Monday, December 24, 2012

Human History and Divine Grace

Christmas Vigil Mass 2012

When most people hear the word genealogy or "family history" they immediately think, it’s an ‘old person’ thing. That’s how our Archbishop often remembers names. For years, when I was still studying in the seminary, I used to be known to him as “son of Joseph.” Eventually, he got use to calling me by my personal name and my father’s name was soon forgotten and cast into oblivion. I imagine myself as finally coming into my own and that I no longer needed to walk in my father’s shadow. Now, when the Archbishop introduces me, he often finds difficulty in remembering my name without an additional prompt (as he does with many other names). I personally feel that he should have just stuck to ‘son of Joseph’.

Today, the only people who seem to have any interest in genealogies are Mormons, members of the Church of Latter Day Saints, who keep impeccable family tree records of their members, historians, and the occasional matriarch who makes sure that she keeps all branches of the family tree connected. But the Hebrew people also shared the predilection for genealogies which prevailed among all the Semitic races. Among the Arabs, for instance, no biography is complete without a long list of the hero's ancestors. People in ancient Israel placed great importance on who their family's ancestors were. The Bible includes genealogies in order to show where certain families came from and why they were important. Genealogies were important for determining priestly and subsequently rabbinical lineage. They were important to attest territorial claims and purity of blood lines. Finally, the prophecy that the Messiah was to be born of the tribe of Judah and the house of David rendered the genealogy of this family most important. It was prophesied that from the root of Jesse a child will come who will bring God and salvation – the Gospel – to all of humankind. From the root of Jesse, in the House of David, will come our Saviour.

Our Gospel readings for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day begin with the Vigil’s mass Matthean account of the genealogy of Christ. The genealogy of Christ as recounted in Matthew 1: 1-18 is an optional reading for the Vigil Mass of Christmas Eve. Many of those presiding will no doubt opt for the shorter form of the Gospel reading, namely Matthew 1: 18-25, when perhaps a recitation of what to many may be strange tongue twisting foreign sounding names might be feared to try the patience of the congregation. This is perhaps a pity, when to hear these verses of the Bible is to contemplate Christ’s true rooting in our history and God’s plan for our salvation. This is a history of the chosen people. But more than just listing out a long and illustrious family tree with many important and famous personages to boast of, the genealogy is the story of God’s faithfulness. The story of God and the story of man intersect in this list of names. When he hear the name of Abraham, we remember his calling and the promise made to him by Abraham, that his ancestors will number like the stars of heaven. When the name of King David is mentioned, the promise made by God through the prophet Nathan emerges from the dark recesses of Israel’s collective memory that to David’s line is promised an everlasting dynasty. Thus the birth of Christ is located within the context of, and as the culmination of, the history of the children of Abraham and David. This history has not been a matter of accident; it has clear and meaningful design. All the way through history, Christ’s coming is prefigured and ever more keenly anticipated.

In the Old Testament, the genealogies were usually inserted by editors from the priestly caste, who were responsible for keeping such records. They were inserted as a form of transitional literary device which linked certain important figures in salvation history by glossing over extensive time periods, so as avoid the tedium in an otherwise exciting epic story. But more importantly the genealogies narrated how God kept his promises. God will remain faithful to his word despite the passing of generations and centuries. Genealogies provided hope for future generations who sometimes were tempted to give up hope in their long wait for the fulfillment. The genealogy kept the memory of the promise alive. It kept hope alive!

One more intriguing feature of the genealogy may take this issue further. The genealogy follows a set pattern of naming successive fathers, but the pattern is broken at five points by the mention of women. And the women mentioned are not the great heroines of faith like Sarah or Rebecca or Rachel, hut five very unusual and unorthodox women: Tamar who played prostitute and had incestuous relationship with her father-in-law Judah (Genesis 38); Rahab, heroine and prostitute who betrayed her own people to the Israelites(Joshua 2 to 6); Ruth, the foreigner who lured the grandfather of David, her employer, to her bed; the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, who fell pregnant to David’s seduction and adultery and whose husband David murdered (2 Samuel 11); and Mary, a virgin bearing a child.

By highlighting these women, Matthew may indeed be drawing the reader to question the purity of Jesus’ lineage, something Jews were proud to boast of. To a people who kept impeccable records of their family history, lineage was everything. But as Matthew was keen to show, the lineage would not just be made up of great saints and illustrious heroes but also sinners. This highlights so much more the radical intervention of God in salvation history. Salvation comes not from man’s best, but from God’s grace. Yet, God enters into man’s sullied past and redeems it and salvages it from doom. Salvation emerges from the grace of God, but also from the ashes of man’s failure. Thus, hidden away in the genealogy Matthew has given us a statement about grace in miniature. God does not write off sinners or those whom others write off, whether sinners or not. God is one who draws even the lowliest and despised into his purpose and they take their place in his sacred history. God continues to do so in the ministry of Jesus and in the world today.

Matthew puts the genealogy first in his Gospel because it proclaims from the beginning who Jesus is. He will show that it cannot be treated as a genealogy in the strict sense. The line is broken at Joseph. Jesus traces his origins from another source, one which was obviously divine. But the genealogy is nonetheless a gospel statement giving major clues about who Jesus is and about what he does. He truly represents God’s people and fulfils their hopes for a Messiah. God has never abandoned his people and continually watches over them over the centuries. Christ is proof of this and the culmination of this story of salvation. He represents God and his promise. He will be the fulfilment of the promise found in the Book of Isaiah, that “no longer are you to be named ‘Forsaken’, nor your land ‘Abandoned’, but you shall be called ‘My Delight.’ He shows us that God never reneges on his promises and remains ever faithful even in the face of man’s infidelity. He enters into humanity’s brokenness and sinfulness and redeems man from destruction. A history of failure and sin does not define us nor determine the end; it is grace that does! Christ will be the bearer of God’s grace. Therefore, we echo once again the Introit of this Vigil mass, “Today, you will know that the Lord will come, and he will save us, and in the morning you will see his glory.”

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