Isaiah 11:1-3 / Matthew 1:1-17
Well, I managed to get through that long Gospel reading! Why on earth did Matthew start his Gospel with a long, tedious list of names? Because for Matthew the gospel, (the Good News he was proclaiming), was entirely dependent on who Jesus is. The identity of Jesus is everything. And central to his identity is that he is a branch, stemming from the root of Jesse. O root, O radix Jesse, as today’s Advent antiphon puts it.
Identity is central to the whole prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. That tradition became more and more focused on the hope that one day, God would save his people by sending them a Savior – an anointed one—a Messiah. But who would he be? How will we know who it is? People were always asking “who are you?” “Where are you from?” Well, Isaiah tells us in our reading today: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him….” He will be the one. We will recognize the Messiah when he comes, because he will come from the root of Jesse.
Well, the long genealogical list at the beginning of Matthew is pretty dreary – but the image of a tree, a family tree, is much more appealing to the imagination. And that was certainly true for the medieval imagination. So over the centuries, artists have created some of the most beautiful and imaginative trees to teach and to celebrate Jesus’ genealogical identity. They are called Jesse Trees. We see them in stained glass windows. (The oldest piece of stained glass in England is the Jesse Tree at York Minster.) We see them in stone casings (like the wonderful Jesse Tree greeting pilgrims at the entrance to the cathedral of St. James Santiago de Compostela.) And we see them in illuminated manuscripts, such as the one you have before you. It is taken from the famous Winchester Psalter from the 12th century.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers were some of the earliest Christians to take up the monastic life. Among their recorded Sayings we find the following anecdote: A monk was told that his father had died. “Do not blaspheme,” he said to the messenger. “My Father cannot die.”[i] This reply, so seemingly hard and uncaring, is meant to shock our ears and awaken our spiritual curiosity. A relative bond – that between an earthly son and his now deceased father – is set in dramatic relief against an ultimate and indissoluble bond – the relationship between a child of God and his heavenly Father. The desert hermit to whom these words are attributed lived a rare and radical vocation, pursuing a way of life totally organized around this ultimate and indissoluble relationship. As a prophet of ultimate truth, his reply to the messenger jumps the tracks of conventional language, but his words do not negate the factuality of the messenger’s statement. Nor do they preclude feelings of loss or grief on the part of the monk. His reply, rather, holds those human realities in their proper, relative perspective – as small when compared to the greatness, the goodness, and the ultimacy of God.
In this evening’s passage from Luke, we encounter Jesus as the teller of Ultimate Truth in the midst of a world whose unquestioned logic, traditions, priorities and values are often myopically relative: concerned with things “passing away” rather than those “that shall endure.”[ii] This short passage centers around the primacy of one’s family of origin and its power to determine a person’s ultimate loyalties and alliances in Jesus’s time. Jesus has just finished a lengthy discourse including both public teaching to the crowds and a private teaching to his disciples on the purpose of parables. It is a lengthy exposition of ultimate truths. Jesus is then told that his mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see him. This appearance of Jesus’ family at the edge of a crowd and at the conclusion of a teaching discourse is an event recounted in Matthew and Mark as well.
Feast of Saint James of Jerusalem, Brother of Our Lord, and Martyr, c 62
Acts 15: 12 – 22a
1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 11
Matthew 13: 54 – 58
If you have ever been to Jerusalem, you have perhaps found two of my favourite places. The first is quite easy to find, the Armenian Cathedral of St. James’, just near Jaffa Gate. The problem with the Cathedral is that it is only open when there are services on, and the best time to go is late afternoon for Vespers. It is sung by the cathedral clergy and students who attend the seminary across from the Cathedral. Once Vespers is over you have about 15 minutes to look around before being ushered out. I love the Cathedral, for obvious reasons. Who couldn’t love a cathedral dedicated not to one St. James but two!
The first St. James, the more familiar, is St. James the Apostle, brother of St. John and son of Zebedee. It is he, whose shrine at Compostela in Spain is at the end of the Camino, the pilgrim way that has become so popular in recent years. This St. James was beheaded by order of Herod Antipas and in a side chapel of the Cathedral, near the door, is his shrine. Spain has his body, but the Armenians in Jerusalem have his head.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are quite elderly when the angel Gabriel visits and says they will have a child. Zechariah doesn’t believe it. He becomes mute, unable to speak, for nine months until their son’s birth. About six months later Gabriel appears to a relative of Elizabeth, an unmarried young woman named Mary. Gabriel tells her she will have a son, the Messiah. Joseph, her fiancé, also receives a startling visit from an angel. Elizabeth does give birth to John, and Mary gives birth six months later to Jesus.
We will celebrate Jesus’ birth in six months on December 25th. So today, June 24th, we celebrate John’s birth. John was born to barren Elizabeth and Zechariah, who were old enough to be his great grandparents. Jesus was born to virgin Mary, almost too young to be a mother, and her husband-to-be, Joseph. These are improbable parents, impossible births, and wondrous stories.
Today’s Hebrew Scripture lesson from the scribe Ezra describes the decrees of good King Darius and the search for documentary evidence concerning the First Temple and its records. The Third Temple, built by Herod and in its final construction stages in Jesus’ time, is said to have contained tens of thousands of genealogical records. After the Babylonian exile, there was an almost obsessive preoccupation with proving the purity of one’s family bloodlines. Many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries searched these records in their effort to demonstrate their good standing in the post-Exilic community. Galilean families, living in a mixed Gentile- Jewish area and often marginalized by the Judean elite centered in Jerusalem seemed to have been particularly intent in proving their connection to this community and as we know, Jesus was a Galilean.