Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Theology of the Reception of Christ


By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

Forty days after His birth in the flesh, Christ was presented at the Temple in accordance with legal convention. And because there in the Temple He was received by persons moved by the Spirit, and especially because Symeon took Him into his arms, this feast is also called a Reception ('Hypapante' in Greek).

The Church appointed this great feast of the Lord and the Mother of God to be celebrated on the 2nd of February, because it is the fortieth day after the 25th of December, when the Nativity of Christ in the flesh is celebrated. In this way the year is divided by the turning points in the Divine Economy and blesses them. At the same time it makes it possible for man to be initiated into the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Son and Logos/Word of God.

The event of the Reception of Christ in the Temple on the fortieth day after His birth is described only in the Gospel of Saint Luke (Luke 2:22-39).

God Himself, that is to say the unincarnate Logos/Word of God, gave the Commandment of purification on the fortieth day to Moses and it had been established for all the Israelites. This Commandment was given to Moses even before the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, before they crossed the Red Sea.

The Commandment is as follows: "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: "Sanctify to me all the first-born, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man of animal; it is mine" (Exodus 13:1-2). This offering also referred to the first-born male animals, which had to be separated and offered to God. God's Commandment was clear: "that you shall set apart to the Lord all that open the womb, that is, every firstling that comes from an animal which you have; the males shall be the Lord's" (Exodus 13:12).

This offering was a sign of recognition of God's beneficence, and showed that they belong to Him. It is well known that the Commandment to dedicate the first-born male child was given to the people of Israel, through Moses, directly after the killing of the first-born children of the Egyptians, when Pharaoh at once gave permission for the exodus, before they crossed the Red Sea. The explanation of this act is characteristic: "for with a strong hand the Lord has brought you out of Egypt" (Exodus 13:9).

In another book of the Old Testament, Leviticus, we see that God gives more details about the ceremony of consecration and thanksgiving. The woman who bears a male child is to circumcise him on the eighth day and offer him to the temple on the fortieth day. And with the offering of the child "she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtle-dove for a burnt offering" (Leviticus 12:1-6).

Since the Word of God Himself gave the law to Moses, when he assumed human flesh He had to keep the law, so as not to be a law-breaker, Saint Cyril of Alexandria says that when anyone sees Christ keeping the law, he should not be shocked, nor should he regard as a servant Him Who is free, but he should have a better understanding of "the depth of the economy". This keeping of the law of the offering in the Temple is part of the mystery of the divine kenosis of the Son and Logos/Word of God.

Likewise, according to Saint Gregory Palamas, Christ had no need of purification, but since ritual purification was legislated in the Old Testament for both the parents and the children, He did it in order to obey the law which He Himself had given. Christ had no need of ritual purification, because He was conceived without seed and given birth without loss of virginity. "There was certainly no need for purification, but it was an act of obedience." This obedience had the meaning of the new Adam, in contrast to the disobedience of the old Adam. And if the disobedience of the first Adam resulted in the fall and corruption, the obedience of the new Adam, Christ, brought disobedient human nature back to God and cured man of responsibility for the disobedience.

The bringing of the children to the Temple on the fortieth day was a feast of purification. The mother and child had to be cleansed of the results of the birth.

Certainly the birth of children is a blessing of God, but it must be realized that the manner in which man gives birth is a fruit and result of the fall; it is the so-called coats of skin, which Adam wore after the fall, and the loss of God's grace. It is in this light that we should see the words: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me" (Psalm 50[51]:5). Eventually by dispensation God blessed this way in which man is born, but nevertheless it is a fruit of the fall. Parents as well as children should bear this in mind. The ceremony of purification should be interpreted in this theological framework.

When we reflect on these theological truths, we can see that neither Christ nor the Panagia (All-Holy Mother of God) had need of purification. Conception without seed and birth without loss of virginity do not constitute impurity.

The Commandment which God gave to Moses said: "If a woman has conceived and born a male child, then she shall by unclean seven days" (Leviticus 12:2). This passage shows the purity of the Panagia at once, because the woman is unclean who is to give birth when she has been fertilized by a man. The Panagia, however, conceived by the Holy Spirit and not germinally, and therefore she was not unclean. This means that it did not apply in her case, but she went to the Temple in order to keep the law.

God's Commandment was clear: "Sanctify to me all the first-born whatever opens the womb" (Exodus 13:2). This Commandment is at the same time a prophecy, which refers to the Incarnation of the Son and Logos/Word of God. It does not relate absolutely to every first-born male child, for no man, not even the first-born, opens his mother's womb. In his homily on this subject, Saint Athanasius the Great says that the infants do not open their mothers' wombs, "but the man's coming together with the woman". The womb opens at the coming together of the couple and the conception of the child. But Christ opened His mother without destroying her virginity, since He left her closed again, "When nothing had knocked from outside, this infant opened from within".

After mentioning what was done in the Old Testament was a type of the Nativity of Christ, Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite says that Christ alone opened the virgin's womb "in a way worthy of God and beyond comprehension, for, having opened her in being born, He left her closed again, just as she was before the conception and birth."

Christ is the first-born and is characterized as such in Holy Scripture. This characterization certainly does not mean that there is also a second-born and a third-born, but that He was born first, regardless of whether there was a second or third. The term 'first-born' must be associated with the 'only-begotten', as Christ is also characterized in Holy Scripture.

The term 'first-born' also refers to the two births of Christ, that is today, to the pre-eternal birth from a virgin father, without a mother, and the birth in time from a virgin mother, without a father (Saint Gregory Palamas).

Christ is called first-born in three ways. First, because He was born of the Father before all ages. The Apostle Paul says: "He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born over all creation" (Col. 1:15). And as we saw before, the "first-born" is identified with the "only-begotten". Secondly, He is called first-born in His human birth, and regardless of whether another was born of the Panagia. "And she brought forth her first-born son" (St. Luke 2:7). And thirdly, He is called first-born from the dead because He was the first to rise from the dead, thus making it possible for everyone to be raised at the appropriate time. The Resurrection is also characterized as a "birth", because resurrection is regarded as a birth. The Apostle Paul says: "he is the beginning and the first-born from among the dead" (Col. 1:18). The first meaning of the first-born is connected with the birth according to nature of the Son of God, that is to say, the term refers to theology, and the other two are connected with the incarnation of the Logos/Word and refer to the economy.

According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Christ became first-born in three ways in order to give life to our own human nature. Of course He is not referring to His birth from the Father before all ages. Just as our own human nature is given life by three births, that from our mother, that from baptism and that from the dead, which we hope will happen in the future, so too Christ became the first-born for us in three ways, so that our own human nature would be given life and deified (theosis). For the birth of the body still has to be followed by the spiritual birth.

It is a moving scene when Christ as an infant, as a baby, is offered to the Temple. The Pre-Eternal God Who, as the Logos/Word of God, has always been united with His Father and the Holy Spirit and simultaneously has directed the world, the entire universe, is presented to the Temple as an infant in the arms of His mother.

Although Christ was an infant, at the same time He was "God before the ages", and therefore He was wiser than anyone else. We know that human nature in the womb of the Theotokos was deified by the union of divine and human nature in the person of the Logs/Word, and therefore Christ's soul was enriched with the fullness of wisdom and knowledge. Yet this wisdom was expressed in accordance with His age, because if it had been otherwise, He would have appeared to be a freak (Saint John of Damaskos). Anyway, although Christ was an infant, nevertheless He was God, having all the fullness of Divinity bodily an all the human wisdom and knowledge by virtue of the hypostatic union of His Divine and human natures.

By means of this infancy He cured Adam's "infantile mind". When God formed Adam in Paradise, Adam was an infant as to grace and sanctification. He did have an illuminated nous, unshaped and an infant in spirit, because he had an infantile mind, he was easily deceived by the evil demon who awakened him to sin and evil. Therefore Christ, having the bodily age of an infant, cured not only Adam's infantile mind, but also his human nature and did what the first Adam failed to do. Thus, by the Incarnation of His Son, God the Father made the deification (theosis) of man more sure and effective. In Christ the devil could no longer deceive human nature, as he had done with ease in the first Adam.

The kenosis (the emptying), of self-humbling, of the Son and Logos/Word) of God, as is also seen in the case of His offering to the Temple, exceeded even the Angel's understanding, for they too were astonished at God's immense condescension. The Prophet Habakkuk prophesies the Incarnation of the Logos/Word of God: "God is coming from Teman, and the Holy One from Mt. Paran. His Majesty covers the heavens, and his glory fills the earth" (Habak. 3:3). The word for 'glory' means the incarnation and the Divine kenosis of the Logos/Word of God. 'Covered the heavens' means that it covered, blanketed even the height of the Angels, since even the Angels were astonished on seeing the immense and inexpressible condescension of the Logos/Word of God.

God has appointed that the offering of the first-born male should be accompanied by the offering of an unblemished lamb or a pair of turtle-doves or tow young pigeons. In Leviticus it says: "she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtle-dove as a sin offering, to the door or the Tabernacle of Meeting" (Leviticus 12:6). Saint Luke the Evangelist says that Christ's parents brought Him to the Temple "to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, 'a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons" (St. Luke 2:24).

Christ's parents did not offer a lamb as the law provided, because they were poor. The wealthy classes offered a year-old lamb, while the poorer classes offered a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons (Procopios). Christ really was born into a poor family and grew up as a poor man. In the end, Christ's poverty consisted not so much in the fact that He was born and lived in poverty, but rather that He became Incarnate and assumed human nature. As Saint Gregory the Theologian says, while He was rich, He became poor so that we might become rich with His Divinity.

The law provided that a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons be offered, because the turtle-doves signify the wisdom of the parents who were joined together according to the law of marriage, while the two young pigeons referred to the Panagia (All-Holy Mother of God) and Christ, because Christ was born of the Virgin and remained Virgin Himself to the end. Thus, while the former signified the honorable and blessed marriage, the latter symbolized the virginity of the Panagia and of Christ (Saint Gregory Palamas).

The offering of the Lord which the law provided was a figure of Christ. As Saint Cyril of Alexandria points out, "the turtle-dove is very loquacious among sparrows of the field, but the dove is gentle and meek." This symbolizes Christ, for Christ babbled like a pigeon to all the world and filled His own vineyard, that is, us who believe in Him, with His sweet voice, and like a dove He was meek to the utmost degree. Clearly then, this offering referred to the incarnation of the Merciful God.

One of the most important and central persons in the Reception, apart, of course, from Christ and the Panagia, was Symeon, "the righteous and devout", who was granted to welcome Christ, to take Him in his arms and to recognize Him by the power and energy of the Holy Spirit. In fact he is a great personality both in that he saw Christ and in what he said at that moment.

The name Symeon corresponds to his life and expectation, but also to God's revelation to him, because in the Hebrew language the word Symeon is interpreted as obedience (Saint Nicetas) or as "whom the Lord heard" (Saint John Chrysostom).

The Evangelist Luke characterizes him as a man who lived in Jerusalem and was just and devout, "waiting for the consolation of Israel". At the same time he says that he had the Holy Spirit and that he had been informed that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ (St. Luke 2:25-26). All these signs are characteristic of an inspired man. This is why Holy Scripture is not interested in man's origin and the elements of his human make-up, because he had another life, a life of the spirit.

Actually Saint Symeon the receiver of God, came to the sanctuary by the power and energy of the Holy Spirit. He had the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Spirit he received the information that he would see Christ before he died, and through the Holy Spirit he came to the sanctuary (St. Luke 2:25-27). This expresses the truth that one must have the Holy Spirit and be taught by Him. The Holy Spirit dos not reveal the mysteries to men who are unclean and did not have it previously...

No sooner had Saint Symeon received Christ in his embrace than he exclaimed: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for my eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou has prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people of Israel" (St. Luke 2:29-31). This is a magnificent expression, which the Church has taken over and placed at the end of the Vespers service, as well as in other services, such as the Thanksgiving after Holy Communion of the Holy Gifts...."

Righteous Symeon blessed the Theotokos (Mother of God) and Joseph, who followed these events with wonder and amazement. And he then turned to the Theotokos to make two remarkable prophecies to her.

The first referred to the Person of the God-man Christ. "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against" (St. Luke 2:34). This prophecy was realized during Christ's life-time, but it continues to be realized in the history of humanity and in the personal life of every man.

The God-man Christ is the fall of those who do not believe in Him and the rising of those who do. Golgotha is an example, one thief believes and is saved, the other doubts and is condemned. This happens also in our inner life, Christ falls when we, the baptized, fall through prostitution, and He is raised through our prudence. Likewise it can be understood that Christ will suffer and fall in death, but also many will be raised through His own fall and His own death (Saint Theophylact).

Christ is also "a sign that is spoken against". The word 'sign' can be understood in many ways and many senses. In the first place, Christ's Incarnation, that the Word of God became man, is a sign. At the Incarnation many paradoxical and strange things happened. God became man, the Virgin became a mother. Precisely this sign is contradicted and doubted by many people. Some maintain that He assumed a real body, and others that His body and His actions were illusory. Some think that His body is earthly, others that it is heavenly. Some think that Christ as God has a Pre-Eternal existence from the Virgin and immaculate Mary (Saint Cyril of Alexandria).

Analyzing Saint Theophilact's interpretation that the Incarnation of the Son and Word of God is understood as a sign that is spoken against, Saint Nicodemos the Hagiorite says that the heretic who sees the works of Christ, Who has the double energies of man and God and sometimes as man hungers, thirsts, is martyred, crucified, suffers, etc., and sometimes as God performs miracles, drives out demons and is resurrected, etc., is in two minds as to whether Christ is God or man. But the Christian does not have such doubts, because he knows from the experience of the deified saints that although Christ has two natures, Divine and human, He is one in hypostasis and person, and so one and the same Christ acts sometimes in a divine way and sometimes in a human way. And certainly when each nature acts, it acts, "in communion with the other".

Another sign that is spoken against is the Cross of Christ. According to Saint Cyril of Alexandria, "the precious Cross is called a disputed sign". Some accept the Cross and the crucifixion of Christ, regarding it as salvation: that in the Cross He conquered the principles and authorities of darkness, and others deny the cross. They cannot accept that Christ was crucified. Therefore, as the Apostle Paul said, the Cross is a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. But for us the faithful the Cross is "the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

Saint Symeon's Second Prophecy, which referred to the Panagia (All-Holy Mother of God), is as follows: "Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (St. Luke 2:35).

Apparently this prophecy refers to the pain and sorrow of the Theotokos about the Cross, when she saw her Son, Who is the Son of God at the same time, suffering and enduring. Though the Panagia did not endure or suffer pain during the birth of Christ, precisely because she conceived Him without seed and gave birth without corruption, she has to suffer much at the time His departure.

This way the very sword that would pierce the soul of the Theotokos (Mother of God) at Christ's death on the Cross and would reveal the thoughts of many men which were hidden in their hearts. From the pain which she felt they understood that this was His natural mother.

This reminds us of the case of the two women in the Old Testament who claimed a baby and appeared before Solomon to resolve their difference. Solomon asked for a sword to divide it and give a part to each woman. Then one of them begged him not to kill it, but to give it whole to the other. And the other asked him to kill it so that neither of them should take it. The king gave the child to the one who preferred that the child should live even if the other woman took it. This was proof that she was the natural mother (1 Kings 3:16-28).

In the same way, the Panagia's sorrow at the Cross showed that she was the real mother, that it was from her that the Lord took flesh. For since the Panagia is the real mother, it means that Christ also has a real body and is not fantasy.

Saint Athanasios the Great says that the phrase "that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" means that the Cross of Christ, His Passion, would reveal all the inner dispositions of men, since Peter, out of warmth and zeal, would deny Him, the Disciples would desert Him, Pilate would express regret by washing his hands, his wife would believe through a dream at night, the centurion would believe from the signs, Joseph and Nicodemos would be occupied with matters of the funeral, Judas would strangle himself, the Jews would give money to the guards to conceal the Resurrection. And indeed "there will be some conflict and discord of thoughts and opposing speculations".

This prophecy does not refer only to the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, but also to the whole life of the Church, which is the real body of Christ. Some are saved, remaining in the Church, and others are condemned, denying its saving work. Also, since through Baptism we have received the Grace of God in our heart and it never leaves us, but is simply concealed by the passions, therefore when we sin, we fall, and when we struggle and repent, we are raised up again.

Christ will be "for the fall and rising of many" also in the next life, since all will see Christ, but for some it will be paradise and for others hell.

This last clearly reveals that the feast of the Reception of Christ is not simply a feast referring only to Christ the Lord and pointing to one of the stages of the Divine Economy, but it is also a feast of the person who lives by Christ.

The Church made the feast of Christ's fortieth day also a ceremony, a service for the fortieth day after everyone's birth. On the fortieth day after birth the infant is offered to the Temple by its mother. This offering has a double meaning. First, the mother is blessed for the end of her purification after the bleeding of her confinement. Just as the Church prays for every illness, so also it prays for the woman who has given birth and naturally feels tired and physically weak. It prays for her purification and because, as we know today, the manner of our birth came after the fall. Secondly, it is a celebration of thanksgiving for the birth of a child. Since the conception and birth of a human being is not a work of nature alone, but of God's energy, we feel that it belongs to God. So we offer it to God and He, through our priest, gives it over to us again to bring it up. But in reality it belongs to God.

However, according to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, we must offer to God, to the altar above, in place of a pair of turtle-doves, the purity of soul and body, and in place of the two young pigeons we must offer much prayer not only before the face of God, but also before the face of mankind. And just as Christ did all that the law required and returned to His fatherland, filled and advancing in wisdom, so we too are to return to our true fatherland, which is the heavenly Jerusalem, because we are to live spiritually according to Divine law and advance in wisdom and joy and reach the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, perfected in the inner man and having become dwellings of the Holy Spirit.

According to Saint Athanasios the Great, it is our task to liken ourselves to Righteous Symeon and the Prophetess Anna. We too must receive Christ with wisdom, purity, guilelessness, forgiveness and in general with love for God and mankind. No one can receive Christ, the true life, in any other way.

The Reception of Christ shows that Christ is the life and light of men and that man should aim tp attain this personal light and personal life. The Church sings, by way of exhortation, "Illuminate my soul and the light of my senses, that I may see Thee in purity; and I will proclaim that Thou art God". In order for anyone to proclaim God, he must see Him clearly. Only those who see God, or at least accept the experience of those who see, can become teacher. But in order to see God one must previously be illuminated, shine in soul and bodily senses. Then the feast of the Reception of Christ also becomes a feast of the reception of every believer.

From the book The Feasts of the Lord: An Introduction to the Twelve Feasts and Orthodox Christology.


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