Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Stump the Priest: Why do we venerate the Saints?

Question: Why do we venerate the Saints?

At our parish's Icon Exhibit in 2009, I gave a talk on the veneration of the Saints that you can listen to here:

You may also be interested in reading a related article on the Veneration of Icons.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sermons on the Ten Commandments

The Fathers say that the two tables of the the Law of Moses were divided according to the two great commandments: 1) To love God; and 2) To love your neighbor.

Here are sermons on the first table of the Law:

1st Commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. (12/11/2011)

2nd Commandment: Thou shalt not make unto thee any idols. For this commandment, there are two sermons: one on what it does not mean (3/4/2012), and one on what it does mean (10/21/2012).

3rd commandment: Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain (8/26/2012).

4th Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy (9/16/2012).

And here are sermons on the second table of the Law:

5th Commandment: Honor thy father and thy mother (6/16/2013).

6th Commandment: Thou shalt not kill. For this commandment, there are two sermons: one on what it does mean (7/7/2013), and one on what it does not mean (7/14/2013).

7th Commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery (8/11/2013), and a sermon on Divorce (8/18/2013).

8th Commandment: Thou shalt not steal (10/13/2013).

9th Commandment: Thou shalt not bear false witness (11/17/2013).

10th Commandment: Thou shalt not covet (1/26/2014).

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Stump the Priest: Who can be a Godparent?

Question: Who can be a godparent?

There are requirements for who can be a godparent, and then there are implications connected with being a godparent that need to be kept in mind.


First of all, a godparent must be an Orthodox Christian in good standing. This is the most obvious, and most important qualification. The purpose of the godparent is to instruct and guide the person who is baptized in the faith. In the case of children, should their parents die before the children become adults, the godparent should be prepared to take his godchild into his own home, and raise him as his own. Of course, in order for this to happen, the parents should indicate this decision in their Will.

One godparent must be of the same sex as the the person being baptized, the other godparent (if there are two), must be of the opposite sex. Only one godparent is necessary (though two are the usual custom in the Russian Church), but if there is only one, that godparent must be of the same sex.

Godparents should not be children (i.e., they should be at least young adults, who understand the faith).

Neither biological parent can be a godparent to their own child.

See also: Godparenting 101.


A godparent cannot marry the other godparent of the person who is baptized.  It is a custom in many local Orthodox Churches for the wife or husband of the godparent to also be considered a godparent, but this is an honorary title. Technically, only the spouse of the same gender as the person baptized is the actual godparent. This honorary title is actually given to the spouse of the godparent, even if the godparent marries them after the baptism, and they were not even present at the baptism. However, if you have two actual godparents, they cannot marry, because they have a spiritual relationship.

The godparent cannot marry either the parent of his godchild, nor could he marry the child of his godchild. The same prohibition applies to the natural children of the godparent. Neither can two people who share a godparent get married.

For more on this, see Concerning Relationships Due to Holy Baptism.

See also: The Orthopraxis of Godparents in the Orthodox Church.

Monday, January 20, 2014

ROCOR and the Assembly of Bishops

There has been a lot of hand-wringing by commentators in other jurisdictions regarding the letter that Archbishop Kyrill wrote recently to Archbishop Demetrios, regarding ROCOR's view of how things should proceed in the near future, regarding plans for jurisdictional unity in North America.

Let me preface my comments by saying that I have no inside scoop on the deliberations of the ROCOR Synod of Bishops, and base my comments only on the feel I have gotten from talking to other ROCOR clergy and laity on these matters. I am also speaking only for myself.

First off, my take on one of the main points of this letter is that it seems to be arguing that in the "diaspora", i.e. in those parts of the world where there is not a recognized, established autocephalous or autonomous Church, the presence of multiple jurisdictions is not a canonical violation, in and of itself. It is an anomalous situation, but it is not the result of anyone thumbing their noses at the canons, and violating them. The Russian Church rejects the idea that Canon 28 of Chalcedon gave the Ecumenical Patriarch jurisdiction over all unclaimed territory in the world... which is a ridiculous interpretation, given the fact that Constantinople was then second among equals, and no one ever suggested that Rome, for example, needed to get the Ecumenical Patriarch's permission to evangelize the Germans or Scandinavians. In the history of the Church, missions have always happened when a local Church was in a position to reach out to a new area, and then did so, without seeking permission from anyone else. So long as they were not establishing parishes or dioceses within the bounds of another local Church, there was no canonical violation. And as a matter of fact, since the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, almost all the missionary work of the Church has been done by the Russian Church... not because it had or claimed to have any special prerogatives, but simply because it was in a position to do it, and so did it.

Secondly, I think there are a lot of issues that are probably not being stated in public, because it would be considered accusatory for ROCOR to do so, but which nevertheless are serious concerns. For example, when the faithful of ROCOR look out on the landscape of American Orthodoxy, and see jurisdictions that have laymen in good standing, and even clergy, who are openly advocating for gay marriage, and proclaim that committed monogamous homosexual relationships are not sinful, this is a cause for great concern. Of course no jurisdiction has endorsed such ideas, but the fact that they are tolerated is a statement that is being made by their respective bishops and jurisdictions. We also see jurisdictions that have prominent clergy and laity that advocate various degrees of ecumenism that are abhorrent to the Orthodox Faith. We also see liturgical abnormalities that have become normal in many jurisdictions, as well as a lack of concern for basic standards of Orthopraxy. How serious these problems may be in any jurisdiction is something that can be debated, but it is simply a fact that these are issues that concern the faithful of ROCOR.

Furthermore, when we look at the shape that such a unified jurisdiction would most likely take, we have concerns. Given the current claims that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has made about its authority -- claiming a level of authority that is neo-papal, and prerogatives that threaten the integrity of every established local Orthodox Church (such as the claim that it could rescind past recognition of autocephly, unilaterally*); and given that the most likely arrangement for a unified American Church would be that it would be autonomy, but under the EP -- the prospect of finding ourselves under the authority of the EP is not something that would come without great concern. Even if the American Church were to be established as autocephalous from the start, the concern would be that this could be revoked at will, by the EP.

Some have responded to such concerns by saying that ROCOR should come along for the ride, to lend its help and influence to solve these problems, but the problem with that is that ROCOR is far smaller than the other major jurisdictions, and so it is not likely that it would have a great deal of influence under those circumstances. Also, I believe St. John Chrysostom once pointed out that it is far more likely that a healthy person hanging around a sick person which catch the sick person's illness, than that the sick person will catch the well person's health. This not to say that ROCOR does not have problems -- we certainly do. However, as things stand right now, I like the problems we have better than the problems I see in some of the other jurisdictions right now, and while I support closer cooperation, and increased interaction with other jurisdictions, I think we should not be in too big of a rush to move things along, and that in the mean time, we should all work on our short comings, in order to make unity not only more likely, but also more productive, and spiritually beneficial.

One other thing that has to be understood about Archbishop Kyrill's letter, is that it did not say, "Full unity... never". It basically said "Full unity... not so fast." One other area of concern expressed is that each jurisdiction has its own liturgical traditions and piety, and doing anything that would result in a forced homogenization of liturgical practice and piety, would be very damaging to our flock.

Also, many of the responses that I have seen to Archbishop Kyrill's letter, have claimed that the letter represents Russian ethnocentrism. However, Archbishop Kyrill expressed concerns regarding things that are "a matter of gravest spiritual peril to the souls of all our flocks in these lands, whether ethnically of Russian heritage or not..." And speaking as one who is not a Russian, I share those concerns. The idea that ROCOR is a Russian only enclave is belied by the many parishes, such as my own, that do the services entirely in English, and have only a minority of ethnically Russian parishioners (my own parish, with regard to adults, is about half convert, and half cradle Orthodox, and the cradle Orthodox, are a good mix of Arabs, Russians, Greeks, Poles, and Serbs. And the converts are fairly diverse as well).

Here are some things that I think would help facilitate Orthodox unity in North America:

1. Obviously, the problem of laity and clergy promoting anti-Orthodox agendas needs to be taken seriously. If those jurisdictions want unity, they need to see these things as threats to that unity, and they need to deal decisively, and publicly with those individuals.

2. Since the EP is likely to be a big player in an unity in North America, it needs to cut out the neo-papist rhetoric, and renounce the notion that it could rescind unilaterally any autocephalous status of a local Church... because if it doesn't, that really means that any agreements that would be reached about the nature and status of a united American Orthodox Church would not be worth the paper they were written on. One other thing that would help, in my opinion, would be for the EP to move operations to Mount Athos, much as the Patriarchate of Antioch moved to Damascus. If we had a future EP that was a respected Athonite elder, I don't think any pious member of any jurisdiction would have any difficulty entrusting themselves to his authority. Being under a primate that must be approved by the Turkish government is not something that the faithful of ROCOR want to see.

3. Since there is a diversity of liturgical traditions in North America, some guarantees will need to be forthcoming that would safeguard local parishes from having a bishop from another liturgical tradition, coming in like gangbusters, and facing them to conform to the tradition of the Bishop's preference. One way would be to simply put such a guarantee into the charter of the Church, make it unchangeable by any entity, other than a super majority of the parish. There could also be commissions for each liturgical tradition, that would oversee liturgical publications, and deal with matters of a purely liturgical nature if some controversy were to arise.

I am in favor of unity in America, under healthy circumstances. We should pray for that to come to pass, but if American Orthodox unity means that advocates for gay marriage will have free reign, and liturgical abnormalities will become the norm, then I pray that jurisdictional divisions in America will continue until Christ returns. However, if we all seek to embrace the Tradition of the Church, and to remain faithful to our doctrines, unity will happen one way or another, because real unity naturally comes from a unity of Faith.

p.s. One thing I should also add is that most of the clergy that I have met from other Orthodox Jurisdictions are pious and committed men, and so I don't want anyone to think that I do not hold a great many clergy and laity from other jurisdictions in very high regard. If every jurisdiction emulated the best examples of clergy and laity found within them, we would have unity in very short order.

*"This threefold primacy translates into specific privileges, such as the right of appeal and the right to grant or remove autocephaly (for example, the Archdioceses-Patriarchates of Ochrid, Pec and Turnavo, etc.), a privilege that the Ecumenical Patriarch exercised even in decisions not validated by decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, as in the case of modern Patriarchates, the first of which is that of Moscow" ( Met. Elpidophoros of Bursa, First Without Equals). It should be noted that the EP actually threatened recently to remove the autocephaly of the Slovakian Orthodox Church, because of some perceived slight, despite the fact that it was the Moscow Patriarchate that had granted them their autocephaly.

Update: Nathaniel McCallum has written a post entitled:  ROCOR Says Overlapping Dioceses are Canonical: An Ecclesiological Analysis.

Nathaniel goes down a number of rabbit trails in terms of the canons, in his attempt to refute the idea that the current situation we have in North America is not a canonical crime. However, ROCOR’s interpretation of the canons seems to be pretty similar to all the other local Churches who have established parishes in North America. After all, the Russian Church was here first. Every other jurisdiction that is here now, interpreted the canons to mean that they could establish their own ecclesiastical presence in North America, to meet the needs of their people who had come here. The fact that no one has been brought up on canonical charges when you have a 100 years worth of people doing something is a good sign that no one thinks the canons are being violated. Now is the situation an anomalous one? Yes. But no one has set out to violate the canons, in this regard, in any of the legitimate jurisdictions we have in North America.

Obviously the situation with the Church in Cyprus is not exactly analogous, but for a reason that Nathaniel did not mention. North America is not a recognized autocephalous Church. Even the tomos of autocephaly received by the OCA, while it granted the OCA independence, provided for the continuation of a presence of the MP in North America, and stated that it did not imply that the other jurisdictions in America were uncanonical — and so really, it was never autocephaly, in the full traditional sense.

Generally speaking, the canons address situations in which you have recognized autocephalous Churches, and thus speak of how they should interact. There is not a lot in the canons about how unclaimed  territories should be handled. But the history of the Church has been that local Church who were in a position to establish Churches in a new area, simply did so. The immigrant history of America is unprecedented in the history of the Church, and so what has resulted was not foreseen or specifically addressed by the canons. And so to speak of this situation as a violation of the canons is simply unfounded.

The bottom line is ROCOR has some concerns about the proposals for a quick integration of the jurisdictons, and those concerns will have to be addressed in order to bring ROCOR and the Russian Church into agreement. However, ROCOR is not stating a categorical opposition to jurisdictional unity, with ROCOR included, as ever happening. It is just opposed to such a union as things stand, and under the current proposals on the table.

Many will have seen the video of the meeting that was held in Cleveland to discuss the Episcopal Assembly, in which Protodeacon Peter Danilchick spoke. However, I spoke with Bishop Peter, who was also there, and he said that there were comments that were edited out of the video… and one of them was a question in which someone asked if America had a future as an autocephalous Church. Bishop Peter answered that yes, it does, however, he listed a number of things that he thought would need to happen first. Metropolitan Savas, said “No”, but that rather the American Church would be autonomy... under the EP — and that is a future that, as things stand, I would not want to see come to pass.

Nathaniel also uses two arguments that are unnecessarily inflammatory: 1. He tries to taint ROCOR's position with the charge of Ecumenism, and 2. He suggests that ROCOR is only taking this position because it is carrying water for the MP. Were it not for the modernistic and ecumenistic elements present in some of the larger jurisdictions in North America, there would be a lot less caution on the part of ROCOR. The views expressed by Archbishop Kyrill bear no resemblance to the Protestant notion of an invisible Church, because if it did, we would not care whether someone was a member of a legitimate Church or a vagante jurisdiction… but obviously, we do. Furthermore, I have not gotten any sense from anyone in ROCOR that ROCOR is being forced into any position by the MP. However, making these kind of charges is an attempt to open the wounds received during the fight for reconciliation with the Moscow Patriarchate, when those who eventually went into schism claimed that we would just be stooges for the MP and that we were giving up the fight against ecumenism, and we were thus now ecumenists ourselves. The relationship between ROCOR and the MP has actually been a very good one, and the MP has been very careful not to interfere with ROCOR or to come off as heavy handed, even in some cases where they might have had a good argument for doing so, had they been so inclined. ROCOR is very clear on its stance on Modernism and Ecumenism… and were this only true of all the Orthodox in North America and their respective mother churches, we would have no serious obstacles to a united Church in North America. ROCOR is not denying that a unified American Church is what we should have, and would like to have, under the right conditions. However, one does not have to be willing to accept a hasty union, under whatever terms might be dictated by the EP, for that to be so. There are worse options that not having jurisdictional unity, and one would be losing the purity of the Faith. St. Mark of Ephesus said that there can be no compromise on matters of the Faith, and there are matters of the Faith that are at issue.

ROCOR simply is not going to be rushed into a quick union, on the EP’s terms, without their concerns being addressed, and all the ramifications being given due consideration. However, ROCOR reaffirmed in this letter that it intends to continue to work with the Episcopal Assembly processes. On the other hand, Antioch has completely withdrawn, in order to Protest the Jerusalem Patriarchate having established a parish in Qatar… and yet there are no lengthy responses that I have seen taking the Antiochians to task for their actions… but leaving the Episcopal Assembly altogether obviously makes coming to some eventual agreement are less likely than taking the position that certain issues need to be dealt with first before an agreement can be reached. So rather than expending all this energy giving ROCOR grief for its epistle, I would suggest expending energy dealing with the issues that have been raised, and working patiently to come to an ultimate agreement that it likely to work well, and takes the legitimate concerns of all local Churches into account.

Update 2: Nathaniel replied: "And my argument is: 1. The failure to fix it right now is, according to the Fathers, a greater risk to our salvation than any particular terms we might find objectionable.2. The idea that we don’t have to fix it right now is fundamentally the same theological move as the Protestant notion of the “invisible Church” which undergirds the ecumenical movement."

My response: Satire alert....

If you so strongly believe that we should fix it now, how about starting with the OCA, which has not one, not two, but three ethnic dioceses that overlap all of their other dioceses. Fix it now, Nathaniel… show us how it is done. How about starting with an article entitled “The OCA believes parallel ethnic dioceses are canonical.” And then when all the Bulgarians, Albanians, Romanians, and the rest of the OCA are living happily ever after, then let’s get the EP to do the same, and fix the parallel Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian and Greek dioceses. Once we have seen all that work, then we can have the quick establishment of an autonomous American Church, under the Moscow Patriarchate, since the Russians were here first. Fix it now, Nathaniel. Then let’s all agree to do it the way the Russians want it done. It’s that simple! Problem solved. Now let’s fix the Calendar problem — everyone goes back to the status quo ante. Problem solved. Now what’s next?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Stump the Priest: Why was Christ Baptized?

Question: Why was Christ baptized?

He was not baptized because He had sins that needed to be cleansed. St. John the Baptist himself recognized this. In the Gospel of Matthew, it says: "Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?" (Matthew 3:12-14). Christ's answer gives us the first answer to your question: "And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer [allow] it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him" (Matthew 3:15).

So what does it mean that "it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness"?

St. John Chrysostom says this:"He shows also how this “becometh” Him. How then doth it so? “In that we fulfill the whole law;” and to express this He said, “all righteousness.” For righteousness is the fulfilling of the commandments. “Since then we have performed all the rest of the commandments,” saith He, “and this alone remains, it also must be added: because I am come to do away the curse that is appointed for the transgression of the law. I must therefore first fulfill it all, and having delivered you from its condemnation, in this way bring it to an end. It becometh me therefore to fulfill the whole law, by the same rule that it becometh me to do away the curse that is written against you in the law: this being the very purpose of my assuming flesh, and coming hither” (Homily 12:1 on Matthew).

Christ fulfilled all the law. He was circumcised on the eighth day; He was subject to his earthly parents; etc. He lived the perfect life that we have failed to live. If it was only necessary for Christ to have been incarnate and then to die, God could have allowed Herod to have killed him as an infant. But it was also necessary that he live the life that we should have lived, and then to die and rise again.

St. Chromatius says: "Jesus therefore descended to fulfill all the observances of the law, and in this context he was baptized by John in Galilee at the Jordan" (Tractate on Matthew 12:1, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. 1A, Manlio Simonetti, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2001) p. 51).

St. Gregory Palamas says: ""Thus it becommeth us to fulfil all righteousness (Matt. 3:15), that is, that I may leave no divine commandment undone, thus perfectly justifying human nature and filling it more visibly with divine and eternal grace. For when I receive baptism at your hands, I shall manifestly draw down it from above the Spirit of adoption. (Homily 59 "On Holy Baptism and Repentance," Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009),  p. 492).

St. Cyril of Alexandria says: " It was necessary therefore that the Word of the Father, when He humbled Himself unto emptiness, and deigned to assume our likeness, should become for our sakes the pattern and way of every good work. For it follows, that He Who in every thing is first, must in this also set the example. In order therefore that we may learn both the power itself of holy baptism, and how much we gain by approaching so great a grace, He commences the work Himself; and, having been baptized, prays that you, my beloved, may learn that never-ceasing prayer is a thing most fitting for those who have once been counted worthy of holy baptism" (Homily 11 on the Gospel of Luke).

St. Jerome gives three reasons why Christ was baptized: "First, because he was born a man, that he might fulfill all justice and humility of the law. Second, that by his baptism he might confirm John's baptism. And third, that by sanctifying the waters of the Jordan through the descent of the dove, he might show the Holy Spirit's advent in the baptism of believers" (Commentary on Matthew 1:2:13, quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. 1A, Manlio Simonetti, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Intervasity Press, 2001) p. 51).

Christ also imaged His death and resurrection in His baptism. St. Gregory Palamas says: "For at the time of His descent into Hades, He went under the earth for our sake, and on returning thence, He opened all things both to Himself and to us, not just things on or around the earth, but highest heaven itself, to which afterwards He ascended bodily, "wither the forerunner is for us entered" (Heb. 6:20). Just as he foreshadowed the mystical bread and cup, and then handed on this mystery to the faithful to perform for their salvation (I Cor 11:25; Luke 22:17-20), so He mystically foretold His descent into Hades and His ascent from their through this baptism of His, and afterward passed on this sacrament to believers to perform that they may be saved. He allowed Himself what was painful and difficult, but bestowed on us communion in His sufferings right from the start through these painless means, causing us, according to the apostle, to be "planted together in the likeness of his death" (Rom. 6:5), that in due time we might also be vouchsafed the promised resurrection" (Homily 60 "On the Holy Feast of Theophany," Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009),  p. 495f).

Friday, January 10, 2014

Stump the Priest: Fasting on the Eves of the Nativity and Theophany

Question: The Eves of Christmas and Theophany are called "strict fast days;" however, it appears that these days are also "wine and oil" days, and not just when they fall on Saturday or Sunday, but any day. At least this is so on calendars in the Slavic tradition. However, I do see that on the Greek Archdiocesan website, the Eve of Theophany, is counted as a fast without wine and oil despite it being a Sunday. So maybe the Greeks keep these days strictly by abstaining from wine and oil even on Sundays. But what does it mean for Slavic usage if it's a "strict fast day", but with wine and oil? 

There are different degrees of fasting, in terms of what may be eaten, but there are also various rubrics regarding at what point in the day we can eat something on fast days. But then sometimes the rubrics in the typikon are not very explicit, and so are capable of more than one interpretation. The Typikon is very explicit that when the Eves of Christmas or Theophany fall on a Saturday or Sunday, that it is not a strict fast. The Typikon says that when this happens, after the Liturgy we eat some bread and drink a cup of wine, and then have a fuller meal after Vespers. Whereas, when these days fall on week days, if health allows, we do not eat or drink anything until after Vespers. Even during Lent, wine and oil are always permitted on Saturdays and Sundays, because strict fasting is forbidden on those days. The exception to this is Holy Saturday, on which we do not eat until after the Vesperal Liturgy, which is according to the rubrics, the lattest Liturgy of the year, and then we have wine, but not oil, and may otherwise have a simple lenten meal. I suspect that the Greek practice is actually the same on this point, and that the Greek Archdiocesan website is just imprecise on this point.

On Holy Friday, the typikon actually calls for nothing to be eaten:

"On this Holy day neither a meal is offered nor do we eat on this day of the crucifixion. If someone is unable or has become very old and those unable to fast, he may be given bread and water after sunset. In this way we come to the holy commandment of the Holy Apostles not to eat on Great Friday" (Trans. Fr. Eugene Tarris, see

As is often the case, however, modern practice is generally more lenient, but this is the ideal.

Now as to whether or not wine and oil would be permitted on the Eves of Christmas or Theophany, the Festal Menaion notes "The Forefeast of Christmas (24 December) is observed as a fast, and neither animal products nor fish may be eaten. In the Greek use, wine and oil are not permitted, except when the Forefeast falls on Saturday or Sunday; but in the Slav use, wine and oil may be taken, whatever day of the week it may be" (Festal Menaion (Tr. Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware, Faber and Faber, London, 1984), p. 220).  There is a similar note for the Eve of Theophany (Festal Menaion, p. 313).

This difference seems to arise from the fact that the Typikon, while explicit on what is allowed when these days fall on Saturday or Sunday, is not explicit regarding what is allowed when these days fall on weekdays. But even though wine and oil are permitted according to Slavic practice on these days, when they fall on weekdays, both Greek and Slavic practice agree that eating and drinking should be postponed until the evening. It is a pious custom to await the appearance of the first star on Christmas Eve before eating a meal (See Bulgakov's Handbook for Church Servers, December 24th).

It is also a practice among Ukrainians, Poles, Carpatho-Russians, and many Russians (those living in the South, and Western parts of Russian) to eat a somewhat elaborate lenten meal on the Eve of Nativity, in which each dish has a symbolic meaning related to the the feast of the Nativity. This meal is often called "the Holy Supper."

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Stump the Priest: What is the Difference Between the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, and the Sunday of the Holy Fathers?

Question: The two Sundays prior to Christmas seem to have almost identical themes. What is the difference between the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers and the Sunday of the Holy Fathers (the Sunday immediately before Christmas)?

The themes of these two commemorations are indeed close. The Titles of these two commemorations are part of the confusion. The second Sunday before Nativity is called the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, to distinguish it from other Sundays of the Holy Fathers (which commemorate the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils) at other times during the year. The proper title of the Sunday before Nativity is actually "The Sunday Before Nativity", and only secondarily is it referred to as a commemoration of "the Holy Fathers" (Christopher Veniamin, trans. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies (Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2009),  p. 632, note 952).

In the service of the Holy Forefathers itself, we hear the following hymns:

"O ye faithful, let us praise today all the fathers of the old Law: Abraham, the beloved of God, and Isaac, who was born according to the promise, and Jacob and the twelve patriarchs, the most meek David, and Daniel, the prophet of desires, glorifying with them the three youths that transformed the furnace into dew, and who ask remission of Christ God, Who is glorified in His saints" (The Doxasticon at Lord, I have cried...).

"Come, ye lovers of the feasts of the Church, and with psalms let us praise the assembly of the forefathers: Adam, the forefather of us all, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and, after the Law, Moses and Aaron, Joshua, Samuel and David, and, with them, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel and the twelve prophets, together with Elijah, Elisha and all the rest, Zachariah and the Forerunner; who all preached Christ, the Life and Resurrection of our race" (The Doxasticon of the Vespers Aposticha).

During the Canon, we also hear mention of Abel, Enoch,  the Patriarch Joseph, and Job... none of whom were ancestors of Christ.

The prophets of God are mentioned by name:  Hosea and Micah, Zephaniah and Habbakuk, Zechariah and Jonah, Haggai and Amos, Malachi, Obadiah and Nahum, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, together with Daniel, Elijah and Elisha -- and none of these were ancestors of Christ.

There is also mention of the Fore-mothers: "Hannah and Judith, Deborah and Huldah, Jael and Esther, Sarah and Miriam the sister of Moses, Rachel and Rebecca, and Ruth the exceeding wise" -- only  3 of whom are ancestors of Christ.

So the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers commemorates all of the faithful of the Old Testament, with special emphasis on Daniel and the Three Youths.

The Sunday before Nativity has many similar themes, and even some of the same hymns, but being the Sunday of the Genealogy, there is more of an emphasis on the Patriarch Abraham. He is mentioned about twice as frequently in this service. The Prophet Daniel is again included, but less frequently than in the previous Sunday. So there is a good deal of overlap, but there is a subtle shift from focusing on all the fathers and mothers of the Old Testament, to Christ's ancestors -- especially Abraham.

See also: 

The Synaxarion of the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers

The Sunday Before Nativity, by Sergius V. Bulgakov.