We stalwart Orthodox can certainly feel disgruntled at what has happened to the wintertime feasts of the Church. Every year, we try to extricate the true spirit of Advent and Nativity out of the world’s exuberant but misguided “holiday season.” And trying to get friends to pass up New Year’s Eve parties in favor of the Feast of the Circumcision is bound to be an uphill battle.
But I actually think it’s interesting how things worked out with the Feast of the Presentation. Through no fault of our own, a feastday of hope and light is paired up with an old superstition about foretelling the end of winter. And so on this day of the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple, I don’t mind stopping to consider the coincidence that pairs it with Groundhog Day.
I could wish that the quaint harbinger of spring was something a little more dignified and auspicious than a groundhog. But then, who am I to judge? The tradition started independent of any festal considerations, and the quiet ground-dweller was probably a welcome sight to pioneers in snowy climes. There’s something primitive but satisfying in seeing anything that reminds you, when snow is still on the ground and the days are still much too short, that spring will still follow winter and that the darkness won’t last forever.
So what can we do but wonder when we think of Simeon — that “righteous old man,” according to our hymns, who had been waiting in the Temple for so many, many years? How did he ever maintain such a vigil? What can he have thought in that moment when he saw the One he had been waiting for?
Say who it is, O Simeon, that thou carriest in thy arms with rejoicing in the Temple. Towards whom dost thou cry, shouting, “Now I have been given leave to depart; for I have beheld my Savior”? This is He born of the Virgin. This is the Word, God of God, Who was incarnate for our sakes, and saved man. Him let us worship. (Vesperal idiomelon 1)
And what can the Virgin Mary have thought of what happened? She and Joseph had brought the requisite pair of turtledoves, and perhaps they expected the Temple ritual to be completed as a mere formality. I have thought of her place in the feast this year. Perhaps she told the account to Luke herself — judging from his detailed account of her actions in his gospel, and his presentation to her of his icon of her holding the Christ-child, I find myself wondering if they had a special bond. I can’t know, and so perhaps it’s wrong for me to even speculate. But in any case, there is something so personal in this account that you feel as if you were there.
“This Child is destined …”
And how could anyone be unmoved by Simeon’s final words to the Theotokos,words not of exaltation but of heavy portent? “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.”
What a wonderful and terrible thing to hear of your newborn’s place in history and of the life that awaits you in consequence of it. But the hymns don’t speak of that grim news, or of the pain she would suffer. Instead we hear in the Orthros troparion: “Rejoice, O virgin Theotokos, full of grace. For from thee arose the Sun of Justice, Christ our God, lighting those who are in darkness.”
And also of Christ’s ineffable goodness and humility in the Orthros canon:
“Thy virtue, O Christ, hath covered the heavens, for when the tabernacle of Thy holiness came, Thy mother, free of corruption, and Thou didst appear in the Temple of Thy glory borne in arms as a babe, the whole creation was filled with Thy praise.”
Six more weeks of winter, or maybe longer
The whole creation filled with the praise of the Lord in the Temple. Can there be any sweeter vision to reflect on, when things seem sometimes so dark and gloomy? You begin to wonder, as perhaps Simeon did, if you’ll ever see an end to the long vigil. The dark days can seem to stretch on and the stirrings of new life might seem like they’ll never come.
But God has ordained that spring follows cold winter. And He has given us moments of sweetest hope to give us courage and point to greater things. He has given us a Feast that reminds us of the fulfillment of promises and end of vigils. As we sing as the sun sets during Vespers, “Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace … ” We sing along with St. Simeon as he spoke the words so many centuries ago. But with him also, we sing of what comes, and of the hope of all mankind: “For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples. A light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people, Israel.”
So whether the report from Pennsylvania’s funny tradition leads us to keep track of our winter garb or not, we can take hold of things much more substantial to get us through. Whether it goes on for six more weeks or considerably longer, winter will end. The long-awaited spring will arrive.
“Come, let us also welcome Christ and receive Him with divine songs of praise, whose salvation Simeon saw, of whom David spoke. he it is Who spoke through the prophets, Who is incarnate for our sakes and speaks in the Law. Him let us worship. (Vesperal idiomelon 3)”