The Nativity of the Most-Holy Theotokos (Sept. 8)
The first Great Feast to fall in the Church Year is the Nativity of the Most-Holy Theotokos. It is entirely fitting that at the beginning of the new religious year all Orthodox Christians should come before the highest example of human holiness that the Orthodox Church holds precious and venerates that of Mary, the Theotokos and Mother of God. This day is seen as one of universal joy; for on this day the boundary of the Old and New Covenants was born the Most-Blessed Virgin, pre-arranged from the ages by Divine Providence to serve the mystical Incarnation of God the Word.
The first Old Testament Reading of Vespers (Gen. 28:10-17) speaks of the dream of Jacob, one of the Old Testament Patriarchs, when he fled the wrath of his brother Esau. He saw a ladder extending from earth to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. When he awoke, Jacob blessed with oil the stone on which he had slept and called it Bethel, meaning house of God. The Most-Pure Mother of God is seen here as that ladder between heaven and earth, uniting earth with heaven in her womb. She who carried God in her womb is truly Bethel, none other than the house of God…and the gate of heaven (Gen. 28:17).
The birth of the Most-Holy Theotokos took place in the following manner: Her father, the Righteous Joachim, was a descendant of King David, to whom God had promised that from the seed of his descendants would be born the Savior of the world. Her mother, the Righteous Anna, was the daughter of Matthan, and through her father was of the tribe of Aaron and through her mother was of the tribe of Judah. The spouses lived in Nazareth of Galilee.
Joachim and Anna had no children, and all their life they grieved about this, especially since they were now in old age. Scorn and mockery was their lot, for at that time childlessness was reckoned as a shame. But they never murmured and only the more fervently beseeched God, humbly trusting in His Will.
Once, during the time of a great Feast, the offering which Joachim took to Jerusalem to offer to God in the Temple, was not received by the priest, who reckoned that a childless man was not worthy to bring a sacrifice to God. This greatly grieved the old man and he, counting himself only a sinner among men, decided not to return home, but to flee to a place of solitude in a deserted place.
Anna, having heard how her husband had been humiliated by the priest, began to fast, and in prayer sadly beseeched God to grant her a child. In the wilderness, secluded and fasting, Joachim also prayed to God about this.
The prayers of the Holy Spouses were heard. The angel Gabriel came to them and announced that a daughter would be born to them, whom the whole human race would call blessed. At the command of the Heavenly Messenger, Joachim and Anna returned to Jerusalem where, according to the promise of God, a daughter was born to them, whom they named Mary.
This child, the Most-Holy Virgin Mary, pure and virtuous, surpassed not only all men, but even the angels, being manifested as the Living Temple, the Heavenly Gate, ushering in Christ to the Universe as the Salvation of our souls. The Nativity of the Mother of God pre-announced the approaching time when the great and comforting promise of God concerning the salvation of the human race from the slavery of the devil was to be accomplished. The Mother of the First-Born of all Creation was revealed to all of us as a merciful Intercessor to whom we perpetually run for help in all things.
Troparion of the Feast (Tone 4).
Your Nativity, O Virgin, has proclaimed joy to the whole universe! The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, has shone from you, O Theotokos! By annulling the curse, He bestowed a blessing. By destroying death, He has granted us eternal life.
Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 4)
By your Nativity, O Most-Pure Virgin, Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness; Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death. And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you: The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the Nourisher of our Life.
The Universal Exaltation of the Life-Creating Cross (Sept. 14)
Not long after the Nativity of the Most-Holy Theotokos, the Church celebrates the Exaltation of the Most-Precious Cross of the Lord. The Savior Himself had spoken of His death on the Cross, saying: As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:14-16). This was accomplished on Holy Friday when the Lord was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried, as the Creed proclaims. And just before He died He proclaimed It is finished (John 19:30)!
Truly, the Nativity of the Theotokos was seen as the beginning of our salvation, and the Cross is seen as the culmination of our salvation. By Christ’s death on It, our salvation was accomplished. Mary is also closely associated with the Cross, for she was the mystical paradise in whom the Tree of Life sprouted; this Tree of Life, Christ our Savior, then planted on earth the life-creating Tree of the Cross (from the Feast). And as He suffered and died on the Life-giving Tree of the Cross, so too we are called upon to take up our own crosses on our shoulders and to die daily for the sake of Him Who died for us.
The Feast itself came about because of certain historical events. After the voluntary suffering and death on the Cross of the Lord, the sacred place of His suffering was scorned by the pagans. When the Roman Emperor Titus, in 70 A.D. conquered Jerusalem, he destroyed the city and leveled the Temple on Mt. Moriah, not leaving even a stone upon a stone, as had been foretold by the Savior in a dialogue with His disciples (Mark 13:1-2).
The Emperor Hadrian (117-138), a backward, zealous pagan, constructed in place of the Jerusalem destroyed by Titus a new city, which he named Helio-Hadrianopolis. Further, it was forbidden for this city to be called by its previous name of Jerusalem. He commanded that the Holy Grave of the Lord be covered with earth and stones, raising on it an idol. On Golgotha, where the Savior was crucified, in 119 he erected a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus. Sacrifices were offered before the statue and pagan rites were celebrated, accompanied by prostitution. In Bethlehem, in the place where the Savior had been born of the Most-Pure Virgin, the impious monarch erected an idol to Adonis. All of this he did intending that the people completely forget about Christ the Savior and nevermore recollect the place where He lived, taught, suffered and arose with glory.
When Constantine the Great, Equal-to-the-Apostles (306-337) ascended the throne (being the first of the Roman Emperors to recognize Christianity) , he, together with his pious mother, Queen Helena, decided to restore the city of Jerusalem, and in the place of the suffering and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ to erect a new church, to cleanse all of the places connected with the memory of Jesus from the pagan cult, and again to consecrate all of them. The Orthodox Queen Helena left for Jerusalem with a great quantity of gold, and the Emperor sent a letter to Patriarch Macarius I (313-323) in which he asked every kind of aid in the holy task of restoring the Christian holy places.
Having arrived in Jerusalem, the pious Queen destroyed all the idols and cleansed the city of pagan cult objects, consecrating the defiled places. She burned with the desire to raise up the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ; and so she commanded that digging proceed at the place where the Temple of Venus had stood. There the covered Grave of the Lord was discovered, as well as the place of execution, not far from which were found three crosses and four nails, as well as the sign board which had been nailed over His head.
In order to determine which of the three crosses belonged to the Savior, Patriarch Macarius ordered that the crosses, in turn, be placed on a dead person who was being brought to a place of burial. When the Cross of Christ touched the dead one, he immediately came to life. With great joy, the Orthodox Queen and the Patriarch together lifted up the Life-Creating Cross and showed it to all the people standing by. Later the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was constructed on the site, enclosing within its walls the place of the crucifixion of the Savior, as well as His tomb, and a Feast was instituted for September 14, commemorating the glorious Exaltation of the Cross.
Troparion of the Feast (Tone 1).
O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries; and by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation.
Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 4).
As Thou wast voluntarily crucified for our sake, grant mercy to those who are called by Thy Name; make all Orthodox Christians glad by Thy power, granting them victories over their adversaries, by bestowing on them the invincible trophy, Thy weapon of peace.
The Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple (Nov. 21).
Soon after the beginning of the Nativity Fast (Advent), the Holy Church celebrates the Feast of the Entrance of the Most-Holy Theotokos into the Temple. Here we encounter the holiness of Mary a small child separated from the world, brought to live in the Temple a life set apart, consecrated, and in a state of intimacy with God something that all of us are called to be. We also see in this Feast a comparison between the Temple of stone and Mary, the Living Temple the Temple of the Savior for she will bear God the Word the God-Man in her womb, thus showing herself to be a holier Temple than that at Jerusalem. It is the Living Temple the instrument of the Incarnation which sanctifies the Temple built of stone.
According to the Inner Tradition of the Church, the Entrance into the Temple took place in the following manner: The parents of the Virgin, Joachim and Anna, when praying for the resolution of their barrenness, gave a vow that if a child was born, it would be dedicated to the service of God. Thus, when the Most-Holy Virgin was three years old, her holy parents resolved to fulfill their vow.
Having gathered relatives and acquaintances, clothing the Most-Pure Mary in bright garments, singing sacred hymns and carrying lit candles in their hands, they led her to the Jerusalem Temple. There the young Maiden was met by the High Priest with a multitude of priests. Leading up into the Temple were fifteen high steps, and the child Mary, it seems, was not able on her own to ascend these steps. But, as soon as she was put on the first step, being strengthened by the power of God, she quickly climbed the remaining steps to the top. Later, at an inspiration from Above, the High Priest led the Most-Holy Virgin into the Holy of Holies into which the High Priest entered only once a year on behalf of the people, after first making sacrifices for them and for himself. All who were present were astonished at this extraordinary event.
The righteous Joachim and Anna, having delivered the child voluntarily to the Heavenly Father, returned home; the Most-Blessed Mary remained in the rooms for virgins which were found at the Temple. Around the Temple, according to the witness of Holy Scripture (e.g., Luke 2:37), as well as that of the historian Josephus Flavius, there were many rooms in which remained those dedicated to the service of God.
A deep mystery covers the earthly life of the Most-Holy Theotokos from her childhood to her repose. Her life in the Jerusalem Temple was concealed. If you were to ask me, said the Blessed Jerome, how the Most-Holy Virgin passed the time of her youth, I would answer that this is known only to God Himself and the Archangel Gabriel detailed to protect her.
In Church Tradition, however, is preserved information that during her sojourn in the Jerusalem Temple, the Most-Pure Virgin was educated in the community of pious virgins, diligently reading Holy Scriptures, occupied with handiworks, perpetually in prayer and growing up with love towards God.
In remembrance of the Entry into the Temple of the Most-Holy Theotokos, the Church, from ancient times, instituted a solemn Feast. Information concerning the celebration of the Feast in the first centuries of Christianity is found in the tradition of Palestinian Christians, which says that when the Holy Queen Helena came to Palestine, she erected a church in honor of the Entrance into the Temple of the Most-Holy Theotokos. Thus the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple of the Most-Holy Theotokos, pre-announcing the Incarnation of God on earth, proclaims salvation to all Christians.
Troparion of the Feast (Tone 4).
Today is the prelude of the good will of God, of the preaching of the salvation of mankind. The Virgin appears in the Temple of Cod, in anticipation proclaiming Christ to all. Let us rejoice and sing to her: Rejoice, O divine Fulfillment of the Creator’s dispensation!
Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 4).
The most pure Temple of the Savior; the precious Chamber and Virgin; the sacred Treasure of the glory of God, is presented today to the house of the Lord. She brings with her the grace of the Spirit, which the angels of God do praise. Truly this woman is the Abode of Heaven!
The Nativity of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ (Dec. 25).
In the earliest days of Christianity, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ was not generally celebrated in the Church. First mention of the Feast is made by Clement of Alexandria, who mentions that certain Egyptians commemorated the birth of Christ on May 20. The Apostolic Constitutions of the first half of the 4th Century set forth that January 6 should be celebrated as both the Feast of the Nativity and Epiphany. St. Gregory of Nyssa in 380 wrote that the faithful of Cappadocia celebrated the Nativity on Dec. 25. The Feast was not celebrated in Jerusalem until the 6th Century, while St. John Chrysostom introduced it at Antioch in 386 and at Constantinople between 398-402. In Rome the Feast of the Nativity of Christ had been celebrated on Dec. 25 since 354.
December 25 was ultimately chosen by the Church as the date of the Nativity in order to Christianize the pagan Feast of Natalis Invicti or Invincible Sun, which was celebrated on that day. St. Cyprian of Carthage noted that this anniversary of the invincible was made actual only in the birth of Jesus the only invincible One.
As the hymns of Christmas proclaim, Our Savior, the Dayspring from the East, has visited us from on high: And we who were in darkness and shadow have found the Truth. For the Lord is born of the Virgin (Exapostilarion). And as the Prophet Isaiah foretold many centuries before, and as the Church proclaims at the Great Compline during the All-Night Vigil for the Nativity of Christ, Understand all ye nations, and submit yourselves, for God is with us!
The Christmas story is well-known from the witness of Holy Scripture:
In those days a decree went out front Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born Son and wrapped Him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn [Luke 2:1-7].
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He Who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him. When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet: ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will govern My people Israel/ Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, Go and search diligently for the Child, and when you have found Him bring me word, that I too may come and worship Him. When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered Him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way [Matt. 2:1-12].
And in that region there were shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men [Luke 2:8-14].
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us. And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this Child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them [Luke 2:15-20],
Now when [the wise men and shepherds] had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, Rise, take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there till I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy Him. And he rose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, Out of Egypt have I called My son. Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more [Matt. 2:13-18].
Troparion of the Feast (Tone 4).
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom! For by it, those who worshipped the stars, were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Orient from on high. O Lord, Glory to Thee!
Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 3).
Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star! Since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child!
The Holy Supper.
Christmas customs among the Orthodox people are simple, yet beautiful and rich with meaning. Among these customs is the Holy Supper which is served on Christmas Eve. We must emphasize, however, that the traditions which follow are not necessarily followed in every detail by every family that serves the Holy Supper, for Orthodoxy is rich in its diversity.
Traditionally, the meal is served on Christmas Eve at the time of the appearance of the first evening star. This, of course, serves to remind us of the Star of Bethlehem which shone in the East to the Magi coming to worship the Savior. The table itself is covered with straw and linen, which reminds us of the manger in which Christ lay and the linen cloths with which He was wrapped. A lit candle is placed on the table, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem and the Light of Christ shining out in the darkness and despair of the world.
In some farming households, a meal was prepared for all of the animals and they were fed first. At the start of the Holy Supper the question would be asked, Have the animals been fed? and with an affirmative reply, the meal began. This served as a reminder that animals were also present at the Birth of Christ.
Traditionally, twelve courses are served separately at the meal, starting with bitter foods and ending with sweet. All are Lenten foods, since the Nativity Fast does not end until the Liturgy of Christmas Day. The first food is bitter garlic or onion greens, which each person must taste before touching any other food. This serves to remind us that until the coming of Christ the Savior, man’s life was one of despair and bitterness, for he had fallen away from God by disobeying His commandments.
Each of the twelve dishes has a special meaning, then. Honey, for example, represents the sweet and pleasant moments in life; garlic the bitter days; grain dishes are reminders of the simple and ordinary moments, as well as our Daily Bread and the Bread from Heaven the Lord Jesus Christ.
The number of courses twelve represents the Twelve Tribes of Israel who lived in the promise of the Messiah and it also symbolizes the Twelve Disciples who followed Christ. The whole sequence of the meal from bitter to sweet courses reminds us that in following Christ we must be ready to bear the bitter moments with the same patience and understanding with which we accept life’s ordinary and happy experiences.
The evening meal is completed by a Prayer of Thanksgiving and the singing of Christmas Hymns (Carols). These Hymns are sung to announce to the world the Birth of the Christ Child even as the angels announced it to the shepherds in the fields, singing Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will to men. The day ends with the attendance of the whole family in Church at the Nativity Vigil and the Divine Liturgy on the following day.
The Theophany of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. (Jan. 6)
The Feast of the Theophany (or Epiphany) of Our Lord Jesus Christ, is celebrated on January 6. After Pascha and Pentecost, this is the greatest Feast of the Orthodox Church, predating even the Nativity of Christ in importance. Here Our Lord Jesus Christ is baptized by John in the waters of the Jordan, this being the first public manifestation of God the Word Incarnate to the world.
As Holy Scripture tells us: In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins…. [And John said,] I baptize you with water for repentance, but He Who is coming after me is mightier than I, Whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire [Matt. 3:1-6, 11).
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, Behold, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of Whom I said, ‘After me comes a man Who ranks before me, for He was before me’ [John 1:28-30]. Then Jesus came…to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented Him, saying, I need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me? But Jesus answered him, Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, He went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and He was the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on Him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased [Matt. 3:13-17].
And John bore witness, I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on Him. I myself did not know Him; but He Who sent me to baptize with water said to me, He on Whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is He Who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God [John 1:32-34].
In commemoration of this event, the Church, on January 5, the Eve of Theophany, performs the Blessing of Waters in the church itself, and on January 6, the day of the Feast itself, the Blessing of Waters is performed at a site prepared outside the church (preferably a river or lake).
The Feast of the Epiphany reminds us of our own Baptism in the hymn sung just before the reading of the Epistle at the Divine Liturgy: As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia! For in the waters of Baptism, we put off the Old Man and put on the New, that is Jesus Christ, and strive to acquire the humility shown by the Lord Himself when He, the Creator, bowed His head under the hand of John, the creature, in the waters of the Jordan River.
Troparion of the Feast (Tone 1).
When Thou, O Lord, wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest! For the voice of the Father bare witness to Thee, and called Thee His beloved Son! And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. O Christ our God, Who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee!
Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 4).
Today Thou hast appeared to the universe, and Thy light, O Lord, has shone on us, who with understanding praise Thee: Thou hast come and revealed Thyself, O Light Unapproachable!
The Meeting of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (Feb. 2).
The Creator of the Law, in fulfillment of the Law, was brought to the Temple and presented to the Lord, for the external aspect of this great event in the Gospel narrative was in conformity with the rules laid down in the Old Testament. The Lord said to Moses, Consecrate to Me all the first born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast is Mine…. And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord slew all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man and the first-born of cattle. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb; but all the first-born of my sons I redeem’ (Ex. 13:1-2, 14-15).
And so Mary and Joseph came after forty days of purification to the Temple to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons (Luke 2:24). The original Old Testament prescription that the firstborn must be consecrated to the service of the Lord was now done by substitution: …the firstborn of man you shall redeem, and the firstling of unclean beasts you shall redeem. And their redemption price (at a month old you shall redeem them) you shall fix at five shekels in silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary… (Num. 18:15-16). These five shekels evidently symbolized the coming redemption of us by the Savior His five wounds on the Cross.
The harsh way of the Cross, portent with profound significance, brought Son and Mother, the God-Man and she who is more honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious, beyond compare, than the Seraphim, meekly to the Temple at Jerusalem, and the Liberator and Redeemer of the world was Himself redeemed for so trifling a sum.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the Law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said, Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word (Luke 2:25-29).
This was the crossroads between the Old Testament and the New. St. Simeon symbolizes the departing Old Testament, exemplified by men of righteousness and prophets who in spite of all their doubts and searchings entertained the firmest faith in what had been foretold of the promised salvation. The righteous Simeon took Him up in his arms, and the Old and New Testaments stood together: the Old, departing, held in its arms and blessed the New. This was unity and continuity, a direct link and a development; the Law and the promised manifestation of the Grace of God as His Only-Begotten Son, the Redeemer.
To Simeon the God-Receiver was granted more than had been granted to any other man before him: he held the Almighty in his arms, and to him were revealed both the Glory and the Way of the Cross of his God: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel. And His father and His mother marveled at what was said about Him; and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, Behold, this Child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed (Luke 2:30-35). Thus, for the first time, the Most-Holy Mary was forewarned that there would be no end to the thorns and trials of her life, that her Son, while bringing light and spiritual renewal to all peoples, would Himself be so persecuted that a sword will pierce through your own soul also.
The Lord wished for moral harmony in spreading abroad this holy news, and so He wished a woman, too, to repeat what had been said by Simeon: And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher; she was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years from her virginity, and as a widow till she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the Temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of Him to all who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem (Luke 2:36-38).
Just as in Palestine in ancient times, we bring our children on the fortieth day to be presented to the Lord; but in contrast to the Israelites, we bring children of either sex. In the Presentation, Christ, the Firstborn of all the human race, Creator of the New Church and of the New Testament, filled the old rites with a new content. By bringing our children to church like the Most-Pure Virgin Mary, we bind them over to God. Baptized and sanctified by grace, our children, by being made members of the Church, take their first steps upon the way of grace and the way of the Cross that lies before those who would follow Christ.
So we must go out to meet Christ and receive Him, taking Him into the arms of our souls, begging leave for sin to depart from us that we may live our lives in peace and tranquility, free of the agitations of evil. St. Simeon gave us an example of how firmly to follow the path of a righteous life, filled with the expectation of a meeting with the Lord.
Troparion of the Feast (Tone 1)
Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, Full of Grace! From you shone the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, enlightening those who sat in darkness! Rejoice and be glad, O righteous Elder; you accepted in your arms the Redeemer of our souls, Who grants us the Resurrection.
Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 1)
By Thy Nativity, Thou didst sanctify the Virgin’s womb and didst bless Simeon’s hands, O Christ God. Now Thou hast come and saved us through love. Grant peace to all Orthodox Christians, O only Lover of Man!
The Annunciation to the Most-Holy Theotokos (Mar. 25).
The role that the Most-Holy Theotokos plays in the redemption of the human race cannot be emphasized strongly enough. As the Feast of her Nativity shows, she was the ladder bridging earth and heaven. The Troparion of the Feast of the Annunciation proclaims in part, Today is the beginning of our salvation, the revelation of the eternal mystery! The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin as Gabriel announces the coming of Grace. This was effected through the perfect obedience of the Theotokos whose humble yes to the will of God overthrew the disobedience of the First Mother, Eve, in the Garden of Eden.
As Holy Scripture tells us: In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent front God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you! Blessed are you among women! But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His kingdom there will be no end. And Mary said to the angel, How shall this be, since I have no husband? [Luke 1:26-34].
Mary’s question, How shall this be…? is not an expression of doubt. In this differs quite radically from the attitude of Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist, when the angel announced to him news of the birth of his own son. She simply poses a respectful question. And the angel said to her, The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born of you will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth [the mother of St. John the Baptist] in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible [Luke 1:35-37].
With perfect obedience and humility, Mary gives her reply to the angel and with it overturns the curse of the First Parents: And Mary said, Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word. And the angel departed from her [Luke 1:38]. Thus, with the Archangel Gabriel we can all cry out to her from the depths of our hearts:
Rejoice, you through whom joy will shine forth: Rejoice, you through whom the curse will cease! Rejoice, restoration of fallen Adam: Rejoice, redemption of the tears of Eve! Rejoice, Height hard to climb for the thoughts of man: Rejoice, Depth hard to perceive even for the eyes of angels! Rejoice, you who are the throne of the King: Rejoice, you who hold Him Who holdeth all! Rejoice, Star who makes the Sun appear: Rejoice, Womb of the Divine Incarnation! Rejoice, you through whom the Creation is made new: Rejoice, you through whom the Creator becomes a newborn child! Rejoice, Unwedded Bride! [From the Ikos of the Matins of the Feast].
Troparion of the Feast (Tone 4).
Today is the beginning of our salvation, the revelation of the eternal mystery! The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin as Gabriel announces the coming of Grace. Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with you!
Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 8).
O victorious Leader of triumphant hosts! We, your servants, delivered from evil, sing our grateful thanks to you, O Theotokos! As you possess invincible might set us free from every calamity so that we may sing: Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride!
The Transfiguration of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Aug. 6).
At one point in His earthly ministry, Our Lord asked His disciples, Who do men say that the Son of man is (Matt. 16:13)? The disciples gave various answers: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. Then He said to them, But who do you say that I am (Matt. 16:15)? Simon Peter replied, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matt. 16:16). Shortly after this confession of faith, Jesus went up a high mountain (according to Church Tradition, Mt. Tabor) to pray, taking with Him Peter, James and John. And as He was praying, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became dazzling white. And behold, two men talked with Him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His departure, which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with Him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him. And as the men were parting from Him, Peter said to Jesus, Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah not knowing what he said. As he said this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is My Son, My Beloved; listen to Him! And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silence and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen (Luke 9:29-36).
In the Old Testament, the presence of light and cloud often signified the Divine Presence: Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel (Ex. 24:15-17). Likewise, on Mt. Tabor the cloud signified the Divine Presence the God-Man Jesus Christ and the Theophany here was accompanied by a bright radiance.
Both Moses and Elijah had beheld the presence of God, as the Readings at the Vespers of the Feast point out, and thus were appropriate witnesses on Mt. Tabor to Christ’s divinity. In addition, as Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, how appropriate it was for those who par excellence represented the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) to be present.
The Lord took His three closest disciples (Peter, James and John) with Him on the mountain for, although God sometimes reveals Himself to sinners in quite unexpected ways, it is usually those who have followed Him long and faithfully who are privileged to enter into the joy of the Transfiguration of the Master.
The bright radiance and shining of the face is also a characteristic of those closest to God. Such was the case of Moses, who spoke to God face to face: When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tables of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. And when Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them…. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with Him, he took the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone; and Moses would put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with Him (Ex. 34:29-35). In more recent times this phenomenon was especially noted in the case of St. Seraphim of Sarov whose face shone like the brightest sun according to contemporary reports [Conversation with Motovilov].
In like manner, we all have the opportunity to be transfigured in our lives and to acquire a close relationship with God. So, too, we all have the opportunity to manifest the visible signs of those closest to God. In any case, as St. Paul tells us, when we die our bodies will be transformed (transfigured, as it were) and we will take on spiritual, radiant bodies. This aspect is clearly seen in the Transfiguration of Our Lord.
Troparion (Tone 7).
Thou wast transfigured on the Mount, O Christ God, revealing Thy glory to Thy disciples as far as they could bear it. Let Thine everlasting light shine upon us sinner! Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Giver of Light, glory to Thee!
Kontakion (Tone 7).
On the mountain wast Thou transfigured, O Christ God, and Thy disciples beheld Thy glory as far as they could see it; so that when they would behold Thee crucified, they would understand that Thy suffering was voluntary, and would proclaim to the world that Thou art truly the Radiance of the Father!
Excerpt taken from “These Truths We Hold – The Holy Orthodox Church: Her Life and Teachings”. Compiled and Edited by A Monk of St. Tikhon’s Monastery. Copyright 1986 by the St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, South Canaan, Pennsylvania 18459.
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