HOMILY for 17 December
On the 17th of December, the Liturgy of the Church shifts its focus from the advent of Christ both in our hearts and at the end of time to, more specifically, the first coming of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea. To prepare us, we hear the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel which seems to give us Christ’s family tree. Except that when we get to the end, we realize that this isn’t Jesus’ lineage at all – not by blood, at any rate, although it is Jesus’ family line by law, through St Joseph’s marriage to Mary. So, St Matthew’s point is not to give a socio-historical account of Jesus’ ancestry but, rather, to make a theological point which tell us who the baby born of Mary is, and what he is born to do.
The main points, I think, are found in the very description of the child: “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham”. If we consider the holy name, ‘Jesus’ or ‘Yeshua’ means ‘God saves’ or ‘God is salvation’. This is why the angel tells St Joseph: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”. Because the name ‘Jesus’ actually tells us what Jesus’ mission is – to be the Saviour. More specifically, it is “his people” that Jesus comes to save. This means the Jewish people.
The title given to Jesus, ‘Christ’ makes this explicit. For Christos is the Greek word for the Jewish word mashiach, meaning ‘the anointed one’. In the Old Testament it is priests, prophets and kings who are anointed. More specifically, the prophets had spoken of a Messiah, a king, who would save the Jewish people, and who was born of David’s line. Thus, St Matthew calls Jesus “son of David”, and he is called Christ because he is anointed as a king from David’s royal line.
Thus, St Matthew gives us Jesus’ royal ancestry from king David; he is the promised Jewish Messiah.
However, at the end of the Gospel, Jesus tells his Church to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). So, Jesus doesn’t just come to save his people from their sins but, more widely, all people from all nations; Jesus is the universal Saviour of Mankind. Thus St Matthew calls Jesus “son of Abraham” because Abraham was the “father of many nations” (Gen 17:5). So, St Matthew gives us Jesus’ Abrahamic ancestry too to show that Jesus is born to save all nations; he is Saviour of the Gentiles as well as Jews. And to emphasize this, four women (besides the Virgin Mother herself) are named in the genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba. For what unites these four women is that they are all Gentiles. Moreover, Abraham had carried out priestly and prophetic roles, which are perfectly accomplished in Jesus Christ who as priest intercedes for all humanity and offers sacrifice to God; and as prophet points to God’s reign among us and reveals the Father’s face to all peoples.
Hence, St Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy that sets out the theological tone for the rest of his book. For he will show how Jesus is Saviour of both Jews and Gentiles, and that the Christ is anointed priest, prophet and king by the Holy Spirit so as to carry out this divine mission. Fortunately, the Gospel readings in this Liturgical Year, especially when Ordinary Time returns, is taken from St Matthew’s Gospel, so, if we’re attentive, we shall see just how this plays out.