I’m still not sure exactly how or why it happened, but several months ago I impulsively signed up for one of those one-month-free trial subscriptions to ancestry.ca – the online resource that helps track members of your family tree. I never did get around to doing anything with it at the time, and I think the fact that I haven’t un-subscribed yet speaks to the possibility that someday I’ll get around to doing it. All this goes to say, simply, that not only is genealogical research a booming business, but also an ample reminder that where we come from matters to us; it forms a critical part of our identity as persons and as a community. And that fascination is nothing new, as today’s readings disclose.
Readings from the prophet Isaiah figure prominently in the Advent season, and the one appointed for today provides what is arguably the oldest image of a family tree: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” These words gave rise to a common subject of medieval religious art in the form of the Jesse Tree, depictions of which are commonly found in paintings and carvings in churches throughout continental Europe. At the bottom typically is shown a reclining Jesse, the father of King David, and up from his side grows a tree on whose branches sit various Old Testament luminaries – David and Solomon, and many others mentioned in the genealogies of Jesus from introductory chapters of Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels. At the top of the Jesse tree sits Jesus, and in these rather literal but nonetheless intriguing pieces of art we’re reminded that Jesus didn’t just appear out of nowhere when he strolled into the Jordan to be baptized by John; we’re reminded of the deep Jewish roots of his, and by extension, our faith, and the long convoluted path and faithfulness over many generations that it took before the Messiah emerged onto the Galilean scene.
We may not give the issue of his lineage much, if any, real thought – but the pedigree of the Messiah, and more importantly, of his followers, was vastly important to the early Christians, and a source of real tension in the early Church. Not all Jews were followers of Jesus, and so those who weren’t followers accused those who were of betraying the faith of their ancestors. This is really pretty understandable, since the Jewish people had defended their beliefs and culture through war and threat to their identity as a people over countless centuries….so they weren’t in any particular hurry to see that identity compromised by a seemingly random enthusiasm over a young upstart rabbi named Jesus who had died a criminal’s death at the hands of the Roman occupiers a few years previously. So that was a source of some tension and distress for Jewish people of St. Paul’s day, whether they were followers of Jesus or not; but as if that weren’t enough, part of the problem in the young Roman church was that some of the Jews who did accept Jesus as Messiah had trouble accepting that Jesus had come as Messiah to the Gentiles as well. And Paul, as we read today, made a valiant attempt to bring the two sides together. ‘God is big enough and generous enough to manage everyone under the same umbrella’, he says – ‘so the important thing now is to welcome one another and live in harmony. Yes, the ancestry is important for the roots it provides, but it’s not the whole story; the wings of faith should take you to new and exciting places now….so forget who’s in and who’s out and let the Spirit do its work in you’. We really do have to admire Paul for wading into the fray on that particular issue!
The matter of ancestry, of pedigree, surfaces in the Gospel message for today as well. Returning for a moment to genealogy of Jesus found in chapter 1 of Matthew’s gospel, what we see there are 4 women whose origins were from outside the Jewish nation and the traditional ancestral faith in the persons of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba….all of whom introduced new life, new energy, and new direction into the landscape of events that eventually culminated in Jesus’ arrival on the world stage. Through them, God loosened the straitjacket of tribal history and rigid expectation. Matthew was laying important groundwork here for the overall message of his gospel, and the thread is picked up by John the Baptist as we see him today addressing the crowds in his inimitable, no-holds-barred, confrontational way.
John the Baptist understood that God couldn’t and wouldn’t be defined or contained by history; that the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see him could not presume that they were in any way privileged merely as a result of their ancestry, but rather that God was about to shake up the family tree and redefine the terms of the agreement. ‘It’s not just about the family tree and who’s on it’, he says – ‘it’s about the fruit that the family tree bears. It’s time for reorientation to what really matters to God and to God’s people…and it’s a whole lot less about pedigree, and a whole lot more about a commitment to compassion and justice and the kind of harmony and peace that reconciles lions and lambs’.
I think it was Sören Kierkegaard who said that life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. With that in mind, may the deeply rooted tree of our faith flourish and grow into God’s magnificent future. For this we pray and together say Amen.
The Venerable Nancy Adams
Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-9, Matthew 3:1-12