Sunday of Geneaology,
December 23, 2007
When I was first seriously inquiring about Orthodoxy I remember attending liturgy and hearing today’s Gospel comprised mostly of a recounting of Jesus’ ancestors. I have to admit my first thought was probably, “What an odd Gospel,” difficult to chant, almost like reading the phone book. Certainly there would seem to be easier texts to preach from, especially this time of year.
And for the most part when preachers approach this text they do it for scholarly reasons, seeking out and explaining, for example, the differences between the genealogy in Matthew and Luke. Some focus on the order and number of the listing. It’s also very common to pull individuals out of the list and do homilies about their lives. Others will speak of how theologically and socially these lists were important to the authors of these Gospels.
Those are all good reasons to read the text and good reasons for the Church to include it in Her ancient cycle of readings. To know the Scriptures requires not simply reading easier texts and avoiding ones that take a certain amount of work. All the Scripture was approved by the Church and all is worth reading even if the message is not immediately clear and the first question is “Why is this important?” To be Orthodox is to be a serious and inquisitive student of Holy Scripture.
And my own ponderings of this text helped me recall something very important in this text, something that underscores all of the content of the New Testament and the stories of Jesus’ life. The scriptures contain many kinds of literature ranging from poetry to apocalyptic writings like the books of Daniel and Revelation, from love songs to historical accounts, ponderings on the nature of things to individual tales of courage and more. One can often see the form of the literature simply by reading it. The Psalms, for example, are poetry and liturgical hymns, the book of Esther is a historical tale designed to draw out faith and trust in God, while Job, not a historical book, is a drama of man pondering the meaning of tragedy and faith.
In this very beginning of the New Testament, of the stories of Jesus, his followers are, by placing this genealogy at the head of the text, locating the story of Jesus not in some mythical place and time but directly in human history. Jesus is a real person with a real family who really existed in time and space as we know it. After all isn’t our family our first and primary place in history? In the context of our family we enter this world and rooted in it we live our lives and in the end our family is more than likely the only vessel that will carry our memory through time. Our spot in the family tree marks the fact we were truly here.
Some decades after Christ’s resurrection there would be a group of heretics called the docetists who would deny that Jesus was real, a human being. He was, they would say, a kind of being that only appeared to be physical. Later skeptics would look at history and observe that in some places and times there were myths about women giving birth to gods and that perhaps the story of Jesus was just another one of those tales. In our time there are those who would say that perhaps there is a core of “history” to Jesus but most of what we know of him is the product of pious embellishment by people long distant from his actual life.
To each of these St. Matthew and the whole of the New Testament would say “No, he had a family, he walked among us and we saw what he did, heard what he said, touched him, saw him die, and then witnessed his resurrection. We knew his Mother, met his relatives, ate with him, prayed with him, traveled with him along the road, and our lives were transformed by it all. This is not about once upon a time in a land far, far, away, but about real time, real people, real places, and real history. It’s not, as the writer of the Epistle of Peter would say “cleverly devised fables,” but about what we saw with our own eyes, what really happened, this is history, remarkable for sure but ever so real. You can even check the genealogy”
And there is a confidence in this for us as we live as Orthodox Christians. In our day and age it’s fashionable to think of religious belief as a story we invent to help us become better people or perhaps cope with our fears and inadequacies. But our story is not a human invention. Those who witnessed it and passed it on were very careful to include names and dates and places that were easily verifiable to those who first read them and even to history. They did this so others would understand all of this not as something created in the desperation for answers but rather as the recounting of how God in mercy came to us and how we can truly be transformed because of it.
Next year, if our Lord does not return, you will hear this reading again. And when you do let it, in the recitation of the names, call to mind something far greater, the truth that all we will hear about Jesus, beginning with this story is real, and because of it so is our life of faith and our salvation. And as you ponder that everything about this holy season will change for you and you’ll never be the same again.