Not Apart from Us (Sun. Dec. 18, 2021)

The word of the day is “faith.”  Today’s reading from Hebrews is a memorial of the Old Testament saints who by faith persevered in the hope for the coming of the Messiah, the Christ.  In Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40, we read of the faithful witness of those who endured incredible suffering as they firmly clung to God’s promise, a pledge that is now fulfilled in the birth of the Savior.

Heroes and Heroines of Faith

In today’s passage, the writer of Hebrews names the ancients: Abel, Enoch, and Noah.  He recalls the patriarchs: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, and Jacob.  The apostle brings to mind: Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets (vs. 11:4-32).  Then he recounts the sufferings of innumerable heroes and heroines who performed mighty works (vs. 11:33-35) and suffered incredible persecutions and privations (vs. 11:32-38).

The apostle states that all these men and women who trusted God “obtained a good testimony” (vs. 39).  This phrase translates the single word that means to “be a martyr, that is “to bear witness” (Strong’s #3140, 156).  All these ancestors earned the right to be called witnesses to the faith.  God approved and commended them for their demonstration of faithfulness (vs. 11:1).

Faith and the Fulfillment of the Promise

On this the Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity, our reading from Hebrews accompanies the recitation of the genealogy of Jesus Christ in the Gospel Matthew.  From the viewpoint of today’s Gospel, we understand that these witnesses to faith prepared for the fulfillment of the age-old promise that the Nativity of Christ fulfilled.  For generations, God had repeated His promise to send the Messiah, His “Anointed One.”  Over forty specific prophecies in the Old Testament foretold his advent, describing him and his mission in detail.  But the prophets also exhorted the Chosen People to prepare for His coming.  Their appeal became more and more urgent until the last of the prophets, Malachi, promised that God would send a forerunner to “prepare the way” for the “Day of the Lord’s visitation” (Malachi 3:1-2; 22).

Completing Our Nativity Fast

In fulfillment of this prophecy, God sent John the Baptist to clear the way for the advent of Christ (Matthew 3:1-2 and Mark 1: 1).  As we conclude our Nativity Fast, we should respond to John’s appeal for repentance (Matthew 3:1).  In this way, we should complete our spiritual preparations to celebrate what the heroes and heroines of the faith longed for but did not receive.

How privileged we are that we will soon observe the birth of the One whom the ancestors of the faith only saw “from afar off” (11:13).  They could only put their trust in the promise of the Savior.  We can celebrate its fulfillment in the Lord’s nativity.  The apostle summarizes that the heroes and heroines of faith did not attain their hope.  But God “…provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us” (vs. 40).  In summary, the faith of those who lived before Christ was not “made perfect,” that is, it was not “completed” or “realized” (Strong’s #5048, 248).  But it now reaches its end with us who share with them the realization of centuries of hope.

For Reflection

A Troparion for the Forefeast of the Nativity sings:

“Prepare, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened to all.

Adorn yourself, O Ephratha, for the Tree of Life blossoms forth from the Virgin in the cave.

Her womb is a spiritual paradise planted with the fruit divine; if we eat of it, we shall live forever and not die like Adam.

Christ is coming to restore the image which He made in the beginning”  (Orthodox Church in America website).

This hymn declares that we have now come to the end of centuries of preparation.  We have arrived at the realization of the faith of those who kept it throughout the generations.  We now have reached the fulfillment of the hope that in the past only faith could grasp.

The Return to the Garden of Eden

This completion of the history of faith is the return to the Garden of Eden.  Christ is the New Adam who restores the image of God in human nature.  The Virgin Mary (the Mother of God) is the New Eve.  From her womb as a “spiritual Paradise,” comes a divine fruit.  When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the forbidden tree, in the first garden, they suffered the punishment of death.  But if we eat of the fruit that comes forth from the second Garden, the womb of the Virgin Mary, we will have eternal life.

With this song in our hearts, let us respond to the Gospel of the birth of Christ with faith— not faith in a remote promise seen “afar off,” but faith in the realization of the divine promise who has come to dwell among us.

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