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A genealogy meets its end

by
20 December 2013

Advent and Christmas services invariably leave out the long list of ancestors from the Gospel accounts. Neil Patterson asks why this is

A Jesse Tree from a Capuchin's Bible c.1180

A Jesse Tree from a Capuchin's Bible c.1180

EACH year, we retell the Christmas story, most mem­orably in school nativity plays. Like most clergy, I suspect, as I hear the tinselled angels sing, I often reflect on how this coherent "story" is in fact a conflation of the infancy narratives of Matthew 1-2, and of Luke 1-3, given deeper meaning by the theological umbrella of John's preface.

He was humbly born as one of us; God come down from heaven to save us. Bring on the turkey.

Yet even in those short chapters we seldom, if ever, read Matthew 1.1-17, or Luke 3.23-38, the pur­ported genealogies of Jesus through Joseph. But the evangelists included them, and we ought to at least con­sider what they might mean to us today.

There are several possible reasons for this. We do not like reading long lists of Old Testament names. The lists are inconsistent. And I say "pur­ported" above, because neither is actually the genealogy of Jesus himself, only Joseph, his foster-father. Perhaps we are afraid to emphasise earthly descent, in case we should be thought theologically unsound on his divine parentage. Or maybe they are just boring.

 

BUT IT was not always so: witness the innumerable medieval illustra­tions and windows of the Tree of Jesse, a visual celebration of Jesus's descent from the father of King David.

Therein lies, I suggest, the issue. For Matthew and Luke, the list of ancestors, like Jesus's birth in Bethlehem, was intended to em­­phasise his status as the rightful heir of the kings of old. This is not as implausible as it may seem; until the tenth century AD, the Jewish com­munity in Babylon was led by an exilarch, believed to be directly descended from Zerubbabel.

And to some, it may still matter: a friend whose congregation included a member of our royal family recalls preaching a con­­ventional sermon on Jesus, humbly born among us, and being told afterwards, "humbly born, but of royal descent". But to most of us today there is a certain awkwardness about the idea that Jesus may have been born "with a silver spoon in his mouth". It is deeply important that God became one of us, and, to an extent, that the genealogies back to David set him apart, born of a special and ancient family.

Even in the mid-20th century, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien can be found wrestling with this problem. A thwarted rightful king regaining his throne is an appealing tradi­tional myth, but the audience was Everyman. Thus Prince Caspian (in Lewis) and Aragorn (in Tolkien) are such heirs, who claim kingship by adventure. But in the foreground are the Pevensie children and the hobbits respectively, in both cases characters with whom any reader can identify.

 

MORE contemporary (and obviously less serious) mani­festation of the theme is Disney'sLion King, where the trope yields childish excitement and (at least on stage) high camp. We have come a long way from the King of the Jews.

The irony is that in a more demo­cratic age, genealogy itself is ex­­tremely popular - or, as it is now called, family-history research. In summer, especially, I receive a call or email perhaps once a week from someone researching his or her family's background in one of my parishes.

The better organised are planning a visit, and can be told that the older registers are all archived in Here­ford, and can be given details of who holds the churchyard plan. There are still a surprising number of people, though, who will ring on a mobile from a churchyard, in the touching belief that the priest can tell them immediately where their an­­cestor, who died in 1847, is buried.

Hereford diocese received, at one stage, so many enquiries that there is now a dedicated link on the website to channel them. In the search for identity and roots, many believe that they can find an answer in their ancestry, and, once you reach your 32 great-great-great-grandparents, the odds are good that you will find somebody inte­resting.

 

HE problem for us as Christians is that the Bible has a clear message about genea­logy. The Old Testa­ment is full of it. It did (and does) matter enor­mously to the Jewish people to know from whom they were descended, and the genealogies in the Gospels are part of this.

But the Epistles offer a very different view. In Philippians 3, Paul dismisses as rubbish his honourable Jewish descent. And, in 1 Timothy 1.4, and Titus 3.9, Christians are warned of wasting time on gen­ealogy. In the context of the Gentile mission, the sense is clear; it does not matter if you are of respectable Jewish descent (or, in­deed, a high-born Gentile) - what matters now is willingness to follow Jesus Christ, and to be reborn as his son or daughter. This is a challenge to all those who are keen to find con­fidence in their ancestry, but a ringing hope that all can alike be fellow-heirs of God.

The challenge for us as we prepare to acclaim the one "born of David's line" at Christmas is to under­­stand how it is important that Jesus came of a particular, privileged line (within his particular, privileged Jewish race), but leaves no such particular physical inheritance him­self.

His genealogy was, to use the expression of Wittgenstein from another context, a ladder that, once climbed up, can be thrown away. The hopes of Israel, both for leadership and, more cryptically in later Isaiah, for redemption, focused on one who would inherit the kingship of David. Jesus was born to fulfil those, and thus demonstrated that God's ancient promises were not in vain.

 

N TWO profound ways, however, Jesus subverted the inheritance of kingship into which he was born, and revealed God's greater pur­poses. In the first way, he came as a king who did not rule, but suffered.

There are elements of con­ventional leadership in his actions: he taught; he appointed followers to their duties, and delegated them to spread his message; and he demonstrated the coming Kingdom by powerful spiritual works, chiefly of healing. But he resisted the desire to take political power, or associate with rulers, or call his Father's angels down to save him.

His only crown was that of thorns, his royal robe that of mock­ery, and his throne the cross. To every ruler and governor of every age, the lesson is laid down: king­ship is a duty of service and suffer­ing that none should willingly seek.

The second way is less often spoken of, but equally important. Jesus did not marry, and did not beget any children. He made a literal end to his own genealogy. This stands in striking contrast to the concerns of Old Testament patri­archs and kings to carry on their line, and the basic Jewish as­­sumption of a duty to marry and propagate the race.

There is an interesting contrast with Muhammad, whose de­­scendants are still honoured among Muslims, and include many of the ancient royal houses. But Jesus, through whom came the original message "be fruitful and multiply," came to change the message, and sow the seed of a different fruit: of eternal life in him, and the multi­plication of his spiritual chil­dren.

The truth revealed at Christmas is that neither kingship nor in­­heritance would ever be the same again.

The Revd Neil Patterson is Rector of Ariconium, Herefordshire.

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