Welcome to the Sunday of the Holy Fathers. No, it isn’t Father’s Day, or a feast day of popes. In the Eastern Catholic churches, the Byzantine Catholic Church and Orthodox churches, this is what the Sunday before Christmas is called.
The feast honors Jesus’ ancestors, from Adam to Joseph, the husband of Mary. These men are mentioned in the genealogy of Luke (3:23-38). The importance of this list, as Pope Francis said in a Dec. 17, 2013, homily, is to show us that Jesus became one with all of humanity. “God has put himself in history,” the pope said. “He is with us. He has made the journey with us.”
Another feast in the Eastern churches happened on Dec, 14, the second Sunday before Christmas: “The feast of the Holy Forefathers.” The two feasts sound similar, but this feast honors more people. It is meant to recognize all the holy and righteous people in the Old Testament who looked for the coming of Christ, whether they were related to Jesus or not. So the Sunday honors prophets like Elijah and Daniel, women like Sarah, as well as Aaron the priest and Joshua the leader.
There is even an icon — a holy artwork that is written as a prayer — showing these holy forefathers. To Western eyes, Eastern icons are especially interesting because they tell a story with images.
For example, in the lower center of this icon is an old man holding a baby. We might think this is Joseph and Baby Jesus, but it is Abraham. He is holding, not his own son, Isaac but someone else. As the anonymous author of the iconreader blog, devoted to Orthodox icons, explains: “The Patriarch Abraham (is) holding a child symbolizing the promise made to him — that even as an old man his progeny would be numbered as the ‘stars in the sky’ and ‘the grains of sand on the seashore.’ … the child himself gestures to his left. There, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, stands holding a cloth containing his 12 sons: the Twelve Tribes of Israel.”
In the Western church, we also have feasts honoring Jesus’ ancestors, though we might not realize it. Of course, we probably know there’s a feast day for Jesus’ grandparents, Anna and Joachim, on July 26. However, there are other days that honor some of Jesus’ ancestors and some of these days fall around Christmas.
As Fr. Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum University in Rome notes, the lack of feast days for Old Testament figures is more an accident of how saints were recognized in the early church — starting with the martyrs and focusing on people after Jesus’ resurrection.
“This does not mean that Old Testament saints were not recognized or that their intercession could not be sought,” explained Fr. McNamara. “The Roman Martyrology, a liturgical book first published in the 1600’s, collects all of the saints and blessed officially recognized by the church and organized according to their feast days. … Among the great saints of the Old Testament traditionally remembered in the Martyrology are the prophet Habakkuk, celebrated on Jan. 15; Isaiah, July 6; Daniel and Elias, July 20 and 21 …”
The church does recognize the merits of the great men and women of the Old Testament on special days and these even include the seven Maccabee brothers and their mother (Aug. 17).
- Coming up during the Christmas season are the feast of Abel, the son of Adam and Eve and the first person to experience death in all of human history (Jan. 2). He is mentioned in the Mass, in one of the eucharistic prayers, and is traditionally invoked in prayers for the dying.
- The feast of King David falls on Dec. 29. David was the traditional perfect King of Israel and Jesus, during his own lifetime, was called “Son of David.” Jesus is also called the Key of David on Dec. 20 in the antiphons for the Liturgy of the Hours.
- The feast of Adam and Eve falls on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve. Adam and Eve are honored not only as ancestors of Jesus and the first man and woman created by God, but as examples of holy penitence. Church tradition holds that Adam and Eve spent their lives in penance and sorrow for their sin and that, because of this, God promised them a savior. The promise is traditionally seen in the words of Gen 3:15, where God says that Eve’s child will strike the serpent’s head.
In the early part of the second millennium and well into the Middle Ages, the story of Adam and Eve was incorporated into one of the church’s mystery plays, sometimes called paradise plays. These elaborate productions were performed both inside churches and in public squares as both entertainment and morality lessons. Adam and Eve’s play was performed around Christmas.
The plays remained popular until the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century. However, elements of certain mystery plays (“mystery” meaning the unfathomable workings of God) remained with the Catholic Church in several forms, including the modern Passion Play of Oberammergau, which dates to 1634.
From the play of Adam and Eve, we gained the roots of decorated Christmas trees. Two key props in Adam and Eve’s play were the “Tree of Life” and the “Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.”
The Tree of Knowledge was decorated with apples and, sometimes, other fruits. Later, white circles were added, sometimes made of pastry, to symbolize holy Communion. The Tree of Life was decorated with sweets.
The Tree of Knowledge, also called the Paradise Tree, eventually made its way into homes. The apples were replaced, by the 19th century, by blown-glass ornaments made by German artisans.
The ancestors of Jesus are not forgotten in the celebration of Advent; they just stay a bit in the background — waiting and watching for the light that was promised to them in their own days and which was revealed in Bethlehem.
Sources: historyworld.net; catholicism.org; Catholic News Agency; meadvocates.com; iconreader.wordpress.com; fisheaters.com; saints.sqpn.com; zenit.org; and oca.org.