To the Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, the Venerable Monastics, and the Christ-loving Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America.
Beloved in Christ:
“Enter again into Paradise!” So the Holy Church sings in the kontakion at Lent’s mid-point. At a time of year that coincides with college students’ “spring break” – an occasion for riotous and prodigal indulgence in the pigpen of the passions – the Church offers us a very different image of paradise. Fasting, vigil, silence and prayer, denial of self and generosity to others: these are the labors by which we are invited and commanded to regain our true, paradisal home.
In the three weeks that have led us to this great and solemn first day of the Fast, the Church has set before our spiritual eyes themes of exile. When our ancestors in the faith were led to captivity in Babylon, they wept; they hung up their lyres and said, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither” (Psalm 136:4–5). The Prodigal Son, at the eleventh hour, was given the grace not to forget his father’s house, and so he set his feet on the path of return. Our father Adam and our mother Eve chose exile and hardship for themselves and all their descendants through their disobedience, and yet they – and we with them – are shown the way home: we see the doors of repentance thrown open, and our loving Father in heaven keeping watch for our return with open arms.
The events which gave rise to one of the twelve major feasts of the Lord, the feast of the Meeting, is, in the spiritual sense, multidimensional. The word “meeting” does not convey the full meaning of the Church Slavonic word, sretenie. Those who meet are usually equals. “But here,” as Metropolitan Benjamin (Fedchenkov) notes, “the Slavonic word, sretenie, is more appropriate, because it speaks of the lesser going out to meet the greater; people, meeting God” The events in the Jerusalem temple are of particular significance. The Divine Law-Giver Himself, as one Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature (Col. 1:15), and as the first-born of a Virgin (Mt. 1:25) is brought as a gift to God. This symbolic act is as a beginning of the service which will end on earth by a great event: The incarnate Son of God brings Himself entirely to the Father unto the redemption of mankind—who He met earlier in the person of holy righteous Simeon. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel (Lk. 2:30–32). By its thought and expression, this song of thanksgiving originates from portions of the book of the Prophet Isaiah: And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall arise to rule over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust, and his rest shall be glorious (Is. 11:10). Jesse was the father of King David. Therefore, the root of Jesse, the Messiah-Christ whom people awaited, the Son of David (cf. Mt. 1:1), Who, as two thousand years of history has shown, would become a sign of contention. This sign divides people into the believing and the unbelieving, those who love the light, and those who love darkness. “What is this sign of contention? It is the sign of the cross, which the Church confesses as being salvific for the whole world” (St. John Chrysostom). The meeting of God and man, which first took place in the Jerusalem Temple, must become a personal event for every individual. The path of salvation must begin for each person by a meeting with Jesus Christ as his personal Savior. Until this meeting takes place, one remains sitting in darkness … and the shadow of death (cf. Mt. 4:16).
According to the Law of Moses, all Hebrew parents must bring their first born son on the fortieth day after birth to the Temple to be consecrated to God. It was the custom to bring a sacrifice in thanksgiving to God. The law was established in remembrance of the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt — freedom from slavery — when the first-born Hebrews were spared from death.
In fulfilment of this law, the Mother of God with Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem and brought for the sacrifice two fledgling doves.
At this time in Jerusalem, there lived an old man by the name of Simeon. He was a righteous, pious man, and he awaited the coming of the Messiah. It was foretold to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not have died before he had seen Christ the Lord. Simeon waited for the fulfilment of the promise of God for a long time. According to tradition, he lived about 300 years. Then, one day, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he went to the Temple. When Mary with Joseph brought the infant Jesus, Simeon met the Child, took Him in his arms, and glorifying God said, "Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Master, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples, a light of revelation for the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel."
What a tender scene the Meeting of the Lord shows us! The venerable elder Simeon, holding the infant God in his hands, on either side of him are the righteous Joseph and the Most Holy Mother of God. Not far away is the Prophetess Anna, an eighty-year-old faster and woman of prayer. Their eyes are all directed toward the Savior. Their attention is absorbed by Him and they drink in spiritual sweetness from Him, which feeds their souls. You can judge for yourself how blessed was the state of these souls!
However, brethren, we are called not only to think about this blessedness, but also to taste it in reality, for all are called to have and carry the Lord in themselves, and to disappear in Him with all the powers of their spirit. When we have reached that state, then our blessedness will be no lower than that of those who participated in the Meeting of the Lord. They were blessed who saw it; we shall be blessed who have not seen, but believed. Pay attention. I will show you briefly how to achieve this. Here is what you should do.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
On this Sunday the Church tells the parable of the Father who had two sons. Like all parables, it has a symbolic meaning. Who is the Father and who are the two sons?
The Father represents God the Father, the Father of all mankind.
The elder son represents the Jewish people. The elder son represents the Jews, for alone of all people the Jewish people had kept the memory of God, accurately, faithfully conserving the stories of Creation, the story of the Fall of Mankind and the prophecies of the Coming of a Saviour, the Messiah. The Jews, the elder son, had remained with the Father.
As the month of January draws to a close, the Church calls us on the 30th to celebrate the Feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom.
In celebrating these three great teachers of the Church, the Church in its hymnody refers to them as “harps of the Spirit,” “rays of light,” “scented flowers of Paradise,” “instruments of grace.” The Gospel read at Divine Liturgy is that of the Good Shepherd (John 10:9-16). This gospel, always appointed to be read on feast days of canonized bishops, speaks to us of the God-given role of the episcopacy to watch over our souls.
In these three great shepherds of the Church, we see both a commonality and differences that can enlighten us in how we lead our lives as Christians. Honored as supreme representatives of both the Church’s doctrinal and pastoral ministries, these men give us true examples of what it means to be Orthodox.