Epistle for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers
Today is the first of the two preparatory Sundays before the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. On this Sunday we commemorate the holy forefathers – those righteous men and women of the Old Testament who cleaved to God and discerned His will and goodness according to the revelation available to them at that time. Among this august group are the prophets, kings, ascetics, priests, and lay servants of the Most High God. In the Epistle reading we will hear next Sunday, Apostle Paul calls to our attention the faith and exploits of Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and the prophets. These holy men and women were guided by the unfolding revelation of God – beginning with the direct encounters of Adam in Paradise, to the inheritance and covenant of the Lord with Abraham, to the laws of God given to Moses. All of these Old Testament heroes of the faith applied themselves to the law of God as written upon the tablets of stone and passed down within the traditions of the people of Israel. And, in addition, they applied themselves to the law of the conscience, which God has written upon the human heart.
The laws of God (both those written upon stone and those written within our conscience) are provided to us to help us discern and choose the right path that leads us closer to God. Humanity is always faced with a choice: toward the good and selfless that draws us closer to God, or toward the bad and selfish that draws us away from God. The holy ones that we commemorate today are those warriors of faith that fought against the downward pull of selfishness and strove to ascend that ladder of righteousness.
The Apostle Paul exorts us in today’s Epistle to put aside all anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, profanity and lies. We are to do so, as he says: ‘since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him.’
We are called to ‘put off the old man’ – that downward spiraling aspect of ourselves that clings to our passions and selfishness. We are to ‘put on the new man’ – that upward ascending, good aspect of ourselves that listens to our conscience and strives to fulfill the law of God and renew the image of Him Who created us. This law of the conscience is something that we need to be aware of… especially in our day, when the trend of modern society is so set against obedience to the conscience and so focused on pampering our selfishness. The modern world is less concerned in rooting out sin as it is in rooting out any sense of guilt, of silencing the conscience.
This is directly opposed to the voice of God, to the voice of the Church, to the voice of the fathers, to the voice of what we know is true based on our conscience. Listen to the words of our father Theophan the Recluse, who writes the following:
‘Do not do anything that your conscience prohibits, and do not omit anything that it says to do, whether great or small. The conscience is always our moral guide. …Follow it undeviatingly, and with such perseverance that you would not allow yourself to do anything against it even if you were to die. The more decisively you act, then, the more powerful your conscience will become. The more powerful your conscience becomes, the more completely and forcefully it will inspire you with what is necessary and steer you away from what is unnecessary in words, deeds, and thoughts, and the more quickly your inner being will be put in order. A conscience with reverential remembrance of God is the wellspring of true spiritual life.’
St Theophan recommends to us these two things: remembrance of God and listening to our conscience. He writes: ‘Nothing more is required. Just supplement them with patience. Success will not come suddenly; you must wait, toiling persistently. You must toil and, most importantly, do not give in to pleasing yourself or the world. There will be constant opposition to what you have begun. You must overcome this; therefore, you must exert more force and, consequently, be patient. Clothe yourself in this all-powerful armor and never allow your spirits to fall when you encounter misfortune. Everything will come with time. Be encouraged in your patience through this hope. That this is what happens is borne out by the experiences of all people who have sought and accomplished salvation. That, then, is all! Remember God with reverence, obey your conscience, and arm yourself with hope through patience. May the Lord bless you to be so inclined and to be in this frame of mind.’
The work of salvation is a cooperative effort involving the grace of God reaching down to fallen humanity and the blood, sweat, and tears of our efforts to live a life pleasing to God – fulfilling His will and following His commandments. Those holy forefathers and foremothers of the Old Testament whom we remember today are those who struggled to discern the law of God and who fought the good fight to obey it. These righteous ones who lived before the coming of Christ strove to live a God-pleasing life according to their conscience and within the revelation given to them.
How much more should we, who have been blessed to live in the time of the fulfillment of Christ, who have available to us the fullness of the grace of God through His Church and the holy sacraments, how much more should we strive to ‘put to death those things that bind us to the earth.’ We need to build that awareness of God which St Theophan recommends to us, we need to listen to and obey our conscience, and we need to apply patience with hope.
May we, the sons and daughters of the fulfillment of the promise - having the law of God, having the law of our conscience written upon our heart, and having the grace-giving strength of the sacraments of the Holy Church - may we strive to live that life of selflessness that draws us upward toward God and to our heavenly homeland.