Tucked away in a corner of my guest room, there is a stack of worn-out photo albums. Inside them, pictures of my family: my childhood, my parents, my grandparents, sometimes at home, sometimes in strange and unpredictable places. My own family preserved remarkably little of this material, which I regret, so I am always delighted when I enter the home of a friend and find there a wall with a long series of pictures: grandparents and great-grandparents and even a few more remote kin, solemn under the gaze of the camera in their stiff suits and flowing dresses. I like to gaze into their eyes and wonder: who were these people, and what heritage did they pass down to the people I now love?
Today’s readings bring us the opening of the Gospel of Matthew, which contains the genealogy of Jesus. Scripture contains many such genealogies, long lists of archaic names offered with (at most) spare comment: the dreaded “begats.” Most readers either explore them by delving into the stories of each person, to see what might be implied, or skip over them entirely. But today, I found myself transfixed by that verb: begat.
Those genealogies are in there because they make a claim: Our actions have consequences. Who we are and what we do matter. And they matter in ways which are unpredictable. Rahab is included in the genealogy of Jesus not because she was a harlot, but because she courageously used her position (as a harlot) to help the people of Israel enter the Promised Land. She did not allow her degradation to define her, but conducted herself in a way which ensured she’d be remembered not, as a harlot, but as a heroine. As Paul Claudel reminds us, “God writes straight with crooked lines.”
What will this situation that we are in beget? That speculation is much in our minds these days, as we take stock of where we are, of who we have been, of what it might look like to ease ourselves out of quarantine. What forms will our lives take? How have our collective actions helped to precipitate this crisis, and what changes could we embrace to make our society more just, our air and water more clean? Will we change at all?
Those questions are real, because our choices are real. If you keep reading in today’s Gospel, you come to these
words: In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’…Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him….and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:1-2, 5-6). And so we are pointed to the double nature of our history: that what we do and what we inherit has real weight, weight which shapes who we are, how we live, and the nature of this world, and that by the grace of God, history does not have the final word. We are not caught in some pagan universe, with its inevitable decline from Age of Gold to Age of Silver to Age of Bronze. Rather, we are in a world shaped by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; a world in which what has been broken may be made whole, and what has been lost may be redeemed. We can repent, and be made clean, and try again. It is a mystery — the mystery — of grace.
A few days ago, my friend Mo drew my attention to a passage from Krista Tippett, who writes, “Mystery is the crux of religion. Mystery resists absolutes. It can hold truth and compassion and open possibility in a relationship. If mystery is real, even more real than what we can touch with our five senses, uncertainty and ambiguity are blessed. We have to live in that and struggle with its complexities together. Mystery acknowledged is, paradoxically, humanizing.” (From Speaking of Faith.)
And so we, just like those men and women of old, have been given freedom: freedom to choose how we will be, whether we will allow this time of suffering to nudge us more deeply into the ways of God. How will you embrace the mystery today? What will you invite God to do in you?
— Deborah Meister