March 9, 2015 / Praxis
On geography, state fairs, and deep-fried nostalgia.
December 19, 2017
Abraham had Isaac; Isaac had Jacob; Jacob had Judah and his brothers; Judah had Perez and Zerah (their mother was Tamar); Perez had Hezron; Hezron had Aram; Aram had Aminadab; Amminadab had Nahshon; Nahshon had Salmon; Salmon had Boaz (his mother was Rahab); Boaz had Obed (Ruth was his mother); Obed had Jesse; Jesse had David; and David became king. David had Solomon (Uriah’s wife was his mother); Solomon had Rehoboam; Rehoboam had Abijah; Abijah had Asaph; Asaph had Jehoshaphat; Jehoshaphat had Joram; Joram had Uzziah; Uzziah had Jotham; Jotham had Ahaz; Ahaz had Hezekiah; Hezekiah had Manasseh; Manasseh had Amos; Amos had Josiah; Josiah had Jechoniah and his brothers; and then the people were taken into the Babylonian exile, and so on, until Jacob had Joseph, Mary’s husband—the Mary who gave birth to Jesus, the Jesus who was called Christ.
One of the things I like about Christmas is getting all the pictures in the mail from family and friends. Even if I don’t hear from these friends all year, it is fun to get a card and see a picture of their family, to see how old their kids are getting and be reminded of their presence in my life. And the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel shows us that family is a part of the original Christmas story as well. Matthew’s genealogy is like Jesus’s family Christmas picture.
Think of your own family. If a stranger saw a photograph from a family event, they might be unable to discern the precise relationships that link the various family members. They may not be able to tell that you are even related. This is how the genealogy feels at first to us too.
But when you look at the same picture you see something completely different. Behind each face is a complex story. Grandma isn’t someone who can be summed up in a word or two. She’s got many layers; she’s lived through difficult times; she has bags of tricks and triumphs and failures. Perhaps your cousin, who happens to be a single dad, is much more than a guy with a goofy haircut and a flannel shirt. Your aunt just survived her fifth round of chemo, and that’s why she’s lost her hair. Your mother is not in the picture because she passed away last year. You’ve had a very difficult relationship with your father, and every time you see his face your heart sinks. These people aren’t random strangers to you: they are your family. They tell you something about who you are, where you come from, what has shaped you for better or for worse, and who you belong too. Unless we know the story behind the picture, the power of the family portrait is lost on us.
In the same way, Matthew’s genealogy has a backstory. For one, Matthew lists the five women in the direct matriarchal line of Jesus. This is unusual, as ancient Hebrew genealogies rarely contained the names of women—genealogies were about showing the line of the father. Yet this genealogy takes things a step further, as four of these women are not even Jews; they are outsiders to Israel. And all five of these women, including Mary, the only Jew, were caught up in sexual scandals: Tamar was impregnated by her father-in-law; Rahab was the Gentile sex worker who helped to hide some of Joshua’s men who were spying out Jericho; Ruth tricked Boaz into declaring his intentions with her after she slipped into the threshing room where he was sleeping and “uncovered his feet”; Bathsheba, who is only mentioned here as “Uriah’s wife,” is often remembered as the woman King David had an affair with, but when the king of a country has his soldiers show up at a woman’s house to summon her to his room, we don’t call that adultery—we call that rape; and then there is Mary, a teenager who would be stigmatized for becoming pregnant before formally joining Joseph’s household.
These are Jesus’s five mothers of grace. These women are a part of Jesus’s Christmas family portrait. They are not random strangers but an essential part of the thread of what God has been up to and will continue to do in Jesus’s life.
I think this genealogy also teaches us that you can’t outscandalize God. Sinners and saints have already been written into the Christmas story itself. We also see that God’s promise has been gestating for a very, very long time. My guess is that these women had no idea that they were a part of the much larger story of God. And more importantly, we see in this genealogy that God was redefining who was in his family in subversive, nontraditional, and seemingly inappropriate ways. This genealogy and the story of Christ’s birth thus invite us to expand our imaginations about what God can do and who can be a part of God’s family.
Seeing One Another as a Book of Holy Doctrine
This reminds me of an inspiring story a friend of mine pointed out to me about postal workers in Brazil who had become so overwhelmed with all the letters they were receiving from children to Santa at the North Pole that they decided to respond. Operating on the belief that “if everyone helped a little, the world would be a better place,” they set up the Father Christmas Project—something that could be described as a cross between Secret Santa and the Make-A-Wish Foundation—to respond to many of the letters they received in the mail. About 500,000 children’s letters are answered each year. “Dear Father Christmas,” one letter reads, “My name is Larissa. I know that you are very busy and that you live a long way away in the North Pole, but I’d like to ask you for a gift because my mother doesn’t have enough money to buy what I want.” Another letter was from a child whose mother had died when he was little, and another was from a boy who asked that Santa bring his mother food for Christmas. The reporter tells this moving story:
We stop in front of a shack; it’s made of cardboard siding and tin, crowded among other makeshift dwellings. Maria Marisa Laureano answers the door. Her daughter has asked for three beds for her and her two sisters. When we go into the one-room home, we see only one large bed where Laureano says she and her children all sleep. A pot of food is cooking in the corner, and clothes are strewn on the floor. It’s dark and crowded, and the walls are so thin you can hear the neighbors talking. The new beds barely fit in the house. . . . “It’s been three months since I moved here,” she says, “but there are a lot of termites. Some nights we can’t sleep. They fly and walk on the bed, on us, they bite. Life has been very hard.”1
The challenge these postal workers leaned into during Christmas was something that seemed insurmountable, but they were able to have their imaginations opened up and in a way where they saw these children as a part of their own family.
As the Christian mystic Thomas à Kempis writes: “If your heart were sincere and upright, every creature would be unto you a looking-glass of life and a book of holy doctrine.”2 I’d say that these workers saw these children as a “book of holy doctrine.”
I love this story because everyone wonders if they are loved, if they are welcomed, if they belong, if someone is watching out for them. What we want more in life than most anything else is to be accepted for who we are and to be cared for. These Brazilians took what seemed like an overwhelming challenge and did something unexpected with it.
Christmas either helps to draw us in deeper to this connection to one another, or it makes the distance feel more and more great. I imagine that these children felt a great distance and wondered where, or even if, they fit.
Growing up as a kid from a divorced family, I got two Christmases. I’d be with one of my families on Christmas Eve and the morning of Christmas Day, and then around noon my other parent would come to pick me up and take me to their home. I did this for about seventeen years. Having two Christmases wasn’t bad, but it didn’t make up for the distance I felt every year in my heart. Christmas was a day when I was reminded about the great distance in my own family and the irreconcilable and often difficult situations that family could produce.
A (New) Family Portrait
Jesus’s biographer, Matthew, was an artist: he has taken a portrait of the family of God, and he has begun to photoshop in more and more people—people who don’t at first glance belong—in order to make the point that because of Christmas, everyone belongs.
The opening of Matthew invites us to have hearts that are, as Thomas à Kempis puts it, “sincere and upright,” hearts that help us see the world as “a book of holy doctrine.” Yes, we have skeletons in the closet. We have conflicts. There are distances that are either impossible to cross or that feel impossible in the moment. We wonder where we fit—or if we fit at all—in God’s family.
And the story of Jesus’s birth powerfully addresses these situations. The Christmas story is about seeing that we belong to this family, to God’s family, no matter our background or our identity. The Christmas story is itself a story of a stuck situation—a teenage fiancée gets knocked up before the wedding, and the now-step-dad doesn’t know what to do. And in a moment’s notice, God provides an unexpected door out of the dead end. The Christmas story is about believing in the impossible and holding out hope no matter what happens. It is about God being present and slowly gestating the answer to a promise for the many years of silence that lead up to the birth of Jesus. The Christmas story is about seeing that God can use anything and anyone and that God cannot be outscandalized. It is about God taking a family portrait and photoshopping more and more people into it.
This is what Emmanuel means: God is with us and God saves. God doesn’t save us at a distance but right up close. God saves us by becoming one of us and showing just who is a part of God’s family, by revealing that each and every person is a book of holy doctrine who is loved and belongs.
C. Wess Daniels
C. Wess Daniels is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College. Prior to teaching at Guilford, Daniels was a released minister at Camas Friends Church in Washington State. He is the author of the book A Convergent Model of Renewal: Remixing The Quaker Tradition in Participatory Culture, and he has a passion for the renewal of faith traditions to act as communities of liberation within their contexts.