My dear friends in our Lord: Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever.
Today the Church celebrates the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, that is, the second Sunday before the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Of course our brethren in the west are already in the midst of celebrating the Nativity, and we can certainly already join in the joy that they have and wish them all the choicest blessings and great joy of Christmastide. It is only proper and right to do so.
In the east, we still have two Sundays between us and the feast of the Nativity, this week’s commemoration of the Holy Forefathers, as well as next week’s Sunday of the Holy Fathers. These two Sundays have a very similar theme to their commemorations, and we will speak of that more next week, perhaps. Suffice at this time simply to say that this Sunday – that of the Holy Forefathers – is more general in its scope, whereas next week’s Sunday of the Holy Fathers looks more at the genealogical forbears of our Lord specifically, though certainly not exclusively.
Be that all as it may be, it remains that during this time we are continuing in our preparation, we continue to prepare ourselves in body, mind, and soul for the reception of our Lord in the celebration of His most august and joyous Nativity.
Now, if you have been giving any attention to the scripture lessons in the past few weeks, I think you will have noticed that today’s lessons are very familiar. They should, in fact, be very familiar to you since both the Epistle and the Gospel that we hear today were read only recently on other Sundays. We read the same Epistle just two weeks ago on the twenty-ninth Sunday after Pentecost, and we read the very same Gospel just three weeks ago, on the twenth-eighth Sunday.
So, having heard them so recently, having heard them on consecutive Sundays during this Nativity Fast, why do we read them again on this Sunday of the Holy Forefathers? Quite simply because we must learn. Learning is one of the great works of preparation that we must do during this time of fast.
There is an old saying, and it is one that I have found quite true – and it is appropriate for our situation today. That is: Repetition is the mother of learning. Repetition is the mother of learning.
If we are to learn the lessons which we are given, then often we must be faced with a repetition of those lessons.
Of course, we encounter repetition throughout the Church year, as we hear the same readings from year to year. But in special cases, we will hear the same readings presented far more often, such as in the readings from the weekday Divine Liturgies, or the many times which the same Psalms are prayed during the hours each day, or – in our case today – the scripture lessons on the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers.
We see this within the liturgy of the church. How many times a day does the Church say, “Lord have mercy?” throughout the hours and the Divine Liturgy? Literally hundreds of times. In fact, according to the particularities of one’s prayer rule, this can be said literally thousands of times a day.
And why is this? Why such repetition? Is it because God does not hear? No. Firstly, it is because we are to give praise and glory to God at all times, and because we also at all times stand in need of the mercy of God. The seeming repetition is simply the constant statement of unchanging truth: Lord, have mercy.
Are our lungs to be blamed that they constantly breathe air that we might survive? Is our heart to be censured because of the repetitiveness of its beating?
Neither can the grace-filled sameness of the prayer of the Church be censured, for it is the very living breath of grace, it is the very lifeblood of the faith.
If we are inclinced to consider it oppressively repetitive, it is not because God does not hear, but rather it is because we do not hear, we do pray from and in the heart, we do not make these prayers and these lessons our own.
No. If we are to truly live our lives as we ought, if we are truly to hear the spiritual teaching of the Church, it behooves us that we repeat it. Now this is not the vain repetition which is rightly spoken against in the scriptures. At least, it is not vain – unless we make it vain, or empty. We must constantly be receptive.
And thus, the Church repeats these particular lessons to us at this time. Because these lessons are important. These lessons are foundational. They are essential. And the Church wishes her children to understand this.
For on this Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, we commemorate the righteous of the Old Testament, and we are called to remember how they prepared themselves and the world for the reception of Our Lord. Though in almost every case, these holy Fathers – and Mothers – these Patriarchs and Prophets – would not see the Incarnation and the Nativity with their eyes of flesh, they would see it in the spirit, or in the case of the patriarchs Enoch and Elias, they would see it from within Paradise, having been taken up without seeing death.
Each and every one of them prepared by daily walking with the Lord, daily attending to their duty, daily prayer, daily seeking mercy, daily doing that which was within their power to do and within their mission to accomplish.
And so we do the same thing. That is what we hear once again in today’s Epistle. Do you remember what Saint Paul said? “When Christ shall appear, Who is your Life, then you also shall appear with Him in glory. Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth.”
Remember the lesson we heard just two weeks ago? That if Christ is to be our Life, then we are to mortify our bodies, our own bodily desires, our bodily tastes and inclinations. Note that we are not to destroy them, but we are to mortify them, that is to make them as if they were dead, that is, to take away their earthly life. This is not to “kill,” and it is certainly not to bring harm, but it is to empty ourselves of that life which is self-serving, which is pride-filled, which is directed solely towards the material things of this earth – to empty ourselves of such life – to mortify – so that we might be re-vived, given NEW life, and that more abundantly, in and with Christ Who is Himself our life, as Saint Paul assures us. In this we see the solid reminder of just why it is that we undertake the mortifications of the fast: Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our Life.
Mortification for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, our very Life. The Church reminds us of this, for this was the way of preparation for the Holy Forefathers. It remains the very same today. It remains the very same.
The choice also remains the same. The Church reminds us of that in today’s Gospel. Remember the lesson from just three weeks ago, concerning the parable of the great feast and those who would excuse themselves from attending?
The particular image of this parable is well-known to you already. The “certain man” who holds the supper is our Lord, and his servants are our Lord’s ministers. Beyond this, the parable can take a couple of differing interpretations which are both nevertheless true. One interpretation regards those who excuse themselves as the Jewish people at the time of Christ who refused Him as Messias and refused to enter into the new and eternal Covenant; with the blind, the lame, those among the highways and the hedges being the Gentiles. And thus we see it as it was in the times of the Holy Forefathers.
But another interpretation, less historical and more personal, is the interpretation that the Church calls us to remember today, just a few weeks after hearing it previously. For in this consideration, both those who make excuses and those who are ultimately invited are each and every person. Each and every one of us. And sometimes we might see ourselves – and our actions – in one or the other class of person. For the parable shows us on the one hand the comprehensive broadness of the invitation that is issued. In the final analysis, there isn’t a single person or a single type of person encountered in the parable who is not actually invited to the supper. The invitation is general, even universal. So also is the invitation to all of mankind to enter into the Church of Christ.
And yet we also see in the parable that even though one is invited, that person may still, by the use of his will, make excuse. Though the master is so desirous that his house be filled that he even wishes his servants to compel people to enter, in actual fact there is no compulsion. How a person responds to the invitation remains entirely with them.
And so also it remains entirely with you. The Church has given you the lesson, twice now during this fast, and now the Church asks you: How will YOU respond to the invitation?
Do you have an answer? Have you yet learned the lesson which you are called to learn? Are you ready and willing to give all to possess the One Who is all-in-all?
These, as I said, are the most foundational, elemental questions. This is what we must ask, and this is what we are asked.
The Church does not speak idly. She does not teach in order simply to hear herself speaking. She speaks that God might be glorified in every word, in every syllable. Today the Church invites you once again to hear the lessons which are offered. She invites you to learn from them, to make them your own. And today she challenges you, and she asks you: You are invited to the kingdom, you are invited to the feast. Have you so prepared yourself that you may give answer? Are you willing to say yes?