By faith Abraham sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40 (Epistle from the Sunday before the Nativity)
The Sunday before the Nativity is dedicated to the memory of the ancestors of Christ. Before celebrating this great feast, the Church calls upon us to look back at what came before Christ. There are two reasons for this. One is for us to understand historically from where we came. The Gospel which we will discuss tomorrow lists the generations from Abraham to Christ, so that we see His descent from Abraham, which ties us as Christians to the covenant that God made with Abraham. And the second reason is because before Christ people lived in an age of expectation. The Prophets foretold of what was to come, and the world “lived in expectation” of the coming of Christ.
Truth be told, most of the world did not actually live in expectation of Christ because when Christ came, even the most scripturally literate Jewish leaders missed, or couldn’t accept, Jesus as the Christ. We live also in an “age of expectation.” Christ has come through the Incarnation. He has given the world a chance at redemption through the Cross and Resurrection. He has promised to return in glory. And now we await for that promise to be fulfilled, just as those who came before Christ waited for His first coming to be fulfilled. And, just as it was then, most of the world (or at least it seems that way) does NOT live in expectation of the coming of Christ, but rather in ignorance of Christ. Christ has told us that the Second Coming will be unlike the first—it will be a grand and cosmic event, rather than a humble and quiet one like the Nativity. However, it makes me wonder sometimes if we are so busy that only the few, like the shepherds and the magi, will be ready for Him to return.
While we can’t control how the world feels or prepares, we certainly can control our level of faith. And faith is what today’s Epistle is all about. It talks about the faith of people who came before Christ, “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, receive promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenches raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign enemies to flight” (Hebrews 11:33-34) and a whole list of other things that they endured. Yes, God called some people to some pretty tough tasks. He told Abraham to pick up and move, to start walking to a foreign land. He told Abraham to kill his only son, Isaac, and Abraham would have done it. God asked Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt and to the Promised Land, something that took Moses forty years. And then He asked Joshua to lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan, a place occupied already by tribes with sizeable armies. David fought Goliath. Daniel spent a night in a den of lions. Yes, these people who paved the way for Christ were certainly people of faith.
Every time I hear this Epistle, I’m reminded of a story a friend told me. On the Sunday when this was read, she had to go change her child’s diaper during Liturgy, and while in the bathroom, overheard a group of teenage girls complaining that it was too warm in the church and maybe they should just hang out in the hall. As she recalled to me, she wanted to tell them “didn’t you hear the Epistle about people conquering kingdoms, and being tortured, and killed by the sword and you can’t make it in a church that might be a few degrees too warm?” I think of this story because we have, as a society, become soft when it comes to matters of faith. We aren’t being called upon to be sawn in two, or to wander over deserts and mountains and in dens and caves of the earth. So why does it seem so hard not to curse, or cheat, or steal, or fudge on things? The people we are reading about in the Epistle lesson did amazing acts of faith. It seems sad that we can’t do even more simple ones.
The other lesson that comes to us from the Epistle lesson is that God foresaw and foresees “something better for us” (Hebrews 11:40), so that as those who came before Christ, and those of us who live for Him today, can expect not only the blessings of God as we know them in this life, but even greater blessings in the life that is to come. The challenge for us as we journey to salvation is to be “well attested in our faith” (11:39) so that we are ready to receive what God has promised us.
As she carried in her womb what she conceived without seed, Mary went to Bethlehem with elder Joseph to enroll, for they were of the house and lineage of David. The time arrived for her to give birth to her Child; but then there was no place in the inn for them. Therefore the grotto served as a luxurious royal palace for the Queen. And Christ the Lord is born, to raise the image which was formerly fallen. (Apolytikion of the Sunday before Christmas, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Be faithful to God in whatever challenges come your way!