In more traditional societies, one’s family tree may be a source of pride or amusement, but it is always an object of interest. Little wonder, then, that the first Christians displayed an interest in the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ. They had encountered Him healing the sick and touching their hearts. They knew Him as the One who forgave sins, raised the dead and rose Himself. They looked to His ancestry to discover more about who He really was.
“Son of David, Son of Abraham”St Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:1-16); it is the passage we read each year on the Sunday before Christmas. The first words of the passage – biblios geneseos Iisous Christos, translated literally as “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ” – would remind the reader of the entire sweep of Jewish history by hearkening back to Genesis, the first Book of the Torah. They would realize that Christ was being presented as both the beginning and the climax of God’s dealing with the human race, starting in the Garden.
Matthew’s genealogy presents Christ as descended from David through the house of Joseph, His adoptive father. Since the time of King David (tenth century bc), Jewish rulers had based their authority on their connection to David. The awaited Messiah was presented in Jewish tradition as “the son of David” for a similar reason: to show that he, like David, was anointed by God to be Israel’s deliverer.
In this passage, Jesus’ ancestry is traced back another millennium to the patriarch Abraham, with whom God had made His first covenant with the ancestors of the Jewish people. For the first Christians, portraying Jesus as the son of Abraham meant that He was the personification of the nation, heir to the promises made by God to Abraham and to his seed, “who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).
Commentators have pointed out other aspects of this passage which reflect the early Church’s faith in Christ. In this listing of fathers and sons, we find two women – and foreign women at that! This indicates that Jesus is not only son of Abraham and David. He is son of all mankind – Jew and Gentile, male and female – truly one of us in the flesh.
Finally, we note that, besides being an exercise in genealogy, this passage is also built on numerology: the significance of numbers in the narrative it recounts. The ancestry of Christ is divided into three groups of fourteen, the numerological equivalent of “David.” Several less-than-worthy individuals are removed from the Old Testament lists to come up with this number, leaving us with a catalog of the righteous ancestors of Christ. This grouping also alludes to the 28-day lunar cycle. Like the star of Bethlehem, the moon is introduced to show the cosmic significance of Jesus’ birth.
These interpretations suggest that Matthew’s genealogy is an example of what Pope Benedict XVI, in his three-volume work Jesus of Nazareth, called “interpreted history”: based on events that actually happened, but presented “as they were interpreted and understood in the context of the Word of God.”
“Son of Adam”St Luke’s Gospel also contains a genealogy: one with a different placement and a different emphasis. While Matthew connects Jesus’ lineage with the story of His birth, Luke places it in the context of His hearers’ idea of Him. “Now Jesus Himself began His ministry at about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, the son of…” (Luke 3:23). And while Matthew emphasizes the connections between Jesus, David and Abraham, Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to “Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38). Luke, of Gentile origin, traces Christ back to the beginnings of the human race, stressing His connection with all mankind. Jesus is not only a son of Israel, but of the entire human race.
Many commentators have noted other discrepancies between these genealogies which would be contradictory, if these passages were not ‘interpreted history.” Thus St Ambrose sees Matthew showing Christ’s royal family heritage and Luke stressing His priestly connection. “We should not consider one account truer,” he writes, “but that the one agrees with the other in equal faith and truth. According to the flesh, Jesus was truly of a royal and priestly family, King from kings, Priest from priests” (Exposition of the Holy Gospel according to Luke, 87-88).
Fr John Custer summarizes another theological message in this passage. “Adam has no other ‘father’ but God and no ‘mother’ but the virgin earth from which he was taken. Adam became a ‘living being’ when God breathed into him (Genesiss 2:7). All this resembles the Holy Spirit over-shadowing the Virgin Mary in the conception of Jesus, whose only true father is God” (The Holy Gospel, a Byzantine Perspective, p.408).
“In the Beginning Was the Word”While not offering a genealogy in the same sense, St John’s Gospel begins with another Genesis-like statement on the Lord’s origins. Using the same opening words as the Book of Genesis, (definitely not an oversight), John tells us that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1). The Son of God became incarnate in time (John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”); but even before that, before time, He was with the Father as His eternal Son.
The Son was born ineffably of the Father before all ages. And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary without seed. Let us lift up our voices to the Lord and say: “You have lifted us up from our fallen state. Holy are You, O Christ our God!”
Canon of the Fore-feast, Ode 3
The Son was born ineffably of the Father before all ages. We sing to Him! And in these last days, He has willed to be incarnate of the Virgin Mary, for He willed to lift up the human race which fell through the deadly advice of the serpent.
He who is enthroned in the highest heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit saw the humiliation of the human race. The Son of the Father, without beginning, enters into time. Behold, He allows Himself to be born in the flesh as man.
The All-Holy One, who surpasses the angels and all creation in holiness, now gives birth in the flesh to the Messenger of the Father, the Angel of His Great Counsel, in order to lift up those who ceaselessly sing, “Holy are You, O Christ our God!”