Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A New Beginning

Christmas Vigil 2015

Many in the congregation who had been awaiting this first mass of the Christmas season, would find the gospel that began with a long genealogy somewhat strange, even off-putting. But, if you have been attending daily masses this past week or at least had been following the daily lectionary readings, you would recognise the familiarity of today’s gospel passage. The daily mass attendee would have first encountered this passage on the 17th of December. Therefore, you would get to hear with dampened excitement a list of strange sounding names at least twice a year within a single week.

The Genealogy of Jesus Christ at the beginning of the gospel of St Matthew possesses an important purpose. It serves to situate his birth in human history as well as to prove that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who fulfilled all of the Old Testament promises. Therefore, he begins his gospel by stating that Jesus was the fulfilment of God’s covenant to David and Abraham, that he is descended from the unbroken line of these two important personages. The genealogy of Jesus, therefore, serves as a kind of provenance, a certificate of origin.

But in the usual ironical twist of the ordinary, we encounter a surprise ending: after detailing this whole illustrious line of ancestors (with a few questionable characters thrown in for good measure), it became clear that the line is broken at the very end. Joseph is indeed a direct descendant of David and Abraham, but Jesus is not of his issue! The last verse discloses that there is no immediate link between Joseph and Jesus.  The progression of father begetting son moves forward uninterrupted for forty generations.  At the forty-first the continuity is broken.  Jesus who was generated by the Holy Spirit introduces a disjunction.  He is the son of Mary but not of Joseph. In this respect Jesus gets to write his own history or more accurately, gets to write a new history with a new beginning. He is like Abraham who stands at the beginning of the genealogy as the grand patriarch of Israel, the originator of a new people and their unique history. He is also like David before him, his kingship was due to God’s election and anointing, not to having kings as his ancestors.

Jesus therefore is the integration of both discontinuity and continuity.  As the child of Mary he is a new creation generated by the Holy Spirit.  As the adopted son of Joseph he is a descendant of David and Abraham. As Joseph upholds the continuity of Israel's history and the fulfillment of the Davidic promise, Mary is the bearer of this eschatological event of a new creation and the radical discontinuity it interposes. With the coming of Christ, history no longer needs to conform rigidly to the foibles and exploits of its human players. The Messiah gets a free hand to decisively paint the final stroke that will change everything.

The genealogy, by connecting the birth of Jesus to human history, seeks to present this event as a new beginning for creation. It doesn’t take a genius to notice that the word ‘genealogy’ and ‘genesis’ have a common root, which means beginning. Matthew is saying in the first line of his gospel that this world has two beginnings. The first one took place a long time ago in Chapter 1 of Genesis when God created the heavens and the earth, and everything was good. But we know how that story ended. Man has yearned ever since to correct the fatal mistake of his forefathers and undo all the damage that sin has brought to the world. The good news which St Matthew announces on this night is that the birth of Jesus does exactly this. Christ is the new beginning. The original creation, which is damaged, flawed, and broken, is now being restored and transformed in the person of Jesus Christ. And so for all of us who are longing for a fresh start, and who are longing for everything in this world to be put right, the birth of Jesus is what makes this possible.

The genealogy also proves that God fulfills his promises; in particular, He will go to ridiculous lengths to keep his promise to save us. The genealogy becomes an account of God’s sublime faithfulness. Through wars, famines, betrayals, slavery, exile, and turmoil, God is going to make sure that Jesus comes. From the moment of man’s fall, when Adam and Eve sinned by disobeying God, God has set into motion this great plan to bring about humanity’s redemption and salvation. We hear this promise reverberating through the centuries as humanity and Israel plodded along. The only one way to redeem man was to provide a substitute, not just any sacrificial animal, but a perfect man, a perfect sacrifice that would take the place of sinful man. And, through Jesus, God gave the whole world a substitute. That’s why Matthew makes it clear by giving us this genealogy that Jesus is the Son of Abraham, the promised sacrifice. But God has also promised his people with a king. Jesus is that king because this messed up world of ours is in need of a ruler who will undertake this cosmic clean up and reclaim the universe for God’s glory. In, Jesus we see the fulfilment of the promise made to David that his descendant will reign forever.

And that brings me to my final point. When you examine some of the names listed in this genealogy, you would certainly come to the conclusion that God will work through ridiculous people to accomplish his will. Thus the genealogy highlights that the birth of Jesus includes us all. Most of us are embarrassed of and do all within our power to sugar-coat the narrative, conceal the skeletons in our closet, the black sheep of the family, the shady characters that sully the pristine purity of our family tree. But here in this genealogy, St Matthew lays it bare and sets out a family line that hides nothing and reveals everything. Listed among the list are illustrious patriarchs that figure prominently in the Old Testament, kings, and persons of power and position. But the list is not re-edited to weed out the questionable characters, including four women, an incestuous daughter in law who prostituted herself, another prostitute who betrayed her own people, a foreigner who seduced her employer who became a grandmother of the great King David, and finally the woman who married David after engaging in a scandalous affair which resulted in the murder of her first husband.

The genealogy leaves a paper trail of men, women, adulterers, prostitutes, heroes, and Gentiles open for public scrutiny. Right from the start, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is immersed in the gritty and seamy side of fallen humanity. No matter who you are, people like you are already part of Jesus’ story. Right from the start, God chooses the most sinful, broken, and unlikely people to be his players and actors in His divine drama of salvation. Man’s wilfulness, sinfulness and brokenness cannot hinder the purposes of God. Our capacity to mess things up is not going to stop God from fulfilling his plan.  

So enduring a torturously long reading of the genealogy wasn’t simply a waste of time. This is no boring prelude to the exciting stuff that’s going to come later. Right from the beginning, St Matthew wants us to understand that the birth of Jesus marks a new beginning, it demonstrates the fulfilment of all of God’s promises, and finally announces the good news that Christ’s coming is for all kinds of people, saints and sinners alike. As we continue to keep vigil and await the moment when we remember the birth of that wonderful baby in Bethlehem, let us take in this amazing picture of God’s plan of salvation, a plan that he seeks to fulfil against the odds, a plan that refuses to be waylaid by human failing and weakness. Let us on this night, join this wonderful story. It’s a time for a fresh start; it’s time to start believing that God has not abandoned you because he always keep his promise; and finally it’s time to realise that this story includes you, no matter how unlikely a person you may be.  As our Holy Father, Pope Francis commented recently, “At Christmas, God (gets to) shuffle the deck.”

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