We’ve come to the threshold of Christmas: the last Sunday before the feast of the Nativity of our Lord. In fact, the last part of today’s Gospel (Mt. 1:1-25), is actually read at Matins on the feast itself, so we’re really getting into the spirit of Christmas. So we should try to get a little more insight into just what it is that we will be joyfully celebrating in a few days.
The Gospel begins with the long genealogy of Jesus, something of a tongue-twister, and something that makes people wonder why we take the trouble to read it at all. But there is a message there that Christians need to hear. First of all, it tells us that Jesus Christ is not merely some mythological figure whom we immortalize in our Christmas hymns and then put away with all the decorations a few weeks later. It is true that there are myths of gods taking human form for certain periods of time, but none of them is a true incarnation, and none of them has anything to do with the actual eternal salvation of human beings.
If the Gospel, then, is not some myth about God mingling with man in human form, we must understand the double truth of the mystery. God did indeed descend from Heaven and “pitch his tent” with us (as St John picturesquely puts it), but not as if making some cameo appearance on the stage of human history. He actually took his place within it, not in the “costume” of humanity (as some early heretics claimed), but as an actual human being—a Divine Person who took human nature to Himself in the womb of the Holy Virgin and was born in an actual place at an actual time that can be documented historically.
To this reality the genealogy of Christ testifies. He didn’t drop out of Heaven as an apparition. He entered human history at the end of a long line of human ancestors. In the New Testament, we have two genealogies of Jesus, one recorded by St Luke, and one recorded by St Matthew. St Luke, who was writing to Gentiles, tends to take the more universal view of things, so it’s not surprising that his genealogy goes all the way back to Adam. St Matthew, on the other hand, tends to look at things in light of what God has done for his Chosen People, so his genealogy goes back only as far as Abraham. It was his explicit intention show that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah, for he begins his genealogy by saying that Jesus is the Son of David and the Son of Abraham.
Among the many names listed in the Gospel reading, it is in fact Abraham and David that are most important. Abraham was the first to receive the promise of God concerning the holy land and the innumerable descendants who would be specially blessed by God through the covenant God made with Abraham. David was the favored king and prototype of the One whose Kingdom would have no end, as the Archangel Gabriel announced to Mary as he awaited her consent for the Incarnation of the Son of God.
There is an inescapable paradox in the fact that the Son of God existed eternally before David and yet, upon entering time, came after David. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus calls Himself “the root and offspring of David” (22:16), which means that as God He was the source of David and as man He was the descendant of David. Jesus also gave his audience a little teaser when He quoted David in Psalm 109(110), speaking of the Messiah: “The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand…” Jesus commented: “If David thus calls him ‘Lord’ how is he his son?” No one could answer, because no one knew the mystery of the Incarnation, and how God Himself could insert Himself into the genealogy of the tribe of Judah.
We find something else interesting at the very end of the genealogy. The last-mentioned is Joseph, which means this is his list of ancestors. He is the one through whom Jesus is reckoned as belonging to the tribe of Judah and hence is the Son of David. Mary’s genealogy is nowhere listed, and no one knows for sure even what tribe she belonged to, though if you combine the scant biblical evidence with the emphasis of our liturgical texts, she probably had ancestors in the tribes of both Judah and Levi. But that is irrelevant in placing Jesus in the line of Judah, since at that time it was the father’s lineage that established that of the children, and Joseph was the presumed father of Jesus.
But the interesting thing is how Joseph is named: “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” While accepting the tradition of establishing lineage, the emphasis was still placed on Mary, for the evangelist knew that Jesus did not come from Joseph and Mary, but from God and Mary. It is much more common in the Bible that the wife is known in relation to her husband, and not the husband in relation to his wife. For example, the parents of Samson: we know the husband’s name, Manoah, but not his wife’s. She is known only as “Manoah’s wife.” In this very genealogy of St Matthew, Queen Bathsheba is not named as such, even though she is a crucial figure in continuing David’s line by giving birth to Solomon. She is simply called, “the wife of Uriah,” a man who had nothing to do with the ancestry of Christ. So it is striking that Joseph, the presumed father of the long-awaited Messiah, is described simply as “the husband of Mary.” This is simply a hint of the divine mystery that will be made explicit a few verses later.
Let’s look now at that mystery. Mary and Joseph were betrothed, which is a much more serious commitment than what we would call today an engagement. A betrothal was not the same as a marriage, for as such they did not have the right to sexual relations, but it had such a binding force that it could only be severed by a legal divorce, just like a marriage under the terms of the Mosaic law. So when Mary “was found with child,” and Joseph had had no intimate relations with her, he could only assume that she had committed adultery. It would have been a dishonor for him to marry an adulteress, and it might have meant death for Mary to be publicly accused as one, so Joseph, with his broken heart yet deep love for her, decided to quietly separate from her and not expose her to the demands of the law.
This is when the mystery was revealed to him. Before the Angel explained things to Joseph, he set the context, reminding Joseph where he stood in the noble ancestry of the Messiah and hence what his role would be. The Angel addressed him as “Joseph, son of David.” A man was usually known not by a distant ancestor, but by his own father. So Joseph would ordinarily be called, according to what we learn in the genealogy, “son of Jacob.” But God wanted Joseph to know that something utterly unique and extraordinary was happening here. Joseph was called “son of David” because it was through him that the Son of David would have his rightful lineage.
The Angel then revealed the mystery: this Child in the womb of his betrothed had come from Heaven. It was God the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and not an intruding adulterer, that begot this Child. It may be that St Joseph didn’t immediately grasp the full import of these words, but to his credit he did exactly what the Angel said: he took Mary as his wife, and when the boy was born he named Him Jesus.
The Angel told Joseph to give the Child this name because he would save his people from their sins. Jesus (Y’shua) means “the Lord is Savior.” The history of the Chosen People had know several “saviors,” one who actually bore the same name (Joshua = Y’shua). But those saviors only saved the people from their human enemies or aggressors. No one ever saved the people from their sins. This was something only God could do, so already Jesus’ divine origins are indicated. According to St John, the very first thing John the Baptizer said when he saw Jesus was: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn. 1:29). That’s how Jesus, the Son of God and Son of David, is known.
Going back to Matthew’s Gospel, the evangelist drives the point home by giving Him yet another name, Emmanuel, which, he immediately explains, means “God with us,” and this is precisely what the mystery of the Incarnation means. He also used that particular prophecy for it emphasizes that a virgin would conceive and give birth to God-with-us.
So the mystery of the divine and human Jesus Christ, the One who came from Heaven yet found his place in a human genealogy, begins to unfold before our contemplation. What about us? Can we boast of a lineage in which prophets and kings abound? Probably not, but that’s no impediment. St Paul reminded his Corinthian charges that not many of them were well-born, and he made them realize that God chose the weak, the low and despised, to shame the high and mighty, because it was these very insignificant ones that put their faith in Christ, “whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1Cor. 1:26-30).
The reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:9-10, 32-40) reminds us that we have a spiritual genealogy, that our ancestors are those who “through faith… received the promises.” Abraham and David are mentioned, but also a whole multitude of anonymous saints who suffered all kinds of hardships and ill-treatment as they awaited in faith the promised Messiah. Jesus entered the world as its Savior for all of us: those who came before us and those who will come after us. As the Son of God He is the Savior, the only One who can save his people from their sins, the only One who can take away the sins of the whole world.
That’s why the name of Jesus is so precious to Eastern Christians. Jesus, “the Lord is Savior.” We invoke the name and the merciful, saving grace of the Lord many times a day as we pray the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” “Lord” means He is divine, “Jesus” means He is human and is the Savior, and “Christ” means He is the Anointed One, the Messiah, the One whose all-perfect sacrifice, the highest expression of Divine Mercy, is sufficient to take away the sins of the world.
That is why He came, why He humbled Himself immeasurably and took his place in a human genealogy, though He was eternally, as St Paul wrote, “in the form of God.” Come, then, let us worship Him whose nativity we will celebrate in a few days. Let us stand in awe before this mystery which was revealed to Mary and Joseph by Angels, and to us through the prophets and apostles and the sacred Scriptures.
This is no quaint mythology or even a story designed to instruct or comfort, while being ultimately ineffectual in real life. This is real life, this is the word of God, this is God’s personal intervention into human history, and into your life and mine. Let us then embrace Him in all his mystery and truth, in his suffering and glory, for this will bear precious fruit in love and joy and salvation.