and society suffered a terrible decline in faith and morality, but Symeon lived in the hope of the Messiah’s coming and with his inner eyes beheld the approaching Salvation of Israel. When the divine Child was brought into the temple, the Holy Spirit revealed to Symeon that his long years of waiting had come to an end. And so it was that the elder not only saw the Saviour with his physical eyes: he also held Him in his arms. Bent with years, his head covered with white hair, the saint represented in his person all the righteous of the Old Testament who had awaited the promised Messiah. At the same time he became, as it says in tonight’s service, “the mystic preacher of the grace of the New Testament.”
In his sacred exaltation, the holy elder sent up praise and thanks to God for satisfying the desire of his heart and, filled with reverent feelings of devotion, pronounced at the end of his days the wonderful words that the Holy Church repeats at the end of every day during the service of Vespers: Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Master; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.
Hearing this, Joseph and the Child’s mother marvelled, because it was clear to them that the mystery of the Messiah’s birth had been revealed to Symeon.
After blessing both Joseph and Mary, Symeon addressed Mary alone, as the true parent of the Babe, saying, Behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. These prophetic words foretold the fierce battle to come between unbelief and faith, a battle unavoidable for every Israelite, whose response to the coming of the Messiah would depend not on mere outward membership in the Old Testament Church of God, but on his inner disposition of soul. As regards the sword that would pierce the Theotokos’ own soul, this referred to all the griefs she would endure as she witnessed the Jews’ rejection and mistreatment of her Son, but especially to her sorrow as she stood beneath the Cross and looked upon the crown of thorns, the nails, and the spear that pierced the side of her Child and Redeemer.
Besides Saint Symeon, there was also one Anna, a prophetess, who was present. She was of a great age, and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. Anna was a perfect example of a true widow, such as the Apostle praises: a widow chaste and holy, and worthy of all admiration. Like Symeon, she was waiting for the coming of the Messiah and, recognizing Him in the Son of the Virgin, in holy ecstasy proclaimed Him not only within the temple walls, but outside them as well, to all them that looked for redemption in Israel.
The events of that memorable day ended when, having performed all things according to the law of the Lord, the Immaculate One, the elder Joseph, and the divine Child left the temple and returned into Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth. After packing a few items necessary for the journey, they set off for Egypt, where they remained until King Herod’s death.
Originally, the chief purpose of the Holy Church in establishing this feast was to refute the ancient false teachers who denied Christ’s humanity, saying that it was beneath God to assume a human nature and that therefore the Lord Jesus was man only in appearance, and not in truth. Besides this, however, the feast showed and ever shows, by the example of the Saviour and His Virgin Mother, who fulfilled all the requirements of the Old Testament Law, that we must fulfill all the rules and rites of the New Testament Church. In particular, it reminds us of our own churching on the fortieth day after our birth, when each of us born into an Orthodox family was consecrated soul and body unto God as a sacrifice living and pure, and it urges us to purify our hearts, so that we may in all truth be consecrated vessels of holiness to the Lord. It also reminds us of Saints Symeon and Anna, their faith in the Messiah they were awaiting, and how they put their hope in Him. Their example teaches us that, since the Messiah has already come and saved us, we should have even more ardent faith in Him than they, and put all our hope in Him. Like Symeon we should trust in Him as the Lord of life and death, Whose Providence extends over us; like Anna, we should ever be found in His temple, serving Him with fastings and prayers night and day.
Finally, dear brothers and sisters, the feast of the Meeting of the Lord has from the beginning served to remind every generation of Christians of the elder’s prediction to the Theotokos that a sword would pierce her soul with griefs. Trials, tribulations, and sorrows: these have been the lot of every person ever to walk the earth. But, what are our sorrows in comparison with those of the Mother of Emmanuel, whose beloved Child, Who took upon Himself the sin and suffering of the whole human race, was also her God, and her sole Consolation and Consoler in life? Therefore, as we joyfully celebrate the feast, let us also learn from her to flee in every sorrow to the little Babe held in the arms of righteous Symeon, Who was the Lord God of Israel, and is ever the Consolation, the Consoler, and the Quick Helper of all who turn to Him in trial and temptation. Amen.