Sunday of the Holy Forefathers and Feast of the Holy Fathers (Dec.16, 23 this year)
If you ever wondered whether the holy men and women of the Old Testament are considered saints by the Church, December has your answer. It contains the individual feast days of five prophets: Nahum, Habacus, Sophonias (aka Zephaniah), Aggeus, and Daniel. That’s not all. The two Sundays before Christmas are devoted to the Holy Forefathers and the Holy Fathers. A handy way to remember the difference is that the Holy Forefathers lived before the Law of Moses, while the Holy Fathers lived after. By the way, the HFFs and HFs are not just fathers. Also on the list are a few mothers whose job was to give birth to the HFFs and HFs, to pack their lunches and find their missing socks, and to occasionally rule over Israel as judges.
Anyway. Besides a strong showing on the Eastern calendar, Old Testament saints are also commemorated in the West in the first eucharistic prayer, in litanies, and in the Roman Martyrology.
Are they saints? A resounding yes! The only question that remains is, why are there so many in December?
The answer is found in Hebrews 11, which is chanted on the Sunday just before Christmas. It tells of the first martyr Abel, the righteous Noah, and the faithful Abraham.
By faith [Abraham] sojourned in the promised land as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs of the same promise; for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and maker is God. (9–10)
The writer goes on to tell of so many others. Hang in there, he is leading up to something.
What more shall I say? I have not time to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, did what was righteous, obtained the promises; they closed the mouths of lions, put out raging fires, escaped the devouring sword; out of weakness they were made powerful, became strong in battle, and turned back foreign invaders. Women received back their dead through resurrection. Some were tortured and would not accept deliverance, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others endured mockery, scourging, even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, sawed in two, put to death at sword’s point; they went about in skins of sheep or goats, needy, afflicted, tormented. The world was not worthy of them. They wandered about in deserts and on mountains, in caves and in crevices in the earth. (32–38)
They were in the world but not of it, all the while waiting for their redemption. At times they cried out as prophets of doom:
Near is the great day of the Lord, near and very swiftly coming. The sound of the day of the Lord! Piercing — there a warrior shrieks! (Zephaniah 1:14)
But they always ended with hope.
You have no further misfortune to fear. (Zephaniah 3:15)
This is exactly why they are prominently placed in the weeks before Christmas. For thousands of years, God’s holy ones labored in expectation, never seeing the fulfillment of it in their lifetime. This period of waiting and longing is mirrored in the season of Advent. As we approach the coming of the Savior, it is fitting that we hear their voices. Redemption is imminent.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. (Isaiah 9:1)
You can practically see the Old Testament saints down in limbo waiting, waiting for the news from above.
Were they visited by an angel? Perhaps. We know that an angel announced the birth of our Savior to the shepherds and to the Magi, just as he had announced the Incarnation to Mary and Joseph. We also know that many of the just like Abraham, Jacob, Tobit, and Daniel were visited by angels during their lifetimes, but never for an event as great as this. Consider finally, the concluding words of Hebrews 11 referring to the long line of Old Testament saints and all they endured and all they expected.
Yet all these, though approved because of their faith, did not receive what had been promised. God had foreseen something better for us, so that without us they should not be made perfect. (39–40)
They did not receive the fulfillment of the promise in their lifetimes but they did eventually receive it. They were perfected along with us, in the fullness of time. That is why the Eastern Church designates them to lead us through the dark, cold months of December to the light of that blessed day.