The liturgical preparation for the feast of Christ’s Nativity begins today with the Sunday of the Forefathers, which commemorates all those whose lives set the stage for the coming of the Messiah. Next week we observe the Sunday of the Ancestors of Christ, when we hear St Matthew’s genealogy of those who were Christ’s physical ancestors. From December 20 to 24 we observe a five-day “holy week” during which Christ’s birth seems ever closer. As we sing during those days, “Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth.” This fore-feast of the Nativity culminates on December 24, the Paramony of the feast.
Usually translated as vigil or eve, paramony actually refers to the uninterrupted nature of the Church’s prayer on this day. During the day the lengthier Great Hours or Royal Hours are chanted, followed by the Typika and a more elaborate than usual Great Vespers, to which is attached the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil. A special service of Great Compline with a Litia for the feast ends the day. Sometimes this leads directly into the Orthros and Divine Liturgy of December 25. In some countries of Eastern Europe it culminates with a Holy Supper prior to the Liturgy. The same cycle of uninterrupted prayer is also prescribed for the Feast of the Theophany on January 5.
Banquet: Sign of the Kingdom
The Gospel passage read at the Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of the Forefathers is always St Luke’s version of the great banquet to which many are invited. The banquet in Jewish thought of the biblical era was an image of the kingdom of God ushered in by the Messiah. Thus the prophet Isaiah foretold, “On the mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees. And He will destroy on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever” (Isaiah 25:6-7). The banquet will be for all peoples, not just Israel, and the cover or veil separating Jew from Gentile would be destroyed. At the feast people would receive the sacrificial food in which the temple priests partook – the feast would have a liturgical character. Most importantly the feast will mark the death of Death: the renewal of life .which the Messiah would accomplish.
Isaiah’s image of the Messianic Banquet was taken up by many Old Testament and other Jewish writers The Lord Jesus Himself used the same image to describe the Kingdom, but warned the Pharisees that they would be cast out, “sons of the kingdom” though they be. “I tell you: many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Matthew 8:11-12).
This passage is particularly appropriate as we prepare for the Nativity of Christ because Christ’s coming inaugurates the Messianic Kingdom. Christ calls together all peoples (“from east and west”) and joins us to God through Himself. He is the annihilation of death and the Source of life for all who believe in Him. Commemorating the Forefathers we recall Christ’s promise that those in Him will sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom, a sign of our union with the saints of all ages in the Body of Christ.
Banquet: Sign of Communion
The banquet image points to a number of characteristics which speak to us of the Kingdom of God. A banquet is a sign of lavish hospitality, a quality so prized in the Middle East. God displays His hospitality to us by opening His Kingdom to us with the most laving gift of all: the grace of His Christ. The banquet is also a sign of the participants’ joy and gladness at being at the host’s table. To use the Psalmist’s words, they delight at taking the chalice of salvation and calling upon the name of the Lord.
The most important dimension to the image of a banquet is that of fellowship. The banquet is a place of communion with others, of sharing together in the hospitality of the Master. As such it is a preeminent sign of the Kingdom of God, our sharing in His divine life through Christ.
The coming of Christ has nothing to do with being alone. If anything, it is the opposite. The incarnation took place so that we would not be alone, left to ourselves, out of communion with God. Christ is born into the world so that, as was meant from the beginning, humanity could be in communion with God.
To Sin is to Be Alone
The Scriptures describe aloneness as the consequence of sin. In the Genesis story of the fall Adam hides from God after eating from the Tree – a sign that their communion was broken. In its planning and in its effect sin is about isolating oneself from God and others. It hardens us so that we see isolation from others as something good. We find the challenge of relationship with others too demanding and may react as did Cain, the mean-spirited son of Adam, “Surely I am not my brother’s keeper!” (Genesis 4:19).
Christmas and the Messianic Banquet are about communion because God is communion personified. “God is love” (1 John 4:9). God-as-love is what the Church means by calling God the Holy Trinity. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one in divinity but three persons in a loving relationship. According to the book of Genesis this loving communion was extended to Adam and Eve, created after the image, according to the likeness of this God who is love. By seeking to live apart from God Adam and Eve lost this vital link, getting exactly what they desired.
To Live in God is to be in Communion
By His incarnation the Word of God – the One who was in perfect communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit – came to restore that communion with humanity. He lived in His person what Adam could not, remaining in constant communion with the Father while remaining like us in all things except for sin. His coming was not simply to show that communion with God was possible for man, but to make it possible for us to have such a relationship “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13).
What is Christ’s by nature could become ours through faith, by God’s gracious will. As the Fathers tirelessly repeated, “God became man so that man might become god.”
The Eucharist and Communion
The Divine Liturgy in which we regularly share has been described as a prophetic sign of the Messianic Banquet. Everything we look to experience in heaven is found in the Liturgy by anticipation. We gather with the entire Body of Christ – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all the saints as well as people from every race and nation – to share in the priestly gifts of the Body and Blood of Christ. We respond to the lavish hospitality of our Host with the joy and gladness of people who “taste the heavenly bread and the cup of life and see how good the Lord is.”