Seven days after his birth, Jesus was taken to the Temple to be circumcised (1 January). Thirty-two days later (2 February), he was brought back to the Temple to be presented there. Tomorrow thus marks the fortieth day since his birth, when we will reach the end of the great Nativity cycle that began on 15 November, which brought us to the cave in Bethlehem, the banks of the Jordan, and, tomorrow, into the very Temple of God.
The name of the feast, ὑπαπαντή, means “meeting” or “encounter,” which refers largely to the figure of Symeon, who had been told by God that he would not die until he saw the Christ.
There is a pious tradition that Symeon was one of the Septuagint translators, and thus would have been something like three hundred years old when he met Christ. When he was a much younger man, he was given the book of Isaiah to translate, but doubted the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14: “The Lord himself will give you a sign (σημείον); Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and you will call his name Emmanuel.”
Because Symeon was unable to believe this, he was not permitted to depart from this world until he saw the prophecy’s fulfillment, which took place when the Mother of God brought Christ into the Temple and placed him in Symeon’s arms.
Embracing the child, Symeon proclaimed that the child is a sign – a σημείον – to be spoken against; that the child will create divisions; that ultimate choices will have to be made for or against Him. He declared the child to the “light of the Gentiles,” which further points to the struggle between light and darkness. And there is darkness in our world because there is darkness in our hearts – yet the child comes to us at a time of year when the days are lengthening, “because the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).
In early icons of the Presentation, the Mother of God holds the child in her arms. In later icons, we see the child being held by Symeon. Images of Christ in the arms of his mother are like excerpts or details, like a close-up, taken from the iconography of the Presentation.
This means that when we look at icons of the Mother of God we are seeing her entering the Temple holding the child. This also means that we are seeing her from the perspective of Symeon, as if we were standing in the place of Symeon, and that she is offering the child to us.
The icon is not a picture to be looked at from a safe distance, but is rather something that beckons to us, reaches out to us, and seeks to engage us in an encounter with Christ. And when Symeon receives the child, it signals his death, because to receive Christ means to die, to die the death of your false self, with all its sins and passions.
Forty days have passed since Christmas. What is different about us? What is different about our lives? How do we enter the temple? Do we look to the Mother of God, who brings us the light? Are we waiting for Christ? Do we open the arms of our hearts and minds to him? Are we ready to receive him?
Who are you in this story?
V. Rev. Arch. Maximos Constas
Interim Dean Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology