Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
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.”
 
OUR PREPARATION FOR CHRISTMAS becomes more intense on the second Sunday before the feast. We have fasted and remembered some of the prophets who foretold the incarnation of Christ. Today we remember all the “Forefathers,” those who came before and prepared the way, however remotely, for His coming. It is appropriate today to reflect on what the Scriptures tells us preceded the Incarnation. The following timeline and reading guide may be helpful in doing so. All the dates older that 1000 BC are approximate. Before Time – The Word was with God before anything material came to be (John 1:1-4). It is through this eternal Word that our material creation comes to be.

The Pre-History of the Israelites

Before 4000 BC – The creation of our universe, the human race falls away from communion with God, life on earth as we know it begins (Genesis 1-3). Genesis actually contains two creation stories. The first (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is a version of an older Babylonian myth re-edited to teach that creation is by the will of the only true God, not the result of warring gods and demons. It is cast in the form of a single week to promote the character of the Sabbath as a day of rest. Its narrative (creation begins with a burst of light followed by the creation of the planets, etc.) harmonizes with the modern Big Bang theory and subsequent discoveries. Before 3000 BC – Sin prevails and increases, illustrated by Cain and Abel and Lamech, Noah and the Great Flood, (Genesis 4-9). Acconring to Jewish tradition, God makes a new covenant with Noah after the flood Man is committed to observe the seven Noahide Laws: prohibiting idolatry, murder, theft, sexual immorality, blasphemy, and the eating of meat with its blood (i.e. while the animal is still alive). They are also enjoined to establish courts of law. Before 2100 BC – The rise of Middle Eastern peoples, the Towel of Babel (Genesis 10, 11).Jewish tradition sees the tower as an act of arrogance aimed at world domination by a particular people which God rejects. Before 1991 BC – Abraham and his sons Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 12-36). God calls the Mesopotamian Abram, renames him and promises that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars and that they will inherit the land of Canaan. He establishes circumcision as the sign of that covenant.

Israel in Egypt

1900-1806 BC - Joseph and his brothers: the descendants of Abraham in Egypt (Genesis 37-50). Sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, Joseph becomes the most powerful person in Pharaoh’s court when he favorably interprets the sovereign’s dream, averting a famine in Egypt. He is then able to rescue his father and brothers and insure the Israelites’ survival. 1800-1446 BC – The Israelites prosper, then are enslaved (Exodus 1,2) 1450-1400 BC – The call of Moses, the exodus from Egypt, beginnings of Judaism: the Ten Commandments, the establishment of the priesthood and erection of the tabernacle (Exodus 2-40, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). This is the formative experience of Israel, celebrated each year at the Passover: their liberation from slavery in Egypt and passage through the Red Sea to freedom in the Land promised by God to Abraham and his descendants.

The Promised Land

1400-1375 BC – Joshua leads the Israelites to conquer parts of the “Promised Land” (Joshua) 1375-1050 BC – Israelite tribes settle in the Promised Land. Governed by tribal elders or Judges, they extend their control of the area at the expense of the Philistines (Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel 11-7)

The United Kingdom

1050-931 BC – The Israelites form a united kingdom under Saul, David and Solomon. This is the Golden Age of the Israelite nation. Saul was chosen be God and anointed by the prophet Samuel to be the first king. In 1007, during a losing battle with the Philistines, he fell on his sword to avoid capture. God chooses the righteous although flawed David to succeed Saul through the prophet Samuel. God makes a covenant with him that his throne would be established forever. David would be the ancestor of the Messiah, promised to come from the house of David. The third king, Solomon, was renowned for his wisdom and power. He is considered author of the earliest Biblical Wisdom Literature. Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem but ultimately turned to the idolatry of his foreign wives. (1 Samuel 8-31; 1 Kings 1-11, 1 Chronicles)

Breakup of the United Kingdom

931-860 BC – The kingdom is divided in two: north and south, Israel and Judah. Unity and monotheism give way to squabbling and pagan influences (1 Kings 12-17, 2 Chronicles) 860- 722 BC – Prophets Elijah, Elisha, Joel, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah insist on a return to monotheism, justice among the people (1 Kings 17-22; 2 Kings 1-17; Joel, Amos, Hosea and Isaiah) 722 BC – Kingdom of Israel defeated. The victorious Assyrians settle foreigners in the land. The intermingling of Israelites and pagans gives rise to the Samaritans. (2 Kings 17-24) 700-590 BC – Prophets Naoum, Zepheniah Jeremiah, Habbakuk and Ezekiel warn the Kingdom of Judah that they too have forsaken God and face destruction.

The Babylonian Captivity

588-586 BC – The Babylonians attack Jerusalem, conquer it and deport the elite to Babylon. Jeremiah and Ezekiel prophesy a return. 537 BC – The Persians defeat the Babylonians and allow the Jews to return to their country and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1-6). Many Jews remain in Babylon and prosper there (Esther) 535-430 BC – Judea is restored, the temple scrolls become the basis of the Old Testament and Jewish life is revived (Ezra, Nehemiah) under nominal Persian rule.

Greek and Roman Rule

333 BC – Alexander the Great defeats the Persians and extends Greek rule throughout the Middle East. Jews become an important colony in Alexandria, Egypt. 250 BC – Jews in Alexandria translate the Old Testament into Greek. Others books written in Aramaic, Greek or Hebrew are included (Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and parts of Daniel) in what is called the Septuagint (LXX). The books of Maccabees, written later in Hebrew, were translated into Greek and added to the Septuagint. 175-164 BC – The Jews in the Holy Land are suppressed by the Greek ruler of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes, who defiles the temple and tries to abolish the Jewish religion. The Jews, led by the Maccabees, revolt and recover Jewish independence. (1 to 4 Maccabees), which lasts until 63 BC. 63 BC – The Romans seize control of Syria. The Jewish kingdom becomes the Roman province of Palestine.
 
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.
Vespers Sticheron O Christ, we worship You, our eternal King. Being Lord and Master, You rescued the three holy young men from the fire and saved Daniel from the lions. You blessed Abraham, Isaac Your servant, and Jacob his son. You willed to be like one of us by choosing to be born from them, in order that, by accepting crucifixion and burial, You could save our forefathers who had sinned against You. Thus did You crush the powers of Death and raise those who had been long dead.

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