Ep.44: Meeting of the Lord / St. Simeon’s Canticle (Vespers 4)

by 1389 on February 2, 2015

in 1389 (blog admin), Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox hymnography

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Published on Jan 26, 2015 by Coffee with Sr. Vassa
A weekly, brief reflection on the church calendar, hosted by Dr. Sr. Vassa Larin of the University of Vienna, Austria. This episode is on St. Simeon’s Canticle.

So, zillions, let‘s get right to the point and look at the text of the Canticle of St. Simeon: “Now You dismiss Your servant, O Lord, according to Your word in peace;” (Here Simeon says that God is ”dismissing” him, that is, letting him depart from this life, because as it says in the Gospel of Luke right before these words, he had received the assurance, in the Holy Spirit, that he would not die until he saw Christ). And he continues: ”For my eyes have seen Your salvation,” (he’s referring here, of course, to the baby Jesus Christ, Whom he‘s now holding in his arms), “which You have prepared before the face of all peoples: a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel” (Lk 2:29-32).

Now, I’ll remind you, zil-lions, that this text is chanted every evening at the church-service called Vespers, so our liturgical tradition considers it somehow relevant to every evening of our lives. Why is this, you ask? That‘s why I like you, zillions, because you ask such good questions. Because – and I need you to listen carefully now, so if you‘re checking your text messages or emails right now, stop it and listen – because the words of St. Simeon fit, in a certain poetical way, in an allegorical way, to the time of day, the evening. I will come back to the word “allegorical“ in a minute. Simeon is contemplating his upcoming death, his transition to the afterlife. And the evening, with the setting of the sun, which is the source of light in this world, is also a transition to nighttime, and other God-given sources of light, like fire and electricity, and ultimately to the next day. And all this, along with us going to sleep at the end of our evening, reminds us of our death, which is not simply the end, but our transition to the next phase of our existence in the afterlife. So the end of Vespers is all about transition. It also signifies the transition of the Old Testament to the New, because the elderly Simeon is beholding the incarnate God, the good news and glory of his people, Israel. And he looks with hope toward this glory being reveal-ed as light to the Gentiles as well. All this reminds us that our every evening, however we spend it, is a transition and thus the foundation for our next day. So we should spend it wisely, obviously. It‘s a poetic image, but it has very practical, everyday implications.

This use of poetic imagery called allegory in our liturgical tradition reminds us that liturgy is an art form – that is, a different, elevated way of seeing and expressing everyday reality. The word “allegory“ comes from the Greek words “allos“ and “agorevein,“ which mean “to explain in another way.“ And the use of allegory in the liturgical tradition teaches us that there is a different way of see-ing everyday reality, in-spired and instructed by faith and love. So we see the setting sun, and at the same time see Christ, the “gladsome light“ of which one of the hymns of Vespers speaks. Just like a per-son in love might be re-minded of his or her be-loved, and see the face of the beloved in the blue sky, or be reminded of the beloved in a beautiful melody. The Byzantine hymnography of the feast of the Meeting of the Lord makes a big deal of Simeon‘s vision; of his way of seeing. He physically beheld a baby, Jesus. But, as he says, his eyes saw salvation and light and glory.

And our church tradition, in its liturgical texts and customs, opens our eyes on a deeper level, more wholesome level, which unites that which we see physically with that which we know through faith. That is what the mystery of the Church is all about: the union of the visible and invisible; heaven and earth inter-mingling, as the very insightful theologian N.T. Wright likes to say. This is what Christ says to His followers in the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; be-cause I live, you also will live (Jn 14:19).“ So let‘s live see, on an everyday basis, also every evening, with eyes focused on, and inspired by, Him.

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Go to Vespers whenever you have the opportunity. It’s worth it.

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