WHENEVER the genealogy of Jesus Christ was part of the scriptures proclaimed at Mass – as it will be for the Vigil Mass of Christmas – my Grandfather would come home rather underwhelmed.
“Jeconiah was the father a Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abuid, and Abiud the father of Eliakim …” (Matthew 1:12)
His expressed response was usually some variation on the theme of “Why on earth do we have to listen to that?”
A reaction that is entirely understandable.
I have even been at Mass and heard priests audibly sigh as they flipped the page of the lectionary and continued listing the seemingly inexhaustible range of increasingly bizarre names: “… Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar …”
Yet that reading from the Gospel is not included simply so as to irritate parishioners and flummox the clergy.
It has a profound meaning, seldom explained.
The genealogy is made up of three series of fourteen names.
In Hebrew, there are no separate symbols that indicate numerals, so consonants are used.
The three consonants that comprise the name ‘David’, when added together, add up to the number fourteen.
Thus the number fourteen, which dominates the genealogy, is a symbol of kingship.
The seemingly random list of names at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel is actually a royal genealogy in which not only the promise to Abraham is fulfilled, but also the promise that accompanies the name of David.
In the words of Benedict XVI, “the genealogy at the beginning of the Gospel is a flourish of trumpets for a king. It calls us into the presence of Jesus Christ.”
It is almost impossible to articulate the significance of the number fourteen for the Bible as a whole.
In the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Old Testament – the reader often encounters the phrase, “these are the generations” (zeh toledoth).
There then follows an enumeration of the succession of people who have played a role in the unfolding of the history of salvation.
The phrase is used thirteen times in the Old Testament (Genesis 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 10:32; 11:10; 11:27; 25:12; 25:19; 36:1,9; 37:2; Exodus 6:16,19; Numbers 3:1).
The fourteenth occurrence of this phrase is in the genealogy at the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew.
Moreover, there are a number of passages in the Old Testament that are particularly decisive for the course of the relationship between God and mankind; they are marked by a call and response.
In Hebrew, the word used to respond – whether it is Abraham or Samuel – is “hineni” (‘Here I am’)
The word occurs just fourteen times in the entirety of the Old Testament.
Jesus is the ultimate expression of that phrase: ‘”Here I am”.
Christ is the definitive response of God to mankind – Emmanuel, God with us.
He is also the response of mankind to God – ‘Not my will but yours be done.’ (Matthew 26:39)
In the Jewish calendar, the fourteenth day of the first month is Passover, when God delivered the firstborn of Israel from death while they were in slavery in Egypt.
Jesus was crucified at Passover – the fourteenth day of the first month, delivering us all from death and slavery to sin.
Even the seemingly random names that comprise the genealogy are imbued with meaning and significance.
The four women included in the list are particularly striking.
Tamar was a scorned woman who was denied children by a succession of men and so resorted to trickery to obtain her dues. (Genesis 38)
Rahab was an innkeeper and prostitute who hid the spies of Joshua and allowed them to escape and conquer Jericho and her own people. (Joshua 2)
Ruth, a marvellous woman, was nevertheless a Moabite and would have been considered rather suspect in the eyes of some Jews.
Perhaps most startling is a line in the genealogy that seems completely innocuous: “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” (Matthew 1:6)
Yet to obtain that wife – Bathsheeba – David first had her husband Uriah killed. (2 Samuel 11)
Indeed, it is worth pointing out that David is not considered the embodiment of Israelite kingship because he was a wonderful person; on the contrary.
He performed many terrible and questionable acts – yet he always repented, fell on his knees before God and asked for forgiveness.
It was his readiness to continually call upon the mercy of God that sets him apart as worthy of emulation – not the rest of his personal or public life.
And the entire genealogy in the Gospel according to Matthew is expressive of that very fact – God is ultimately merciful.
Despite the strange and twisted perversions we human beings have managed to concoct over the course of our history, no matter how far we have run from God or what we have done, God remained willing to forgive us.
However bleak our situation appeared at the time, God was always in charge, directing the course of history to its conclusion.
He not only made barren women bear children – Sarah, mother of Isaac; Hannah, mother of Samuel; the mothers of Samson and John the Baptist – in the end, He had a virgin conceive by the Holy Spirit.
In the fullness of time, realising that we are completely incapable of truly accepting the fact that His greatness is manifested most palpably by His mercy, He decided to demonstrate the truth for us Himself.
God became man – Jesus Christ.
The fulfilment, the centre-point, the climax of all history – the Incarnation.
The genealogy might initially seem like a strange reading to include at the Vigil Mass for Christmas but I hope that while you listen to it this year, rather than letting your mind wander or stifling a chuckle at the priest struggling through the list of Hebrew names, you might be struck by how the hand of God has worked providentially in your own life.
Our history is full of men and women who have responded to God or run away from Him.
Yet through the Incarnation, through our baptism into Christ, we now all have the graced ability to fully and freely respond: “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.”
This Christmas, let us grasp the mercifully outstretched hands of God – let us embrace the infant in the manger and sing along with the angels, “Glory to the newborn King.”