The Forty Days of Christmas

meetingMy 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!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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8 responses to “The Forty Days of Christmas”

  1. zoe Avatar

    Father Stephen, Thank you. I’m humbled by the imagery and wisdom contained in this post. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

  2. Barbara Avatar

    Thank you so much for this posting, Father. I am particularly moved by the image of the Theotokos’ hands as “tongs” of offering. I don’t think I will ever look at her icon the same way now and my heart is filled with even more love and appreciation for the Mother of God. It’s hard to imagine how Simeon could bear to take Christ from her arms.

    I am also moved my Simeon’s veneration of her footprints. Can you tell us more about why the hymn praises this detail? I have some ideas, but I am such a new convert, I’d appreciate hearing the understanding of the church.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m a learner in this department as well. I’ll continue to research

  4. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    I *love* Orthodox hymnography! So much more real, so much more substantial, than the simplistic “plod-of-God” hymnody that most of us grew up with, or the silly happy-clappy stuff that passes for “praise music” nowadays.

  5. Barbara Avatar

    I just came across a reference to Songs 1:4 in “Matthew the Poor – Orthodox Prayer Life”. This may be a random connection, but it seemed very timely since I read it right after I posted my question.

    “Draw me in your footsteps, we will run after thee.”

    My other thought was that he had to be sure she was really human, to know that a human could actually bear to receive Christ.

  6. Mike Avatar

    At morning prayer today we read Isaiah 52:1-12. In part it says, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation….” I do not know if this text underlies the hymn but I thought of the Feast of the Presentation, the hymnography, and Simeon. The feet of the Theotokos carried into the temple the good news, the One who is peace, the salvation that Simeon saw.

  7. Mike Avatar

    I submitted too soon – one last thought. Perhaps the footprints are in some way iconic. Peace, Mike

  8. Barbara Avatar

    Thanks, Mike, a lovely connection!

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