Updated: Dec 26, 2022
The Christmas Vigil Mass readings can be found: [HERE]
At-home ancestry tests have become somewhat popular. The premise is that a person can gather their own DNA samples at home, and then send them off to a laboratory somewhere for study. And then, the results of that study are sent back to the person, with information about that person’s ancestry.
There may be clinical benefits to knowing more about one’s ancestry. But I suspect that the popularity of these tests is perhaps fueled more by age-old questions that have been pondered since the beginning of philosophy: Who am I? Where have I come from? And where am I going?
That issue of identity was of great importance to the people of God. They believed that God created the human race in his own image and likeness, and set man, male and female, over the world. Humanity lived in relationship with God through their governance over creation. That relationship with God and with the world defined them, and revealed to them their innermost identity.
But sin caused a rupture in that relationship, and accordingly also a great identity crisis in humanity. The image and likeness of God had been stained. Since then, God established a series of relationships—or covenants—with humanity. That’s what a covenant does; a covenant establishes a relationship where there wasn’t one before. Whereas a contract is an exchange of goods, a covenant is an exchange of persons.
But time and again, the people of God violated the covenant… that was until, in the fullness of time, according to God’s plan, the Son of God came to us to establish and fulfill in himself the new and eternal covenant, which definitively restored the relationship between God and mankind, upon which our true identity is to be rediscovered.
In our gospel passage tonight, we hear the genealogy of Jesus Christ from the gospel according to Matthew. With the invocation of each name, one calls to mind yet another relationship God that formed with humanity. But with each name, we also encounter a betrayal of that relationship.
Abraham, once known as Abram, is our father in faith. He left Chaldea at the command of the Lord, and journeyed towards the Promised Land. He was willing to sacrifice the one most precious to him to the Lord. But… he was also a coward at times who hid his identity at crucial moments.
His grandson, Jacob, is the one after whom all of Israel is named. Jacob was given that name, Israel, after he wrestled with God for an entire night and prevailed. From him was born the Twelve Tribes of Israel, named after each of his sons. But Jacob was also a deceiver. He had deceived his father and stole the blessing that should have gone to his older brother, Esau.
We hear the name Tamar recorded in this genealogy; the first woman listed here. She was a widow, who disguised herself in order to deceive her father-in-law, so that she conceived her son, Perez.
We find also Ruth in this list of names. She was a foreigner from Moab: neither a daughter of Israel nor of Judah. And yet, she became the great-grandmother of David the King. There’s an entire book of the Bible named after her.
David himself was greatly blessed and beloved by God; the great king and champion of Israel who slew Goliath and an army of Philistines. But he also murdered his own faithful servant with the sword of the Ammonites, in order to claim his widow, Bathsheba, as his own. Bathsheba's name isn’t even mentioned in this genealogy—she’s only listed here as the wife of Uriah.
The son of David and Bathsheba, Solomon, by God’s own admission was the wisest man to ever have lived upon the earth. He ruled in a time of peace. That’s what his name means, which shares the same root as, shalom—peace, a word you may already know. He also had the name, Jedidiah, which means, “beloved by the Lord.” He ruled over Israel and Judah in the kingdom’s golden age. But in his later years, he began to worship foreign gods and reverenced the idols from his many wives.
The list goes on: name after name, memory after memory, story after story, glory and shame go hand in hand. Unlike other kingdoms and empires that were contemporaries of Israel and Judah, the holy people never whitewashed their history. They recorded their shame, preserved in the bible, and hoped for redemption.
As each passing generation is named, the listener of this genealogy aches with longing, and begs the Lord, “How long, O Lord? How long must we wait for the deliverance of Israel? How long until you send us the Messiah—the Christ? How long until an eternal and unbreakable covenant is formed?
It’s at the end of this lineage that we hear something quite extraordinary; something utterly marvelous and unexpected.
From Abraham to David, and from David until the last of his line is named, the glory of Israel and Judah is ground down into almost total obscurity, and tragically almost disappears from history like dust in the wind… until we arrive at Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her, was born Jesus who is called the Christ.
It’s here that everything begins anew. The line of sinners comes to an end, and switches over to Jesus, through Mary.
Joseph was a descendant of David. Jesus wasn’t biologically linked to David—Jesus has no earthly biological father. Nevertheless, Jesus is the legal son of Joseph—according to Jewish Law—and he is heir to David’s throne, because of Joseph’s relationship to Mary.
Our passage this evening reminds us that an entire history of sin is redeemable. It reminds us that our identity is founded, not upon our own faults and failures, but on the action of God who chooses to come to us when we wander far from him.
Like Joseph, your family history and mine may be stained by many sins—we ourselves may be no strangers to sin. But this celebration reminds us that the dawn of our redemption is upon us when our lineage switches over to Jesus, and the Lord becomes heir to our throne, inheriting everything that we have and are, both the good and the bad alike.
As God designed it with Joseph, the same remains true for us: Jesus was heir to David’s throne through Mary’s relationship to Joseph. Mary is our mother and the New Eve. She is also a symbol of the Church. The Church is our connection to Christ. It’s through the Church that our ancestry is relinquished to Jesus, who redeems us, and forms with us an unbreakable relationship—an eternal covenant.
This happens most particularly through the Mass. It’s here, at Christ’s Mass, the namesake for Christmas, that we encounter this. Christmas marks the birth of our redemption; it’s the birthplace of our long-forgotten identity. May this birthday of Jesus be our rebirth, as well. God bless you.
Nativity, by Federico Barocci, c. 1597, Oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, [Public Domain]