Thursday, December 21, 2017

Continuity and Discontinuity

Christmas Vigil Mass 2017

So many young couples have shared with me their initial experience of discovering that they were expecting a child. It seemed surreal, exciting and scary all at the same time. Most feel overwhelmed by the weight of the responsibility. Together, they would start preparing for the coming of the child. The months and weeks ahead are often filled with anticipation and expectation and frenzied planning. What is true for expectant parents obsessing over every detail of a coming child can also be said of the coming of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. But more than the joy and anticipation of St Joseph and Mother Mary, Our Lord was anticipated on a much grander scale. Jesus was anticipated from the beginning of time itself to be the one who would bring about God’s redemptive plan for all mankind. This is what the genealogy which we just heard is really about.

The genealogy of Our Lord Jesus Christ according of St Matthew is the ideal beginning of our Christmas celebrations. Liturgically, it sits well within the vigil mass for Christmas as a link between prophecy and fulfilment, between longing and satisfaction, between Advent and Christmas. It demonstrates, on the one hand, that the coming of Jesus is in continuity with the whole of the Old Testament, and on the other hand, that the coming of Jesus Christ is a strikingly new event, remarkably unlike anything that God has done before.

Let’s consider the first theme of continuity between the old and the new. In a modernist and post-modernist age which glorifies novelty, scorns the past and dismisses Tradition, the genealogy of Our Lord provides us with a necessary corrective. St Matthew may well be describing his own role when he describes the role of a scribe in this parabolic saying: “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old” (13:52). Indeed this is what Matthew does in his gospel; he shows the meaning of Jesus for the ancient Jews and for the Gentiles from all the nations. The “old” is the tradition and Scriptures of ancient Israel; the “new” is the tradition and emerging Scriptures of Christianity. Through his narrative, St Matthew shows that the new events have happened according to God’s plan and initiative. Indeed all Christian teachers and writers must understand and express the reality that the new events are all rooted in the old. The advent of the Saviour is the fulfillment of God’s plan made known through the history of Israel, as well as the beginning of God’s new design for the salvation of all the nations.

We do not only see this connexion in the genealogy but the whole gospel of St Matthew stresses the connexions between the story of Israel and the life of Jesus and the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ. Besides numerous citations from the Old Testament, the gospel depicts Jesus as the great Teacher, who like Moses, is tested in the desert and delivers His teaching on the mountain. St Matthew’s gospel consists of five sections or “books” paralleling the five books of the Torah. His infancy narrative is told in a way that shows the fulfillment of saving history and the coming of Christ occurring against the background of Israel’s epic history. For example, the period of the patriarchs is recalled as Jesus is named as son of Abraham and as Joseph is portrayed against the background of Joseph the dreamer in the book of Genesis. The period of the Exodus is evoked in the parallels between the birth of Jesus and the birth of Moses, in the departure to Egypt by the family of Jesus as they flee the raging and jealous dictator Herod, an Exodus in reverse. The parallels are just too numerous to list them all here.

Therefore, the purpose of this genealogy is to introduce the gospel by showing how Jesus fits into, and completes the plan of God’s saving history that came before Him. By tracing the lineage of Jesus back through the whole history of God’s people, St Matthew demonstrates that the coming of Jesus was designed by God and that Jesus was born at the climactic time in Israel’s history. For Jewish Christians the genealogy shows them that the whole history of their people has been planned by God to move toward the Messiah and for Gentile Christians it shows that they cannot fully know Jesus Christ unless they know His ancestors in the Scriptures of Judaism. Continuity provides the necessary link between these two different worlds.

But apart from continuity, there is also an element of radical ‘newness.’ We see this in the insertion of women in the genealogy. Though genealogies were important to the Jews, it was only the line of the males that were recorded. The inclusion of five women is unusual and the ones mentioned seem unlikely choices to be included in the messianic lineage. Tamar, a Canaanite, was left childless after the death of her husbands. She disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law Judah in order to bear a child. Rahab, another Canaanite, was a prostitute who protected the spies of Israel when they came to Jericho and thus acted as a traitor to her own kind. Ruth, a Moabite, travelled to Judah after the death of her husband and married Boaz in Bethlehem after seemingly seducing him. Bathsheba, “the wife of Uriah,” a Hittite, became a wife of King David after he shamefully impregnated her and arranged her husband’s death. There is no mention of her protesting or crying “rape!”

Each of these women was considered an outsider, a foreigner. Their presence in the genealogy of Jesus foreshadowed the messianic mission that invited Gentiles as well as Jews into the kingdom of God. Each also had unusual marital histories that could be looked upon as scandalous and scornful. Their inclusion along with many corrupt and scandalous men in the genealogy prepared for the ministry of Jesus in which sinners and prostitutes entered the kingdom. Indeed, the universal Gospel of Jesus Christ breaks down the barriers between Jew and Gentile, male and female, saint and sinner.

The final woman in the genealogy is Mary. Like the other women, her marital situation is highly unusual and scandalous to outsiders. Despite their situations, all five of these women played an important role in God’s providential plan to continue the lineage of the Messiah. Tamar continued the family line of Judah’s son. Rahab made it possible for Israel to possess the Promised Land. Ruth gave birth to the grandfather of King David. Bathsheba made certain that her son Solomon succeeded David. Mary’s response to God’s unexpected plan enables her to become God’s greatest instrument and to bring the lineage of the Messiah to its fulfillment.

God works in both expected and unexpected ways. He works through both continuity and discontinuity. After painstakingly listing out an entire line of illustrious ancestors and interweaving it with some sordid characters, St Matthew deliberately shows that the line is broken at St Joseph. Jesus traces his origins from another source, one which was obviously divine. Christ is proof that God has not abandoned His people and He is the culmination of this story of salvation. The genealogy is an important reminder that salvation comes not from man’s best, but from God’s grace. God enters into man’s sullied past, redeems it and salvages it. Salvation emerges not only from the grace of God, but also from the ashes of man’s failure. Thus, hidden away in the genealogy, we have a statement about grace in miniature. God does not write off sinners or those whom others write off. 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. 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. So as we keep count of the hours, minutes and seconds to the very moment of the birth of Our Saviour, let us echo 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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