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This man is a kinsman of ours

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.

About the author

Priest John Bod­deck­er is Instruc­tor of Bib­li­cal Stud­ies at Holy Trin­i­ty Ortho­dox Sem­i­nary in Jor­danville, NY.