The Reception of Christ in the Temple

3 February 2022

Forty days after his nativity in the flesh, Christ was brought to the Temple, in accordance with the established conditions of the Law. Because he was welcomed there by people motivated by the Spirit, and, especially because Symeon took him in his arms, the feast is called the Reception, in the sense of an official welcome.

The Church has decided that this great feast of the Lord and his Mother is to be celebrated on February 2, because this is the date which falls 40 days after December 25, the Nativity. It is part of the way in which the year is divided into stages marking the divine dispensation and gives us the opportunity to be inducted into the great mystery of the incarnation of the Son and Word of God.

The incident of the presentation of Christ in the Temple is described only in the Gospel of Saint Luke (2, 22-39)

The uncarnate Word, God himself, gave the commandment for purification on the fortieth day to Moses and this was firmly established among the Israelites. This commandment was actually given to Moses before the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, before the crossing of the Red Sea. Bringing children to the Temple on the fortieth day was a feast of purification. Both mother and child needed to be cleansed of the aftereffects of birth.

Of course, the birth of a child is a blessing from God, but it should not be forgotten that the way in which people are born is the fruit and result of the fall, it’s the ‘garments of skins’ in which Adam was clad after the fall and the loss of God’s grace. It is in this context that we should see the words of the psalm: ‘Behold, I was conceived in transgressions and in sin did my mother bear me’ (50, 7). In the end God blessed this manner of birth-giving, as a concession, though it remained the result of the fall. Parents and children were to remember this. But neither Christ nor Our All Holy Lady had need of this purification. Conception without seed and birth without corruption did not constitute impurity.

The scene when Christ is presented as an infant, as a baby, in the Temple is very moving. The pre-eternal God, who simultaneously as the Word of God was always united with his Father and the Holy Spirit and who governed the cosmos, the universe, is presented as an infant in the arms of his mother. Although Christ was an infant, he was also, at the same time ‘the pre-ternal God’ and therefore wiser than any human person. We know that, from the union of divine and human nature in the hypostasis of the Word, in the womb of the Mother of God, human nature was deified, and this is why Christ’s soul was enriched with the fulness of wisdom and knowledge. This wisdom, however, was expressed in accordance with his age, since, otherwise, he would have seemed to be a freak of nature (St. John the Damascan). Christ was an infant but was also God, having within him the fulness of the Godhead, as well as the whole of human wisdom and knowledge, through the power of the hypostatic union of his divine and human natures.

Through this infancy, Christ healed the ‘infantile outlook’ of Adam. When God made Adam in paradise, Adam was an infant as regards grace and sanctity. Of course, his mind was illumined but he needed to be tested before he could be deified. Because he was unformed and an infant in spiritual terms, he easily fell prey to the evil demon, who was a past master at sin and cunning. In his own infancy, Christ healed not only Adam’s infantile outlook, but also our human nature and achieved what the first Adam failed to do. Through the incarnation of his Son, God the Father made our deification certain and definitive. The devil was no longer able to deceive human nature in Christ, as he had so easily done in the first Adam.

The self-emptying of the Son and Word of God, as this appears in the case of his presentation in the Temple, was more than the angels could comprehend, since they were also astonished at God’s boundless willingness to humble himself. The Prophet Habakkuk prophesied the incarnation of the Word of God: ‘God shall come from Teman and the holy one from the shady forest of a mountain. His virtue covered the heavens and the earth was full of his praise’. By ‘virtue’ he means the incarnation and the divine self-emptying of the Word of God. ‘Covered the heavens’, means he clothes the upper reaches of the angels.

Apart from Christ and the Mother of God, of course, one of the central persons at the Reception is ‘righteous and devout’ Symeon, who was permitted to receive Christ, to take him into his arms and to recognize him- through the power and energy of the All-Holy Spirit. He truly is a majestic figure, both because he saw Christ and also because of what he saw at that moment.

The name Symeon comes from the Hebrew, meaning either ‘obedient’ or ‘he who hears [the word of God]’. Saint Luke calls him a righteous and devout man, living in Jerusalem, ‘awaiting the consolation of Israel’. He also had the Holy Spirit and had been given the information that he wouldn’t die before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. All of these are features of a Spirit-bearing person. This is why the Scriptures aren’t interested in his human provenance or physical attributes; he had a different life, a life of the Spirit. There is no clear mention in the Gospel as to whether he was a priest or not. Some hymnographers call him a priest, but Saint Fotios says he was superior to any priest. There is even a suggestion that he was a member of the Seventy who translated the Septuagint, which would have made him 270 years old at the time of the presentation. Saint Nikodimos recommends that we should rejoice in Symeon as ‘simply a man moved by the Spirit’.

When the righteous Symeon met Our Lady, who was carrying Christ, he took the divine infant into his arms and said: ‘Now, Master, you let your servant depart in peace, according to you word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and  the glory of your people Israel’.

Of course, God’s ‘salvation’ is the incarnation, which the Lord had prepared before all ages. The mystery of Christ was, in fact, prepared ‘before the beginning of the world’ (Saint Cyril of Alexandria). The incarnation of the Son and Word is also the light for the Gentiles, who were deluded idol-worshippers who had fallen into the hands of the demons (Saint Cyril of Alexandria). It was also the glory of Israel, because Christ arose and came from the Israelites.

This speech by Saint Symeon is a victory hymn after the revelation to him of the incarnate Son and Word of God. The prophets of the Old Testament saw the back of God; Symeon saw he Lord face to face. Christ is, indeed, the light of the world, not the perceptible, moral, nor any symbolic light, but the real light which drives away the darkness of ignorance and of the mind. He is the glory not only of the Israelites, but of the whole of human nature. Without Christ and outside of him, human nature is inglorious, ignorant, inchoate and anonymous.

The Reception of Christ demonstrates that Christ is our life and light and that we should aim at acquiring this concrete light and this concrete life. The Church sings ‘Make my soul shine, Lord, with the light perceptible, that I may look upon look on you clearly and proclaim you as God’. [Ode 9, Canon for the feast]

Excerpts form the book Δωδεκάορτο. Εἰσαγωγὴ στὴν ὀρθόδοξη Χριστολογία (The Twelve feasts. Introduction to Orthodox Christology.)