For the last thirty days or so we have been preparing for Christmas within the Orthodox Church. We have attempted to lighten our lives (and enlighten our trees) through various ascetical acts, seeking to open our hearts and prepare for the entrance of the King.
Christmas is a beautiful time; it often feels like the crown of the year, the culmination of a year of striving, a year of broken relationships, a year of trying to be different (and often failing). It’s nice to put all the differences, all the struggles, all the pain aside and reconnect with loved ones over a cup of hot cocoa as we seek to celebrate the birth of the Savior in a way that is fitting.
Too often, however, Christmas ends up a cliché: the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a time for which I have prepared by buying a tree, making a presents-budget, and decking the halls with boughs of holly.
I often forget that Christmas, the birth of God’s Son, is the most wonderful time of the ever.
Sure, I’ve spent the last 30 days preparing (in some sense), but how could I ever think this could even compare to the preparation that God put into His plan throughout the entire course of history, to the incomprehensible chain of cosmic history that culminated in the Lord becoming a human being.
A piece of this great chain is presented in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, and I’ll be the first to admit that it can feel a little daunting and…well, boring. We read the genealogy of the Son of God, and it includes tons of weird names and oh-so-many “begats.” If you’re anything like me, it is deeply difficult to stay focused or to care about it at times.
At best, I find that I can treat this reading like a theological lesson. See? I might say. This Gospel reading demonstrates that Christ is the fulfillment of prophecy, both truly God and the true human being, begotten of human ancestors since the dawn of time.
While tracing Christ’s human heritage can make a theological point regarding the hypostatic union and show us the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Christ, it may be a little bit harder to grasp some of the more baffling and beautiful elements of the genealogy, inasmuch as it tell us something about who our God is.
In his homily on this Gospel reading, which I must quote at length (I was tempted simply to copy the whole thing here), Fr. John Behr points out one of the most important realities to consider about God:
Everything [in the genealogy] is arranged in a pattern that culminates in Christ…as the Lord of all creation and its history, everything does indeed rest in his [sic] hand. The whole movement of creation is providentially ordered in and towards him. But in this, God works in unexpected ways, ways known to him, and ways that more often than not subvert our usual expectations and standards…
The genealogy also mentions, rather surprisingly, a number of women, not those who conceived by a clear act of divine intervention such as Sarah, Rebecca, and Rachel, but those – Tamar and Ruth – whose union with their partners appeared scandalous to others, yet who enabled the line of the Messiah to continue.
God works unexpectedly, through those who are thought of, in human terms, as stumbling blocks, triumphing over our best intentions and expectations…
In many ways, the final woman mentioned in today’s Gospel also falls into this pattern. Mary is found with child before she was joined to Joseph…yet this is the result of the act of God, resulting, finally in the birth of his Son.
Behr reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways. That God’s measure of what is good is different than ours, and that from a human, historical perspective, these things can only be understood in retrospect as within God’s providence.
The birth of the Son of God happened in a culturally scandalous, unexpected, unacceptable way. Moreover, for a virgin to be with child was not only unexpected, it was impossible! Besides being scandalized, what other reaction would one have?
Right, people might say, a “virgin” having a baby…and I’m Santa. Good one, Mary.
But that’s just the point of all of this: God has so carefully prepared the way for the birth of His Son into human history that He has even made room to include (and, indeed, given starring roles to) some extremely scandalous events and figures.
And if this is the case, then is it possible that God may make use of the scandalous and unexpected aspects of our personal stories as His Son is being born in our own hearts?
Of course, we can only really know in retrospect. But history and theology seem to point toward the possibility of a hopeful answer.
As I rethink the course of my life, even looking at things from the perspective of my 30-year-old self, I can see that what I may have considered to be shameful, what I may have considered to be something that should be hidden, is something God used to bring His Son more fully into my life.
Because there is no event that God cannot baptize and turn towards an unexpected good.
This is not to say that I want to spend my life embracing scandalous ways of life. Rather, I should not allow my own faulty, scandalous humanity to overwhelm me, as it is clear that God can bring forth the birth of His Son through the unexpected, through a genealogy of sinners.
Perhaps in this final push of preparing for the entry of Christ into the world, we would do well to inspect our lives a little more thoughtfully, to ask ourselves if there is something scandalous, if there is something shameful that God may be trying to use as He seeks to bring forth the birth of His Son in our hearts.
Of course, it won’t be until the last day that we will know for sure what God has redeemed in our lives or how He has held our personal histories in the palm of His hand. But the genealogy of Christ gives us the hope. It is the promise that there is nothing God can’t use to redeem humanity.
It is the promise that there is nothing He can’t use to redeem us.
It is the promise that, no matter the multitude of our sins, we will never have reason to despair.
It is the promise that, even amidst our personal failings and scandals, we maintain the hope of seeing everything in our personal histories culminate in Christ as He is born in our hearts.
And as we glorify Him forever.
 John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2014), pp. 113-114.
Christian is a Young Adult Ministries Coordinator for Y2AM. He is a husband, father, mover, shaker, coffee drinker, sandal wearer, and CrossFitter. Christian has his MA from Azusa Pacific University in Marriage and Family Therapy and is working toward a second MA in Children, Youth, and Family Ministry from Luther Seminary. Christian and his family live in Phoenix, Arizona.