Blessing of Candles on the feast of the Meeting of Our Lord

The Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple

February 2, 2013

(The following text is excerpted from The Meaning of Icons by Vladimir Lossky and Leonid Ouspensky. You can read more about the book, or purchase it, here.  Above, Fr. John blesses the year’s candles during the Festal Liturgy, as is traditional on the feast.)

The Presentation or “Meeting” (η Υπαπαντη) of our Lord Jesus Christ (February 2nd) is better known in the West under the name of Purification of the Holy Virgin.  Like the majority of feasts of Palestinian origin, that of the Presentation of Christ in the temple belongs to Christian antiquity. Aetheria (end of the IVth century) saw it celebrated in Jerusalem with a procession and with great solemnity.  This feast was to be introduced in Constantinople in the VIth century under Justin and Justinian, and thence to pass to Rome in the course of the VIIth century. The practice of holding lighted candles during the office of the Hypapante, introduced in Jerusalem about 450, has been preserved in the West: hence the name of Candlemas (“Chandeleur” – in France, and “Lichtmesse” – in German countries).

Like the feast of the Circumcision (January 1st) the Presentation of the Christ-Child in the temple shows us the “Author of the Law accomplishing what was laid down by the Law”: it is the consecration of the first born son to God (Ex. xiii) and the sacrifice of the Punfication of the Mother, forty days after the birth of the male child (Lev. 11:6-8).  The Gospel account (Luke 2:22-39) has served as basis both to the liturgical text and to the iconography of the feast.

The first known representations of the Presentation of Christ in the temple are found on a mosaic in Santa Maria Maggiore (Vth century) and on an enamelled cruciform reliquary in the Lateran Museum (end of Vth or beginning of VIth century).  The iconography of the feast of the Hypapante was definitely established in the IXth and Xth centuries, and remains almost unchanged.  Sometimes, one sees the Christ-Child carried by His Mother, or rather, She is handing Him to St. Simeon, but more often it is the latter who is holding Him in his arms. Christ is never represented in swaddling clothes: He is habitually clothed in a short vest which often leaves his legs bare.  Seated on the outstretched arms of the elder Simeon, He is sometimes seen giving a benediction.  It is the Christ-Child of the Emmanual type: “the Word of the Father without a beginning (αναρχος) has received a beginning in time, without separating Himself from His Divinity”.  “The Ancient of Days makes Himself a Child according to the flesh.”  “He who gave the Law to Moses all Sinai… to observe His Law has Himself brought to the temple.”  As in the account of St.Luke, the theme of the Purification of the Mother is almost forgotten: the central moment of the feast is the “Meeting” of the Messiah: the meeting of the Old and the New Testament.

The scene of the “Meeting” takes place in the temple, in front of the altar, which is represented in our icon covered with a canopy. On the altar is sometimes seen a cross, a book or a scroll. On the two sides of the altar are the Mother of God (to the left of the spectator) and St. Simeon (to the right). The Mother of God is holding out Her two hands covered with the maphorion in a gesture of offering.  She has just handed Her Son to Simeon. The ancient holy man, leaning forwards, holds the Child in his two hands, also covered with his garment (as a sign of veneration).  St. Joseph follows the Mother of God carrying in the fold of his garment the offering of poor parents (Lev. 11:8), two turtle doves or two young pigeons. These birds were to symbolise the Church of Israel and that of the Gentiles, as well as the two Testaments, of which Christ is the unique Head.  St. Anne the daughter of Phanuel “a widow of about four score and four years”, stands behind St. Simeon, in the background. Her veiled head is seen in profile; her eyes are uplifted to express prophetic inspiration.

The figure of St. Simeon, “the Host of God” (θεοδοχος), is given great importance: his prophetic saying, one of the three “Canticles of the New Testament”, is sung at every Vespers throughout the liturgical year.  Attempts have been made to see in the old saint who received Christ in his arms, a Priest of the Temple. Some authors say that he was one of the Doctors of the Law – son of Hillel and father of Gamaliel, master of St. Paul.  Others have supposed Simeon to be a translator of the Bible; one of the Seventy, and that God had preserved him in life during 350 years, till the coming of the Messiah.  The liturgical texts exalt him as the greatest of the prophets: more even that Moses, Simeon deserves the title of “He who has seen God” (θεοπτης) for to Moses God appeared enveloped in darkness, whilst Simeon carried in his arms the eternal incarnate Word.  Also, “He revealed to the nations the Light, the Cross, and the Resurrection” (an allusion to the “sword which will pierce the soul” of Mary, in the same verse).  The “Nunc Dimittis” receives a new meaning: the prophet asks the Lord to allow him to announce the Incarnation in the lower regions.  On our icon there is nothing to denote the priestly dignity of Siemon.  His head is not covered, he has the long hair of a Nazarene: his long garment stretches to his bare feet.  The Christ-Child is “seated on the arms of the old man as on a throne”.  Ode 9 of the Matins makes Him say “I am not held by the old man: it is I Who hold him, for he asks Me forgiveness.”

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