My title is slightly misleading. There are not “forty days of Christmas” in the Orthodox Church – but there is a major feast that marks the fortieth after Christmas: the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, sometimes called the Feast of the Meeting (February 2). It occurs forty days after Christmas in accordance to the requirements of the Jewish Law. Tradition holds that Joseph and Mary brought the child to Jerusalem before departing for Egypt.
There are two significant “meetings” that occur in that feast: the encounter with the Elder Simeon who has long awaited the Messiah and had been promised of the Lord that He would see Him before his death. He takes the child in his arms, gives thanks, and offers words of prophecy. The other is with the Prophetess Anna, who offers words to those around her concerning the Messiah.
Orthodox hymnography has a way of taking the people of God into an event and inside the Scripture in a way we would never have imagined on our own. Thus, my favorite image of the feast, sung in the fifth ode of the Canon in the Vigil:
The Elder bent down and reverently touched the footprints of the unwedded Mother of God
And he said: ‘O pure Lady, you are carrying fire!”
I am afraid to take God in my arms as a babe:
Lord of the light that knows no evening, and King of peace!”
‘Isaiah was cleansed by receiving the coal from the Seraphim!’
Cried the old man to the mother of God.
‘You fill me with light, entrusting to me with your hands
As with tongs, the One you hold:
Lord of the light that knows no evening, and King of peace!’
What marvelous imagery! To see the coal of fire touched to the lips of Isaiah and see in it a type of Christ Who is a burning fire! To see the hands that held him as like the tongs by which the Seraphim held the coal to Isaiah! It is a reminder that we are no longer dealing with heavenly visions of a prophet, but with the Reality itself. Indeed, it is a burning fire that was born of the Virgin, and the Elder takes Him into his hands – such boldness to reach out to the incarnate Son of God!
This same imagery is evoked in the pre-communion prayers when we remind ourselves that we receive into our mouths the burning coal of Christ, for purification, healing, and life everlasting! Would that we always approached our Lord and our God in such a manner!
Christmas goes on, bestowing its blessings on all the world around it, until it reaches the cross and the tomb. The the Divine Fire will light Hell itself. Those who sit in darkness will indeed see a great light – the Star of Bethlehem – the uncreated Light of God!