A HOMILY FOR THE SUNDAY OF THE HOLY FATHERS

 

About the Old Testament Righteous, Their Virtues, and Our Faults

 

        Brothers and sisters,

       

        On the final Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, the Orthodox Church commemorates the “Holy Fathers.”  One might well ask, “Which Holy Fathers?”  The term “holy fathers” is used for different groups of people:  ordinary clergy, ordinary monks, sainted bishops, and others.  In fact, the feast of the Nativity is preceded by commemorations on the two Sundays before it which are very similar to each other.  The first, last Sunday’s, is called the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers; and the second, this Sunday’s, is called the Sunday of the Fathers, as we said.  The “forefathers” commemorated last Sunday are the ancestors of the Hebrew nation from the time of Adam, while the “fathers” commemorated this Sunday are the ancestors of Christ.  Obviously, there is broad overlap between the two groups.  To make matters more confusing, in last Sunday’s service, a number of later Israelite saints, such as the Three Youths, Prophet Daniel, and the other prophets, are mentioned; while in today’s service, particularly in the Synaxarion, all the saints of the Old Testament are included, many of whom were not direct ancestors of the Lord.  If this were not enough, these services mention the female saints of the Old Testament as well, although they are mothers rather than fathers.

        For all the seeming confusion, what is clear is that both feasts have a common, underlying, broader theme, and that is the splendor of Old Testament sanctity, which produced its most exquisite blossom in the Ever-virgin Mary, from whom Christ sprang.  And so, let us reflect today on that sanctity, and say a few words about its meaning for us, the faithful of the New Testament dispensation of grace.

        As I mentioned, although the last Sundays before the Nativity are called “The Sunday of the Forefathers” and “The Sunday of the Fathers,” the holy women of the Old Testament are also glorified on these days.  Therefore, we shall begin with them.

        First of all, every one of the holy women of the Old Testament obtained, as the Apostle writes, a good report through faith.[1]  They all lived more in the spirit than in the flesh, more in the future existence than in the present, and more in the invisible world than in the visible.  They loved their husbands, their children, and their nation, but the chief object of their love was God and the promised Deliverer of the world.  It was from this love that sprang everything great, noble, and holy in them, for which the faithful have glorified these saints for millennia now.

         Second, these holy women were free of the usual faults of their sex:  self-pity; undue emotionalism; pettiness; the propensity for complaining, backbiting, gossiping, and squabbling; desire to have one’s own way even in the least important details of life; and excessive love of self-adornment.  Instead, they were adorned with the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which in the sight of God is of great price.[2] 

        Third, all the holy women of the Old Testament respected their husbands.  Sara, for example, obeyed Abraham, calling him lord,[3]  as Saint Peter tells us.  Naturally, their devout husbands gave honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel,[4] and showed their love by pleasing their wives.  Thus we see in the marriages of the Old Testament saints much harmony and affection. 

        Fourth, the holy women of the ancient Dispensation loved their hearth and home.  Although Providence chose for some of them a very public role, when they were done with their duties, they were happy to be able to retreat to the refuge of their own beloved house.

        In all these ways, the holy women of the Old Testament provide perfect examples for devout Christian women, examples so clear that any comment or explanation is unnecessary.  Furthermore, in many particulars they provide excellent examples for men.

        Now let us consider not just Old Testament women, but men as well, and what they all shared…  According to Saint Paul, what these saints had in common was that, having obtained a good report through faith, they without us were not made perfect, God having provided some better thing for us.[5]

        Whoever has read these words in the Epistle to the Hebrews has doubtless asked himself, “What does this mean?  For should not better things belong to the better?  And what are we in comparison with the righteous of the Old Testament?  Are not the best of us here like children, spiritually speaking, compared with persons such as Abraham and Job?”

        The answer is that God, in His Providence, deigned that the righteous of the Ancient Covenant should live in the times of darkness, the times of types and foreshadowings, because they themselves  shone as lights in the world.[6]  However, God has deigned that we should live amid the brightness of the midday sun of grace, so that the flood of its light might illumine our profound inner darkness.  Thus, at least in a way, our situation is far preferable to that of the Old Testament righteous:  the spiritual infant now sees and recognizes things that the patriarchs and prophets longed to see, but never could.

        And so, dear brothers and sisters, with this the time has come for each of us to examine himself and ask certain questions of himself as an individual.  What exactly has the light of grace effected in me?  Am I cognizant of the blessings bestowed upon me by my status as a member of the New Testament Church of grace, and do I make use of them as I should?  Do I believe in the Messiah Who has come with the same powerful faith as the Old Testament righteous believed in the Messiah Who was to come?  Do I love the One Who has assumed flesh, died for me, and redeemed me as intensely as they loved the One Who had not yet assumed flesh, died for them, and redeemed them?  God is no respecter of persons,[7] the Scriptures repeat time and again; to whom much is given, of him much shall be required.[8]  What, then, shall be required of us, if we fail to make proper use of all the gifts of grace showered upon us?  What shall become of us, if, being born (so to speak), having lived, and having died beneath the Cross of Christ, at its very foot, we never learn to find in it our salvation?  Will not the great cloud of witnesses[9] of Old Testament saints witness against us?  Lot will say, “I lived in the middle of Sodom, and remained pure and faithful, while these people live amid their Orthodox brethren, in the shadow of the Church and next to the Church’s pastors, but they ignore the law of God.”  Job will say, “I lived on a dunghill and was covered with sores, but I never ceased to praise the name of the Lord, while these people live in peace, prosperity, and comfort, and they never cease to grumble against what Providence has ordained for them, and are constantly finding excuses not to pray or attend the divine services.  Joseph and Susanna will reproach those who sin against chastity; Ruth will censure sons and daughters who disrespect and disobey their parents; Sarah will rebuke spouses who betray their husband or wife.  Every sinner will find among the Old Testament righteous a witness against him before God.

        May the Lord protect us from such witness and reproach, by the prayers of the witnesses and reproachers themselves!  And may the remembrance of the witnesses and their virtues be with all of us, not just today, but forever.  Amen.

 

[1] Heb. 11:2-3

[2] I Pet. 3:4

[3] I Pet. 3:6

[4] I Pet. 3:7

[5] Heb. 11:39-40

[6] Phil. 2:15

[7] Acts 10:34

[8] Luke 12:48

[9] Heb. 12:1