By Fr. Steven Kostoff
Within the Orthodox Church, the Sunday between December 11-17 is called, simply enough, the “Second Sunday Before the Nativity of the Lord,” and more specifically, the “Sunday of the Forefathers.” This liturgical preparation for the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity—something of a build-up—is a conscious echo of the lengthy time of preparation, determined by God and embodied in the history of Israel, before the sending of His only-begotten Son into the world “in the fullness of time” [Galatians 4:4]. This specific period of liturgical time—and here we mean the entire forty days of the Nativity Fast—is something of a microcosm of the historical time in which the righteous ones of Israel fervently awaited the deliverance promised by God and embodied in the Messiah, “Who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2:11]. The spiritually fertile promise of God given to the patriarch Abraham will begin its historical expression with the Advent of Christ: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” [Genesis 12:1-3].
For this reason, Saint Paul emphasized the importance of Abraham, exalting him as the father of the faithful: “So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham…. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” [Galatians 3:7,29].
According to the Scriptures, one’s “faith identity” is far more significant than one’s “ethnic/social identity.” This was magnificently expressed by the Apostle Paul in what were certainly radical terms for his time (and, alas, for our present time): “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” [Colossians 3:11]. And in Galatians, Saint Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” [3:28].
According to one of the currently-available editions of The Synaxarion (The Lives of the Saints) for this particular commemoration of the Forefathers, we read the following spiritual interpretation: “Through the connection of the holy Ancestors and Patriarchs, Our Savior Jesus Christ is Himself also, in a way, the fruit of the faith of Abraham. So, when God makes His voice known to each of us while we are still in a strange land of the passions and worldly vanities, we must like Abraham unhesitatingly leave all that is ours, and follow the divine calling with faith until we reach the Promised Land where, in our turn, we shall be able to give birth spiritually to Christ. For, planted in us by faith and Baptism, He has to grow in us through the virtues so as to shine in the light of contemplation” [November-December, pp. 390-391].
Essentially, it is through faith—simultaneously a gift and a response—that we will yet again “see” the pre-eternal God “wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger” [Luke 2:12]. Is there any possibility that we could experience a child-like eagerness and sense of anticipation for that awesome vision amidst our “mature,” yet grindingly realistic, if not cynical, reflections on the present Christmas season as we await the Feast? If not, we may just well be facing another “merry Christmas” that lasts about as long as it takes to unwrap our gifts and eat our holiday meal.
The appointed Gospel reading for the Sunday of the Forefathers is Luke 14:16-24. The connection between this particular parable and the commemoration of the Forefathers may not be readily apparent. However, this Parable of the Great Banquet clearly anticipates the coming of the Gentiles into the Church—foretold to and by the Forefathers—thereby bringing to fruition the promise made to Abraham and the other righteous ancestors of Christ. The banquet of the parable is the image of the Christian Eucharist that unites both Jews and Gentiles in the one Body of the Church and points to the heavenly banquet of the Kingdom of God, an image going back to the Prophet Isaiah among other Old Testament sources. This dialectic between “promise” and “fulfillment” may therefore be the very point of its choice for this particular Sunday.
In the parable, we hear various “excuses” as to why some of the invited guests ask to be excused from the great banquet. They all sound quite legitimate and understandable—as do our excuses when we decline the King’s invitation to the great banquet on either the exterior or interior level. Life presents its demands that must be immediately met. These demands can be domestic (the home and children), professional (work-related), or even recreational (needed time off). They combine in such a way that at times it all seems overwhelming. We can easily lose track of the days as they become something of an indistinguishable blur of endless activity—perhaps right now even more so than at any other time of the year. Christmas puts such a demand on all of our resources—energy, time, money, etc.
As legitimate or understandable as these excuses of the invited guests may have appeared to be, even drawing forth our sympathy or empathy, the master of the parable, on the contrary, proved to be neither sympathetic nor empathetic, and did not accept them. And this master is clearly an image of God (the Father). It is not because He is harsh and demanding. That would clash with the image of the Father throughout the New Testament. Perhaps it is because of how great an invitation and how great a gift is being freely offered at such a “great price”— “you were bought with a price” the Apostle Paul reminds us—that the master of the parable reacts with “anger” when his invitation is declined. The Father offers His Son as the sacrificial food of the great banquet that we are called to enjoy. Therefore, since the Incarnation culminates in the Crucifixion, we understand the nature of that “price.” With this in mind, we may further understand that our efforts to postpone the invitation to that Great Banquet are actually quite misplaced—including life’s everyday demands. That seems to be what the Lord is conveying to us in this parable of the Great Banquet with His stark closing words: “For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my banquet” [Luke 14:24].
We are the spiritually “poor and maimed and blind and lame” [Luke 14:21] who have been invited to the great banquet. This is none other than the “marriage supper of the Lamb” [Revelation 19:9]. Let us accept the invitation with joy and thanksgiving.
~Orthodox Church in America (OCN), https://oca.org/reflections/fr.-steven-kostoff/accepting-the-lords-invitation.