Alexander A. Winogradsky Frenkel

Meeting and the light of the candles

Syriac icon of the feast of the Meeting - Tur Abdin Monastery

There is a “harsh” question of calendars at present between the Catholic and Orthodox and inter-Orthodox, Eastern rite, and Oriental jurisdictions in celebrating the feast of the Meeting of Jesus Christ with His (Jewish) People. The feast is celebrated on February 2nd according to the Gregorian universal calendar and on February 14-15th in the Jerusalem Eastern Orthodox congregations.

It is called, in particular in the West “Presentation of the Lord in the Temple (of Jerusalem)”. In the East, in Greek Ὑπαπάντη/Hypapante and Slavonic “Сре́тение Госпо́дне (linked to “συνάντησις «встреча»/sunantisis, encounter, meeting) insists on the “entrance” and aggregation of Jesus as all first-born in Israel to the Jewish People, subsequently to the practice of the Oral and Written Laws (Talmud and Bible) and the realm of the Mitzvot, the Commandments. In Latin, it corresponds to the “Præsentatio Domini”. The account is only to be found in the Gospel of the proselyte evangelist Luke (2:22-35). One of the possible explanations is that the evangelist was aware that it was important to proclaim the messianic character of the Lord Jesus of Nazareth as rooted in the Jewish traditions and revelation given to the Hebrew nation from the Covenant in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob down to the time of the exodus and the liberation from the slavery in Egypt and the Theophanies at Mount Sinai (the Giving of the Commandments as the everlasting way of salvation and redemption, cf. Exodus. 13:13).

Saint Luke presents different steps that are separated over time in the practice of the Law. His text includes the account of the circumcision of the Lord that is accompanied by the giving of the name. Then the purification of the Blessed Theotokos Mary (Leviticus 12:2-4), His Mother forty days after His birth. This is what is called the “Churching of the women” in English and corresponds to the ancient Niddah rules of recovering from birthing and female menstruation.

The cycle (machzor/מחזור) marks the need and possibility to return to the normal societal life of the community and the “presentation” of a woman who gave birth is similar to showing he full renewed participation in the life of the Jewish People. The “rite” does exist in all Christian denominations. The Eastern Orthodox insist on this as the Russian or Greek in Jerusalem. The question of “churching” would seem remote these days as women claim to be recognized as equal to men. In the local Orthodox tradition though, women would be reintroduced by a prayer into the church. Personally, as newborns are baptized soon after their birth (8 days or even less whenever possible), I use the so-called “economic” possibility that the mother is in the church to hold her baby, because of the very emotional attitude of the Slavs.

But the whole procedure is that the “meeting” of a firstborn had to be presented in the Temple of Jerusalem for specific reasons. A firstborn inaugurates the womb of a woman whose entrails are considered a “temple”, a place of gestation. The birthing process, the travail, and passing from the womb to new life is explained as the “Pesach-Passover” of the new child from the invisible to the present world and the world to come. Indeed, a firstborn blesses for the first time the woman entrails that are life-giving thus is a place of possible holiness and requires full respect. The “bar-on/בר-און” is the “son of the entrails” while the original Hebrew word for ‘firstborn’ is ‘Bechor’ [בכר] which derives from the Hebrew root ‘B-Ch-R.’ [ב-כ-ר].

From the Hebrew word for ‘firstborn’ – ‘Bechor’ – came the verb “Le-Veker”  (לבכ) which means “to prefer” to give preference to’ or ‘to favor’ and can be found in the English translation as “in preference to”. This Hebrew term can be found in the Hebrew Bible when speaking about ‘first fruits’ which is ‘Bikurim’ (ביכורים) in the original Hebrew.

Here, in the verses mentioned above, the Hebrew noun ‘Bechorah’ (בכורה) appears, and means “precedence”. There is thus a special reason why the “first boy that inaugurated the entrails of the woman” has (had) to be presented in the Temple. Bar-On is the first fruit and should be dedicated to serving in the Temple by essence and nature. Therefore he had to be redeemed and “released” by the kohanim to live outside of the Temple among the common society of the Jewish People. The firstborn boy was to be taken from the offerings to the Temple and “deducted”(Numbers 3:13).

It is interesting that the Aramaic word for the feast of the Meeting/Presentation of the Lord in the Temple of Jerusalem “Ma’altha/מלתא (in Sureth script: ܡܥܠܬܐ)” is used in the Talmud to mean “income, income tax” (Pessikata Rabba 31). It is subsequently connected to the word “מעליותא\ܡܥܠܝܘܬܐ – perfection, light, achievement”.To begin with, the “bar-on” was serving or considered as an acting “priest”, before the different degrees were established to structure the society according to the life-giving Laws (both Oral and Written). It was a kind of sacred service, consecration.

It is possible to compare the presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple to the way the Latin Catholic Church introduced the “benediction of the Gifts before the beginning of the core of the Mass/Divine Liturgy – Eucharist. The rite follows the Jewish Kiddush prayer on bread and wine. In fact, by saying the words of this benediction copied from the Jewish Kiddush, the Latin priest gives thanks to the Lord and Father of the Universe Who gave bread and wine and is thus allowed, as the faithful, to consume them.

On this day, Jesus of Nazareth was allowed to live among His People till His death and, as confessed by the Christian believers, His resurrection. Egeria (Aetheria) made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 4th century. It was a long adventure that took place between the years 381 and 384. She described the feast of the Meeting at the Holy Sepulcher. The pilgrims witnessed from the 5th c. (certainly a fact much earlier) that exceptional celebrations were taking place at the Anastasis (Tomb of the Lord). The procession with lit, burning candles was luminous and a source of joy that came into the world with the birth and official existence of the Son of Man (Daniel 7:14 ).

Candlemas is celebrating the light to enlighten the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel’ Lk 2: 32). This is why, in Aramaic, the feast is also called “light of the soul/woman = Nuhra d’alma/ܢܘܚܪܐ ܕܥܠܡܐ. Nevertheless, it is easy to see that the spiritual center of the event described is completely present in New Testament history. “Now” (Lk. 2:29 and a usual messianic and prophetic word in Semitic languages) means that the time awaited by many generations of the coming of the Messiah has arrived. It is a question of coming to accomplish, to fulfill (comp. Matthew 5, 17). In Hebrew and Aramaic, the roots of ma’altha (מעלתא) (meeting, income, redemption) and maa’lut (מלאות) (fulfillment) induce patience and physical, spiritual, deeply historical, and meta-historical full accomplishment and not any excluding reality.

About the Author
Alexander is a psycho-linguist specializing in bi-multi-linguistics and Yiddish. He is a Talmudist, comparative theologian, and logotherapist. He is a professor of Compared Judaism and Christian heritages, Archpriest of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem, and International Counselor.