That Long Genealogy on Christmas Eve? It’s Worth Your Attention

   Hands down the most heavily attended Mass of the entire year in my experience is the
vigil Mass (the early one) on Christmas Eve.  This is the Mass where the ushers have to bring
50 to 75 folding chairs from the church basement to accommodate all the people.
  I like this Mass for all sorts of reasons.  (It’s Christmas after all.)  One of the reasons is
because of the Gospel we read during this liturgy: Matthew 1:1-25.  This is one of two
genealogies of Jesus listed in the Gospels; the other one is in Luke.
  We all should be familiar with the genealogy.  You know the one: “Solomon became
the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asaph…”
(Mathew 1:6)  I love reading the genealogy, but on more than one occasion I have actually
been criticized for it.  The liturgy often gives us options in the Mass to read a longer version
of the Gospel or the shorter one, and this is the case for the Christmas Vigil on Christmas
Eve.
  I could skip the first 17 verses of this passage, but I never do.
  I remember one year a man came up to me and basically said, “Father Rich, why
would you read that long Gospel when there are so many young kids?  Many of them are
crying because they want to get home for their presents.”
   There are many reasons why I read the long version!
   While Luke’s genealogy goes back to Adam, Matthew’s goes back to Abraham.  This is
significant, because Matthew was writing his Gospel to a Jewish population, so the entire
Gospel is one in which he goes to great pains to show that Jesus of Nazareth is the long-
awaited Messiah.  Matthew starts with Abraham because he is the father of the Jewish
people, and in Genesis God promises Abraham that kings would stem from his lineage
(Genesis 17:6)
    After Abraham, the next big name that Matthew’s genealogy gives most focus to is
King David.  Matthew mentions Abraham, David, and Christ as the three most significant
names to illustrate kingship.  In verse 17, the Gospel author divides the genealogy into three
units of 14, which is also significant for more than one reason.  (If you were to travel to
Bethlehem, you would see a silver star that marks the exact spot of the traditional place of
Jesus’ birth, and that star has 14 points).
     Matthew stresses 14 to show that Jesus is the long-awaited son of David; David is the
14th  name listed in the genealogy.  More importantly, the ancient Hebrew language assigned
numeric values to their words, names, and letters, and the numeric value of David’s name in
Hebrew is 14.  The number 14 can also be considered significant in that it is a multiple of
seven, the number representing perfection and divinity.
    Another significant aspect of the genealogy we will hear on Christmas Eve is that
there is an inclusion of several women, which was very unusual for the time.  These include
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah.  But more unusual is the fact that all the women
are gentiles (non-Jewish). And three of the four are associated with sexual immorality!  This
was normally something that would have been hidden or kept out of genealogies, since the
purpose of a genealogy was to illustrate someone’s significant ancestry.   

Some speculation of their inclusion is that they foreshadowed that gentiles would be
included in Christ’s salvific act.  Another speculation is that the author wanted to show Jesus
came from a regular family line, which includes saints and sinners alike.  He was completely
and fully human in every way except sin, including his very human family.
    There is so much more that can be said about the genealogy portrayed in Matthew’s
Gospel.  Suffice it to say I hope that you are more attentive to it when it is read this Christmas
Eve.  It is a beautiful and theologically rich passage, packed with symbolism.                                                                                                                                                

–Father Richard Kunst