This week is Cheesefare Week, the final week before the beginning of the Great Fast. The name “cheese-fare”, or “cheese-eating”, refers to the traditional fasting practice of abstaining from meat this week, while using up the cheese, eggs, and other foods that would not be eaten again till Pascha.
Tuesday, February 2, is the feast of the Meeting of Our Lord with Simeon and Anna. Falling 40 days after Christmas, it commemorates the day on which the infant Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem, and a sacrifice made in his behalf: in the case of the Holy Family, the sacrifice was two turtle doves, the offering of the poor. Within the Temple, an aged priest named Simeon, and a prophetess named Anna, recognized the infant as the long-awaited Messiah.
The feast of the Meeting is one of the twelve great feasts of the Byzantine calendar, but it is neither fully a feast of the Lord, nor a feast of the Mother of God; it is somewhere in between. Ordinarily a feast of the Lord would have proper antiphons and an entrance hymn, while a feast of the Theotokos would have neither. This feast has just an entrance hymn, which welcomes Jesus as a just Savior and enlightener of the nations:
The troparion and kontakion of the feast continue this theme, addressing first the Mother of God, and the elder Simeon, before turning to Christ and begging him to grant peace to the world:
The prokeimeon is the common one for feasts of the Mother of God:
while the Alleluia is particular to the feast, and quotes the words of the elder Simeon:
With these words, the prophetic elder Simeon recognizes the coming light of Christ, and in gratitude is willing even to meet death, because God has kept his promises, and will come to save the world. In the Byzantine Rite, we sing or chant these words every evening at Vespers. Listen to it sung, first in English, then in Church Slavonic:
As on all major feasts, at the Divine Liturgy the hymn to the Mother of God, “It is truly proper to glorify you”, is replaced with two hymns from Matins: the magnification irmos of the ninth ode of the feast-day Canon. Most feast-day magnifications begin with the words, “Extol, O my soul”, followed by a statement of the subject of the feast. But on certain feasts of the Theotokos, a different kind of magnification is used; the one for this week’s feast of the Meeting is directed to the Mother of God herself, and the melody through beautiful is a bit complicated. Cantors should practice it repeatedly before singing it in church!
Immediately after the magnification, we sing the irmos. In both the Greek and Slavic chant traditions, every irmos has its own melody, adapted to the words from the musical materials of the tone. But for cantors who do not know these melodies (which are collected in a book called the Irmologion), a single fixed melody from the Sunday canon in Tone 6 was used instead.
In our Divine Liturgies books, most feast-day irmosy are given twice: once in the simple Tone 6 melody, then (in a box) the proper melody for that particular irmos is written out. Most parishes will use the simple melody, but some congregations learn and use the older ones instead.
Here are both versions of the irmos for the Meeting, first the simple melody, then the original melody.
In both the Greek and Slav traditions, these melodies are sung a bit faster than we are used to. Here is the irmos of the Meeting, as sung by Fr. Nikifor Petrshevich, from the 1970 LP collection, Carpatho-Ruthenian Plain Chant:
The Communion Hymn for the feast is the common one for feasts of the Mother of God: “I shall take the chalice of redemption, and call upon the name of the Lord. Alleluia! Allleluia! Alleluia!” You might want to spend a few minutes thinking about why the Church might have chosen to use these words on every feast of the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary.
In the West, this feast is called the feast of the Presentation, or Candlemas, and candles are blessed – partly to emphasize the coming of the light of Christ, and also because the feast of the Meeting falls near the feast of St. Blaise, who was invoked against diseases of the throat; candles were blessed to protect the faithful from the colds and other illnesses common at this time of year. In many of our parishes, candles will be blessed after the Divine Liturgy, for use by the faithful throughout the year.
So the feast of the Meeting marks the very end of the Christmas season, and our acknowledgement of Christ as Savior, King, and Judge – very fitting for this time in between the Sunday of the Last Judgment and the Sunday of Forgiveness, or Cheesefare Sunday.
Like all great feasts, the feast of the Meeting has a series of post-festive days, on which the hymns of the feast continue to be sung at the Divine Liturgy. But as we approach the Great Fast, the Church’s tradition keeps Wednesday and Friday of this week as days of stricter fast, on which Vespers begins to incorporate Lenten elements, and the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated. So this year, the prefestive days of the Meeting run up against the beginning of Lent.
February 6 is the Saturday of Cheesefare Week, or Cheesefare Saturday. Just as last Saturday we commemorated all those who died from the beginning of the world, on this coming Saturday we remember all those who have died to the world while remaining it: in other words, all holy monks and nuns. These are grouped together and called “ascetics”, meaning those who practiced askesis, or “discipline”. At Matins on this day, many of the great monks and nuns in Christian tradition are remembered by name, and their notable feats and characteristic traits are praised. At the Divine Liturgy, we remember both the holy ascetics, and the feast of the Meeting, since it is the leave-taking of the Meeting – that is, the final day of the feast.
(By the way, the feast of the Meeting has a single preparation or pre-festive day, celebrated on Monday of this week. The propers for this day can be found on page 320 of the Divine Liturgies book.)
Sunday, February 7, is the Sunday of Forgiveness: Cheesefare Sunday, the final day before the start of the Great Fast which lasts until Pascha, or Easter. This day deserves a podcast of its own. So I think I will leave you now to meditate on the feast of the Meeting: Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, has come to save the nations from ignorance, sin, and death.