Some years back I had opportunity to celebrate the feast of Our Lord’s Presentation in the Temple with His Eminence, Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas (retired). Afterwards, several of us were sitting around and Vladyka asked, “Whose feast are we celebrating? Is this a “feast of the Lord” or a “feast of the Theotokos?” This is a relatively technical question within Orthodox liturgics. None of us present were liturgical scholars and thus he received a range of answers – answers that made for good meditation on the feast itself.
The feasts surrounding our Lord’s Incarnation are remembered not only in a small collection of celebrations that depend upon Christmas for their date, but also in the birth of a child and the rites and prayers surrounding that event as well. My parish has had a fair number of births in the past few months (including one this week) and my mind has been living these “connections” repeatedly. They, too, make for rich meditation.
Everyone is familiar with the great feast of Christ Nativity, in which we celebrate His birth. When a child is born to an Orthodox family, prayers of thanksgiving are said in the hospital for their protection and safety.
Less familiar is the Feast of Christ’s Circumcision, known in the Catholic Church as the Feast of the Holy Name. It occurs 8 days after Christmas (January 1). The Law of God in the Old Testament commands that a male child should be circumcised on the eighth day and given his name. In Orthodoxy, circumcision is not part of Church practice (as is clearly discussed in the writings of St. Paul). However, the custom remains that the child is named on the eighth day (boys and girls). The pattern for our children, is the pattern of the child Christ.
The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, comes 40 days after Christmas, and fulfills the commandment of the law that a sacrifice should be offered on the 40th day for “every first-born male child.” The mother also was blessed and received her “purification.” In the Church, a similar pattern is maintained. The mother comes to Church on the 40th day for her “Churching.” She makes confession and is blessed as she returns to the fullness of her life in the Church. Traditionally, the child is Baptized on the 40th day (and is also “churched,” brought and presented before God.
Thus the pattern is maintained. But the Archbishop’s question always rings in my ear: “Whose feast is this?” Is it a feast of Mary or a feast of Christ?
The answer I have come to be most comfortable with seems obvious now: it is a feast of both. This becomes clear when I reflect on my pastoral work with families at the birth of their children.
The birth of a child is a wonderful thing. I was present at the birth of each of my children (four living and a fifth who died in the womb). Each birth, even the one marked by tragedy, was a miracle in itself. But in no case was the birth of the child somehow distinct from its mother. Rather than a distinct event – the birth of a child is the continuation of a bond perhaps deeper than any other known to human beings (under normal circumstances).
In none of the events marked by the Church’s pastoral care (birth, naming, churching, baptism) is the mother excluded or forgotten.
The same is true in the life of Christ. Fr. Thomas Hopko likes to remind his listeners: “You cannot know God…but you have to know Him to know that.” The God who cannot be known, made Himself known to us in the Incarnation of Christ. We do not know God apart from the Incarnation. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” Christ tells us.
It is also true (though forgotten by many modern Christians) that we do not know the Incarnate God apart from his mother Mary. She is there at the Nativity. She is surely there at His circumcision and naming. She is there as He is presented in the Temple at 40 days. Indeed, it is at that occasion that the haunting words of the Elder Simeon to Mary are heard:
Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34-35).
And so it is that we find Mary standing by her Son at the Cross, a “sword” piercing her own soul. Thus we do not even know the Crucified Christ apart from his mother.
None of this detracts from Christ – it bears full witness to His humanity. But it also bears witness to the share of His life borne by His mother.
Whose feast is it? Ask your mother.