This is the first of six blogs offered during the holiday season as reflective pieces for centering. They can help us shift from the holiday patterns that make us crazy. They offer a counterpoint to a holiday that too quickly gets out of balance with events, presents, parties, and other things that are good within balance. These pieces invite us to see a cosmic-sized story that is scandalous and transforming—what we need today. It is the story inside which we find the way to go, whether we are Occupiers or the 1%. A new piece will be posted weekly up through Christmas. Light a candle, center, read, and please leave your reflections as comments at the end of each piece.
You can find all these Christmas related posts (from this year and last year) in the Unwrapping Christmas category.
Matthew’s redefinition of “family”
Artists depict the holy family of Christmas on everything from cards to pieces hung in galleries. One pose that has may variations shows Joseph standing with a staff and looking over Mary’s shoulder. Both of them are focused on their newborn lying in a manger. The scene is iconic and conveys a holy hush.
Mothers and fathers everywhere are photographed similarly holding their newborn in adoration and quiet amazement at this new life now in their lives. Though these poses also hold a sense of the sacred, only Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are called “the holy family.”
Without taking anything away from their young family, calling them THE holy family carries dangers. There’s wholeness and dysfunction in every family, their’s included. The consciousness that makes only the family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph holy contributes to damaging illusions and false ideals about “being a family.” It reduces the shapes “family” can take.
When Matthew wrote his Gospel, he was not into creating an ideal of family but one that was scandalously transformative. He opens his Gospel intent on presenting the “holy family” of Christmas as an unholy family in which dysfunctions and irregularities become the path to new consciousness for their lives and ours.
As Matthew presents the genealogy of Jesus’ family, he includes the shadows in the family tree; a few scandals that an ideal would leave out. We need only read a holiday letter from friends updating us on their year to recognize how quickly we fall into the trap of telling about our lives and family in mostly favorable ways, without the shadow side. All of which begs us to look for clues as to why it was important to Matthew to create the family tree that he did.
First of all, he neatly clustered ancestors into three groups of fourteen generations each. Each new cluster opens a new beginning or genesis in Hebrew history. The first cluster begins with Abraham, who along with Sarah migrated out of the advanced civilization of Sumer and began the story of the Hebrew people in a new land. The second cluster begins with David, the beginning of the Hebrew experiment with empire based in Jerusalem. The third cluster begins with Jechoniah, the beginning of a new story of resistance to empires, in particular the Hellenistic and Roman superpowers. That brings us to Jesus and, well, here Matthew tells us we have come to a new beginning of such immense proportions that it is nothing less than a new generation of the Cosmos itself. That’s worth meditating on as the cosmic Solstice happens!
Matthew tells us that he’s writing a new kind of Genesis story. His opening words— “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ” —parallel Genesis 5:1, “This is the book of the generations of Adam” (from the Greek translation that Matthew used). By presenting Jesus to us with the same formula that was used to present Adam, we get a clue to his purposes. He wants us to see Joseph and Mary giving birth to a new prototype of humanity, one that equalled and surpassed God giving birth to Adam and Eve as the grand mythic beginning of humanity expressed in a male and female whole. I hurry to add that my use of the word “mythic” does not mean it is not true. On the contrary, mythology is a literary tool writers and cultures use to convey truth too great for what a historical account alone can carry. Often mythology has historical elements mixed in with it as it presents truth and wisdom that both surround historical events and transcend or undergird them. Matthew uses just such a mix in telling us the story of the birth of Jesus while putting it in a context that is bigger than any historical account of human events alone. His genealogy of Jesus mixes in history en route to achieving his goal of presenting Jesus’ story as bigger than history. Good thing, because the histories of the time didn’t mention the birth of Jesus.
Just to be sure we do not miss the clues Matthew gives us to his purposes by the way he presents this selective, stylized family tree, I want to state them plainly. Matthew knows he needs the help of mythic, cosmological, universal, and archetypal features. He cannot confine himself to the requirements of writing history.
- He intends to use mythic storytelling just as the Torah tellers did in the Genesis stories of origins. Like them, Matthew uses stylized, not precise, genealogy.
- He will present the birth of Jesus as a cosmological event. Matthew intends to make a strong case that Jesus adds to the origins of the cosmos, that Jesus reveals more about creation than the stories in the Torah told!
- He will present Jesus as a universal archetype of being truly human. Though Jesus was male, his embodiment of Christ or divine consciousness, was both male and female or One. Matthew was not telling only a Jewish story or presenting maleness as the archetype of true humanity. He wanted to resonate with the structures in the all-cultures, all-genders souls of all people, so that all could connect with the transformative mind-set that gripped Jesus and which he conveyed.
Beyond these larger-than-historical intentions, Matthew’s genealogy also breaks a traditional Hebrew and cultural rule of that time: Women are not included in genealogies. But Matthew includes four of them—a complete anomaly in Jewish lineages of the 1st century. Having no legal rights in their cultures, women were legally defined as possessions of men. This terribly sad cultural norm was expressed in the morning prayer many Jewish men prayed: “I thank you, Lord, that you have not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” Along with the ethno-centrism and classism of this prayer is its extreme patriarchy. All are key building stones of superpower domination. Matthew boldly fractures the patriarchal building stone by including women in Jesus’ pedigree.
Who the women are intensifies the fracturing! Not Sarah, Rebecca, Miriam, and Esther; but Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. None of them is a Jew. All are foreigners. Tamar and Rahab are Canaanites, Ruth a Moabite, and Bathsheba, a Hittite. Because of their gender and non-citizenship, all were economically vulnerable. Through putting them in Jesus’ family tree, Matthew prepares his readers for the new consciousness he found in Jesus, a consciousness that takes us beyond superpowers, patriarchy, immigrant-citizen animosities, and economic class. It is a consciousness which today as then is capable of including what borders of ethnicity hold separate. It is a consciousness that could not be held or defined by nation-states, empires, or superpowers; not by patriarchal hierarchies and not by economic class. It is a consciousness as inclusive as the creation that brought forth Earth, the stars, and the entire cosmos. No one religion has a corner on it. It is a sacred offer to all.
In the following weeks of Advent, I will present the biographies of these women with special focus on the scandal in which they, along with the men to whom they related, was involved. The Greek word for scandal, skandalon, is often translated “stumbling block.” It names the kind of stumbling block moment in our lives where we trip and fall. But the stumbling block can also be a stepping stone to new consciousness. When our stumbling blocks becomes stepping stones, we step into a greater capacity to act in ways that transcend cultural norms and systemic injustices that hold us captive. We become more truly human.
In Matthew’s genealogy, all four women, when they came to a scandalous moment, stepped on that stone of stumbling and walked right on into a new consciousness for themselves; others were forced to take notice. So can we. Because it’s not just about these four women. Matthew saw how personal choices in scandalous moments open up an opportunity beyond the people involved. These four women are essential and exemplary to Matthew’s purpose of presenting a story big enough to regenerate society and the cosmos.
The unholy family of Christmas is Genesis all over again. As Earth today reacts to the scandalous treatment she’s receiving through our economics of domination and division, the new consciousness Matthew presents in Jesus and his unholy family is the best holiday gift we, and all the Earth, can receive.