Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Vigil 2006: The Genealogy of Matthew - and What it Means

“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

“Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahson, and Nahson the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king.

“And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asa, and Asa the father of Jehosaphat, and Jehosaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham… and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.”

De facto, the genealogy of Jesus Christ is totally unexceptional with regard to human excellence when it is not punctuated on the distaff side with prostitution (Rahab), legal incest (Tamar), adultery (Bathsheba), murder (Uriah), or idolatry (Ruth). On the male side of the genealogy it is not much better. Neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob is an ideal human being; David certainly is not, nor is Solomon; and finally we meet such abhorrent rulers as Ahaz and Manasseh, whose thrones are sticky with the blood of innocent victims. We will see below that the “greats” of the Old Testament like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob "seem at least quite mediocre and pathetic next to someone like Buddha, Confucious, or Lao-tzu."[1] Augustine’s paean concerning the beauty of truth found in the “Hortensius” of the pagan Cicero makes “the actors in the history of faith appear practically uncouth.”[2] Ratzinger notes that the word “uncouth” was the term Nietzsche used to refer to Augustine. Ratzinger punctuates the point when he says, “From the point of view of the history of religions, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob really are not `great religious personalities.’”[3]

Raymond Brown remarks: “But what a curiouos cast of characters… Except for the first two (Shealtiel and Zerubbabel) and the last two (Joseph and Mary), they are a collection of unknown people whose names never made it into sacred history for having done something significant. In other words, while powerful rulers in the monarchy brought God’s people to a low point in recorded history (deportation), unknown people, presumably also proportionately divided among saints and sinners, were the vehicles of restoration. Still another indicator of the unpredictability of God’s grace is that He accomplishes His purpose through those whom others regard as unimportant and forgettable…. We hear nothing of the saintly patriarchal wives, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel. Matthew begins rather with Tamar, A Canaanite outsider left childless by the death of her first and second husbands, both of them Judah’s sons. When Judah failed to do his duty in providing her with a third son as husband, she disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced him. Only later when he found his widowed daughter-in-law in a pregnant situation that he regarded as disgraceful did she reveal that he was the father, causing Judah to recognize that she was more just and loyal to God’s law than he was. The next in the list is another outsider, the Canaanite Rahab – this time a real prostitute, but one whose kindness in protecting the Israelite spies made the conquest of Jericho possible (Joshua 2). Odd figures to be part of the beginning story of Jesus Christ, unless we remember his gracious dealings with sinners and prostitutes which were part of the story of his ministry. Ruth was another foreigner, a Moabite. Yet it was from her and not from her Israelite relatives that the impulse came to be faithful to the Law in raising up a child to her dead husband as she literally threw herself at the feet of Boaz. That child was to be the grandfather of David the king.”[4]

The first and obvious point here is that man is not the principal agent as a self-made mystic who evolves and progressively rises to God from below. Rather, God is the Principal Agent “who seeks out man in the midst of his worldly and earthly connections and relationships; God, whom no one, not even the purest of men, can discover for himself, comes to man of his own volition and enters into relationship with him… It is not primarily the discovery of some truth; rather, it is the activity of God himself making history. Its meaning is, not that divine reality becomes visible to man, but that it makes the person who receives the revelation into an actor in divine history. For here, in contrast to mysticism, God is the one who acts, and it is he who brings salvation to man.”[5]

An Account of This Dynamic

The ontological dynamic that undergirds God’s initiative and therefore the lowliness of the genealogy of Jesus Christ is the relational nature of the divine Persons. As God, the Logos is pure self-transcendence, pure Love that “compenetrates” the human nature – the human will – of Jesus Christ that had been “made sin” (2 Cor. 5, 21). The Son gives himself so completely to man that He enters into the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth and makes it His very own. The human will of Jesus Christ reveals the willing of a divine Person. The decisive text is John 6, 38: “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own [human] will, but the will of him who sent me.” The “I” that is the gift in the human willing of Jesus of Nazareth to death is the divine “I” engendered and affirmed by the Father. Without being loved by the Father, the Son would not be Son nor capable of the unimaginable kenosis of crossing “the iron curtain of his untouchable transcendence” to emit from a human will the agape that is “one in substance” with the Father’s Love.

And so, it doesn’t matter that the genealogy is quite a mess. It is permitted to be a mess because God loves man’s freedom to make a mess because it is the same freedom that is capable of making the gift of self that is the divinization - the agape - lived out in the human will.

God Went “Too Far”

The divine gift of self that is God’s becoming man completely transcends human capacity. It is humanly conceivable to give something that is not oneself. But it totally inconceivable – and metaphysically impossible in an ontology of being-in-itself-nature or substance – to give away ones very self: the “I.”

It took the Church time and experience to come to grips conceptually with what John Paul II called God’s “going too far” in becoming man. That God be transcendent and totally beyond man experientially and conceptually, that he remain “separated from us by the iron curtain of his untouchable transcendence,”[6] was acceptable. But, says John Paul, “Could God go further in His stooping down, in His drawing near to man, thereby expanding the possibilities of our knowing Him? In truth, it seems that He has gone as far as possible. He could not go further. In a certain sense God has gone too far! Didn’t Christ perhaps become `a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Cor. 1, 23) (emphasis mine)?

“And then protests began. “This great protest has precise names –first it is called the Synagogue, and then Islam. Neither can accept a God who is so human.
“It is not suitable to speak of God in this way,’ they protest. `He must remain absolutely transcendent; He must remain pure Majesty. Majesty full of mercy, certainly, but not to the point of paying for the faults of His own creatures, for their sins.’

The Church had to struggle to conceptualize its own consciousness not only of the transcendence, but of the simultaneous immanence. How could the Absolute be in the contingent, the Eternal in time, the Whole in the part? How could God be simultaneously man and have a human face, soul, intellect and will?[8] How could the Creator be part of creation? Nicea (325) defined that Christ was “of the same substance of the Father.” Ephesus (431) defined that He not only had flesh (sarx) but also a human soul, mind and will.
The lead-in to the Council of Ephesus was the work of Theodore of Mopsuestia who labored to affirm the full humanity of Christ and was followed by Nestorius (his pupil) who explicitly failed to make the distinction between person and nature and ended up in the heresy of asserting – there being two natures – that there were two persons. If that were the case, then the human will and nature would not have been assumed by the divine Person, and man would not have been divinized and redeemed. Theodore was posthumously condemned for the same point, but has recently been exonerated.[9] It is here in the distinction between person - the “I” - and nature (subject and object) that a new metaphysics distinct from substance had to be hewn. It was not hewn until Wojtyla took to thomistic act of existence (“esse”) and conflated it the “I” that was objectified as “I” by the work of a phenomenology of experience of moral action. It is only now that we are able to speak of an experience of the “I” in determining oneself in the moral act and therefore coming to the metaphysical possibility of an ontological “gift of self” which is at the root of Vatican II and can give an account of how sanctity can take place in the ordinary and the sinful of post-lapsarian genealogy.

An Aside on the Distinction Between Nature and Person as Presupposed in Vatican II

This distinction between nature and person is of monumental importance especially at the present moment when the entire shift of Vatican II was “to re-read the whole preceding magisterium in that of the last Council.”
[10] The distinction between nature and person is the distinction between subject and object, between experiencing reality in the experience of myself as “I,” and experiencing reality through the media of sensible perception and intellectual abstraction and judgment. One is “first-hand” in consciousness, the other is “second hand” in concepts.

Wojtyla made it clear as cardinal of Krakow that Vatican II “profoundly developed the doctrine of faith and thus provided a basis for its enrichment.”
[11] That enrichment consisted in viewing the objectified teaching of the entire magisterium – the dogma and the deposit of conceptual doctrine – through the lens of subjectivity, a subjectivity that was not subjectivism, but the ontological subjectivity of the “Ego Eimi” of Yahweh and Jesus Christ. He said: “If we study the Conciliar magisterium as a whole, we find that the Pastors of the Church were not so much concerned to answer questions like `What should men believe?,’ `What is the real meaning of this or that truth of faith?’ and so on, but rather to answer the more complex question: `What does it mean to be a believer, a Catholic and a member of the [12]Church?’”[13] He clarifies that this shift is an epistemological shift from objectifying reality in a series of abstracted conceptual signs or symbols through which we know it, but to consider consciousness of the ontological “I” as a deeper and more realist form of knowing. The question is not to know “truths” about Christ Who is the revelation of the Father, but to know Christ as “Ego Eimi.” That can only take place by becoming like Christ Who is pure transcendence to the Father. Therefore, only those who transcend self in the act of faith as gift become “like” the Self-transcending - Self-revealing -Christ, and therefore “know” Him in His self-transcendence. In this light, Wojtyla says that to be a believing member of the Church “not only presupposes the truth of faith and pure doctrine, but also calls for that truth to be situated in the human consciousness and calls for definition of the attitude (the orientation of the “I”), or rather the many attitudes, that go to make the individual a believing member of the Church… A `purely’ doctrinal Council would have concentrated on defining the precise meaning of the truths of faith, whereas a pastoral Council proclaims, recalls or clarifies truths for the primary purpose of giving Christians a life-style, a way of thinking and acting.” He is talking here of giving the self.”

Having made this shift from object to subject, Vatican II, Wojtyla says, “expresses itself … in such a way that on the one hand we can rediscover and, as it were, re-read the magisterium of the last Council in the whole previous magisterium of the Church, while on the other we can rediscover and re-read the whole preceding magisterium in that of the last Council… This principle of integration, thus conceived and applied, is indirectly the principle of the Church’s identity, dating back to its first beginnings in Christ and the Apostles. This principle of identity operated in the Council and must continue to do so, integrating the whole patrimony of faith with and in the consciousness of the Church.”

Following the Council of Ephesus in 431, there as the definitive assertion of the Council of Chalcedon (451) that defined there to be only one divine Person and two natures in Christ. After 200 hundred years of struggle working in an objective fashion trying to understand how Christ could be both diving and human in some parallel fashion, and joined in the same person, the Council of Constantinople III (680-681) considered not the “natures” but the dynamics of a human will and a divine will. Through the efforts of St. Maximus the Confessor, Constantinople III defined that although the human and the divine are ontologically distinct ways of being, they were not in parallel but compenetrated because they were both the wills of the one divine Person acting (actiones sunt suppositorum) through both as His own. In a word, the wills did not will, a tendency called “reification” that conceptualization falls into. Rather, the “Yes” emitted by Jesus Christ to the Father is one personal “Yes” of both human and divine will. Only the one Person wills, but through double and distinct mediums. The “Yes” to the Father is the “Yes” of the divine “I” through the ontologically distinct wills that are His very Self. Hence, there is only one personal “Yes.”

This, of course, is huge in that it resolves the schizophrenic dualisms that we are to this day mired in without penetrating to the solution: supernatural-natural; grace-nature; faith-reason; Church-State; priest-layman; male-female. These dualisms are all resolved on the level of the person as relation, or self-gift. One must move from the “horizon” of the object to that of the subject, and work there with the “I” as self-gift. There man is ontologically hard-wired as image of God; grace is divine Love affirming man into personhood; the believing person as self-gift is the Being that reason is seeking; the believer becomes conscious of the self-evident truths grounding the democratic state; the minister and the lay faithful are both priests but irreducible in their field of mediation; male and female are equal but the same as self-gift. In this regard, Benedict remarked: “In conjoining himself to man, his creature, God does not violate or diminish him; in doing so, he brings him for the first time to his real fullness. On the other hand (and this is no less important), it abolishes all dualism or parallelism of the two natures, such as had always seemed necessary in order to safeguard Jesus’ human freedom In such attempts it had been forgotten that when the human will is taken up into the will of God, freedom is not destroyed; indeed, only then does genuine freedom come into its own.”

Now it is important to see the existential-historical build-up of this humanity of Jesus of Nazareth that the divine “I” – the Logos of the Father – assumed as His own, and to consider the meaning it has for us, the first being that we do not rise up to God as mystical “greats,” but rather are receptive of God coming down to us and living out the ordinariness of quotidian human existence. The report of the genealogy shows sin, failure, weakness and the ordinary. Benedict explains that “the incarnation of God does not result from an ascent on the part of the human race but from the descent of God”

* * * * * * * * *

Benedict XVI on the Christ’s Genealogy in Matthew

“St. Matthew the Evangelist begins his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ with the words: `The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ He searches out the human ancestors of this man Jesus, and attempts to locate him in relation to the history of the race. He shows the human origins of this life which did not drop straight from heaven but grew on a tree with a long history and ultimately sprang from the two great roots named Abraham and David. Matthew is presenting Jesus the man, and for this reason his symbol as evangelist is the Son of Man.

“The New Testament begins with man, just as the Old Testament had begun with the incalculably mysterious soliloquy of the Creator: `Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.’ A man stands at the beginning of the New Testament and reminds us of the nocturnal vision in which Daniel sees four beasts coming up from the sea: images, these, of the forces and powers of this world, the kingdoms that share dominion over this world and determine the course of history. Then, in counterbalance to the emergence of the beasts from the sea, he sees a man descending from heaven: an image, this, of the holy people, of the holy power of the human amid the inhuman powers that rise from the deep.

“The man Jesus stands at the beginning of the New Testament, but as one who emerges from the history of mankind. In his genealogy Matthew carefully plots the transition from the long and bewildering history set down in the Old Testament to the new reality that has begun with Jesus Christ. He sums up, as it were, this entire history in three sets of fourteen names and brings it down to him for whose sake alone, in the last analysis, it had existed…

“The questions arises in our minds: What kind of history must it have been that truly created at last the `space,’ the conditions, for the incarnation of God! What kind of human beings must they have been who traveled the final stretch of the journey! What integrity and maturity of spirit must have been attained at the point at which this supreme transformation of man and world could take place! But if we approach the text with these kinds of expectations, we shall find ourselves disappointed. The history of which Jesus becomes a part is a very ordinary history, marked by all the scandals and infamies to be found among human beings, all the advances and good beginnings, but also all the sinfulness and vileness – an utterly human history!”

* * * * * * * * *

“We are tempted to ask: Is that the context into which the Son of God could be born? And the scriptures answer: Yes. But all this is a sign for us. It tells us that the incarnation of God does not result from an ascent on the part of the human race but from the descent of God. The ascent of man, the attempt to bring forth God by his own efforts and to attain the status of superman – this attempt failed wretchedly back in Paradise. The person who tries to become God by his own efforts, who highhandedly reaches for the stars, always ends up by destroying himself. Thus the wretched course of Israelite history is a sign for us: a sign that it it not through artrogance and self-exaltation that human beings are delivered, but through humility, self-surrender, and service.

“Consequently, too, it may be a very good thing that the supreme religious personalities have lived and live today outside the Old Testament and even outside Christianity entirely. For, in Christianity the focus is not on great religious figures; Christianity representes rather the dethronement of religious figures. The thing that counts in Christianity is obedience, humility in the face of God’s word. `An infant, or an overdriven laborer, given faith, can take precedence before heroes of asceticism, because salvation does not come from nan’s greatness but from God’s gracious mercy.This sign of God’s descent, the saving sign that is his self-humbling, should imprint this passage of the Gospel deep inour hearts once again. It should once again convert us into persons who do not shun a similar descent; persons who know that precisely in their descent and in the little services life asks of them they are on the way to Jesus Christ…

“The entire genealogy, with all the disorders, all the ups and downs, that is represents, is a luminous testimony to the fidelity of God who kept his word despite all of man’s failure and unworthiness.”


God Is Principal “Actor;” Man Acts Obeying

In every other religion, man is the acting agent in the search of God. Mystical development in great religious figures is the characteristic of the pioneers in this search. Borrowing from Jean Danielou, Ratzinger remarks – and I repeat what was recorded above - that “If we set the principal actors in the covenant-even of Israel against the religious personalities of Asia, then first of all we feel remarkably uncomfortable. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, with all their wiles and tricks, with their ill-temper and their inclination to violence, seem at least quite mediocre and pathetic next to someone like Buddha, Confucius, or Lao-tzu, but even such great prophetic characters as Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are not entirely persuasive in such a comparison.” He later says: “From the point of view of the history of religions, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob really are not `great religious personalities.’ Interpreting that away means here precisely interpreting away what impels us toward what is peculiar to and particular in the biblical revelation.
“This particular and wholly other element lies in the fact that the God of the Bible is not seen, as by the great mystics, but is experienced as one who acts and who remains (for the inner as for the outer eye) in the dark. And this in turn is because man does not, here, make his own attempts to rise, passing through the various levels of being to the inner-most and most spiritual level, thus to seek out the divine in its own place, but the opposite happens: God seeks out man in the midst of his worldly and earthly connections and relationships; God, whom no one, not even the purest of men can discover for himself, comes to man of his own volition and enters into relationship with him. We could say that biblical `mysticism’ is not… the discovery of some truth; rather, it is the activity of God himself making history. Its meaning is, not that divine reality becomes visible to man, but that it makes the person who receives the revelation into an actor in divine history. For here, in contrast to mysticism, God is the one who acts, and it is he who brings salvation to man.”

St. Josemaria Escriva

Benedict made the same remarks concerning the founder of Opus Dei at the moment of canonization. He wrote: “Escriva knew that he should found something, but he was always aware that whatever it was was not his work, that he had not invented anything, that the Lord had simply made use of him. Thus it was not his work, but Opus Dei. He was only an instrument with which God had acted… In this light one can understand even better what holiness means, as well as the universal calling holiness. Knowing a little about the history of saints, and understanding that in the causes of canonization there is inquiry into `heroic’ virtue, we almost inevitably have a mistaken concept of holiness: `It is not for me,’ we are led to think, `because I do not feel capable of attaining heroic virtue. It is too high a goal.’ Holiness then becomes a thing reserved for some `greats’ whose images we see on the altars, and who are completely reserved for some `greats’ whose images we see on the altars, and who are completely different from us ordinary sinners. But this is a mistaken notion of holiness, a wrong perception which has been corrected – and this seems to me the central point – precisely by Josemaria Escriva…. To be holy does not mean being superior to others; the saint can be very weak, with many mistakes in his life. Holiness is this profound contact with God, becoming a friend of God: it is letting the Other work, the Only One who can really make the world both good and happy. And if, then, Josemaria Escriva speaks of the calling of all to be saints, I think that he is actually referring to this personal experience of his of not having done incredible things by himself, but of having let God work. And thus was born a renewal, a force for good in the world, even if all the weaknesses of mankind will remain ever present. Truly we are all capable, we are all called to open ourselves up to this friendship with God, to not leave the hands of God, to not neglect to turn and return to the Lord, speaking with him as if speaking with a friend, knowing well that the Lord really is a true friend of everyone, including those who cannot great things by themselves.”[20]

The Genealogy: Quasi-Incest, Prostitution, Idolatry and Adultery: “The only four women named in the genealogy are all four of them witnesses to human sinfulness: Among them is Rahab the harlot who delivered Jericho intothe hands of the migrating Israelites. Among them, too, is the wirfe of Uriah, the woman whom David got for himself through adultery and jurder. Nor are the males in the genealogy any different. Neither Abraham nor Isaac nor Jacob is an ideal human being; David certainly is not, nor is soloon; and finally we meet abhorrent rulers as Ahaz and Manasseh, whose thrones are ticky with the blood of innocent victims. It is a somber history that leads

[1] J. Ratzinger, “Truth and Tolerance,” Ignatius (2004) 41.
[2] Ibid 41.
[3] Ibid 42.
[4] Raymond E. Brown, “A Coming Christ in Advent,” The Liturgical Press (1988) 23
[5] Ibid 42.
[6] Benedict XVI, source unknown to me.
[7] John Paul II, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” Knopf (1994) 40-41.
[8] John Paul II, “Fides et Ratio,” #12: “In the Incarnation of the Son of God we see forged the enduring and definitive synthesis which the human mind of itself could to even have imagined: the Eternal enters time, the Whole lies hidden in the part, God takes on a human face.”
[9] The condemnation and exoneration of Theodore: Bardenhewer: “We possess at present only isolated fragments of these works but enough, however, to make certain that Theodore was a Nestorius before Nestorius. Like Diodorus he taught that in Christ there were two persons. The divine nature is a person, and the human nature is a person. The unity of the two natures consists in the community of thought and will. The Christian adores one sole Lord because the man who was joined to the Logos in a moral union was raised, in reward of his perseverance, to a divine dignity” (Patrology p. 321). However, “Grillmeier after a careful examination of his authentic writings has come to the conclusion that nobody contributed more to the progress of Christology in the generation of theologians between 381 and 431 than Theodore of Mopsuestia. If his doctrine contained some dangerous tendencies, it is equally true that he had also positive elements which point in the direction of Chalcedon and prepared its formula;” Johannes Quasten, “Patrology,” Christian Classics (1986) 415, 417.
[10] Karol Wojtyla, “Sources of Renewal” Harper and Row (1979) 40.
[11] Ibid 17
[12] Ibid 17-18
[13] Ibid 17
[14] Ibid 40
[15] J. Ratzinger, “Behold the Pierced One,” Ignatius (1986) 38.
[16] J. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” op. cit. 21.
[17] J. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” op. cit. 19-20.
[18] J. Ratzinger, “Dogma and Preaching,” op. cit. 21-22.
[19] J. Ratzinger, “Truth and Tolerance,” Ignatius (2004) 42.
[20] J. Ratzinger, “L’Osservatore Romano (special supplement) 06 October 2002.

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