05 July 2024

Daily prayer in Ordinary Time 2024:
57, Friday 5 July 2024

The icon of the Presentation in the new iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

This week began with the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity V). Since voting yesterday (4 July) in the General Election, we have been awake throughout the night and we are still awake at this time of the morning watching the election counts and the results contiuning to come in.

It has been a truly memorable night, and there are still more than 40 results to come in, with some seats still on a knife-edge. But the political landscape of the country has changed dramatically over the past 24 hours. I have already had breakfast, so the day has already begun. Before I even think of facing a choice between goiing out to buy the papers or going to sleep for a few hours, I am taking some quiet time this morning to give thanks, for reflection, prayer and reading in these ways:

1, today’s Gospel reading;

2, a reflection on the icons in the new iconostasis or icon stand in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford.

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary;

4, the Collects and Post-Communion prayer of the day.

The icon depicting the Presentation is eleventh from the left among the 12 feasts depicted in the upper tier of the new iconostasis in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024; click on images to view full screen)

Matthew 9: 9-13 (NRSVUE):

9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax-collection station, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with Jesus and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

The elderly Saint Simeon takes the Christ Child in his arms from the Virgin Mary … a detail in the icon of the Presentation in the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Stony Stratford iconostasis 20: the Presentation (Ἡ Ὑπαπαντή):

In recent weeks, I have been watching the building and installation of the new iconostasis or icon screen in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford. In my prayer diary over these weeks, I am reflecting on this new iconostasis, and the theological meaning and liturgical significance of its icons and decorations.

The lower, first tier of a traditional iconostasis is sometimes called Sovereign. On the right side of the Beautiful Gates or Royal Doors facing forward is an icon of Christ, often as the Pantokrator, representing his second coming, and on the left is an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary), symbolising the incarnation. It is another way of saying all things take place between Christ’s first coming and his second coming.

The six icons on the lower, first tier of the iconostasis in Stony Stratford depict Christ to the right of the Royal Doors, as seen from the nave of the church, and the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary to the left. All six icons depict (from left to right): the Dormition, Saint Stylianos, the Theotokos, Christ Pantocrator, Saint John the Baptist and Saint Ambrosios.

Traditionally, the upper tier has an icon of the Mystical Supper in the centre, with icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on either side, in two groups of six: the Nativity of the Theotokos (8 September), the Exaltation of the Cross (14 September), the Presentation of the Theotokos (21 November), the Nativity of Christ (25 December), the Baptism of Christ (6 January), the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (2 February), the Annunciation (25 March), the Entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Ascension, Pentecost, the Transfiguration (6 August) and the Dormition (15 August).

In Stony Stratford, these 12 icons in the top tier, on either side of the icon of the Mystical Supper, are (from left): the Ascension, the Nativity, the Baptism of Christ, the Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion; and the Harrowing of Hell or the Resurrection, the Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Pentecost, the Transfiguration, the Presentation and the Annunciation.

The eleventh icon in this top tier of 12 icons in Stony Stratford is the icon of the Presentation, or H Ὑπαπαντή (I Hypapante), meaning ‘the Meeting.’

This story is told in Luke 2: 22-40. The elderly Saint Simeon, a priest in the Temple, is inspired by the Holy Spirit to take the Christ Child in his arms and he declares: ‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation’ (verses 29-30).

According to the Mosaic law, the first-born son should be dedicated to God in the Temple at Jerusalem 40 days after his birth, where the mother also completes her ritual purification (see Exodus 15; Leviticus 12).

Forty days after the birth of her first-born son, a mother is to bring a lamb and a turtledove to the priest as a burnt-offering. But, ‘if she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a purification offering, and the priest shall make atonement on her behalf, and she shall be clean’ (Leviticus 12: 8).

Forty days after the birth of Christ is celebrated, the Nativity cycle of feasts comes to a close when the dedication of the Christ Child is remembered in the Feast of the Presentation (or Meeting, or Dedication) of the Lord in the Temple, known in the West as Candlemas (2 February).

In this submission to the Mosaic law by Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and the Christ Child is an epochal or pivotal point in the story of salvation, told in the icons of this feast.

The scene takes place in the Temple in Jerusalem. As is normal in classic iconography, the scene appears to occur in the open, not concealed by walls, with the outside of the Temple shown in the background. The icon of the Presentation is dominated by a four-pillared dome, which was an architectural feature inside the Temple. It is a ciborium or kivorion (κιβωριου), a canopy contained in the sanctuary.

But the ciborium in the icon is not the tabernacle of the Temple of Solomon, which was destroyed within 50 years of Christ’s dedication. The ciborium was a common feature of churches in the first millennium, covering the altar and having curtains to veil the consecrated host at particular times of the Liturgy, but are not so common in church architecture today.

The altar in the icon is behind two gates, like the Royal Doors of an iconostasis in a church. Upon the altar are not the stone tablets of Moses, but a Gospel book or the New Testament. It is no coincidence that the infant Christ appears to be handed to Saint Simeon over the altar. In some icons, the altar cloth is conspicuously decorated with the cross, in a highly anachronistic appropriation of the scene.

The Theotokos stands to the left, holding out her hands in a gesture of offering. Her arms are covered by her cloak, the maphorion.

Simeon receives the Christ Child in his arms, proclaiming him as ‘a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ (verse 32). Simeon is bending over not just as an old man but in deep reverence, recognising as the Messiah the Christ Child he holds in his covered hands.

Simeon is a priest of the Temple and is bare headed in this icon, although in others he may be wearing a mitre. Tradition says the aged Simeon was one of the translators of the Septuagint, and sensed the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecies of a virgin birth (see Isaiah 7:14). He receives the young pre-eternal God Incarnate just as he was promised he would before his death.

Christ is shown as a child, but he is not in swaddling clothes, clothed in a small dress with his legs bare. He extends his right hand in blessing those present, appearing as Lord and Saviour, and not merely a helpless babe-in-arms.

If Saint Simeon is a priest in this scene in the Temple in Jerusalem, then in this icon Saint Joseph is often presented in this icon as a deacon in a posture of supplication and with a deacon’s stole. Here he is shown with two turtledoves, reinforcing the humble background into which Christ is born. He carries the turtledoves on behalf of the Virgin Mary, reminding us that despite the doubts described in the Nativity icon, he is finally reconciled to his betrothed and trusts the infant to be truly the Messiah.

Anna is standing behind the Theotokos and pointing to the Christ Child. She is recognisable as a prophetess by the scroll she holds, sometimes closed, sometimes open.

The Feast of the Presentation is on 2 February. In the Orthodox Church, both baby boys and baby girls are taken to the Church on the fortieth day after their birth.

All five figures in the icon of the Presentation in the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Today’s Prayers (Friday 5 July 2024):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Saint Luke’s Hospital, Nablus.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday with a programme update.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (Friday 5 July 2024) invites us to pray:

Lord God, thank you for the long-standing partnership between USPG and the Diocese of Jerusalem. Bless their work in accordance with your will, in order that there may be more stories of transformation and restoration.

The Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church
is governed and sanctified:
hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people,
that in their vocation and ministry
they may serve you in holiness and truth
to the glory of your name;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

Grant, O Lord, we beseech you,
that the course of this world may be so peaceably ordered
by your governance,
that your Church may joyfully serve you in all godly quietness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Collect:

Almighty God,
send down upon your Church
the riches of your Spirit,
and kindle in all who minister the gospel
your countless gifts of grace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The new iconostasis or icon stand installed in the Greek Orthodox Church in Stony Stratford in recent weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

An introduction to the Stony Stratford iconostasis (15 June 2024)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A second icon of the Presentation in the Church in Stony Stratford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition copyright © 2021, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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