Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Fullness of Time

This Sunday is the Sunday of the Genealogy of Jesus (Gospel: Mt. 1:1-25), the immediate preparation for the celebration of his nativity. It’s all the more immediate this year, since the last Sunday of Advent happens to fall on Christmas Eve. The long list of names of Old Testament figures may seem to be obscure or even irrelevant to many, but its purpose is important. Jesus must be known to be both true God and true Man. When St John says, “the Word was God,” and when Christ says, “I and the Father are one,” it is clear that He is true God. But the testimony of the genealogy says that Jesus is also true man, that He has a lineage just like any other human being, that He was born into the human family from a woman, just like the rest of us—even though his conception and birth were miraculous, unlike ours, but that part testifies to his being true God, which we are not. We see a subtle hint of this in the genealogy itself. The whole list is in the form of “so-and-so was the father of so-and-so”—until we get to St Joseph. It doesn’t say he was the father of anybody. The format changes in his case. It says: “Joseph was the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” So here we have another testimony of the divinity and humanity of Christ: He had no human father (divinity), but He did have a human mother (humanity).

At the end of the genealogy, St Matthew divides salvation history into three stages: the time of the patriarchs and judges (from Abraham to David), the time of the kings (from David to the Babylonian exile), and the time of restoration (post-exilic Judaism to the coming of the Messiah). He begins the time of the kings with David and not Saul, even though Saul was the first king. Why is that? And why doesn’t Saul appear in the genealogy? As to the second question, the genealogy is only in the line of Judah, and Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin. He began no dynasty, for he and his son Jonathan, the heir apparent, both died in the battle of Mount Gilboa. But Saul was rejected for a more important reason: his disobedience and infidelity. David, despite his sins, was a man after God’s own heart, who loved the Lord and strove to do his will. It was he whom God accepted to begin the dynasty of kings, and it was in his line, that of Judah, that Jesus the Messiah would be born.

It is clear from St Matthew’s arrangement of the genealogy into three sets of fourteen generations, that once these had been completed, the fullness of time, the kairos, the moment of unprecedented divine intervention into human history, had come.

So St Paul wrote to the Galatians: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” But weren’t all human beings children of God even before the coming of Christ? Wasn’t God our Father even before He sent his Son as man? Scripture and theology answer: no. If in any sense God could have been considered the Father of human beings before the coming of Christ, it could only have been so in virtue of the Incarnation yet to be manifested. Just because God created us doesn’t mean He is our Father. He created mice and mushrooms, too, but He is not their Father.

St Paul makes this clear, again in Galatians. In the passage just quoted, he said that God sent forth his Son, born of woman, so that we could be adopted as children of God. This means, a) before He sent his Son we were not children of God, and b) the purpose of God sending his Son was to make it possible for us to become children of God (see John 1:11-12—“…his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”). We aren’t God’s children by nature; that’s why Paul says we had to be adopted, and that only happens through the mediation of Christ. Many people blithely assume that we are all indiscriminately and automatically children of God, as if sheer existence somehow elevates us to this incredible status. It is rather a priceless gift, one that was given at an immeasurably high personal cost: the incarnation, death and resurrection of the only-begotten Son of God.

St Paul then says: the promises were made to Abraham and his offspring, not in the plural but in the singular, that is, referring specifically to Christ. So it is only in Christ that we are children of God and hence inheritors of the promises made to Abraham, our father in faith. Paul concludes by saying that only if we are in Christ are we Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. Whoever is saved is saved by Christ; whoever is entitled to call God “Father” is entitled only through union with the Son. If there are among the saved those who do not explicitly confess faith in Christ—and I think we ought to acknowledge that there must be—it is only through some mystery of divine love and providence that has not been revealed to us. But in any case it is always and only through Christ, the only Savior, that anyone is saved. So we see why St Matthew so carefully presents the genealogy, showing how it leads to the incarnation of the Son of God at the fullness of time, for only in Christ are we children of God and thus eligible to be received into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Let us look briefly now at the second part of this Gospel, the angelic revelation of the incarnation to St Joseph. I will not try to enter his psychological or emotional state here—though that can be fruitful for meditation—but just to look at the essential point. Mary was betrothed to him, and betrothal at that time had the legal force of marriage. She was pregnant, and Joseph knew he was not the father, for his relationship with her was free from sexual intercourse. Being faithful to the word and will of God as he knew it in the Scriptures, he had to leave her, for this was God’s law, and even though he loved his betrothed very much, He loved God more and was committed to his will.

But the angel clarified God’s will, revealing the utter uniqueness of this situation in words that the humble carpenter could not fully have comprehended: “that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” Surely he would reflect on those few words for years to come. But whether or not he comprehended the incomprehensible, he knew how to obey. “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” He could name the child and do whatever else God told him to do. The evangelist then reminds us of the fulfillment of a messianic prophecy about a virginal conception and the birth of a child who would be Emmanuel, God with us. In the original text, the child to be born in the time of the Prophet Isaiah would carry the name of Emmanuel, as a sign, a reminder that God is always with his people. But the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy—the Child of Mary—is Emmanuel, is God with us in person. No prophecy, no reminder: God Himself is with us in Jesus, the Son of Mary.

Finally, a brief note on a disputed word—one which is put forth by some as evidence against Mary’s perpetual virginity. The word is “until.” The text says that Joseph had no intercourse with Mary until she had borne a son. They assume (wrongly) that this implies that the chaste couple had intercourse after she had borne a son. If these events had occurred in America, and if the evangelist’s culture and language were English, they might have a point. But this “until” is a semitic idiom, which does not imply that the situation changes afterwards. For example, in the book of Genesis, God says to Jacob: “Behold, I am with you and I will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you” (28:15). Does that mean that God is going to leave him after he brings him back to the land? Of course not! And has anyone, anywhere, ever tried to make a case that God was going to leave him, because of that word “until”? No. Why? Because the idiom is understood. Why then should we not understand it in the case of Mary and Joseph? ("Brothers" and "sisters" are also semitic idioms for relatives in general, in case a similar question occurs to you later!) The Church in her wisdom reveals the most profound meaning of the texts of Scripture.

Let us now, as there is only a brief time between us and the celebration of Christ’s nativity, reflect on these mysteries: the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the gift of adoption as children of God through Him, the grace of the Holy Spirit and the angelic intervention in the lives of Mary and Joseph. And let us follow the example of St Joseph, who even without full knowledge, obeyed the word of God and assisted personally in the manifestation of the Savior to the world: “he did as the Lord commanded him… he called his name Jesus.”