Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Lord, Now Let Thy Servant Depart in Peace

When the Lord Jesus is brought by His parents to the temple, He is met there by the old man Simeon and the old woman Anna. It is from this meeting in the temple that the festival gets its name in the Orthodox Church. This meeting is spiritually and theologically significant. it tells us that the Old is over and that the New has come. It tells us that the tow covenants have now met: Israel has accomplished its God-given task in producing the Messiah. The promises made to Abraham in the beginning of the nation's calling have now been fulfilled. Israel's glory has dawned in the person of Christ who is now encountered int he world as the "light of revelation to the Gentiles." In Him the whole world is illumined and saved. The New Testament has come. God's final covenant community is established on earth.--Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha, p. 171

At the end of the Vespers of the Feast, just as at any other Vespers, we chant the canticle "Lord now let Thy servant depart in peace" (called Nunc Dimittis, in the West) which are the words the elder Simeon says as he lifts up the Christ child. Now he can take solace that he may finally die after living, according to church tradition, for more than 300 years since it was prophesied that he would not die until he saw the Christ come into the world. He now can come to his end which will only manifest in a new beginning.

On a praxis note, though this canticle ends Vespers, we have only come to the beginning of the new day on which Christ Himself has manifested. It is at Vespers, whether daily or festal or Resurrectional, where we begin to be fed theologically and spiritually and bodily by our Lord and His saving acts. It is at Vespers where the covenant of old and new are met together with most of the readings coming from the Old Testament and the hymns framed by the Psalter. The fulfilment of the Old in the New will be amplified even more by the Midnight Office, Orthros, the Hours and come to ultimate culmination in the Divine Liturgy.

I know I'm beating a dead horse here, but such is why attendance at the Divine Liturgy is simply not enough to understand, to pray and to live the Orthodox faith to its fullest. Vespers, with that canticle, marks only the beginning. The rest and the best is yet to come. But to finish, one must start well. The Greeks have a proverb for that: Well begun is half done.

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