FROM ARCHBISHOP ANTHONY
February 2, A. D. 2019
The Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple
To the Most Reverend and Right Reverend Hierarchs, Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, Monastics,
and Faithful of The Orthodox Archdiocese of America (New York):
Dearly Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. - Malachi 3:1
And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord. - Luke 2:22
With today’s festival, Christmas finally ends. That last Christmas decoration that you have been hiding away now has to be removed! We move from the brief, but over dominant, nativity cycle to the far longer and far more important but less emphasized, Resurrection cycle.
From Advent through Epiphany we spoke of how the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke brought the Good News of the Resurrection of Jesus to a new perception that if Jesus is the Son of God at his resurrection, he must also have been so at his conception. We also noted that while the two evangelists share an overall theology that the Messiah had to originate from the People of God and that his mother was a virgin, the two evangelists tell the story with quite different, even irreconcilable, details. This is so because the evangelists are writing to people of quite different backgrounds. Further, the Gospels are not biographies, nor were they ever intended as such. They share in a body of literature that intends to move people to faith and then to action, based on what they have heard/read in the document.
That is why reading scripture as if it were the newspaper or a book defeats the purpose of scripture in the Liturgy. Liturgical reading is intended for real hearing a hearing that will move the heart to faith. Real hearing penetrates the deepest part of the being and motivates action it activates adrenalin; ordinary hearing goes to an intellectual cognizance where it is stored safely and quietly. The function of Liturgical Reading is to motivate the heart; it is to challenge the intellect; it is to force a free act of choice that will determine action. This uniting of heart; this challenge of intellect; this free act of choice; this disciplined action brings about an emotion in the depths of the heart and this results in a fuller, deeper and more personal perception of God. This is the principal that underlies the Good Friday Liturgy. The Heart in the Readings; Challenge in Sermon; Act of Choice in Solemn Collects; Emotion in the Veneration; Sacramental Union in Holy Communion.
And that is in fact germane to this message.
You may recall that at the time of Epiphany, we spoke of how Matthew ends his presentation of the nativity with a retelling of the crucifixion using past events from Israel’s history: Moses and the Holy Innocents; the attempt of the wicked king (Balak) to curse the People of God results in a blessing instead (Herod); the vision the Gentiles have of the star of David rising from Eden, heralding the resurrection of the Son of God (Balaam.) Thus, Matthew retells the story of the Resurrection of the Messiah, whose ultimate enthronement with the Father results in the Great Commission to baptize all the world. There, in miniature is the whole story of the Messiah as Matthew tells it.
Luke, who is writing to people who are not very familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, tells the same basic story as Matthew in his first two chapters. Luke also shows that he is also unfamiliar with Jewish Law: he identifies the purification and the presentation as the same event; he strongly suggests that both parents are purified and perhaps even the baby also. Luke uses the story of Hannah and Samuel as a model for the presentation. Simeon points out that this sign (of the Lord returning to his Temple) will be rejected by the some of the Jews (as it was by the time Luke wrote.) That rejection will be like a sword through the soul of the People of God. Nevertheless, Anna gave thanks to God for the liberation that Jesus will bring/is bringing to those who seek the freedom of Jerusalem.
It is important that we understand this aspect of the gospel writings. The primitive, the apostolic, and indeed, much of the pre-Nicene Church was very clear that it was not the incarnation which was crucial. Even as they tell the story of the nativity they were using it to foreshadow the really important matter of the Resurrection. It was and is the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus that are important. Without the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, nothing else about him matters. This cannot be said too strongly. The “how” of these events is irrelevant; it is the fact of the death; it is the fact of the resurrection; it is the fact of the ascension that matters. Jesus died (to die, he had to be a real, living human being); Jesus was raised from the dead (God acted to raise Jesus from the dead Jesus did not do it himself); Jesus, the dead human who was raised from the dead, lives at the very epicenter of the meaning of God. And we do not have adequate language to express fully what all this means. All we know with surety is; Jesus was killed; Jesus is alive; Jesus is at the meaning of God ALL of Jesus is there with God, and that means those who are baptized into his living body: you and me included.
It is because of these facts that the nativity stories become important. And it is important for us to note that these facts are very much in the heart and mind of Matthew and Luke as they write. Even when they tell of the birth of Jesus, they emphasize the death, resurrection and ascension. This is crucial!
You who call yourselves by the name of the Mother of Jesus celebrate this day in a very special way. You exalt the death, the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus into the very meaning of your life. And you do so just as was done of old. You enter into the family of Jesus as his sibling, born of his mother.
But what is happening is clearly in the nurturing tradition of Mary the mother of Jesus. Remember, Mary is of no significance in the Gospel story. The only part she took in the ministry of Jesus was a thwarted attempt to bring her poor son home for care: this son of hers, acting like he had some important mission to do. But while she took no part in his work, she clearly was not far away just in case she might be needed. And when the time came for the flowering of the Church, Mary was there with the others as the Holy Spirit anointed them all into the apostolic ministry. She just picked up where she was needed, and went to work in a new location.
But in this, as in everything we do, is for the love of the dead, raised, ascended Jesus that we do it. After all, when God calls, there is little else the Orthodox Christian can say than “Be it to me according to your word.”
Faithfully in Christ,
Archbishop of New York
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Over the years, some have asked to have a copy of Archbishop Anthony’s Prayer. Here it is: