Archive for December, 2003

December 17th

As gospels go this is my favourite in all the year—and not just because I get to watch all your faces fall when you hear those words of Matthew’s: “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham…”
The mind-numbing litany we get today hardly seems a good way for Matthew to open his gospel, his one attempt at Good News. It’s dull and, even if you like lists, all the meaning gets rubbed away by the rumble and the repetition. So has Matthew blown it … lost his chance of grabbing our attention? lost his claim on our wandering hearts?
Well, slipped into the laundry list are enough subversive details to make us sure that Matthew has something important to say. For a start, the list is back to front … the standard biblical genealogies, like Luke’s, run the list backward and not forward as here.
Then there’s the unconventional lineage: the line runs through Isaac, not Ishmael the elder son; it passes through Judah, the fourth of Jacob’s sons—it’s not the usual list of heirs
Then there are the four women pointedly inserted into this long list of men. Sarah and Rebekah are left out but Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba are here. Tamar who is so determined to add a child to this dynasty that she disguises herself to have sex with her father-in-law. Rahab, the Jericho prostitute who collaborates with Israeli spies in the downfall of her own city. Ruth, the woman from Moab who uproots herself to go with Naomi and her God. And Bathsheba, taken by King David after he murders her own husband, Uriah. … Yes, says Matthew, God has gone to some lengths to keep this story line going—even dragging in convenient foreigners when the plot threatens to stall. And what a story! Adventure and horror, sexual intrigue and murder, incest and idolatry. “But,” as Kathryn Hepburn says in The Lion in Winter, “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
So here we are close to the climax of that family history. Fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian deportation, and fourteen from there to Christ. And look how much Matthew wants us to notice those three fourteens, even cutting out three or four kings to make the numbers fit. Three fourteens, he says: human genes, human blood, and human destiny growing together in a divine drama.
Here comes the fabulous finale: Eleazar was the father of Mathan. Mathan the father of Jacob. Jacob the father of Joseph and Joseph the father of … No! The last fourteen is only a thirteen. Jacob the father of Joseph who is precisely not the father of Jesus but only the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born. Forty one generations of human struggle and expectation all get set aside at the last minute. Jesus, our messiah, is grafted onto the family tree. He may be Son of Abraham but not by blood. From now on, says Matthew, history is a thing of the past. Instead, something new is about to happen. That’s the Christmas event for Matthew—something unimaginable. Something we couldn’t prepare for. Something we would never predict. This is God making a fresh start. A new creation. In Jesus we have a clean sheet: we are no longer bound by the past—anything can happen!

December 17th, 2003

17th December

I get a great view up here of your faces when those first words of Matthew’s ring out: “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham…” And it’s not a pretty sight.
The mind-numbing litany that follows hardly seems the way for Matthew to begin his gospel, his one attempt at Good News. It’s dull and all the meaning seems leeched out by the rumble and the repetition. So has Matthew blown it … lost his chance of a stellar opening? lost his claim on our inattentive hearts?
Well, slipped into the laundry list, are enough subversive details to make you sure that Matthew has something important to say. For a start the list is back to front … or at least the standard biblical pattern runs the list backward and not forward as here.
Then there’s the unconventional lineage: the line runs through Isaac, not Ishmael the elder son; it passes through Judah the fourth of Jacob’s sons. So it’s not the usual list of heirs: the line to David and on to the Son of David follows divine reckoning and not human.
Then there are the four women pointedly inserted into this long list of men. Tamar who is so determined to add a child to this genealogy that she disguises herself to have sex with her father-in-law, Judah. Rahab, a prostitute in Jericho who collaborates with Israelite spies in the defeat of her own city. Ruth, the woman of Moab who leaves her home to go with Naomi wherever she will go. And Bathsheba, taken by King David after he murders her husband, Uriah. … Yes, says Matthew, God has gone to some lengths to bring the story to this point, keeping the plot going by whatever means necessary, even dragging in convenient foreigners when the story line threatens to wander. And what a story! Adventure and horror, sexual intrigue and murder, incest and idolatry. “But,” as Kathryn Hepburn says in The Lion in Winter, “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
So here we are close to the climax of that family history. Fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian deportation, and fourteen from there to Christ. Oh, and how Matthew wants us to notice those three fourteens. Even enough to cut out three or four kings to make the numbers fit. Three fourteens: human genes, human blood, and human destiny building up to a divine drama.
Here comes the triumphant crescendo: Eleazar was the father of Mathan. Mathan the father of Jacob. Jacob the father of Joseph and Joseph the father of … No! The last fourteen is only a thirteen. Jacob the father of Joseph who is precisely not the father of Jesus but only the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born. Forty one generations of human struggle and expectation are all set aside at the last minute. Jesus the messiah is grafted onto the family tree. He may be Son of Abraham but not by blood. From now on, history is a thing of the past. Instead, something new is about to happen. Something unimaginable. Something we couldn’t prepare for. Something we couldn’t predict. God makes a new start. In Jesus we have a clean page. A wordless baby to speak the word which gives the world a fresh start.

December 17th, 2003

St Francis Xavier

I have one image of Francis Xavier that I hold dear. It isn’t of him before the warlords of Japan; it isn’t of him baptising thousands in one day; it isn’t even of him dying within sight of that further shore his zeal for souls urged him onto.
My image is a more humble one. It’s the way Francisco would take the fond letters sent to him by Ignatius and the other companions and carefully cut out their signatures so he could pin them inside his cassock over his heart. As he wrote to Ignatius: ‘these I carry always with me to be my solace and refreshment’.
Heroic zeal is a good thing. Wise apostolic inculturation is maybe even better. But Francis reminds me that good things only grow in good soil, long prepared with love.
So, I pray for the zeal and I pray for the wisdom but, before both, I pray to be rooted in rich relationships that will give meaning and warmth to the whole enterprise.

December 2nd, 2003


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