People often wonder why the Church includes this Gospel passage, this rather long genealogy, in tonight’s liturgy. It does seem like a strange selection doesn’t it? All those names scattered across the generations from Abraham to Moses, then on to David and Solomon, then to the traumatic exile of God’s People in Babylon, and finally to Joseph and Mary and Jesus Himself.
Yes indeed, it might seem a bit odd to have us listen to all those names on the night we celebrate the birth of our Savior. After all, isn’t the name of Jesus enough? Isn’t it enough to know that Jesus is the Son of God? Is it really necessary to tell us about these human ancestors spread out over the centuries from the time of Abraham?
Well, actually, yes! It is.
You see, Matthew is simply saying, “Welcome to God’s family! -- because Jesus’s family is also our family.” Tonight we not only celebrate Jesus’ birth, but we also celebrate our own spiritual roots, deep roots that stretch back nearly 4,000 years to Abraham, our father in faith. You can trace that spiritual lineage from the priest (or deacon) who baptized you, through the bishop who ordained him, all the way back to the apostles and to Jesus Himself. And then you need only turn to these opening verses of Matthew’s Gospel and follow the path all the way back to Abraham.
And do you know something else? You and I share these roots. That’s right – we all have that same family tree. What a gift this is! It’s one of the key messages of the Gospel, a message that takes us deeply into those spiritual roots, and binds us in a living connection with Jesus Christ Himself.
Each of the four Gospels begins by telling us who Jesus is, but each tells us in a different way. Mark, in his usual Sergeant Friday, just-the-facts-Ma’am approach, begins by saying: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…” Yes, Mark wastes no time identifying Jesus.
Luke’s a bit more subtle. He takes half a chapter before he finally gets to Jesus, and then he lets the angel Gabriel do the honors: “Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
And John? He echoes the opening words of the Book of Genesis and proclaims the eternal divinity of the Logos, of Jesus, the creative Word of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
But Matthew is different. Writing to a Jewish audience, he offers them a very Jewish family tree of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. He begins by proclaiming: “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” These are titles any Jew would recognize, for these are Messianic titles. At the very start, Matthew is declaring Jesus to be the Messiah, the chosen one. Then, filled with the Spirit, he presents us with a family tree, one generation after another…right here in the very first verses of the New Testament. It’s as if God can’t wait to tell us all about His family.
Realize first that Matthew didn’t intend his genealogy to be complete. And his Jewish readers would know this too. No, Matthew wants to make a point. He wants his readers to understand and accept Jesus’s messianic roots. And so he divides his genealogy into three sections of 14 names, or 6 sections, each with 7 names.
To the Jew 7 and 14 symbolized completion or perfection. And so Matthew completes his genealogy with the first and only name in the 7th group of 7: the name of Jesus. For a Jew this was as perfect as you could get.
Although some of these names sound a bit strange to us, they’re all real people and offer a glimpse into the entire history of God’s People. As we run through that list of names we encounter every aspect of human life, and not just the good parts, but also murder, treachery, incest, adultery, prostitution…
We also meet five women, something rarely encountered in ancient genealogies. The last of these is Mary herself, but the first four – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – are all Gentiles: 2 Canaanites, a Moabite, and a Hittite. Yes, Jesus’s family wasn’t so purely Jewish, was it? Those Gentiles among His ancestors highlight the fact that He came from all of us, and for all of us.
Some members, like Mary and Joseph, are extraordinary; others, Ruth and Josiah, are faithful; some, like Manasseh and Rehoboam, are despicable; others, like Eliud and Azor, are anonymous, nondescript, men about which we know nothing.
Welcome to my family, Jesus tells us, welcome to my world. It’s the world we encounter when we open the Bible and realize how forgiving our God is.
Yes, Jesus’s family is a human family and like most human families, has its share of saints and sinners. But from this, we learn that God’s plan was accomplished through them all, and that He continues to work through us, His people.
Notice, too, the genealogy relates father to son, father to son, father to son…except at the very end. Matthew completes the genealogy with the words: “Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.” For Matthew doesn’t declare Joseph to be the father of Jesus. Jesus, the Christ, is born of Mary, the virgin, with God as His Father.
Again, what a gift – to be members of God’s eternal family! Indeed, what a gift all of Revelation is!
Do you realize how blessed we are to be Catholic Christians? What we believe and how we worship are not things we’ve concocted. For Christianity is really a revelation rather than a religion.
Christianity is God’s Word and Work, not something we came up with. It’s not a collection of man’s feeble attempts to placate some higher power. It comes totally from God Himself. We believe God revealed Himself to us through all those many generations that Matthew enumerates in his genealogy. It’s a Revelation that runs from Abraham to Moses to David through all the prophets and eventually to Jesus Himself – Who is the fulfillment of it all. Yes, it’s a revelation that reaches its climax in the Incarnation when Mary gives birth, as Matthew describes it, to “Jesus, who is called the Christ.”
You see, brothers and sisters, it’s all a gift. As St. Paul asked the Corinthians: “What do you possess that you have not received?” The answer, of course, is “Nothing!”
And right there at the top of the list of God’s gifts, is that which we receive through our Baptism: the gift of adoption. We became sons and daughters of the Father, part of the Family of God. And so we can join Jesus on that same family tree described by Matthew. We become heirs and can inherit the fruit of the promises God made to Abraham and to all those who followed him.
But as members of God’s family we must behave as any good son or daughter would behave. We must live in a way that honors the father, in a way that doesn’t dishonor the family.
Another great gift that comes out of this adoption is the privilege of eating at the table of the Family of God. Yes, we can take part in the Eucharistic Feast, the Mass. And what a gift this is! For here, at this altar, Jesus Christ, gives Himself to us, body and blood, soul and divinity, and allows us, the members of His family, to join Him in the most intimate way imaginable. Here, as we come forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we also join each other in a unique Communion.
Pope Benedict wrote that “Eucharist, in which the Lord gives us His Body and makes us one body, forever remains the place where the Church is generated, where the Lord Himself never ceases to be found anew; in the Eucharist the Church is most completely herself – in all places, yet one only.”
Eucharist – the word itself means thanksgiving – is like a great family dinner, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners all rolled into one… and yet far more wonderful and fulfilling.
Brothers and sisters, we are sons and daughters of God! These roots are deeper, stronger and longer lasting than any human family roots. Indeed, they’re so strong they’ll carry us all the way to eternal life.
Tonight, as we rejoice in the birth of our Savior, let us also rejoice that our names are written in heaven, as members of the family of Jesus Christ.
Come, Lord Jesus!