December 13, 2020

Contesting for the Faith: The Holy Forefathers of Christ (Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi)

By Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi

The apolytikion for the feast of the Holy Forefathers, says: "You [i.e. Christ] justified the forefathers in faith, and through them betrothed Yourself, in advance, to the Church taken from out of the Gentiles." These words, if you look at them carefully, are full of profound meaning. The Forefathers were justified, as being the foundation of the Church and as making manifest the cause of the relationship between God and us.

Who were the forefathers of God? Gentiles, of course. Everybody was a gentile then. After the fall, people lost their way and followed their own path. From these, God chose a few and called upon them to believe in Him and to follow Him. And they were convinced. Through faith they accepted the call from God and became His friends, so that, when God was revealed, it could be said of Him: "I am the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob."

Through the faith they accepted and in which they followed God, they reached such heights that, when He was revealed, God was called their God. And in this way, a bond was formed, an affinity, a relationship. And this powerful bond was born purely from faith: "You justified the forefathers in faith." Do you see what a great thing faith is? This is precisely what God asks of us. And then there’s the wonderful hymn of Saint Paul. This isn’t merely an epistle, an essay written by an enlightened man; it’s a hymn crafted by God. "All the Saints [and he begins to talk about the holy forefathers] who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again… Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword" (Heb. 11:33-37) and so on, as you all know.

All these contests, all these triumphs which extended and completed the relationship between the human race and God were born of faith. It’s this that saves us. It’s faith that extends into each of us and into the faithful as a whole and it’s precisely this which justifies everything.

Now we come to a deeper mystery. All these forefathers were those who by revelation were called, and therefore it was to these people that blessings would be given, because God foreordained them, called them and stayed with them, so that He could boast of being their God. They received His promises directly and spoke to Him in person. And yet, despite the certainty of the promise which was most effectively demonstrated to them, they earned their godliness, devoutness and focus on God in general through a heavily-laden cross, that is sorrows, pains, persecutions and tribulations, to the extent that they almost departed this world before seeing any of the things God had promised, except as symbols and the occasional insight. Do you see the mystery? In this vale of tears, God’s promises are partially seen, partially understood and partially revealed. This is precisely what is meant by "Who is wise, and will observe these things, and understand the mercies of the Lord?" (Ps. 106:43). This is how we who are called through faith must stand fast and implement our commitment to the Lord and to His promises. Interpreting faith through limitless patience, long-suffering and endurance, throughout our various trials and temptations, we, too, will be made perfect, as will all His children.

Now we proceed with the same faith, which is no longer abstract, because the promises have come, the fullness of time has arrived, the incarnation of the Word of God has occurred and the ‘angel of great counsel’ has appeared (Is. 9:6). Our faith is focused, because the Only-Begotten Son of God has come. We’ve seen Him, we’ve touched Him, we’ve heard Him and we already possess Him. Now, with us, faith is something more. It’s no longer the simple faith of the Forefathers, who expected that, in accordance with His promise, God would come at some time and would save their descendants and the whole of humanity in general. We’ve gone beyond the limits of this introductory faith and have entered a higher form of faith, with the actual presence of the promise of God.

Now with this wide-open outlook, with no fear of anything ever, we’re convinced that, since the Lord has called us and we’re now on the strait and narrow path which ascends to Golgotha, we will see the resurrection.

The various adversities and temptations we encounter, whether they’re from Satan or from the many other things in our life, aren’t any threat to us, an obstacle barring our way, or a cause for doubt, but are the secret, practical means by which the mystery of the Cross is wrought. They’re the ways through which we can demonstrate our proper faith, so that we can justify ourselves as regards His promises. When we see temptations, we rise to our full height and continue on our way, because their presence is a clear indication that Divine grace, which called us and set us on the path of knowledge, is with us at this time and is urging us towards the prize of betterment. What do we need now? Fortitude and patience.

Our fortitude and patience, however, increase enormously when the matter of the temptation has to do with love of our neighbor. This is where our attention should be concentrated. Because when Christ revealed the ‘New Creation’, after He had shown our provenance in great detail and our relationship with God and His with us, He also decided to give us a new commandment: "A new commandment I give you, that you love one another" (Jn. 13:34). And, as you know from the interpretations of our Fathers, "Salvation is from our neighbor." The fathers lay great stress on the fact that that the commandment of love is the summation of all the virtues and commandments. It’s not a free commandment that you can cultivate at will. For us, it’s a duty, because it’s our emblem, our insignia which proves where we came from and where we are headed.

So, be watchful. Every commandment issued from the mouth of God is dogma for us. But the commandment of love is something more. Because, you see, this Jesus of ours, Who is the center of our love, is, by His very nature, reciprocal love: "God is love and those who abide in love abide in God, as God does in them" (I Jn. 4:16).

So there you are. If we want "to dwell in God and God to dwell in us" there’s no other way and no other path than the notion of love. This is why you have to be on your toes as regards the tangled-web of misunderstandings, which are Satan’s handiest tools for causing conflict and disagreement. Focus your attention on this, in particular. Rather than wound love, you would do better to tear apart everything before you. In the view of the Fathers, those who stumble as regards to love are like the servant who smote Christ on the cheek.

We don’t mean that, supposedly, with "love", with one word, we have prescribed and described our life as Christians. Because love is the result. Although we must be careful to observe all the commandments, we should focus particularly on this bond. Because, if we keep this commandment, you can be sure that Satan will be vanquished. It’s the "link to perfection".

All the temptations, whenever they overcome us, do, indeed, injure us and are obstacles on our path. Their sole aim is to erode love. Satan concocts situations and events which, in essence, don’t really exist but which befuddle the minds of those who are either weary, weak, or suffering a temporary withdrawal of Grace. The devil attempts to convince people to believe the misapprehensions and they start to accuse, to become crafty, to undermine, to censure, to suspect others. In this way, the bond of love which brings us to perfection is weakened.

The fact that we’re believers is no accident, particularly for us monks. The action of the blessed Divinity intervened personally. Look at what our Jesus says: "No one can come to me unless My Father, who sent Me, draws them" (Jn. 6:44). He doesn’t say that no one can come to Him unless the Father calls them. Because a call can be made from a distance, through the voice, or a signal, a gesture or by some other means. That’s not the case here. Here it’s attraction. In other words, Jesus is saying: "You didn’t just come to me, but did so because the Father attracted you in the first place. He drew you and brought you to me." That’s the action of the Father. And again He says: "No one comes to the Father except through Me" (Jn. 14:6). Because “I am the way, the door and life." This is the second action of the second Person. And Saint Paul says that "no one can say Lord Jesus except in the Holy Spirit" (I Cor. 12:3).

The fact that we today find ourselves in the fragrance of the knowledge of God is proof - not an indication, not a symbol, not a sign - that the blessed Divinity acted in His overwhelming love. Because God doesn’t make mistakes and His gifts are not begrudged. Have you seen how, when God wished to make creation, with how much harmony and godly wisdom everything was put together, so that it was "very good". And when He made us, He prepared everything - light, earth, sea, the planting of Paradise - and then created us, "for whom all things were made."

The same is true now, in the re-creation, but even more so. Because we have an "abundance of Grace", according to Paul. Because the Only-Begotten Son did not "speak and they were made," but came personally and put on our own nature, walked with us, ascended the Cross and, with His bloodied fingers, sealed our salvation, abolished the sin of the world and destroyed Satan. He opened Paradise and boasted: "Father, I want those You have given Me to be with Me where I am, and to see My glory" (Jn. 17:24). This is astonishing. These are positions, not narratives. In brief, it’s the promise of the Father, our inheritance. And it’s all achieved through faith.

If we keep this belief that God has called us, we no longer doubt, we don’t wonder. What we fear and sigh over is that we’ll maybe feel sleepy and make a mistake so that, instead of walking east towards our destination, we’ll turn west, through our own lack of attention. This is our fear: that we may become slothful, forgetful. But even this, that this could happen, is untimely, since God knew in advance that we’re weak, yet still did not renounce His love: He "chose the foolish things…the weak things… and the despised things - and the things that are not" (1 Cor. 1:27-28).

The feast of the Forefathers is really moving. God called them and they followed Him, they bore their cross in their own way and gained what was promised, yet we have something even more important. Because for us it’s not just expectation, but proof of the present and the future, which we possess through faith in our Jesus and through the proof of His love and His Grace, which act in our souls. With this, may we prepare to venerate the feast of His birth, too, and to celebrate our own rebirth.

Source: From the book Διδαχές από τον Άθωνα, Ψυχωφελή Βατοπαιδινά 8, pp. 151-158.