AT EVERY DIVINE LITURGY on the weekends of the Great Fast portions of the Epistle to the Hebrews are read. Usually these readings follow the order of the epistle itself. On this first Sunday, however, the reading we hear is from chapter 11, chosen for a particular reason appropriate to the Fast.
“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,” we are told (Hebrews 12:1). Today this race refers, not to the Christian life in general, but to the “race” of the Great Fast. For those who are observing the Fast as fully as the canons prescribe, the weekend offers a break. The Fast is mitigated and we can participate in the holy mysteries. But on Monday we begin again, and need the encouragement to go on.
We are offered two examples to encourage us in this effort: the “cloud of witnesses” of the many who have endured trials for their faith and the image of the suffering Christ “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame…” (Hebrews 12:2).
Who Are the Witnesses?
In chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews the witnesses held up are some of the great figures of the Old Testament. In the earlier part of this chapter the following heroes of the Israelites’ pre-history were cited: Abel (Genesis 4), Enoch (Genesis 5), Noah (Genesis 6-9), Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 11-25). These figures lived centuries before there was a Hebrew people, but they were all, according to their time, godly people, people of faith: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:12,13).
The “promises seen afar off” begin with the pledge of God’s favor made to Cain and Abel, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” and culminates in the assurance of the Promised Land which God gave to Abraham, “To your descendants I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7).
The list of witnesses continues with Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the descendants of Abraham, whose lives are recorded in Genesis 17-50. It was in the time of Joseph, the son of Jacob (also called Israel) that the clan of Abraham goes to Egypt. It would only be with Moses, the first witness in the passage we read today (Hebrews 11:24-1:2), that this clan, the Israelites, would return to the Promised Land.
In today’s passage the figures come from the Israelites’ Golden Age, beginning with the Exodus and continuing through the era of the judges, clan chiefs who held power after Moses from the fourteenth to the eleventh century BC. According to the Book of Judges Israel’s enemies defeated them whenever they ignored the precepts of the Law. God’s promise to the judges was that they would defeat Israel’s enemies and regain Israel’s freedom. The leaders mentioned in this passage thus defeated the Midianites (Gideon), the Canaanites (Barak), the Philistines (Samson) and the Ammonites (Jephthah).
The era of the judges was followed by the united kingdom of Israel (c. 1050-931 BC). The second king, David, and his mentor, the prophet Samuel are mentioned next. 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings 1 are devoted to the story of King David. God’s promise to David came by way of the prophet Nathan, as we read in 2 Sam 7:12-16. “When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom … And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.”
The promise of a lasting kingdom did not happen in the years that followed. After the Golden Age the united kingdom was divided, invaded and conquered. The descendants of Abraham were exiled and scattered. Their lands fell to the conquering Babylonians, Persians, Greeks and Romans in succession.
We are told that the cloud of Old Testament witnesses “did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us” (Hebrews 11:39,40). The promised kingdom of David would not be ushered in until the Incarnation, and then it would be a kingdom “not of this world” (John 18:6). That “something better” would be the eternal life of union with God which the Old Testament saints only achieved in light of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Our icon of the resurrection depicts the perfecting of these Old Testament witnesses. It shows them being led out of Hades, grasping the hands of Christ, whom St Paul calls the first-born from among the dead. Thus the our ancestors would be fulfilled only in our day, the day of the Church.
The Lord Jesus, we are told, is “the originator and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He is the Originator of our faith: the One who, creating us in the image and likeness of God, first offered us the eternal life of communion with Himself. And He is the Perfecter of our faith: the One who, when our ancestors strayed from the path of life, took on our humanity in order to unite us with Himself. And He is the Leader of believers along the narrow road of perfection, where He crosses with them from glory to glory, guiding them to the Father through their unity with Him.
The era of the New Testament and the Church gives us another cloud of witnesses who “were tempted, were slain with the sword.” (Hebrews 11:37). Beginning with the apostles themselves, Christians were martyred for their faith by hostile rulers or followers of other religions and even by fellow Christians who disputed certain doctrines. Those who suffered in the Roman or Persian persecutions stand shoulder to shoulder with those who suffered under the iconoclasts and with the new-martyrs of the Islamic, Soviet and Nazi yokes.
Practically every day in the Church calendar martyrs from one or another era are commemorated. We are reminded of their endurance in the face of torment as we look to return to the inconveniences of the Fast.
The Church has also its hosts of those who “wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:38). These are the ascetics who lived in the wilderness of Egypt, Palestine and Syria as well as the remote monasteries of Asia Minor, Greece and the so-called “Northern Thebaid,” the forests of Russia. These monks and nuns embraced ascetic disciplines, which seem so extreme to us, in order to help them let go of their attachment to the things of this age. They too silently urge us on to observe the Fast.
Through fasting, the wondrous Enoch was taken up from the earth. Imitating his example, let us be taken up from corruption and enter into life.
Because he had fasted, David won the victory over the Philistine and obtained a kingdom. By abstinence let us also gain the victory over our enemies and receive the crown from the Lord.
Let us strive to have these virtues: the patience of Job, the single-mindedness of Jacob, the faith of Abraham, the chastity of Joseph and the courage of David.
On the mountain, Moses stretched out his arms in the form of a Cross and put to flight the Enemy. Stretching out Your hands upon the Cross, O Savior, You put to death the destructive tyranny of Death.