The Feast of the Meeting of our Lord in the Temple, celebrated on February 2, is one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox liturgical year. Its theme is expressed with particular poignancy by the icon we venerate on this day, as well as by the feast’s liturgical hymns.
The icon of the Meeting places the Theotokos and the Righteous Simeon with the Christ child in the foreground, leaving Joseph and the prophetess Anna standing apart as secondary figures. In obedience to Mosaic Law (Lev 12), Mary comes to the Temple on the day of her purification to present her child as an offering of first-fruits to the Lord (Num 18). Before the altar, the table of sacrifice, Simeon stretches forth his hands to receive the fulfillment of the hope that had so long burned within him and within the collective consciousness of the righteous Israelites whom he represents.
Simeon offers a prophetic canticle (Lk 2:29-32, the Nunc Dimittis sung at every Vespers service) which proclaims that this child shall be a “light to enlighten the Gentiles” as well as “the glory of [God’s] people Israel.”
Following the canticle, Simeon blesses the parents of the child. Turning to Mary, he pronounces curious, ominous words, not of joy and gladness, but of coming conflict and suffering. In conclusion he adds almost parenthetically, still addressing the Virgin Mother: “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Lk 2:35). This represents the first prediction the evangelist makes concerning the Lord’s coming passion.
“And a sword shall pierce your heart, O all-pure Virgin,” Simeon foretold to the Theotokos, “when you shall see your Son upon the Cross, to whom we cry aloud: O God of our fathers, blessed are You!” — Meeting Matins, Ode 7
The Holy Theotokos, Mother of God, presents her Son in fulfillment of the obligation to make an offering of her first-born male child. The deeper sense of her offering, intimated by Simeon’s prophetic words, points to the Cross and to the victory to be achieved through sacrificial death. Thus the megalynaria (Ode 9) of the feast declare: The pure Dove, the Ewe without blemish, brings the Lamb and Shepherd into the temple.
The Litya verses of Great Vespers proclaim the meaning of the sacrifice accomplished by the holy Mother and awaited by her Son: Now the God of purity as a holy child has opened a pure womb, and as God He is brought as an offering to Himself, setting us free from the curse of the Law and granting light to our souls.
The light granted to the nations and to the soul of every believer is ultimately the divine, uncreated Light of the triune God. As Isaiah received purification from a fiery coal taken from the altar by a Seraph (Isa 6), so the Righteous Elder receives purification and the knowledge of salvation from the hands of the Virgin, as she entrusts to him the One called by the Matins Ode 5, the “Lord of light that knows no evening.”
Touching the light, Simeon himself is filled with light. Like future generations of those who dwell in that light, he is nourished by the very Body of the Lord, receiving Him as a prototype of the bloodless sacrifice of the holy Eucharist.
As he takes his leave, the Elder is made to utter a final prophecy that links this feast directly to the descent of Christ into hell. “I depart,” cried Simeon, “to declare the good tidings to Adam abiding in hell and to Eve…”
To deliver our kind from dust, God will go down even into hell: He will give freedom to all the captives and sight to the blind, and will grant the dumb to cry aloud: O God of our fathers, blessed art You! Matins, Ode 7
The Meeting between Simeon and the Christ-child marks the meeting of two Covenants, Old and New. It celebrates the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring deliverance and salvation to what St Paul calls “the Israel of God,” the Church, and through the Church, to the world. That deliverance and salvation, however, are achieved only through the suffering and death of the crucified Lord. This little child, the eternal God, accomplishes His mission only by His willingness to follow the way of the Cross.
Yet this is why we celebrate this meeting in the Temple as a great feast of the Church. The Lamb and Shepherd, brought as an offering to Himself, comes in our liturgical worship to meet not only Simeon but us as well. He meets us there where we are, in the midst of our own suffering and our own longing to behold and to taste God’s victory on our behalf. Like Simeon, we can receive and welcome Him. And like Simeon, we can hold Him in our hands as eucharistic Bread, and consume Him as nourishment for eternal life.
Lord, now let your servants depart in peace, for by your infinite grace and compassion our eyes have seen your salvation!