Here are my reflections on the readings for Christmas eve, which include the genealogy of Jesus that begins the Gospel of Matthew.
The other night Fr. James and I were having dinner and talking about Christmas and our families.
He’s a little depressed because our gathering of eight friars and sisters for Christmas dinner is much, much smaller and more quiet than the gatherings of dozens of siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, first and second cousins that he’s used to in beautiful Coalinga, CA.
He was telling me that his grandfather had talked to him about his great-great grandfather, and about how different members of his clan fought on different sides of the Civil War.
He can probably relate to the extended family represented in the genealogy of Jesus.
I am “unfamiliar” with my own family.
I can’t even remember the first name of my grandfather Fones.
Names in the Moore family are almost always drawn from names that have already been used by previous generations.
Foneses don’t pass names from generation to generation – which is a good thing, or my sister Barb might have been named Maude, or worse yet, Myrtle Minnie.
But both Fr. James and I have a sense of a history – of coming from a particular line of people, whether familiar or not.
We both have a sense of being unique individuals, with a particular destiny, and an unrepeatable role to play in the life of the world.
And this is possible because God chose to engage in a relationship with a particular man from Ur of the Chaldeans: Abram, who, in the course of this relationship, and while childless, was renamed Abraham, meaning “father of many.”
The genealogy of Jesus may seem to be just a list of names familiar and unfamiliar, but it is the product of a huge shift in human perception.
In all ancient religions and philosophies, life was seen as part of an endless cycle of birth and death; time was like a wheel, spinning ceaselessly like the ever-stable cycle of days, seasons, years, birth and death.
We hear a remnant of this worldview in the words of Qoheleth, the grumpy author of Ecclesiastes: “What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun.” (Eccl 1:9)
Yet the ancient Jews began to see time differently because God entered their lives.
For them, time came to have a beginning and an end; it was a story, whose triumphant conclusion would come in the future.
So Isaiah the prophet – inspired by God – could look to a future different from the present he and his people knew.
“Nations shall behold your vindication,?and all the kings your glory;?you shall be called by a new name?pronounced by the mouth of the LORD….you shall be called “My Delight,”?and your land “Espoused.”?
From time conceived of as a story that unfolds with unpredictable twists inserted by God, came a new conception of men and women as individuals with unique destinies, not just unimportant cogs in a cosmic wheel.
So Paul could remind his Jewish listeners of God’s intervention into their history.
[God] chose our ancestors and exalted the people during their sojourn in the?land of Egypt.?With uplifted arm he led them out of it.?Then he removed Saul and raised up David as king;?…?From this man’s descendants God, according to his promise,?has brought to Israel a savior, Jesus.?
The genealogy of Jesus is a summary of a long-term project of God.
The names in it bear witness to ancient hopes of people who are now dust.
Jesse means “gift,” and he gave the youngest of his sons the name “Beloved,” or David.
And David was loved not only by Jesse, but, in a particular way, by God.
David, the successful soldier, gives his son by Bathsheba the hopeful name Solomon, or “peace.”
But only after political intrigue and assassination does Solomon secure his father’s throne.
Solomon handed on David’s throne to his poorly-named son, Rehoboam.
Rehoboam means “he enlarges the people,” but under him the ten northern tribes broke away from his kingdom, leaving him with only a remnant.
On and on the names come in the genealogy, which includes more than its share of scoundrels and scumbags, not to mention four women with a hint of scandal about them.
St. Matthew's list resembles those used by rulers to justify their rank and status, and by families to determine connections to a common ancestor.
But there’s more to it than that.
Matthew arranges his genealogy into three groups of 14 names each.
In the Jewish alphabet letters were also numbers, and so names have numerical value.
The three consonants for the name “David” add up to 14.
So Matthew underscores Jesus' kingly ancestry by working in groups of David, or 14.
But numbers by themselves had significance in the Jewish mind.
In the first Genesis story, it was on the sixth day of creation that God created people.
Six is clearly stamped in the bible as the number associated with human beings.
Likewise, seven was associated with God and completion and fullness, since on the seventh day of creation, God’s work was completed.
And because six is one less seven, six also represented incompletion.
The three sets of fourteen generations from Abraham through Jesus are also seven sets of six – the completion of the generations of humanity.
They end with Jesus, whose name, given by Gabriel to Mary, means “God is salvation.”
Joseph is told the child will be called, Emmanuel, “God with us.”
We don’t live as though time is circular.
And, unfortunately, we don’t act as though God is with us, in the midst of the mess that is our lives.
“God with us,” is a scandal – a scandal of particularity.
That God should not just enter into relationship with people like Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, but actually take on human flesh in a particular person is outrageous.
But it would be unimaginable had God not raised the dignity of the individual human through His ongoing interaction with our ancestors.
The beauty and scandal of the incarnation of God in human history – into a particular line of not very promising people – is that it makes our redemption possible.
Because that same scandalous birth leads, ultimately, to an even more scandalous death.
Jesus insisted on rubbing shoulders with sinners and tax collectors, and patiently taught rough-edged fishermen and peasants.
He cured the sick, expelled demons, forgave sinners, raised the dead, and revealed his Father’s will by fulfilling it in every action, every word.
The religious folks, who preferred to keep God at a manageable distance, rejected him, preferring their safe, sanitized religion to the free-wheeling trust walk with God Jesus proposed.
Likewise, we prefer to keep Jesus at a safe distance.
We prefer Jesus in a Holy of Holies, out of sight and out of mind; out of our politics, out of our entertainment choices, out of our relationships, out of our decisions.
But Jesus is insistent, and doesn’t give up easily on us, any more than his Father gave up on our ancestors.
In Revelation 3:20 he says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.”
Once again, we can be scandalized by the particularity.
Jesus, born in time, born into a family with a past, knocks at the door of your heart, no matter what your sketchy past or how often you’ve rejected him.
He offers friendship, relationship – salvation – to you, in all your uniqueness.
He asks your unique, individual response.
You are not a Christian simply because you come from a Catholic family, or are Irish, or Italian or Vietnamese.
The God who waited for the free response of Mary and the free response of Joseph, awaits your response to His offer of friendship through his son, Jesus.
And just like any other human relationship, that friendship takes time, communication, attentiveness, forgiveness, perseverance, and has to be a priority – our first priority.
But those who do open the door to Jesus, like the shepherds and magi we sing about this season, undergo a transformation.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus calls this transformation being “born again,” or “born from above.”
His disciples become the seventh set of generations – God’s generation; Those “born from above,” are generated by God.
St. John puts it this way, “to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice, nor by a man’s decision, but of God.” John 1:12-13
God has chosen you, as he chose Abraham, Jacob, David, Bathsheba, Solomon, Ruth, Rahab, Zerubbabel.
Your past matters nothing to him; God is a God of the present moment and the unseen, unimagined future.
As we celebrate tonight the birth of God in human history, in Jesus, you and I can experience a rebirth of Jesus in us.
He stands at the door of our hearts and knocks.
May we hear that knocking with each beat of our heart – and open the door to him, that we might be born into the seventh set of generations: God’s generation.