THE SUNDAY OF THE FOREFATHERS intensifies the countdown to the feast of Christ’s Nativity. During the Nativity Fast we celebrate the memorials of several Old Testament prophets – Obadiah (Nov. 19), Nahum (Dec. 1), Habbakuk (Dec. 2), Zepheniah (Dec. 3), Haggai (Dec. 16), and Daniel (Dec. 17). Today we reflect on how the entire Old Testament period has been a preparation for Christ and how we are called to be ready for His ultimate triumph.
Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, begins with the stories of the creation and the fall of Adam and Eve. Genesis concludes their tragic story with these words addressed to the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head while you strike at his heel” (Gen 3:15). Many Fathers saw this as the first heralding of the Messiah’s victory over sin and death (the “proto-gospel”). Satan’s seeming defeat of Christ on the cross is but a striking of His heel while Christ’s striking at his head is His
ultimate defeat of Satan. It would take countless generations – from the beginning of humanity, through the years of both Old and New Testaments and the subsequent history of this age – for this event to be fulfilled.
The Prophets Read in the Church
At the time of the Hebrew kingdoms (the six or seven hundred years before Christ) prophets were periodically calling the people to trust in God despite the troubles of their nation. Despite conflicts with the Philistines or the Assyrians, and even in the midst of defeat and exile by the Babylonians and occupation by the Romans, the prophets encouraged the people to trust in God who would provide a deliverer.
After the death and resurrection of Christ the apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit came to see these prophecies fulfilled in a decisive way by Jesus Christ, who delivers all mankind – not just the Jewish people – from its ultimate enemies, sin and death, not just foreign oppressors. Around the Old Testament prophecies of a deliverer the apostles built their preaching of the true Messiah (Anointed One) of God, Christ Jesus the Savior.
What we call the Old Testament was the Bible for the early Church as well as for Judaism and its prophecies shaped the presentation of the incarnation in the New Testament. As the following quotations show, the apostles considered these prophecies as clearly pointing to the coming of Christ:
- His Conception (Isaiah 7:14, cited in Mt 1:23) – “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”
- The Place of His Birth (Micah 5:2, cited in Mt 2:6) – “Bethlehem…out of you shall come a ruler…”
- The Flight into Egypt (Hosea 11:1, cited in Mt 2:15) – “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
- The Slaughter of the Infants (Jeremiah 31:15, cited in Mt 2:18) – “A voice was heard in Ramah…”
- His home in Nazareth (possibly Judges 13:5, cited in Mt 2:23) – “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
Other prophecies were frequently cited as pointing to Jesus as the Messiah:
- Numbers 24:17 – “a star shall come forth out of Jacob…”
- Isaiah 11:1 – “There shall come forth a shoot from the root of Jesse…”
- Isaiah 60:5-6 “…they shall bring gold and frankincense”
While there are no verbatim quotations of prophecies in Luke’s infancy narratives, there are allusions to Old Testament scriptures throughout. In Luke 1:17, for example, John the Baptist is described by the angel as going “before him in the spirit and power of Elijah.” This alludes to Malachi 4:5-6 “Behold I am sending to you Elijah the Thesbite before the great and notable day of the Lord comes.” These allusions, and others throughout the Gospels, reflect the early Church’s belief that the entire Old Testament leads us to see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God.
The Ultimate Coming of Christ
The Scriptures do not depict Christ’s birth as the ultimate point in the story of God’s dealings with us. Instead we are told to look ahead to that final stage in history. In the imagery of Luke’s Gospel, there shall be a great banquet – the triumph of the Messiah – and many shall be invited to share in that feast. St Paul is a bit more direct: “Christ shall appear, and when He does, you also will be revealed in glory with him” (Col 3: 4).
The great banquet is the final triumph of Christ which we proclaim in the Creed: “He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead…” and the revelation of those who are in Christ as well. “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come.” And so our celebration of Christ – whether spread out throughout the liturgical year or experienced in each Divine Liturgy – always directs us to look ahead to “His glorious second coming.”
An invitation demands a response – are you interested or not? According to St Paul the response we are meant to give is to “put off the old man with its deeds” and put on the new man, renewed after the image of Christ. We have already done so in baptism, Paul says, but we must continue to life according to the new life we have received, not the old one we have put aside.
The Nativity Fast is a time set aside to reflect on our “record” as new men and women, who have renounced lust, greed, wrath and the other deeds of the old man we find mentioned in Col 3:8-10. We are invited to reaffirm our commitment to humility, forgiveness and love (verses 12-14) as well as to refocus on the mystery of the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, come to invite us to the great banquet.