The Christmas Octave

Today begins the Christmas Octave, the eight-day count-down to Christmas, if you will. Every year on this first day of the Christmas Octave, we hear proclaimed the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the “book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” Some people think of it as the boring “begat” passage, which begins “Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob,” and ends with Mary, of whom “was born Jesus who is called the Christ.”

I’ve grown to love this passage, and I’ve spoken about it several times during retreats (as well as posted a talk on it which you can find here). I used it in prayer during an Advent retreat some years ago and return to it again and again.

The passage has a lot to say about the people God worked through in the past to effectuate the plan of the Incarnation, and in so doing, says a lot about the people through whom God continues to work in the world. Raymond Brown had this to say about the forward looking significance of the genealogy:

If the beginning of the story involved as many sinners as saints, so has the sequence. This means not simply a Peter who denied Jesus or a Paul who persecuted him, but sinners and saints among those who would bear his name throughout the ages. If we realize that human beings have been empowered to preserve, proclaim, and convey the salvation brought by Jesus Christ throughout ongoing history, the genealogy of the sequence of Jesus contains as peculiar an assortment of people as did the genealogy of the beginnings. The God who wrote the beginnings with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives and witness. A God who did not hesitate to use the scheming as well as the noble, the impure as well as the pure, men to whom the world hearkened and women upon whom the world frowned – this God continue to work through the same mélange. If it was a challenge to recognize in the last part of Matthew’s genealogy that totally unknown people were part of the story of Jesus Christ, it may be a greater challenge to recognize that the unknown characters of today are an essential part of the sequence. A sense of being unimportant and too insignificant to contribute to the continuation of the story of Jesus Christ in the world is belied by the genealogy.

The proclamation of the “begats” during Advent gives us hope about our destiny and our importance to God’s plan. It is an invitation offered to all of us. As Brown suggests, if the story of the origin of Jesus Christ is that “Abraham was the father of Isaac, who was the father of Jacob, who was the father of Judah and his brothers,” then the continuation sequence is that Jesus called Peter and Paul, Paul called Timothy, and that somewhere along the way someone called you and me and that we all must call others. We are all part of the ongoing genealogy of Jesus Christ.