Our Lord and God Jesus, for whom and by whom all things exist – through whom the Father brings us out of nonexistence into being – is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. He partakes of our nature. He has a full share of our flesh and blood – just the way it is, even in that it is subjected to death. Through our fear of this death, we have been enslaved to our passions and sins our whole life long. So, he becomes like us even in this mortality so as to free us from our enslavement. (Heb 2:10,11,14). If we are in Christ, we no longer fear death.
Ancestors of Christ
ink, paint and gold on parchment
by Priest T'oros, Armenia, between 1262 and 1266
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ – the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew – profoundly underscores the extent to which Jesus Christ identifies himself with us – even with our weakness and enslavement. Behold the type of ancestors through whom he becomes a man. There are many great saints in his genealogy but also many great sinners. And many great saints who were also great sinners.
He takes the form of a slave – of a man doomed to die. The one who makes man in his likeness is born in the likeness of man – and not some deathless prelapsarian man – but one who suffers the effects of our sins and even one who dies – “a slave… obedient unto death, even death on a cross" (Phil 2:7-8). He is the new Adam, subjecting himself to the world as we’ve made it and thereby making it all anew. He is not the old Adam before his fall. Paul goes so far as to say that he becomes sin for us. "For our sake, he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor 5:21).
St. Ambrose writes that he who takes on the sins of all was born in the flesh, was subject to wrongs and pain, and he did not refuse the further humiliation of a sinful parentage – because this did not detract from his holiness in any way. Now, it should not shame us – the Church – to be gathered from among sinners, because the Lord himself was born of sinners. The benefits of redemption in the Lord begin with his own forefathers. Let none imagine that a stain in the blood is any hindrance to virtue, nor again any pride themselves insolently on nobility of birth (paraphrased).
How clear Matthew makes this for us today – with his survey of Jesus Christ's ancestors on this Sunday of his Holy Fathers, so many of whom show forth for us what it is to be mortal, impassioned, corruptible, and sinful, even as they also exemplify for us what it is to be faithful and hopeful, repentant and righteous.
Jerome points out that many holy ones are passed over in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus while many “taken into the Savior's genealogy [are] such as Scripture has condemned, that He who came for sinners being born of sinners might so put away the sins of all.”
Take, for example, Judah and Tamar. St. John Chrysostom points out their sin of incest but to my mind that’s like the tip of the iceberg. Read their story in Genesis 38, to see what I’m talking about. Only, maybe don't read it to your children. To incest may be added the sins of injustice, deception, and harlotry. These are the ancestors of Jesus Christ.
And then there is David – one of the primary ancestors to whom – as to Abraham – the Lord made promises that are finally and ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Yet, even this great and all-important ancestor was also great at sinning, just like us.
"David begat Solomon with a woman with whom he had committed adultery," says John Chrysostom. To adultery may be added the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband.
It’s interesting that Bathsheba is not named in Matthew’s genealogy, while other women like Tamar are. One of the fathers suggests that this is because of her great sin, but great sin doesn’t exclude others from this list, so I disagree. In any case, I see Bathsheba as much less of a sinner, but rather the victim of David’s great sins. That’s how the text reads to me (2 Sam 11).
Notice too that not only are sinners mentioned here, but also specifically sinners whose sins resulted in the conception of the ancestors of Christ. Sinful actions themselves result ultimately in the conception of Christ.
This is how God works. He turns all things around to the good. He works through us when we strive for the good and also even when we vainly strive against the good. He brings greater good out of good – and even good out of evil – and even the greatest good out of the greatest evil. Incarnation out of adultery and incest. Resurrection out of crucifixion.
If we could all see our own complete genealogies, I am sure we would all find many examples of great holiness and virtue, but I’m also quite sure we would all soon discover that somewhere along the line, all of our own conceptions – like that of Jesus Christ – are the result of others’ sins. Yet, despite any sin, every conception itself is holy. And no stain in the blood hinders virtue, as Ambrose says. Every conception is an act of God, despite any human or even sinful actions that led to it. God does his work amongst us as we are. God is with us. He overshadows us. He overcomes us. He overcomes any bad intentions with his great holiness. He even becomes us – a man like us in all things but sin.
As a man, Jesus Christ is generated in the same way that we are all generated – with an ancestry and a genealogy. Behold this mystery: Isaiah prophesies, "Who shall declare his generation?" Such cannot be declared of God because God has no beginning. The Divine Messiah, the Son of God who is God, the suffering servant of the Lord is not generated in his divinity. So what is Matthew doing beginning his gospel with the book of the generation of Jesus Christ? St. Jerome says that Isaiah shows that there is no generation of the divine nature but that St. Matthew declares rather the generation of his human nature. God is incarnate in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God has ancestors and Matthew declares his generation.
Now, as a man and through all his ancestors, God is with us!
Jesus Christ is flesh and blood. He’s not a phantasm. The notion that he might be is not so popular in our day and age as it was during the early centuries of the Church when many denied the reality of Christ’s human nature. But still, we encounter a kind of soft-Docetism when we hear people speak dismissively of Christ's faithfulness and holiness and sinlessness and miracle-working saying, "Well, of course, Jesus can do these things – he's God."
It’s true that Jesus is God. Yet, it is also true that Jesus is Man. We must not pretend to have mastered this mystery, to comprehend the incomprehensible, to speak knowingly of the ineffable, to conceive the inconceivable, to fully grasp the paradox of the incarnation. We must not thus cheapen it – subjecting God and His workings to our own understanding – as if his being were subject to us and not beyond us.
Jesus Christ is fully human. The goodness of his humanity is fully human. He shows forth and makes possible the possibility of us being good and true and beautiful in him. We must not say, "Oh, goodness is for Jesus but not for me – I cannot be held to his standard, he is God and I am not." We must not say this because what he is by nature – divine – we are to become by grace. Our theosis is the whole point of his incarnation. He partakes of our human nature so that we may become partakers of his divine nature (Heb 2:14; 2 Peter 1:4).
He became like us just as we are in all things but sin, and, even though he is no sinner, he became even sin. He is able to sympathize with our weaknesses and in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning (Heb 4:15). No matter what depravity we have sunk to, we are not without hope in Christ. If we have hit bottom, he will lift us up. Even if we have died, in him we will rise again. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16).