“O ye faithful, let us praise today all the fathers of the old Law: Abraham, the beloved of God, and Isaac, who was born according to the promise, and Jacob and the twelve patriarchs, the most meek David, and Daniel, the prophet of desires, glorifying with them the three youths that transformed the furnace into dew, and who ask remission of Christ God, Who is glorified in His saints.”
(Doxasticon on ‘Lord, I have cried’)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear brothers and sisters,
On this Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ, we celebrate the righteous forebears of the Saviour, who in their succeeding generations formed the ladder by which Christ descended into the world at His Incarnation and Nativity.
Even though He was the Eternal Logos “by whom all things were made”, He ‘came down’ from heaven, through the genealogical ladder of human generations; in the successive steps of father to son in the patriarchs, through the tribe of Judah and the holy king and prophet, David, through the many generations which we will recount in the Gospel of the Genealogy on the coming Sunday before Christmas.
Today, the faithful come together to remember the generations of the righteous, and we are called to celebrate their memory by the hymns of the Church.
In the invitatory words of the hymns we are called to remember the lives of the holy forefathers with joy:
“Come, ye lovers of the feasts of the Church, and with psalms let us praise the assembly of the forefathers: Adam, the forefather of us all, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and, after the Law, Moses and Aaron, Joshua, Samuel and David, and, with them, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and the twelve prophets, together with Elijah, Elisha and all the rest, Zachariah and the Forerunner; who all preached Christ, the Life and Resurrection of our race.”
(Doxasticon of the vespers aposticha)
As we celebrate their memory, the liturgical texts recognise that the forefathers were not simply agents of Christ’s human descent and incarnation, but were righteous and holy men and women who knew Christ, before His Incarnation, as He spoke to them and led them forward through the generations of the Advent of His coming in the flesh.
In the Prologue of the Gospel of St John, the Beloved Disciple reminds us that
“No man hath seen God (that is the Father) at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.”
And so, from the beginning, the Church understood the appearance of Christ, the Eternal Logos, in the encounters between God and the patriarchs, prophets, judges, kings and His people Israel.
It is Christ the Logos ( the Word) who was in the beginning, who was with God, and who was God – who was the divine-voice heard, or not heard, by the sons and daughters of God.
In the Christophanies before the Incarnation, the Saviour, as Yahweh; as the Word of God; as the Holy Wisdom; as the Angel of Great Council; communicated, visited, inspired, blessed, corrected, and walked with His people.
Thus, the Church understands that it Christ who Himself was the Creative Word who formed the first-forefather and first-mother, as the apex and completion of creation.
It is Christ-Yahweh, who talked with Adam and Eve in the garden and who walked in Paradise in the cool of the day.
It is Christ, the Word of God, who commanded Noah to build the ark, which was to be a type and fore-shadowing of the Church; who commanded Noah, his family and the animals to leave the ark after the flood and established His covenant.
It was Christ as the Divine Messenger – the angelos – who came to Abraham and Sarah with the promise of a son, and who – as the same Divine Voice – tested Abraham with the command to sacrifice Isaac, saving the child as He commanded Abraham to stop, saying, “…now I know that you fear God seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.”
It was Christ the Logos, who appeared to the Patriarch Jacob in a dream, and said “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me” and with whom Jacob wrestled all night, so that he could say: “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered”.
It was Christ, the Angel of God, who spoke to Moses from the midst of the burning bush and said, “I am the God of your Father, the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac” and Who continued to speak and guide Israel in the Christophanies of the Book of Exodus.
It was Christ whom the prophet Ezekiel saw seated upon the great chariot-throne in the midst of the storm-cloud, flashing with lightning and fire, amidst the winged living-beings with the faces of a bull, a lion, an eagle, and a man.
It was Christ as the Ancient of Days, whom the prophet Daniel beheld, seated on His fiery throne: “And the Ancient of Days was seated; His garment was white as snow, And the hair of His “head was like pure wool.”
It was Christ, who appeared with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery-furnace, causing the astounded King Nebuchadnezzar to exclaim: “Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.”
It was Christ whom Isaiah beheld when we read that he “saw the Lord high and exalted and seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. And the angels surrounded him. And day and night they worship him, crying out: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD God Almighty; heaven and earth are full of his glory!’”
Thus, the men and women whom we celebrate each year on this Sunday were not strangers to Christ. They were Christ-Lovers who knew Him as He appeared to them, spoke to them, and in the case of Abraham and Sarah, sat and ate with them. Though He was yet to be born and ‘clothed in Adam’, He was the face and voice of God through which the righteous of the Old Testament encountered the Divine.
To return to the first step on the ladder of Christ’s descent – “Adam, the forefather of us all” – the first-father and first mother are so often only thought of as the agents of the earthly rebellion against God, remembered as rebels and outcasts. Yet we fail to remember that though they were guilty, it does not mean that they were rejected by God, becoming apostates and untouchables.
Despite their rebellion they remained the children of God, created in His image and likeness, knowing him in a relationship that we will never understand. Though they knew the consequences of their disobedience, and lived with those consequences in exile, they nevertheless existed as an expression of God’s creative-power and creative-love, and continued to know that love at the same time that they experienced divine justice. They remained creations in His image and likeness, with Him as their sole cause and origin.
Can we even begin to appreciate the depth of their repentance, given what they had lost, and what they had known and experienced in their relationship with the Creator? Equally, can we even begin to appreciate their mourning and tears of sorrow – penthos – for their single-disobedience. How much more are the multitudes of our disobediences and rebellions against God?
After the fall, God immediately sought to reclaim and redeem Adam and Eve and their descendants, with the first expression of the economy of salvation, looking forward to the Mother of God – the second Eve – and her Son, who would be the Second Adam: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
With this proclamation (Protoevangelion/Protogospel) the place of Adam and Eve in their own restoration, and that of the generations of their descendants until the end of time is declared.
Though driven from Paradise and burdened with the labours of life, pain, illness and death, Adam and Eve, Seth, Enos, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Judah, David and the righteous ancestors of the Lord are blessed, as they become instrumental in the preparation for the coming of the Christ of whom the Holy Prophet Isaiah spoke: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.”
In speaking of the Incarnate Word in the Prologue of St John, St Polycarp of Smyrna wrote,
“This is He who was from the beginning, who appeared as if new, and was found old, and yet who is ever born afresh in the hearts of the saints.”
Though He appeared as if new when He was laid in the manger, Christ the Word who was of old, was not only born afresh in the hearts of the saints of each coming generation, but had already been known in the hearts of those who had come before Him and long-awaited His coming.
In His Incarnation, they saw fulfilment and completion, as He who in His humanity is their child, flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone, entered the world in the darkness of the Cave of Bethlehem and was laid in the manger.
The forefathers’ experience and knowledge of Christ, the Only-Begotten Son and Word of God, may only be considered a foretaste of the knowledge that which was made manifest when “The word was made flesh and dwelt among us…”, but their knowledge and experience of Christ the Word was real, and their relationship was personal and blessed by their being steps on which the Creator would descend to earth, clothed in their flesh, even though He Himself had created it.
In his first homily on the feast of the Nativity, St Ephrem the Syrian frames this fulfilment in the Incarnation within the expectation and longing of the forefathers, who – as the descendants of the first-father and first mother – knew that the original life of humanity and its communion with God was unique to Paradise: a restored communion for which they longed, as they waited in expectation of the Second Adam who would put aside the Fiery Angel from the Gates of Paradise, so that they could approach once more.
“From thy treasure-house put forth, Lord, from the coffers of Thy Scriptures, names of righteous men of old, who looked to see Thy coming!
Seth who was in Abel’s stead shadowed out the Son as slain, by Whose death was dulled the envy Cain had brought into the world!
Noah saw the sons of God, saints that sudden waxed wanton, and the Holy Son he looked for, by whom lewd men were turned to holiness.
Shem and Japhet, being gracious, looked for the gracious Son, Who should come and set free Canaan from the servitude of sin.
Melchizedek expected Him; as His vicegerent, looked that he might see the Priesthood’s Lord whose hyssop purifies the world.
Lot beheld the Sodomites how they perverted nature: for nature’s Lord he looked who gave a holiness not natural.
Him Aaron looked for, for he saw that if his rod ate serpents up, His cross would eat the Serpent up that had eaten Adam and Eve.
Moses saw the uplifted serpent that had cured the bites of asps, and he looked to see Him who would heal the ancient Serpent’s wound.
Caleb the spy bore the cluster on the staff, and came and longed to see the Cluster, Whose wine should comfort the world.
Him did Jesus (Yeheshua/Joshua) the son of Nun long for, that he might conceive the force of his own surname: for if by His name he waxed so mighty, how much more would He by His Birth?
This Jesus that gathered and carried, and brought with him of the fruit, was longing for the Tree of Life to taste the Fruit that quickens all.
For Him Rahab too was looking; for when the scarlet thread in type redeemed her from wrath, in type she tasted of the Truth.
For Him Elijah longed, and when Him on earth he saw not, he, through faith most thoroughly cleansed, mounted up in heaven to see Him.
Moses saw Him and Elijah; the meek man from the depth ascended, the zealous from on high descended, and in the midst beheld the Son.
Adam looked for Him, for He is the Cherub’s Lord, and could minister an entrance and a residence hard by the branches of the Tree of life.
Abel longed after Him, that in his days He might come; that instead of that lamb that he offered, the Lamb of God he might behold.
For Him Eve also looked; for woman’s nakedness was sore, and He capable to clothe them; not with leaves, but with that same glory that they had exchanged away.
Seth and Enos, Cainan too, were surnamed sons of God; for the Son of God they looked, that they by grace might be His brethren.
But little short of a thousand years did Methuselah live: He looked for the Son Who makes heirs of life that never ends!
Grace itself in hidden mystery was beseeching on their behalf that their Lord might come in their age and fill up their shortcomings.
For the Holy Spirit in them, in their stead, besought with meditation: He stirred them up, and in Him did they look on that Redeemer, after whom they longed.”
We celebrate the fulfilment of their looking, expectation and longing in the Nativity itself, and the opening of St Ephrem’s homily celebrates this fulfilment:
“This is the day that gladdened them, the Prophets, Kings, and Priests, for in it were their words fulfilled, and thus were the whole of them indeed performed! For the Virgin this day brought forth Immanuel in Bethlehem.”
This, echoes the Saviour’s words in John’s Gospel, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad.” (John 8:56)
St Irenaeus wrote:
“the rejoicing of Abraham descending upon those who sprang from him … while, on the other hand, there was a reciprocal rejoicing which passed backwards from the children to Abraham, who did also desire to see the day of Christ’s coming.”
(In Against Heresies (Book IV, Chapter 7)
This rejoicing finds its ultimate meaning and its realisation in the victory of the Saviour (their child according to the flesh) over death and His conquest of hell – represented in the icon of Holy Pascha.
Christ descends into Hades in the Harrowing of Hell and raises those whom we celebrate in these two Sundays before the Nativity, so that His ancestral-descent from them became their spiritual ascent into the Kingdom of Heaven; His condescension the means of their ascension; His coming down the means of their rising up.
In the icon, we see Him taking Adam and Eve by the hands or wrists, together the righteous of the Old Testament – with the Forerunner, the Righteous Abel, Daniel the Prophet, King Solomon, King David so readily identifiable – ushering them out of the realm and darkness of death into the light of the resurrection.
In Christ, through their own humanity, united to His divinity, they found the bridge leading from earth to heaven; they experienced their restoration with the First-Adam, through the Second-Adam, who had put on the flesh of His forefather.
Let us joyfully greet the holy forefathers and mothers, together with the heralds of His coming, asking them to pray for us, in their knowledge and experience of the Paschal victory of the Messiah, as we approach the celebration of His Nativity in the remaining days of the Fast.
Let us never, forget their place in our salvation, and let us be thankful for the righteous men and women of the Old Covenant, who were the God-loving children of the Lord, forming the path by which the Saviour become Emmanuel: God-With-Us.
“All creation is sanctified by your memory and, keeping festival, doth call out, crying aloud as befitteth a servant: Ever offer entreaty unto the Lord, O blessed ones, that those who praise you may receive eternal blessings!”
(Doxasticon Ode 9. Canon)