Joy of All Who Sorrow

30th Sunday after Pentecost / Sunday of the Holy Fathers

Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Father, Brothers and Sisters

In today’s Gospel you will notice that we have moved from the great parables, the exorcisms and healing miracles of St Luke’s Gospel right to the very beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew. The reason for this shift is that we are now at the very last Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is thus very appropriate that in our Gospel reading today we focus-in in precise detail about the nature and historicity of the Lord’s human nature, the human flesh which he took exclusively from His Most-pure Mother, the Ever-Virgin Mary. We see in this a real interest and focus on the particular, the real and the historical. For when our Lord assumed human nature, he didn’t do this as some abstract Absolute Spirit, nor did He seek to save human nature at a distance. Rather, He bowed the heavens and came down to live as one of us, taking on human nature, not at a distance in some abstract way, but assumed it truly, at a human level and scale, in the particular. Thus, our Lord became human at a particular place and at a particular time. He became a tiny child, of the Virgin Mary, of the House of David in Israel under Roman occupation in the 1stC. To help us understand this particularity, let us turn to the Commentary of that great 4th century western defender of Nicean Orthodoxy, St Hilary of Poitiers.

Each of the Gospels is a unique and individual response to – and reflection of – the life, death and resurrection of Christ. We also know that each Gospel writer wrote for slightly differing audiences and within distinct theological and spiritual contexts. It is thus unsurprising that each of the Evangelists start their Gospels in different ways. St John, as the Theologically deepest and richest of the Gospels, starts which his sublime Prologue, and begins with the Pre-eternal Divine Word existing with the Father and the Holy Spirit before the creation of the world. St Mark’s Gospel was written as the written, oral testimony of his spiritual father, St Peter the Apostle. It is a lively, quick-paced narrative which, perhaps like St Peter himself, is a bit impatient to get on with the story. In St Mark’s Gospel there is thus no lengthy prologue or genealogy, but we are thrown – immediately – a word that appears regularly throughout the Gospel – right in to the thick of the Judean deserts and the leoline voice of St John the Baptist. St Hiliary begins his commentary on our Gospel reading noting the complimentary differences in the genealogies of St Matthew and St Luke’s gospels. Like St Matthew, St Luke also starts his Gospel with a genealogy. Although through TV shows like “Who do you think you are?” and websites like we are used to family trees and the plotting of lines of familial descent, and we would expect their geneaologies to look the same. However, Christ was not exactly the same as any other human being as He was also at the same time God. Christ did not have a biological human father, and his mysterious and mind-blowing conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary was unlike that of any other human on the planet that has existed or will exist. Thus, both St Matthew and St Luke approach the genealogy of Christ as theologians and make different theological emphases.

In St Luke’s Gospel, he doesn’t just launch into the genealogy, as St Matthew does, but rather his genealogy emerges some way into the Gospel narrative in chapter 3, just after Jesus has been baptized by St John the Forerunner. St Luke’s genealogy thus starts with Joseph (the supposed father) and goes back from him in reverse chronological order back beyond Abraham all the way to Adam, the real, historically existing, first-formed man. For St Luke, with his largely gentile audience in mind, Christ’s specifically Abrahamic descent was not of such importance, rather it was important to establish Christ’s connection with Adam, the ancestor of all mankind.

St Matthew’s genealogy, by contrast, is different as can be seen from that striking, axiomatic first line-

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

St Matthew, as you will recall, was writing for a largely Jewish audience, there are thus more citations from the Old Testament in his gospel than in any of the other gospels. Indeed, it is thought that the original version of the Gospel was made in Hebrew and then translated at a slightly later time into Greek, in the version we know it today. Establishing Jesus’ Abrahamic descent of the House of Abraham the House of Israel was of critical importance so that he can present Jesus to his readers as the Christ, the Messiah, the fulfilment of all the Jews’ long, long years of messianic expectation and hope. St Hiliary notes a special emphasis in his genealogy on Christ’s ‘royal succession’. Thus, when St Matthew comes to David he specifically emphasizes his kingship –

And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias;

This contrasts with St Luke’s geneaology where David is mentioned without this repeated epithet, ‘the king’.

Whereas, St Matthew wishes to emphasise Christ’s Royal, Davidic descent, St Hiliary highlights how St Luke introduces a different strand of theological emphasis which traces his descent, ‘proceeded through Nathan from the tribe of Levi’. The tribe of Levi was the tribe of the House of Israel from which the priesthood developed, and had specific duties in serving in the Temple. With these different emphases, St Hilary says,

Each writer in his way demonstrated the glory of the double genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the eternal king and priest, even in his fleshly birth.

St Hiliary devotes the rest of his commentary on this passage to resolving some other misunderstandings that can arise from the text. First off, if as we have already clearly established, St Joseph the Betrothed was NOT the biological father of Christ, why are we given his genealogy rather than the genealogy of his mother, Mary who was his real, biological mother? St Hilary answers this question by saying –

That his nativity is traced from Joseph rather than from Mary does not matter, for there is one and the same bloodline for the entire ancestry

Under the law, the Jews were only able to marry people of the same Tribe. Thus, in this way, St Joseph’s genealogy was also that of Mary as they were both of the House of David. Genealogies were always traced the male line of descent from father to son.

After tracing the genealogy forward to

Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

our Gospel then turns to detailing the birth of Christ and focuses on the doubts of Joseph concerning the remarkable origin of Jesus’ conception, that it was not of man, but of God. It begins –

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.

And once reassured by an angel, our Gospel ends –

And (Joseph) knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus.

St Hiliary next wishes to rebuff the sacrilegious thought, of what he calls, ‘depraved men’, that Mary and Joseph had relations as husband and wife. Rather he confirms the Orthodox interpretation that she was indeed found with child, before they were married, and whilst still espoused, as the child was of the Holy Spirit and not of Joseph’s loins. The English translation here of ‘until’ – also has the same meaning in the original Greek – of Christ’s words to the Apostles at the Ascension, ‘Lo I am with you always even until the end of the age’. Just in the same way that Christ will be with us until and after the end of the age – without any terminus – so too did Joseph not know Mary, in the biblical sense, until and after the birth of her first-born son. Thus, St Hilary concludes –

Just as Joseph was considered righteous for his marriage to Mary, who was a virgin, so in her motherhood of Jesus the sanctity of her virginity is revealed.

Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

My dear father, brothers and sisters, as we come ever closer to the Feast of the Nativity, on Christmas Eve, that glorious night, we shall also hear the choir sing: “God is with us understand you nations and submit yourselves, for God is with us!” Let us never stop marvelling, or in anyway take for granted this immense, unfathomable Mystery of the Incarnation – of God with us. Let us marvel that He doesn’t come to us in the abstract but in the deeply personal and particular and in all the messiness of life. In St Matthew’s emphasis of Christ’s Davidic and Abrahamic descent, let us also see in this particularity the fulfilment of a universal promise which affects not just the Jews but truly all mankind, the Gentiles, you and me. For Abraham was given the promise that through him, and His illustrious and Heavenly Son, ‘all the tribes of the earth will be blessed’ (Gen 12: 3).