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December 12, 2012
The Jesse Tree, or Who were Jesus’ relatives?
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your relatives. So goes the saying. The Matthean gospel (1:1-17) lists the names of Jesus’ ancestors but does not go into detail about them.

During Advent, the Church places before the faithful a visual symbol, the Jesse Tree. The tree depicts the biblical Christ’s genealogy as a family tree that has its proximate origins in Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of David. Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus came from the House of David, an essential fact that legitimized the birth of the Jesus of Nazareth and the Son of God. Readers will find images of the Jesse Tree on various search engines.

On Dec. 17, which begins the pre-Christmas octave, the gospel reading for the day is the genealogy of Jesus. It is also read at the afternoon Christmas Vigil Mass. This is the passage with all those strange-sounding names that challenge the pronunciation capabilities of every celebrant.

Who was the father of whom? “Amminadab was the father of Nahshon,” … “Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel,” “Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel.” And so on. For the great biblical scholar, Raymond E. Brown, S.S., the Matthean genealogy was a favorite. He notes that unless the celebrant practices the names ahead of time, listening to him stumble over them can be disastrous for him and a distraction for those listening to the gospel (“A Coming Christ in Advent,” 20). Faith, after all, comes through hearing, and we deserve to hear the words clearly, foreign though they be.

Forty-two Generations

Before the birth of Jesus, there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen more from David to the Babylonian Exile (6 B.C.), and fourteen more from the Babylonia Exile to his birth. What was Matthew’s purpose in listing Jesus’ long-forgotten relatives at the very beginning of his gospel?

Skeletons in Jesus’ Closet

The list of three times fourteen (3x14) includes patriarchs and kings. “The rest were an odd assortment of idolaters, murderers, incompetents, power-seekers, and harem-wastrels,” notes Brown. Under “the unknown and the unexpected” were listed five women. Not the saintly women – Sarah, Rebecca, or Rachel – but Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Who were these women?

Tamar, a Canaanite outsider, was left childless at the death of her first and second husbands. When Judah, their father, failed to provide her with a third husband, as was the custom, she disguised herself and seduced him. Rahab was the real thing – a genuine prostitute. Ruth was a non-Jew, a foreigner and a Moabite. When she married Boaz, her child, Obed, was destined to become the grandfather of King David.

King David lusted after Bathsheba (2 Sam 11ff). He had her husband Uriah killed in a particularly heinous way by having him strategically placed in the thicket of enemy fire. The future King Solomon was the second child born of that union. All of these women had histories that were subject to scorn and ridicule.

What Is St. Matthew’s Point?

These women played important roles as instruments of God’s plan to continue the sacred line of the Messiah. From the very beginning, Mary’s divine pregnancy posed a peculiar marital scandal on the human level. Joseph, her betrothed and a holy and upright man, faced the scandal with her thanks to his wisdom and obedience to God’s Spirit.

The message? God writes straight with crooked lines. Brown makes several noteworthy observations, and not just applicable to Advent.

1.  The story of humankind beginning with Adam and Eve is a story of sinners and saints. God’s saving plan has always included both.

2.  God, acting in Jesus Christ continues to write straight with crooked lines in regard to Jesus’ relatives. The men were scheming as well as noble, and the women, saintly as well as embroiled in scandals. 

3.  The sequence continues with Peter, Paul, and all the rest of us. Each of us is an important and significant part of this genealogy. Sinner and saint live in each of us. We are a motley mélange saved by the Incarnation and the paschal mystery of God’s Son. The Good News contains sad news about the assortment of shady characters in the history of salvation. Evidently, God has not hesitated to entrust his institution with “corrupt, venal, stupid, and ineffective leaders as well as sometimes by saints” (Brown, 26). Dr. Alice von Hildebrand often quips that God has put a limit on man’s intelligence but evidently not on his stupidity.

4.  Today, many give bow to Jesus but will not accept the institution of the Church, his Body. In this regard, Brown notes: “Those ‘Christians’ who proclaim that they believe in and love Jesus but cannot accept the Church or the institution because it is far from perfect and sometimes a scandal have not understood the beginning of the story and consequently are not willing to face the challenge of the sequence” of sinners from Peter and Paul down to every last man and woman. The Church is always in need of reforming itself (ecclesia semper reformanda est).

This is a hard lesson to accept, especially when one part of the Church treats another poorly, whether from within the structural context or personally. These actions are not willed by God, but they can be made to participate in God’s providential plan.

5.  If Abraham fathered Isaac, ... and Jesse fathered David the King, ... then the sequence continues: Jesus called Peter and Paul, ... Paul called Timothy, ... someone called you, ... and you must call someone else” (Brown, 26).

Prayer in the Midst of ‘Holiday Cheer’

As the Church celebrates the season of Advent to prepare for the Lord’s coming, the secular spin has largely succeeded in shoving the religions meaning of Christmas into the closet – not to mention the obvious fact that Christmas day is being celebrated before it occurs. The secular onslaught seeks to overcome the whole of Advent preparation until there is nothing left – not even the stillness of prayer to focus on the religious meaning of the season. It is we who allow this betrayal of the gospel message. 

Our interior life should be strong enough to weather the onslaught of secular intrusion, or more precisely, the secular take-over of Christmas. To this end, St. Anselm admonishes:

“Insignificant man, escape from everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and your troubles. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him; and when you have shut the door, look for him. Speak now to God and say with your whole heart: ‘I seek your face; your face, I desire.’” (St. Anselm, Proslogion, 11th c).

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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