Orthodox Commentary on Theology, Ethics, and Culture
Monday, February 3, 2014
Meeting of the Lord and Zacchaeus: Homily of Fr. John Behr
A homily delivered by Fr. John Behr in the Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple and Zacchaeus Sunday (Sunday, February 2, 2014).
Giotto, Presentation of Christ at the Temple, 1306, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy
Today, as we celebrate the meeting of Christ and the righteous Simeon and Anna, in the temple, we come to an end of a series of feasts that have taken us through the darkness of the long and cold winter nights: a series of feasts bringing out different aspects of God’s search or outreach to us: the Word becoming flesh in the small dark cavern, in the depths of the earth, the manifestation of God to us, through the passage through the waters.
And now, in obedience to the Mosaic Law, forty days after his birth, Christ, the first-born son, is brought to the temple so that he might complete the law, and the law might be completed by him.
Being brought to the temple, he is met by the righteous elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna: the old now passes, and the new has come, and the place where they meet, where the old meets the new and the new is revealed, is in the Temple, the place to which Jesus is brought as a sacrifice.
We heard last night in the readings from Isaiah that it was in the temple that Isaiah saw the Lord of glory enthroned and prophesied, that this same Lord would be worshipped by none other than the Egyptians—the biblical symbol of the gentiles hostile to Israel and their God. Now these words are fulfilled: Christ is brought into the temple, and he rests in the arms of the elder as on a throne. Israel’s glory has dawned in Christ, who is the light of revelation to the Gentiles. And now that Israel has accomplished its task of bringing the Messiah into the world, Simeon can depart in peace: the promises made in the beginning to Abraham about the calling of the nations are now fulfilled, so that in Abraham’s seed, all nations of the world are now blessed.
The very age of the righteous elder and the prophetess indicate the passing away of the ancient customs, the rituals and prescriptions, for these were only ever, as the apostle puts it, a shadow of the good things to come whereas the reality belongs to Christ, the one who was received in the arms of the elder, the one who was to cause the fall and rising again of many in Israel, the one who thus bestows upon us the resurrection—the new creation. All this, the righteous elder Simeon sees, and more: he foresees the pain that would wound the one who gave birth painlessly to the Son of God, that he will be a sign spoken against—but a sign that therefore reveals the thoughts of our hearts.
Today then, standing in the temple with Simeon, we do indeed come to the completion of the movement of God towards us, so that we can also say, let us depart in peace: the glory of God is revealed, enlightening those who sat in darkness.
Jesus and Zaccheus, Basilica of Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua (Caserta)
But if the movement of God towards us is completed in this way, our movement now begins. We must begin to set our own sights upon the journey to Jerusalem, something we are reminded about by the second Gospel reading today: that about Zacchaeus—which alerts us to the coming pre-Lenten Sundays. If this movement of God towards us is indeed light coming into the world, enlightening those who sit in darkness, then there are various points of which we should take note.
Firstly, it means that we must recognize that we are indeed the ones who have been sitting in darkness. Only now, in the light of Christ, can we begin to realize how dark indeed has been our supposedly enlightened world and our all-too-human behavior, however decent, civilized, polite, it may seem. And, recognizing that we are the ones sitting in darkness, our response should be as Zacchaeus: not simply waiting around on the off-chance that the Lord will pass by, but, the Gospel says, he eagerly sought the Lord; he demonstrated an intense desire to seek him out, to actively find him.
The second point would be that as we begin to allow his light to shine upon us and in us, we will certainly begin to understand what it means that he is a sign spoken against, revealing the thoughts of our hearts; for as we begin to try to live by this sign, we will assuredly find all our resistances coming to the surface, all the reasons, the thoughts of our hearts which usually remain unconscious, all the reasons why we should do otherwise, or with less enthusiasm or zeal, or perhaps start tomorrow. In other words, the light that we are given enables us to see ourselves as we truly are, a feat that St Isaac says is greater than raising the dead. This is our own path to Golgotha. And, as with Zacchaeus, this requires recognizing how we stand. The Gospel reading places great emphasis on Zacchaeus’ small stature. He was short. Zacchaeus knew that he had to be lifted up, up from this earth, to see the Lord, and he does this by ascending the tree, an image of taking up the cross. Our problem, on the other hand, is that we do not know this: we think that we are something, something great and grand, someone important, with our own sense of self-worth.
We are indeed important and valuable in God’s eyes: out of love for us, he came to dwell among us, to save, redeem, and recreate us. But it is all too easy for our own sense of well-being and self-worth to get in the way, to prevent us from even realizing that we stand in need of what God has to offer; we spend most of our lives in delusion, not knowing that we are, in fact, small, needy, sinful, before him: it is for the sinners that he has come, to call them to repentance, not those who imagine themselves to be basically alright, needing Christ only for an extra religious element to their lives.
And finally, although we have been given so much more to see than was Simeon (we have repeatedly been present at his birth, his baptism, his passion and his resurrection), we have not yet really begun to see the Lord as did Simeon: to know that he is indeed our rest, our eternal rest, to find in him the peace that keeps us in peace throughout the storms of the sea of life, rather than being blown about from one crisis to the next, from one emotional bruise to another, or from one preoccupying thought to yet another habituated action that we will regret. Rather, what is required of us, to find this peace, is the repentance shown by Zacchaeus: a ready repentance, a change of mind, manifest not only in how we feel about things, but how we act: “half my goods I give to the poor; and will restore fourfold what I have defrauded.”
It is in these ways that we move from sitting in darkness to being enlightened by the light of God—the light that is also the peace of God. So let us pray that we may also learn to meet Jesus in the temple, so that we might also find in him the completion of our heart’s desire, and so ourselves come to know his mercy and peace; for this, as we will sing shortly, is the true sacrifice of praise.
Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, teaching courses in patristics, dogmatics and scriptural exegesis at the seminary, and also at Fordham University, where he is the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics.