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