17th December: O Wisdom! You Hold All Things Together in a Strong Yet Gentle Fashion...
Today the Catholic Church begins the ‘novena’ of Christmas with the great reading from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel:
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram,
4and Ram the father of Ammin'adab, and Ammin'adab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon,
5and Salmon the father of Bo'az by Rahab, and Bo'az the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse,
6and Jesse the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uri'ah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehobo'am, and Rehobo'am the father of Abi'jah, and Abi'jah the father of Asa,
8and Asa the father of Jehosh'aphat, and Jehosh'aphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzzi'ah,
9and Uzzi'ah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezeki'ah, 10and Hezeki'ah the father of Manas'seh, and Manas'seh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josi'ah,
11and Josi'ah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 12And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoni'ah was the father of She-al'ti-el, and She-al'ti-el the father of Zerub'babel,
13and Zerub'babel the father of Abi'ud, and Abi'ud the father of Eli'akim, and Eli'akim the father of Azor,
14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eli'ud, 15and Eli'ud the father of Elea'zar, and Elea'zar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob,
16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.
17So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
I am reminded of that old TV programme ‘Roots’, where the hero returns to his family village in Africa and gets the elders to recite the names of the ancestors – suddenly he is filled with joy as he recognises the name of his own forebear. So again, we listen to these names, some strange, many unknown, some familiar (or notorious) and we get a sense of the long lineage to which we are heirs... and what a lineage!
St Matthews lays out before us the names of our, and Christ’s,
spiritual ancestors; carefully arranged in groups of seven (the holy number):
from Abraham to the birth of King David, from David to the Babylonian exile
and from the return from Babylon to the culmination of the lineage in the birth
of Christ to Mary.
Yet, if we look at the text carefully it is a most surprising list of people.
For, as well as the great patriarchs and prophets we find some rather unusual
Tamar, whose story occurs in Genesis 38, goes to some rather
extreme lengths to conceive by Judah, including disguising herself as a
The Book of Joshua tells us that Rahab, the mother of Boaz, actually
was a prostitute who betrayed her own people so that the Israelites may seize
the city of Jericho.
Ruth, as described in the book named after her, is not just an outsider
– a Moabite – but also what we would call today an asylum seeker and
migrant worker – needing to pick ‘the alien corn’ in an alien land.
The fourth woman of the genealogy – Bathsheba – is so distressing to
St Matthew that he cannot even bring himself to give us her name – simply
referring to her as ‘Uriah’s wife’. Presumably because of her role in betraying
her husband and marrying another – King David.
Thus, Matthew presents us with our, and Christ’s, spiritual ancestors,
and they are a somewhat motley crew. Yes, there are great and wise saints
amongst them, but there are also thieves, vagabonds and traitors.
Our memory, both personal and spiritual, contains all this.
This evening is also the beginning of the ‘Great O Antiphons’ that will be sung at Evening Prayer in the Catholic tradition from now until Christmas Eve. They are sung at the moment in the prayer when the great song of Mary, the Magnificat, occurs and seems to link the mystery of the Incarnation with that of Mary as the vessel of salvation. Today’s, in Latin, reads:
O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,
attingens a fine usque ad finem,
fortiter suaviter disponens que omnia:
veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.
And translates as:
O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High.
You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle fashion.
O come to teach us the way of truth.
The medieval English Carmelite, John Baconthorpe referred to Mary as the pure cloud mentioned in the Book of Kings, condensed from the saline of humanity, out of whom the refreshing waters of Christ fall and bring life to the world.
For, as we have often heard, ‘God makes straight with crooked lines’.
And in the person of Mary, the salvation of the world comes from the ‘crooked’lineage of which she is heir. Jesus, St Matthew tells us, is born from a tainted and impure line. But this fact means that God has accepted us, once and for all, in our light and darkness. After the birth of Christ there is no going back.
God has become one of us. A fact worth of special celebration today.
For when we look at the life of Mary, as in the life of Christ, we see the
holding together of these two poles of human existence: the joy and ecstasy
of Mary of the Magnificat and also the terrible suffering of Gethsemane and
the Cross traditionally represented by Our Lady of Sorrows.
Over the next six days we shall see in the antiphons an exposition of this theme as God is made incarnate in the mess and struggle of all our lives...