December 25, 2013
GENERATIONS AND GRACE!
Christmas is at one and the same time, an easy and difficult occasion to be preaching. It is easy as everyone is well-motivated, eminently receptive, and for the most part, responsive. But it is also difficult as the occasion is so rich, the readings so varied, and the themes so multi-faceted that it becomes hard to focus on just one, without feeling like not doing justice to all others.
But focus, we must, and speak of just one basic idea, we ought to, lest liturgy becomes, not primarily worship that it has to be, but another entertainment package or an opportunity for information overload.
The Gospel passage of the Vigil Mass is a repeat of what we heard in the last nine days – the story of the generations that led to the birth of the Savior, clustered in three groups of 14 each. The meaning of those generations is just as obscure as the names themselves of the people who, otherwise, we would not have known were it not for Scripture, and, in this particular instance, the painstaking reportage done by Matthew.
Truth to tell, I enjoy reading the Lord’s genealogy aloud. I also enjoy hearing it read by an educated, rehearsed, and accomplished priest or deacon. It is a torture for me if the priest, or deacon, wastes about 3 to 3 and ½ minutes of my time, agonizing through and stammering through the names of the 14 generations times three. I would like it to be read flowing smooth. I would prefer it read with poetic cadence and deliberate pace, pregnant with pauses on the right portions, and with the right balance of earthly pomposity and ultra-worldly poise.
I like it to be read with enough dramatic solemnity as befits the one important theological truth that hides behind the seemingly boring list of names of people we do not know from Adam!
And what is that basic, essential and foundational theological Christmas truth behind the story of obscure generations?
Before we answer that, first a disclaimer … Christmas is not primarily about a cutesy stable beside equally cutesy farm animals. The image may be romantic and may make us teary-eyed, but no, that is not what Christmas primarily is about.
Second, whilst the Lord and Savior was born and laid in a manger inside that romantic stable, the idea of glorified poverty is also not the essential image of what Christmas is all about. Christmas is not primarily about the Lord glorifying poverty and want. It is not worth celebrating solely because someone “rich” and “glorious” decided to condescendingly become what the “poor” and the “lowly” were, not by choice, but by necessity. Christmas is not a feel-good story for those who have no choide but be poor, and for the rich who, once a year can experience vicariously at least being ideologically “poor” and romantically identified with the glorified poverty that is wrapped in dainty foil and delightful tinsel.
No, they may all be good “sub-themes” for Christmas, but Christmas is not all that primarily.
Christmas is about gift. It is about grace, which is essentially gift. And this great gift was granted gratis by a gracious God of mercy and compassion and infinite love, through the mystery of the Incarnation, through the wonders of God becoming flesh like us, becoming man like each of us, so that we might become what He is – divine!
And since becoming flesh cannot take place without the help of mortals – men and women of flesh and blood like the 14 generations x 3 – then the story of the generations is essentially the theological story of grace unfolding, grace becoming, grace taking flesh, in and through the lives of those obscure people listed down by Matthew.
The names may remain obscure, save for a few familiar ones that we love to associate with the Christmas of tinsel and foil. But the theological meaning of those names cannot remain obscure … and that essential foundational theological meaning is all about grace becoming, grace taking on real flesh and blood, and grace coming down on Christmas day.
Generations and grace … the two are inseparable. The generations that went before Jesus belonged to individuals whose names are those of imperfect, even sinful, people. The four women mentioned in the list were interesting characters, if you know what I mean. Two were harlots, in fact. David had a brush-in with a voluptuous lady already taken in marriage by someone whom the King sent to the frontlines, for obvious motives.
But God was born of these 14 generations x 3! Grace came down on Christmas day, courtesy of the cooperation of these people in the glorious genealogy of the Lord!
And this is the only story that we need … the only story that matters … the story of God writing straight with crooked lines … the story of grace triumphing over sin .. the story of grace shining through the limitations and imperfections of generations that have trod the face of sinful earth, populated by sinful people like you and me.
There is hope for the likes of you and me. Grace is more powerful than sin. God is more powerful than us all put together.
Merry Christmas to one and all!