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Prayer of the week

31 January 2014

Anna Macham asks for 'peace' in the community of Christ


O thou, who didst sanctify the virgin womb by thy birth and bless the hands of Simeon, as was meet, who hast preceded us and hast now saved us, Christ our God: do thou in the midst of tribulations give peace to thy community, and strengthen the rulers whom thou hast loved; for thou alone lovest all men.

Eastern Orthodox Kontakion for the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple

WHEN I was ordained priest, a friend presented me with a book of Eastern Orthodox prayers, which, although unfamiliar at the time, has since become one of my favourites. This treasured prayer - a kontakion (or hymn) for the Presentation of our Lord in the Temple - is typical of prayers of the Eastern tradition.

It contains simultaneously an acute realisation of the sinfulness of humankind, and a deep, arresting sense of God's majesty and glory - before which the only appropriate response, you can't help but feel as you pray it, is one of humility and awe.

Uniquely a Great Feast of the Mother of God as well as a Great Feast of the Lord, the Presentation has particular prominence in Eastern Orthodoxy. The prayer begins by linking the figure of Mary, who carried Christ in her womb, with that of Simeon, the old man in the Temple, who, taking the child from her arms, carries him in his own.

It seems incredible that anyone could physically carry God, either in the womb or in the hands. But, as the prayer makes clear, only the all-embracing love of Christ could make this privilege possible: God's grace touching their lives, blessing Simeon, and making Mary holy; God's grace carrying them as they each, in their designated way, carry God.

Throughout history, Simeon has often been thought of as a priest, de-picted in stained-glass windows wearing elaborate vestments. But modern Eastern Orthodox icons, such as early images of this feast, bring out his - and Mary's - poverty and humility. What is important is the crucial moment of meeting ("Hypapante", in Greek).

As Mary waited in hope for the birth, so the part played by Simeon in the biblical narrative was to wait to see an encounter with Christ our God, "who hast preceded us, and hast now saved us". Now he has seen the encounter between God and God's creation, the encounter between the Saviour and God's people, he can bear witness to it, and go in peace.

The revival of the peace and security of salvation in the present eucharistic community forms the plea of the second half of the prayer. After Simeon witnesses to the encounter that he has seen, he goes quietly, apparently without being tempted to voice his own version of the story, or impose his own version of the events.

To long for the type of peace which Simeon experienced is to step back, to watch and listen for God's word in others. To see peace in our Church and in our world is to let go of our own agendas and strongly held opinions, to lay aside our own judgements, our desire to remain centre-stage, and simply to point, with Simeon, to God's freedom to act in unexpected ways, to his encounter with unexpected people.

With Simeon, it is every Christian's vocation to lift up these encounters before God and before the world. St Ephrem the Syrian wrote that, as Simeon "was able to carry in his weak arms the very majesty that created things cannot endure", so he knew that he himself "was invisibly being lifted up", strengthened "by the all-prevailing power of the Son himself".

The Spirit who strengthened Simeon strengthens us, revealing God's presence in our lives. We have only to enter into the reality of this prayer, to take Jesus into our arms, and open our hearts ready for the Word of God to pierce us, showing us our weaknesses and need of a Saviour, and renewing the knowledge that we carry within of the Philanthropos, the one "who alone loveth all men".

The Revd Anna Macham is Priest-in-Charge of St Philip's, Camberwell, in south London.

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