Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Simeon the God-Receiver & Anna the Prophetess

The Christian feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple, observed on or around February 2, celebrates an early episode in the life of Jesus. In the Eastern Orthodox Church it is one of the 12 Great Feasts, and is sometimes called Hypapante (lit. Greek = meeting). Other traditional names include Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, and the Presentation of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple.

St. Luke, in his Gospel (2:22–40), records that Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem, 40 days after his birth, in order to complete Mary's ritual purification after childbirth, and to perform the redeeming of her firstborn as prescribed in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12; Exodus 13:12-15). Upon entering the temple, they encountered Simeon, often called the Righteous. St. Ambrose, in a homily previously used in the Office of Matins for the feast, says: "...And rightly was he called just, who sought not his own but the people's welfare, desiring himself to be freed from the chains of bodily weakness, but waiting to see the Promised One; for he knew that the eyes which should see him would be blessed. He also took him into his arms, and blessed God, and said: 'Now you dismiss your servant, O Lord, in peace according to your word...' " We know this today, particularly in the Night Office of Compline as the canticle Nunc Dimittis.

According to Luke an elderly prophetess, Anna, lived in the Temple area, and worshipped there, fasting and praying day and night. She's very much a background character, and all that Luke tells us is that she was a prophetess, a daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher, that she had been married for seven years (her husband is not named), had been widowed for 84 years, and that she was a devout Jew.

Traditionally in the West, Candlemas, comes 40 days after Christmas and is the last feast day in the Church year dated by reference to Christmas. Subsequent moveable feasts are calculated with reference to Easter. The term Candlemas or Candle Mass referred to the practice whereby the priest blessed beeswax candles on February 2 for use throughout the year, some of which were distributed to the faithful for use in the home, e.g., during storms, household crises, or other dangers.

I still recall the liturgy of those days, when I would take a wonderfully fragrant beeswax candle home. On that day the priest would also bless two candles, crossed over each other, and tied in the middle with a red ribbon. These would be used the following day, on the feast of St. Blase, for the blessing of throats: "Through the prayers and intercession of St. Blase, may you be relieved from all ailments of the throat and from every other sickness." St. Blase (known as San Biagio in Italy, and San Blas in Spain) was a physician, and also bishop of Sebastea, Armenia (modern Sivas, Turkey). Indeed, the first reference we have to him is in manuscripts of the medical writings of Aëtius Amidenus, a court physician of the late 5th, early 6th century. It is said that St. Blase blessed throats and effected many miracles, thus the old Roman Catholic practice. Blase was traditionally believed to intercede especially in cases of throat illnesses and in cases of fish-bones stuck in the throat. Before he was martyred, Blase is said to have spoken to a wolf and told it to release a pig which it was harming, and the wolf complied. Blase's executioners apparently planned to starve him, but the owner of the pig secretly gave him food (possibly some bacon, ribs, or ham hocks??!) in order for him to survive. He supposedly also cured animals and lived in a cave. Blase was eventually tortured for his unrelenting faith in the year 316. According to the Acts of the Saints, he was beaten, attacked with iron carding combs, and beheaded. The similarity of the torture instruments to wool combs also led to Blase's adoption as the patron saint of wool combers in particular, and the wool trade in general.

In the Byzantine tradition (Eastern Orthodox and Greek-Catholic), The Meeting of the Lord is unique in that it combines elements of both a Great Feast of Jesus and a Great Feast of the Theotokos (God-Bearer). The holy day is celebrated with an all-night vigil, then a celebration of the Divine Liturgy the next morning after a blessing of beeswax candles and distribution of them to the people, after the Little Hours. Hymns composed by many of the great Church hymnographers are sung on this feast. Orthodox Christians also commemorate on this feast a wonder-working icon of the Theotokos known as the Softening of Evil Hearts or Simeon's Prophecy. It depicts the Virgin Mary, her hands upraised in prayer, with seven swords piercing her heart. It is one of the few Orthodox icons of the Theotokos not also depicting the infant Jesus.

Because of the biblical events recounted in Luke's Gospel, the rite of the Churching of Women came to be practiced in both Eastern and Western Christianity. Though the usage has mostly died out in the West, the rite is still practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The current Episcopal Book of Common Prayer includes A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child (pp. 439-445) which includes a prayer for a safe delivery, prayers of thanksgiving after birth, a
prayer for the parents, a prayer for a child not yet baptized, and one for a child already baptized.

Certainly, the liturgy highlights two major themes: 1) the meeting of Christ, both in the Temple and in the Eucharist; and 2) the theme of Light: Christ Himself as Light of the World, the light of grace received in Baptism, the light of candles used so often in the sacramental liturgy, and the "burning lamp" of hope with which we anticipate Christ's coming at the end of our world. St. Ambrose again: "...Let him who wishes to be dismissed come into the temple, come to Jerusalem: let him await the Christ of the Lord, and let him receive in his hands the Word of God, let him lay hold with his works, as if with the arms of his faith; then will he be dismissed as one who shall not see death, for he will have seen the Life..."

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