Homily on the Sunday
Before the Nativity of Christ
Priest John Boddecker
Dec. 20, 2021 / Jan. 2, 2022
Holy Trinity Monastery
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Growing up, my grandmother made Christmas magical. In the days and weeks following Thanksgiving, her home was changed from your typical suburban house into a veritable Christmas wonderland. The mantle over her fireplace, bookcases in the walls, bay window and other shelves would all be cleared of their usual occupants and filled to the brim with handmade ceramic Christmas villages, churches with lights shining from within through their miniature stained-glass windows, nativity scenes, ice skaters, singing angels and Christmas carolers, all set atop white glistening angel hair and surrounded by a myriad of Christmas lights. As the time drew nearer, an enormous tree would take up residence in the middle of her dining room and, as more and more grandchildren came into the picture, its base would be surrounded by more and more presents. My grandfather was put in a good humor by my grandmother’s dedication to decorating for Christmas and used to quip that if he stood still for too long at this time of year, he might find himself covered in tinsel. For us children, though, all of this fostered in us a sense of wondrous excitement and joyful anticipation of the coming celebration of birth of Christ.
Now, if you have been attentive over the past few weeks, you have likely noticed that our Mother, the Church, has been doing something quite similar to stoke up a spiritual excitement and anticipation in our hearts as we approach the coming feast. Our first sign that something was coming was the transition to a period of fasting. Next, little hints that the feast was approaching began to spring up in the hymns sung at Vigil. I, for one, witnessed in this very church a few weeks ago one little girl, with a sparkle in her eye, nearly break into a dance when she heard the choir begin to sing the katavasia, “Christ is born, glorify him” at the vigil on the Entrance of the Mother of God in the Temple. Throughout this season, we have commemorated many of the Old Testament prophets and spiritual Ancestors of Christ — each of them, in their own way, pointing us to the coming celebration. Finally, on this, the last Sunday before the Feast, the Church presents to us the genealogy of our Lord as recorded in the Holy Gospel according to St Matthew.
At first glance this might seem somewhat odd. If we are honest, we tend to find the biblical genealogies to be boring, something to be skipped over or, at least, rushed through, in hopes of finding something more interesting on the next page. But if the Church has placed this Gospel reading at such a liturgically pivotal moment, there must be something important to be discovered in it. While there is certainly a number of points that can be drawn from this text, I would like to follow one particular line of reflection that might help us to see the mystery of the Incarnation from a different angle than we might usually do. We often hear the Incarnation discussed in terms of abstract, metaphysical categories: “humanity”, “divinity”, “hypostasis”, etc. As helpful as these may be for clearly defining our dogmatic teaching, the reality of Christ’s genealogy might help us to see that in the Incarnation, Christ not only “became man” in the abstract, but became our Kinsman, thereby making us His kin. It might also help us to understand what that means for us.
Who can describe his generation? (Isaiah 53:8)
First, we must raise the question, “How is it possible for the Son of God to have a genealogy at all?” The Holy Prophet Isaiah remarks of Him, “Who can describe His generation?” (Isaiah 53:7–8 // Acts 8:32–33). It might be easy enough for us to trace our own lineages back through parents to grandparents and so on, until the generations are lost in the sands of time, but how can the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father without a mother, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, how can such a one be found as a single link in the chain of a genealogy and be said to have a mother and brothers and sisters? Of this mystery, St Gregory Palamas says the following:
It is impossible to recount Christ’s descent according to His divinity, but his ancestry according to His human nature can be traced, since He who deigned to become Son of Man in order to save mankind was, in very fact, the offspring of men. (Homily on the Old Testament Saints)
You see, then, the mere fact that we have a genealogy of Christ is itself a confession of the mystery of the coming feast, that the Word has become flesh to dwell among us. But since it is in a genealogy that we first find Christ’s Incarnation proclaimed to us, it demonstrates to us that, while He could have simply created a human nature and then taken it upon Himself, He chose instead to become a Kinsman of real live human beings. He became a Son, a Brother, a Grandson; a reality we bear witness to every time we make reference to the Mother of God, to the Holy Apostle James, Brother of the Lord, and to Sts Joachim and Anna, the Ancestors of God. So, it is not only in the terms of these metaphysical categories, but in His coming in the flesh as our Kinsman that we find Christ. What does that mean for us? How might this fact help us to see some of what Christ has done for us in a different light?
This man is a kinsman of ours … (Ruth 2:20)
This leads us to our second consideration, that Christ became our Kinsman in order to fulfill the responsibilities of a Kinsman laid out in the Old Testament. Living, as we do, in this modern age of individualism, in which many think very little of the duties to even their immediate families, it can be hard for us, perhaps, to understand the world of Ancient Israel in which one’s identity was rooted in a network of kinship relations and the obligations bestowed by these. A person’s place in Israelite society, ranging from the plot of land he occupied to the trade he performed, were all determined by his place within a tribe, a clan and a family. Among its many defining features, one significant feature of Old Testament kinship relations was the responsibility of one’s kin to demonstrate love and loyalty to its members in times of difficulty, many of which are laid out in Leviticus 25. When one member of the kin fell into economic hardship and had to sell his property, it was the responsibility of his nearest kinsman to buy it back and restore it to him, so that the unfortunate one would not lose his inheritance in the Promised Land. When one member of the kin was sold into slavery, it was the responsibility of his nearest kinsman to pay the price of his deliverance, so that he might not lose his share in the liberty of the people of God. When one member of the kin was killed by an outsider, it was the responsibility of his nearest kinsman to avenge the blood of the victim on the unjust murderer. In each of these instances, a single Hebrew root is used, the verb ga’al (גאל) which, while often translated “redeem,” really has the meaning “to act as a kinsman” with the implied responsibilities of such a kinsman being understood by all. The particular emphasis on the nearness of relation arises from the fact that these acts of redemption were to be carried out by the near kin of the sufferer, not the people of Israel in general.
All of this helps us, then, as we seek to consider the significance of the genealogy of Christ this day, for this same Hebrew word, ga’al (גאל), is used regularly throughout the Old Testament as a description of God’s actions towards his people. The Holy Prophet Isaiah, alone, uses it some twenty times to describe the future redemption to be carried out by the Holy One of Israel. But how can the uncreated God, who transcends all that is, “act the kinsman” to His creatures, unless He becomes one of them, becomes their kin? It is true that the familial language found in the Old Testament is, at times, applied generally to the people of Israel (e.g. Exodus 4:22 or Hosea 11:1) or, more particularly, to the sons of David (II Kingdoms 7:14 and Psalm 2:7), but before the Incarnation of Christ, this language could only ever have been figurative, an analogical extension of the kinship relations and responsibilities from the human to the divine plane. Now, though, since Christ has shared in our flesh and blood (Hebrews 2:14ff), what was once only a type has become a fact: God has become our kinsman and as such has “acted the kinsman to us.” He has demonstrated His love and loyalty to us, His kin, by redeeming us out of our slavery to sin by the price of His own blood, by restoring in us the hope of an inheritance in the Promised Land of the heavenly kingdom, and, finally, by avenging the injustice against us by destroying him who has the power of death. But what does this mean for us? What does this mean for our relationship to God?
He gave them power to become the children of God (John 1:12)
The result of the incarnation, though, was not only that it made God our Kinsman in Christ, but that we have become His kin as well, for when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, He gave to all who received Him and believed in His name the power to become the children of God. Of this mystery, St. John Chrysostom, commenting on the Savior’s genealogy, said the following:
Hearing these things, let us marvel, that He, being the Son of the Unoriginate God, and His true Son, suffered Himself to be called also Son of David, that He might make you a son of God. He suffered a servant [David] to be father to Him, that He might make the Lord Father, though you were only a servant. (Homilies on Matthew, II.3)
The whole purpose, then, of Christ’s coming in the flesh was that we might receive the adoption as sons and heirs of God whereby we might be able to call God our Father (Galatians 4:4–7). Our incorporation into a kinship relation with God, though, brings with it not only the above mentioned privileges resulting from Christ’s “acting the kinsman” on our behalf, but also a series of responsibilities or obligations to live as one worthy to be called the kinsman of God. As St. Gregory Palamas says,
Just as a newborn infant has received potential from his parents to become a man and heir to their house and fortune, but does not yet possess that inheritance because he is a minor, nor will he receive it if he dies before coming of age, so a person born again in the Spirit through Christian baptism has received power to become a son and heir of God, a joint-heir with Christ, and in the age to come will, with all certainty, receive the divine and immortal adaptation as a son, which will not be taken from him, unless he forfeited this by spiritual death. … Everyone who has been baptized, if he is to obtain the eternal blessedness and salvation for which he hopes, should therefore live free from all sin. (Homily on the Old Testament Saints)
God has become our Kinsman and in making us His kin, calls us to live in a way that bears witness to our familial relationship.
He is not ashamed to call them brethren (Hebrews 2:11)
So then, to summarize: the genealogy of Christ signifies to us that the Son of God has truly come in the flesh, for how else could we compose a genealogy for Him; it signifies that He has done so that He might become our Kinsman and “acted the Kinsman” on our behalf; and it signifies to us that God has summoned us to become His sons and daughters by baptism and living a life, thereafter, free of sin. But, perhaps at this point, you find yourself losing heart. You wonder how you could ever live up to so high a calling. Here, the genealogy has a word of comfort to offer. We have not, up to this point, examined the particular individuals included in the genealogy and time, or your patience with me, would fail to speak at length about Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, David and Solomon, Zerubabel and others. But I will point out that the reading we heard from St Matthew’s Gospel included mention of four women in the genealogy of Christ, quite anomalous in Jewish genealogies which usually only included the male ancestry of an individual, and each of these — the incestuous Tamar, the prostitute Rahab, the pagan foreigner Ruth, and the adulterous Bathsheba — demonstrates that Christ has a few “skeletons” in his genealogical closet.
St John Chrysostom, meditating on the presence of these women in Christ’s genealogy, remarks that “even if we were only reciting the family background of a mere man, we might naturally have been silent touching such matters” – you might try to sweep them under the rug or at least not go out of your way to point them out – “but since we are recounting the genealogy of God Incarnate, so far from being silent, we ought to glory in them, for they show forth His tender care and Hs power.” (Homily Matthew, III.3) Why, you might ask? “Because this is the very reason Christ has come, not to escape our disgraces, but to bear them away. … He came as a Physician and not as a Judge.” Christ, in becoming our Kinsman, did so in full recognition of our sinfulness and, as the Great Physician, He comes near to us who are in the greatest need of His care, that He might make us whole again. As St. Paul says, both He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of One: for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren (Hebrews 2:11).
Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, seeing what marvelous things Christ has accomplished for us, in becoming and acting the kinsman for us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily besets us so that we may run the race set before us, to live in such a way as to be worthy of being called the children of God, and, by so purifying our hearts and mind, we might be able to draw near with the angels, the shepherds and the wise men to adore the little Child Who is born, the Pre-eternal God. Amen.
Priest John Boddecker is Instructor of Biblical Studies at Holy Trinity Orthodox Seminary in Jordanville, NY.