The Divine Liturgy for Feb. 2 is a major holy day, and focuses upon “The Presentation of the Lord” as an infant of 40 days in the Temple—or, as we often call it in Orthodoxy, “the Meeting” of the Lord. This is a special day for me, since my final decision to seek entrance into the Orthodox Church came directly as a result of this feast. (God works in mysterious ways!) Six years ago this month I was working through Isaiah 6 for my worship book, Grand Entrance. I was struck by the numerous tensions or paradoxes when the heavens are opened for Isaiah. The Lord is transcendent (holy! holy! holy!) but also immanent (“the earth is full of his glory”). The seraphim have faces like us, yet cover their strange forms with wings. There are two seraphim, and yet one voice calls out. The coal, picked out gingerly with tongs, is not to be touched; yet it is carried in the angel’s hand and placed immediately upon the prophet’s lips. It is the last paradox that struck me.
What is it about our Lord that makes it both possible for him to come to us personally, and that demands that this “coming” be mediated? As a Protestant, I had always thought that the immediate presence of the Lord and mediation were incompatible. But here, the prophet Isaiah blithely puts the concepts of immediate divine presence and mediation side-by-side, without comment: coal on lips; coal carried by an angel with tongs. Visions are indeed wonderful, for in them the mysteries of God, the things that we find paradoxical, can be poignantly and convincingly pictured for us. Could it be that my suspicion of mediation was an over-reaction to mediation wrongly pictured and unhelpfully taught? Medieval stories of exaggerated and quasi-magical intercession of the saints certainly figured in my thinking at the time. (Even today in Pittsburgh some Catholic women insist that putting their large statue of the Holy Mother Mary in a certain position will keep away the rain.)
In my memory also echoed the chorus that I sang as a child Sunday after Sunday as a child in an evangelical community: “For there is one God and one Mediator, ‘twixt God and man…the Man Christ Jesus!” Yes, it is true that “only One is holy; only One is the Lord”—but this Holy One is not jealous of his own glory, and in his incarnation has shared it with us. This includes the grace of mediation: “How do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband?” (1 Cor 7:16); “[Saul,] rise, and enter the city, and you will be told [by a human being] what you are to do!” (Acts 9:9); “Whoever brings back a sinner …will save his soul from death” (James 5:19). Evidently, our God delights to use human mediators!
So what does this have to do with our Lord as an infant in the Temple? The answer is in our ancient Orthodox hymn: “Christ, the coal of fire, whom holy Isaiah foresaw, now rests in the arms of the God-bearer Mary as in a pair of tongs, and He is given to the elder.” To the elder Simeon, and to us! Jesus the Christ comes to us by human as well as divine agency, born of the Holy Spirit AND the Virgin Mary. So we learn in the Church to give thanks for her, and to give thanks also for others, like Simeon and our holy fathers (and mothers), who have borne Him to us. That thanksgiving does not rob the Holy One of his unique glory but celebrates the wonder that we have seen His glory! He meets with us, uses others to meet with us, and enlightens our darkness.
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Alongside the elder, who spoke of the Messiah and his mother, there is the figure of Anna, who announced to all who would listen the advent of infant God-Man. Intrigued by her life and actions, I share with you this poem, written in the style of T. S. Eliot’s “Song for Simeon.” I hope that St Anna will not mind my cheek in giving poetic voice to her briefly reported witness in Luke 2!
Lady, seven years of wedlock made me widow, served me solitude,
When I had offered my flowers to a husband too soon dead;
Young, as I was then, you bring fruit
of your womb to the knife of the Temple,
and hear the inevitable intonation of the waiting elder
that you too will suffer—
Yet suffer not alone.
This child is for the fall and rise of many.
In strength beyond my threescore and ten
I have retraced stones in the portico of David’s son and the women’s court,
Kept fast and faith, served God night and day,
Listened for the word to speak,
Waited unknowing for this Word, who now lies unspeaking
In the aching arms of one as old as I.
The thoughts of many will be revealed,
And the inner chamber of the Temple too.
So now even the ancient daughter of Phanuel has a pregnant word to utter,
(As the age of sorrow reaches the end of her labor):
And I will give thanks!
Thanks be to the One who has heard our cry,
Who, requiring no ransom yet proffers himself, his parents’ presentation,
As consolation of Israel, desire of nations–
Lamb to the slaughter?
Let those who seek
Look here alone for release from long exile,
Ponder in their hearts this Child who must wax strong in Spirit and in stature,
Yet be subject,
And found in his Father’s house,
And then on a hill.
To those who seek
I am driven, no longer harnessed to this House,
But hopeful and raving of a home inhabited by Righteousness—
For indeed, He is here. And can it be
That the very world is no longer his footstool
But his sanctuary?
He touches my lips as he fills the elder’s arms,
That holy coal Isaiah saw of old,
Brought here enthroned upon your arms, Lady.
Your hands are as angelic tongs clasping the burning Coal,
Offered that we might seek, that we might take, that we might speak,
That we all might be filled, a living tabernacle
Made not with hands, cleansed by the very Spirit of life.
So will he be enthroned upon the praise of new Israel!
Maiden mother, count me your kinswoman,
Lips loosed like your cousin,
Frail but fecund like Elisabeth,
The joy jumping within me,
Giving thanks and speaking of Him
Blessed are you: in my end
There is my beginning;
In his death,
There will be our birth.
In your arms, in our midst and on our lips,
Here is Hope.