I’m always surprised by the Gospel that is read at the Christmas Eve vigil Mass. Churches around the world are decorated with candles, flowers, and manger scenes full of Bethlehem’s famous visitors and their animal friends. All sorts of Catholics will show up for Mass that night, everyone from the old woman that hasn’t missed a daily Mass in fifty years, to the guy who’s just there to keep his parents happy.
Everyone knows the Christmas story and expects to hear it at Mass. You’d have to try really hard to live in America and not know the basics of the Christmas narrative.
But instead of hearing about shepherds scared by angels and a divine baby dressed in swaddling clothes, we hear the genealogy of Jesus all the way from Abraham down to Joseph (Mary’s husband, not the Old Testament Technicolor Dreamcoat guy). This probably leaves more than a few people wondering if maybe the priest messed up and is reading from the wrong book.
Why would the Church give us a boring list of unpronounceable names, especially on a night when so many Catholics have come back to mass for the first time in a long time?
A year or two ago, it finally made sense to me. A homily that I heard forever changed the way I listen to this Gospel passage. When we go through Jesus’ family tree, there are two big realities that we’re confronted with.
The first is that God is faithful.
The Eternal Father, who promised to make Abraham a great father, never forgot His promise. The list of people that comes after Abraham is filled with a mix of Israel’s greatest and worst leaders. There are faithful servants and faithless tyrants in that family, but God never gave up on His promise. No matter how bad things looked, no matter how far God’s people had wandered from His plan, He refused to let go of them.
The second beautiful truth that I find especially comforting is the fact that Jesus is born into a messed up family.
He comes from a long line of brokenness, and He’s not afraid to be born into their dysfunction. In the same family, there is a great king (David) and a lustful king who sleeps with another guy’s wife (still David). The list includes a prostitute (Rahab) and a liar (Jacob), a king that was well loved (Josiah) and the guy who divided the Israelite kingdom in two (Rehoboam).
That’s a family just like ours. When we leave mass and go back to spend time with our less-than-perfect families, we can take comfort in knowing that Jesus had a family like that too.
God doesn’t enter into a picture perfect family full of valedictorians, Eagle Scouts, and Homecoming Queens. He chooses to be born into a history full of misfits and saints, outcasts and legends.
I can find hope for myself too in this story. When I’m honest, I realize that a lot of those same sins running in Jesus’ family tree have run through my heart. There are moments when I’ve been faithful like Abraham, but also moments when I’ve been lustful like David. In the midst of all of my twists and turns, running toward and away from God, He still wants to be born into my life.
And that’s the best news I could ever hear.