St. Paul says of the Lord: “For we have not a high priest who cannot have compassion on our infirmities, but one tried as we are in all things except sin” (Hebr 4:15). He entered fully into everything that humanity stands for - and the names in the ancient genealogies suggest what it means to enter into human history with its burden of fate and sin. Jesus of Nazareth spared himself nothing. In the long quiet years in Nazareth, he may well have pondered these names. Deeply he must have felt what history is, the greatness of it, the power, confusion, wretchedness, darkness, and evil underlying even his own existence and pressing him from all sides to receive it into his hear that he might answer for it at the feet of God.
— Romano Guardini, The Lord
He that has no fools, knaves, or beggars in his family was begot by a flash of lightning.
— old English proverb
A genealogy fixes a person in time and places him in a larger context of generations past and future. The genealogies of Christ in the Gospels are no different. Narrow focus on their historicity or attempts to reconcile differences miss a larger theological point. He entered into the human family in full participation of the ongoing family story, with all of its highs and lows, virtues and vice.
The genealogies of Jesus in the Gospels were always something I briefly scanned for familiar names: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. David and Solomon of course. Beyond them, things started to get a little hazy. On a narrowly intellectual level, I understood them to establish of his royal lineage in fulfillment of the messianic prophecies. But other than providing for an occasional Sunday School activity (draw out the family tree!) or Advent Jesse Tree project, I was content to pass them over. Too content, and too hasty.
I’ve done some genealogy. Names, boxes, and lines on paper do very little justice to the fullness of the human lives they represent or the family webs they reveal. Focus on impersonal data like names and dates risks losing the forest for the trees. These were people, after all, no matter how many times removed. All children of God, each with an immortal soul. They had interior lives, grew up, loved, and in many cases, aged. They married, reared children, buried their dead, migrated, cooked meals, stubbed toes, dropped dishes, and made love. All these lives bleed, one into the next like a giant, glorious, impressionist mural stretching across time.
Think, too, of all the moments that had to align exactly to produce any one individual - all of us are products of a long panoply of successes, failures, in-laws and outlaws, and yes, the burden of sin comes along with our humanity.
Find any one name in the Gospel lists, then look around it. Four names in sequence might capture the generations that could conceivably be alive together. Two or three is probably safer. Look at your own family - your parents, your children. Think about that mural, and the beautiful Monet-like smearing together of all those colors.
Warts and all, this is the circus he stepped into in choosing to be born “according to the flesh.” As Msgr. Guardini writes, he spared himself nothing. He came not on a white horse at the head of big parade, or by some smoke-and-mirrors spectacle in the town square. He became flesh, like us. Was born, like us. Learned to walk and talk. All of it. His ancestors were flawed - some of them deeply so. None of it was sugar-coated. He entered into - and took on - all of it. Only by taking on flesh could he truly be Emmanuel - God-with-us. Only by remaining fully God could he reconcile all things in himself.
So the genealogies are somewhere to linger. Each name, a complete lifetime - all of the tens of thousands of moments that make them what they are. The generations coming and going with their knaves and fools.
Thank God for the ones who have gone before. May the ones that follow after kindly remember us.