HOMILY FOR THE SUNDAY BEFORE CHRISTMAS
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Dear Brothers and sisters,
The words from this morning’s Gospel reading are the very first words of the very first Gospel that was ever written. They are the words of the Holy Apostle Matthew, who, aided by the Holy Spirit, decided that the very first thing to impress on people’s minds was the ancestry of Jesus. Don’t be confused that the lineage is traced to Joseph, who wasn’t Jesus’ biological father. Notice it says: “And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.” Since Joseph and Mary are from the same tribe, the vast majority of the genealogy applies to her as well as to him. This text gives a long list of Hebrew, Aramaic (and even some foreign names as well) that indicate the human family tree of Jesus. In all, there are forty-seven names mentioned. Some of them are famous Old Testament saints, others are important figures mentioned in the Bible, some are unknown, and some are actually sinners. It’s a long list of names, and very difficult to pronounce, and for this reason, it’s easy for our eyes to glaze over and our thoughts to wander. Yet these very words, these very names, are so important that they are read in every Orthodox Church, every year, on the Sunday before the Nativity. It is these names that give us the real story of Christmas, the very human story out of which Christ and Christmas came to us. All of those names are real examples of real living people who prepared the way for Christmas.
If we didn’t know anything about the Scriptures, and someone asked us “What kind of family should the Messiah come from,” we might be inclined to guess that He would descend from a family of saints – priests, prophets, and kings. But what do we find in His family tree? Well, we do find some of those, but predominantly we find ordinary people and sinners like ourselves. We find people who even when blessed by God, fell in times of weakness like King David. We even find a harlot listed there! An invented family tree would have been different. But here again we see the honesty of the Gospel writers. They don’t lie about Jesus’ ancestry, but tell it like it is. It was from this very real (and flawed!) family tree that Jesus came. What this means is that Jesus truly came from us in order to save us. As Gregory the Theologian says: “That which He has not assumed He has not healed” (Epistle 101). Because He came from this family tree full of sinners, we find we have something in common with Him. He is not a Creator who separates Himself from us. His family tree is our family tree. He is one of us. He has compassion for sinners who are part of His own family.
St Matthew also does something else quite remarkable in his genealogy – he deliberately shatters the custom of his day by including the names of five women at a time when women were simply not included in genealogies. By doing this he indicates that “in Christ there is neither male nor female,” all are equal; all are one in Christ (see Galatians 3:28). The five women are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and finally Mary, the Mother of God. First, who is Tamar? Well to save time let’s just say that she married two different bad-boys, and then she got pregnant by incest. The salacious details can be found in Genesis. Who is Rehab? She was a prostitute. Who is Ruth? Why, she’s not even Jewish. Who is Bathsheba? She was a Jewish woman who broke the Law of Moses by marrying a Hittite. She later becomes the victim of sexual abuse. We find in the genealogy all kinds of people; some who are constantly missing the mark, some who are mistreated or broken. Yet it is precisely out of these that there arises that dazzling flower of purity, the Most Holy Theotokos, by whom our Saviour was to be born.
So there are some skeletons in the Messianic family closet. Who doesn’t have some? Most of us want to think of our ancestors whoever they may be, as noble people, even heroes of their time. And yet everyone has a few clunkers somewhere in his or her ancestry. I have the infamous Dalton outlaw gang in mine. Others were, yes, pirates. Rrrr! In pointing out the sinners that comprise Jesus’ ancestry, it just goes to show how much like us Jesus really is! Perfect God and perfect man – do you know what that means? It means “fully God” and “fully man.” His humanity is our humanity; His ancestry is OUR ancestry.
However, we don’t leave everything stuck in the past. No, Jesus came to save us, to deliver us from the fallenness of our human nature. And because of Him, we Christians can now claim a new ancestry. Jesus is the beginning of a new blood stream, a new inheritance. The holy Apostle Peter wrote: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people to be his very own and to proclaim the wonderful deeds of the One who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). By means of our faith and through holy baptism we now have access to the source of our new blood line, not in the tainted past of our inherited ancestry, but in the new, pure source of the Theanthropos, the God-man – our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Dear ones, our ancestry may have its dark spots, because our lives certainly do. Yet through turning back to God through confession of our sins and receiving His forgiveness we can refresh this new genealogy from our new ancestor. “Drink of it all of you; this is my blood” He says. His blood flowing in our veins constantly renews this new ancestry, this new heritage, this new sense of belonging, this new life. One of the great themes of the Christmas Season is family, getting together with family, reconciling with family, right? If you doubt me, just watch the Hallmark Channel! But sometimes we forget that Christmas is all about how God made us His Family, and how all of our fellow believers are our brothers and sisters. Do you remember how I began this sermon? “Dear Brothers and Sisters!” We are all brothers and sisters in His eyes, we are all related to each other with a common bloodline. This is why it is so important for us to gather together – not only at the Great Feasts like Christmas, but throughout the Church Year on Sundays and Holy Days. May God bless you and keep you for this coming feast of His Nativity, and may He grant you health and prosperity for the New Year. Amen.