Advent IV - December 18, 2022
Father Vincent Pizzuto, Ph.D.
St. Columba's Episcopal Church
Isaiah 7:10-16 + Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 + Romans 1:1-7 + Matthew 1:18-25
Grace to you and peace from Christ who is and who was and who is to come, the Alpha and the Omega. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! I speak to you today in the name of the + Three-in-One and One-in-Three. Amen.
I observe toward the very beginning of my book, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks of the Bible as a “page turner,” which is not really surprising, but somewhat problematic. One would think that for a community who believes this book to have been written by God, we would all want to read it voraciously from cover to cover – and then start over again. In fact, why read anything else at all?
But the opening of Matthew’s gospel, that is, the very first pages of the New Testament, typify precisely the reason why, at least on first blush, the Bible indeed earns its reputation as a literary snore. For some 17 verses Matthew goes on enumerating the ancestors of Jesus, with names most mortals would struggle to pronounce, starting with Abraham, through David, right down to Joseph the father of Jesus. We often call passages like these “the begats” because of the incessant use of the Greek “egenessen” (“begat, begotten”) throughout the entire genealogy:
“Abraham egenessen (or “begat”) Isaac,
Isaac egenessen Jacob,
Jacob egenessen Judah and his brothers…” and so on.
Let me just pause here to look around to see who has fallen asleep yet! And it is precisely for this reason that the architects of our Lectionary systematically exclude Mt. 1:1-17 from our cycle of readings. Indeed, it is the reason why our gospel today begins with Mt. 1:18: “Now the birth of the Messiah took place this way.”
Here, at least, we begin to touch upon a bit of intrigue: The mysterious teenage pregnancy of a young virgin; an unyielding legal system that threatens to have her stoned; her fiancé ready to divorce her but for the intervention of an angel in his dreams; and the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, “Look! A virgin shall conceive a son and you shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God-with-us.” Not far along will come the esoteric magi – emissaries from a foreign land, mysterious watchers of the constellations who see his star rising and follow after with their exotic gifts of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. And behold! A great conjunction of planets, a supernova, a comet streaking across the dark skies of Bethlehem, the ancient City of David, the very moment when prophecies of Old will reach their fulfillment. The very place where heaven will bend low touch the sacred earth, under the rafters of a barn. Intrigue, mystery, the supernatural, prophetic dreams! Move over Dan Brown, you ain’t got nothin’ on Matthew. Whose turnin’ those pages now?
But the thing is, that’s the low hanging fruit. I want to go back to the genealogy because nothing we hear today in the gospel makes much sense without it. In fact, the gospel we proclaimed this morning is itself a response to an implicit question posed by the genealogy itself.
Structurally then, Matthew’s genealogy comes to us in three segments, each of which span 14 generations, linking one important moment of Israel’s history to another. The first of the 14 generations, beginning with Abraham (the founding Father of Israel) spans to David (their greatest king, indeed, their version of Camelot). But over the next 14 generations, Israel’s history descends from the heights of Camelot, to the devastating catastrophe of the Babylonian Deportation. And finally, another 14 generations will bring us to the birth of the Messiah, Israel’s greatest hope and fulfillment, as the Chosen One, the rightful heir to the Davidic Throne, is born at last.
Within this predictable cycle of 14 generations, dominated by the names of fathers and their sons, there are only four women mentioned – but interestingly all of whom share a common history. That is to say, all four were involved in irregular or scandalous unions with their husbands – unions which nevertheless serve as a blessing to Israel (either they were prostitutes or gentiles marrying Jewish men, or impregnated through adulterous love affairs, and so on). And yet each of them are hailed as heroines in Israel’s history as they each played a significant role in bringing about the providential plan of God.
So, there can be little doubt that the inclusion of these women prepares the reader for the role that Mary and Joseph will play in the life of Christ, despite her anomalous pregnancy and their unlikely marriage. But digging deeper still, we discover that there is a reason why Matthew somewhat artificially structures all of Israel’s history around three neatly contrived segments of 14 generations each. In Hebrew numerology, the name David spelled only with the consonants DVD adds up to the number 14: daleth (or D = 4), waw (or V = 6), and again another daleth (4), thus 4+6+4 = 14. Thus, the very name of David literally embodies the number 14. More intriguing still, Matthew conspicuously placed David 14th in his overall genealogy!
Thus, the grand structure of Matthew’s genealogy is organized somewhat like ever-expanding circles: David’s name is equivalent to the number 14, the very name that appears 14th in a genealogical line of succession comprised of three series of 14 generations.
The point of this somewhat artificial structure, is not really genealogical but theological. Matthew’s point was never to provide a reliable genealogical record of Jesus’ ancestry, but to summarize in the briefest of terms a thumbnail sketch of Israel’s history in which the hand of Providence can be seen at work reliably, indeed predictably, throughout from its founding father to its ultimate messiah, thus culminating inevitably in the birth of Christ. Thus, Matthew’s goal is to link Jesus’ life, person, and ministry to the history of Israel as the one who fulfills all of her longings and hopeful expectation. And from that perspective, his genealogy is ingenious.
Moreover, the long series of "begats" which, upon reading, establishes a predictable pattern that can become so repetitive as to be memorizing – that is, until we get to Joseph. There, just by the time we’ve got our rhythm: A begat B, B begat C, C begat D, we fully expect to hear “Joseph begat Jesus…” But instead, Matthew trips us up, suddenly interrupting the long line of rhythmic and predictable “begats” with:
Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary;
and of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.
And therein lies the confusion…and the implicit question: If not Joseph, then who is the father of Jesus?? And that, sisters and brothers, is the very question the gospel today seeks to answer.
In our day-long retreat on the “O Antiphons” yesterday we discussed the irrepressible power of the “poetic urge of expression” so central to religious traditions – the impulse toward poetry, art, beauty, story-telling, movement, pageantry, liturgy by which we come to express, to celebrate, and live into the mystery of faith which rational thought alone could never do justice. It is the very mechanism by which ancient stories are entered into by modern Christians. By which God is not only said to enter human history as a past moment, but enters into our own world, our own hearts today.
Thomas Merton, one of the most prolific contemplative authors of the twentieth century, draws upon this very poetic impulse in his telling of the Birth of Christ, of the tenderness and majesty of God’s in-breaking through his poem “Carol.” It is among my favorite of his poems as I explore in my book. Merton writes:
Flocks feed by darkness with a noise of whispers,
In the dry grass of pastures,
And lull the solemn night with their weak bells.
The little towns upon the rocky hills
Look down as meek as children:
Because they have seen come this holy time.
God’s glory, now, is kindled
gentler than low candlelight under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom’s born in secret in a straw-roofed stable.
And O! Make holy music in the stars, you happy angels.
You shepherds, gather on the hill.
Look up, you timid flocks, where the three kings
Are coming through the wintry trees;
While we unnumbered children of the wicked centuries
come after with our penances and prayers,
And lay them down in the sweet-smelling hay
Beside the wise men’s golden jars.
Written entirely in the present tense, Merton will not allow us to imagine the incarnation as a past moment but assures us that “God’s glory, now, is kindled” before our very eyes. Indeed, the glory of God enters the world much as it does our own hearts: “gentle as low candlelight” and “in secret.” Like a lullaby, the placid cadence of his poem invites us to gather with the stillness of shepherds, vigilant amid the quiet tranquility of this “solemn night.” The universe itself hovers like a shining star over a “straw roofed stable,” as if hoping to glimpse but a small child, born among the nameless, yet who bears the name above all names.
With great rejoicing and “holy music in the stars,” we are drawn into the presence of this sacred mystery because we too “have seen come this holy time.” With the magi, we come bearing our own gifts of “penances and prayers,” journeying “through the wintry trees” of doubt and despair into the warmth of an inner epiphany of Christ. There is something about the birth of Christ, as Merton describes it, that moves us to the realization that this event, shrouded by time and mystery, is nevertheless ever present. And we too are summoned to follow after. If Matthew’s genealogy speaks of all that leads up to Christ’s birth, and his subsequent pages speak of what follows. Merton’s poem tells us of the ongoing power of Christ’s birth today.
Christianity, now an old and venerable tradition, is invited to return to the innocence of this holy night. A time before the church was torn by division or marred by those who would use its transformative power for destructive ends. A time before our noble institutions were coopted by or complicit with colonial powers. Before basilicas and cathedrals signaled the political might of Christendom, to that very moment when when Eternal Peace lay sleeping under the “rafters of a barn.”
If Christ has become for us the new Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), Bethlehem is undoubtedly the new Eden. And we “unnumbered children of the wicked centuries” now return to this little town “upon the rocky hills” battered and bruised by history, darkened by doubt, and scandalized by those who have carried out atrocities in the name of Innocence Incarnate. Is it possible that as we cross the threshold between Advent and the Nativity, that we too might return to Bethlehem, to this new Eden? Where in the face of a small child, wide eyed and hungry, or the countenance of his mother brave and tender, or his bewildered father, comforting and determined – we too might find our innocence restored and hope renewed.
What is that I see? An ancient star, yet ever-new arising in the horizon of our hearts…and three shadowy figures beckoning us to follow.
What will you bring?
+ Father, Son and Holy Spirit.