But apart from faith there is something else that binds us closely with the ancient forefathers – and that is their faithfulness to the awaited Messiah. They lived surrounded by a pagan world – a world which did not yet know Christ, but which had already rejected God. We too, dear brethren, live in a similar and even worse situation. For nineteen centuries after the birth of Christ the world lived with Christ and the Christian culture, but in the 20th century an abrupt change took place. We now live in a post-Christian era, in a world that has once again become totally immersed in paganism.
We often hear mention of the arrival of a “new age.” However, there is nothing new in this “new age” except for its more modern form. It is the same old rejection of God and even negation of God, and moreover – a complete rejection of Christ and profanation of Christ. Most Christians do not even see how they are perverting their Christian faith in trying to modernize it, and how they are betraying Christ in attempting to unite with the religions of His persecutors and abusers.
And so, dear brethren, against the background of this horrifying world, let us remember not only the faith of the Holy Forefathers, but also their faithfulness to Christ the Saviour; and as we prepare very soon to celebrate His Nativity, let us turn away from the paganism that surrounds us, and let us witness our total devotion and loyalty to the One Who said: “Lo, I am with you until the end of time.” Amen.
SUNDAY OF THE HOLY FOREFATHERS
At this time of the year we see our neighbors celebrating the western Christmas, and many of us may have had this thought: why cannot we celebrate the Holy Nativity of Christ on the same day? This Sunday gives us the answer…
The Holy Orthodox Church, as if anticipating the above question, begins preparing us for the great day of the Nativity of Christ by means of the Nativity fast. As we approach this day, the Church commemorates the last two Sundays before Nativity in a special manner and points out their significance by naming them differently from ordinary Sundays. On the Sunday two weeks before Nativity we commemorate the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers. The Sunday directly preceding Nativity is called the Sunday of the Holy Fathers.
What is so special about the Holy Forefathers and who were they? The word “forefathers” means just that: very distant ancestors of ours. Our most distant ancestors were Adam and Eve, followed by the biblical patriarchs Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others who are mentioned in the Holy Bible. What was so special about them? Adam and Eve were the first human beings who committed a sin, but they were also the first people to repent. They repented of their transgressions all their life.
The common denominator for all the Forefathers was their faith in the true God, the Creator of this world and of all things visible and invisible, just like we sing in our Creed at every Divine Liturgy.
The Holy Forefathers very strictly and faithfully followed all the commandments which God sent them: they never compromised their faith because of surrounding circumstances. They firmly believed that what was right was right, and what was wrong was wrong, regardless of what the majority of people were doing and thinking. In other words, the holy Forefathers did not subscribe to the man-made theory of “political correctness”! It was not always easy for them, but they never compromised their faith.
Christianity is a struggle: it always was and always will be. Moral and spiritual values never change. Right is always right, and wrong is always wrong. People very frequently forget or ignore the fact that God is outside the concept of time. Time exists only for mortal beings and will someday come to an end, while God’s laws are outside time and, therefore, have an eternal value.
In the holy Gospel the Lord Jesus Christ says: “I came not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34). The sword is a symbol of combat – primarily spiritual combat. We have to fight throughout our entire life, and the most difficult battle is within ourselves. But before engaging in combat we have to know whether we are on the right path. Therefore, we should not blindly follow the actions of the majority in our society. In ancient times the great Greek philosopher Socrates said: “The majority is never right.” All revolutions have been based upon the principle of how to control and lead the majority.
And so the Holy Forefathers have shown us many bright examples of how to act and how to think: first of all, that God should be very real for us and not something abstract, and secondly, that we should examine our surrounding environment against this background. Thus we will be able to see how much Western Christianity has lost its focus on God and a godly life. Western Christians have, unfortunately, lost a true understanding of God. The image of God in Western Christianity has gone from bad to worse and is far removed from reality. Just think: what has eternal value in our environment nowadays? We are surrounded by spiritual emptiness or a horrible distortion of all things divine.
In the days of the Forefathers mankind’s view of life was not much different from our times, but the Forefathers themselves held on to their faith very firmly and did not compromise the truth of their faith just because the majority thought otherwise. They held on to their faith, and for this God’s grace made them strong.
Let us think about this, dear brethren, and let us try to follow the example of the Holy Forefathers, since we currently find ourselves in a similar situation. We can respect the beliefs of our neighbors, but we should not compromise our own faith. Our Orthodox faith has much better examples and deeper roots in our Forefathers, whose memory we gloriously celebrate today. Amen.
* * *
So, dear brethren, we are now approaching the great feast of Christ’s Nativity, and our Church, preparing us for a worthy reception of this great feast, reminds us today of our Lord’s progenitors, the holy forefathers, the Old Testament righteous ones who lived in pre-Christian times.
Their knowledge of God was only perhaps one-hundredth of what we know, they strived for salvation through faith in Messiah the Saviour Who was yet due to come, and besides the prophecies in the Old Testament Scriptures which, moreover, were sometimes quite difficult to comprehend, they essentially did not know anything. To us, on the other hand, has been revealed the entire truth of divine knowledge of God, for the Son of God came down from heaven to earth and granted us the light of truth and knowledge of God worshipped in the Trinity.
Today the Church reminds us of these Old Testament righteous ones. First place among them belongs to the original forefather, the father of all of us – the first-created man Adam, to whom sinners often refer in justifying their sins. They often say: we are descendants of the sinful Adam, and so it is not surprising that we sin, for our forefather was a sinner! Those who speak thus instead of repenting, hide behind Adam’s sinful fall from God’s judgment, which will overtake them for their own sins. Yes, Adam did sin, but he repented his entire life, and since the Heavenly Realm is filled with repentant sinners (for there is not a single person without sin), the first among these righteous ones is the forefather Adam. When a person talks of sinning because he is a descendant of Adam, let him ask his conscience: can this justify his own sins? At each single moment of our sinful action we are fully aware that were we to wish it, we could stop sinning. That is the foundation of all repentance. If man did not have free will, but sinned involuntarily, of necessity, – the Lord would not have called him to judgment. But as we sin, we are fully aware of what we are doing, and when we repent and confess our sins, we mentally review the committed sin and fully recognize the fact that we could have avoided it, but did not, and for this reason we condemn ourselves and ask the Lord for mercy and forgiveness. Although the infection of sin and the tendency towards sin has been inherited by us from Adam, yet with the help of divine grace each one of us can refrain from sinning at any single moment. Look at the holy fathers, the great righteous ones – as we know, they, too, were sinful people just like us; however, with the help of divine grace they vanquished sin and became holy, they became “earthly angels and celestial humans.” The Church commemorates not only Adam, but also his wife Eve, who, although being the sinner who had tempted Adam, was still the mother of all of mankind, while the temptation which she brought into the world, according to the Church, was rectified by the Most-blessed Virgin Mary! If sinning came from Eve, then from the Blessed Virgin issued life and eternal bliss, eternal joy.
We also know other holy ones: Noah, who remained God-fearing among widespread depravity and was saved from the universal flood; the righteous Enoch, who lived in Old Testament times and did not possess New Testament grace, yet so pleased God that the Lord took him up alive from this sinful earth into heaven. We commemorate Abraham, the father of all believers. What a moving and heart-wrenching event is described to us by the Holy Bible, in which we can see the mighty faith of the great forefather. Abraham agonized over the fact that he had no successor. Finally, by God’s promise, a son was born to him in extreme old age – Isaac, the child of his parental love and parental hopes. And suddenly the Lord said to him: “Take your only-begotten son Isaac, whom you love, and sacrifice him to Me on the mountain which I will indicate to you.” I repeat – all of Abraham’s parental hopes and all his love were centered on Isaac, and yet he does not hesitate even a second: as the Lord said, so it should be! Without any hesitation or even a shadow of doubt in God’s benevolence, knowing that the Lord does not do anything bad, but that everything He does is good and wonderful, the father of all believers takes Isaac and all that is necessary for the sacrifice and goes into the mountains. As they traveled among the mountains and approached Mount Moriah, the Lord said to him: “This is the mountain.” Abraham left his fellow travelers – his servants – who had carried all the necessary items, placed the wood for the sacrifice upon Isaac, and the two of them began to ascend the mountain. But do not forget that Abraham was a living person. This was a terrible labor of love for him. It was as though he had nailed his son alive to the cross of obedience to God, for he was so ready to do God’s will that in his mind and heart Isaac was already dead. And at this point, when the fatherly love is in such anguish, Isaac asks a question: “Father!” – “What, child?” – says Abraham. – “We have everything, we have wood and fire (which they carried along with them, because matches did not exist at that time, and fire was obtained with difficulty), but where is the lamb that must be sacrificed?” And although this question was like a knife turning in the father’s heart, Abraham replies to his son with unshakeable strength: “God will find Himself a lamb for sacrifice, my son.” They ascend the mountain and build an altar. Abraham ties up his son and places him upon the wood. Isaac is young and full of vigor, he could have pushed his father aside and run away, yet he does no such thing, but obediently submits. And the only reason the father ties him up is because, seeing the knife raised above him, he could purely instinctively flinch from it. Abraham placed his son on the altar… raised the terrible knife… but a second before he brought it down upon his son’s body, he heard the voice of an angel: “Abraham, Abraham, do not raise your hand upon the youth, for the Lord says: ‘I have seen your obedience and your faith,’ and the Lord continues: ‘I swear by My own self (for there is nothing higher in the world than God) that in blessing I will bless you and in multiplying I will multiply you’.” And for Abraham at this point, as the holy fathers say, it was as though Isaac truly did arise from the dead, because in his heart he had already sacrificed him. And thus this sacrifice presaged that supreme sacrifice in which God the Father sacrificed His Only-begotten and Beloved Son on the altar of the cross for the sins of the entire world; but that sacrifice of atonement was not stopped, and the Son of God, in His incarnation as Man, was crucified on the cross and died for us sinners. It was this power of faith and faithfulness to God’s will, described to us by the Holy Bible, which made Abraham the person of whom Apostle Paul spoke, saying that Abraham is the father of all of us who are believers…
We also know other examples of such sacrifice. Here is one of them: once the great Saint John of Kronstadt, while still a young priest, became ill. It was during the Great Lent. The doctors demanded that the patient eat meat, otherwise he would weaken and die. St. John did not agree; finally he said, probably foreseeing the result: “My mother brought me up in obedience to the Church and in keeping the fasts. She is still alive – I will ask her. If she, as a mother, gives me permission to do what you want, then I will do it.” A letter was written to the mother, asking her permission. The following answer came back: “My beloved son, I give you my maternal blessing, and I ask you for your priestly blessing, but under no circumstance do I give you permission to eat non-lenten food during the fast. The doctors say you will die – well then, die. You will have to die sometime, anyway, but do not transgress your obedience to the Church.” Did not this mother also sacrifice her beloved son for the sake of obedience to the Church?
Among other Old Testament righteous ones the Church also commemorates the great prophet Daniel, the prophet and God-seer Moses, and the three holy youths who bravely stepped into the burning furnace, were miraculously delivered from death, and were thus forever glorified, because at every matins, in the eighth and ninth odes of the canon, the Church remembers these three youths and their great miracle. How great were all these people! We are like small children before them. But I repeat again: let us not forget that they knew of God, His truth, and of spiritual life much less than we do. This condemns our idleness; condemns it because much has been given us, yet we strive to learn a lot of trivial things and have little interest in what is most important. For this reason we are ignorant of many of the things which every faithful son or daughter of the Church can and must know.
Thus, dear brethren, as we prepare for the coming of the great feast, let us make sure not to be ignorant of our faith, of the teaching of the holy Church, and let us try to acquaint ourselves with everything the Church teaches us, so that we would know how to defend our faith and how to explain it to anyone who should ask about it. And when we place Christ’s sacred teaching and obedience to His holy will as the cornerstone of everything, then we will be able to meet Him properly, to worship Him, and bring pleasing gifts: faith, hope, and Christian charity! Amen.