Prepare yourself, O Ephratha!
The Lamb is on her way to give birth to the Chief Shepherd she carries in her womb.
The God-bearing forefathers will rejoice, beholding Him,
and with the shepherds, they will glorify the Virgin nursing Him.
Kontakion of the Sunday before the Nativity
Part of being a modern man is having relatively few ancestors. At a certain stage in life, it seems, we get interested in geneology (or at least some do). I have a few pages of research, enough to have reached the name of my first direct ancestor to have come to America and vague hints at where in England he may have come from. But I have nothing more.
This is more than some. The modern world, as modern, is inherently anti-historical. History is a limit; tradition an artificial limit to be overcome. We famously re-invent ourselves, the memory of the public being frightfully short.
Watching a prominent politician the other evening, I asked my wife, “Wasn’t he involved in some sort of plagarism scandal a few years back?” She confirmed my memory, but his continued national prominence underlined either the moral bankruptcy of our Republic or the feebleness of our collective memory.
Unless we are royalty, we rarely define ourselves by our ancestors. They, indeed, are the limitations we seek to overcome – each generation excelling the previous. This is the myth of progress.
It should be no surprise that a culture that remembers the Mother of God only with difficulty (even at Christmas sometimes), has virtually no thought for the ancestors of Christ. That the Orthodox Church generally gives two Sundays to their memories is decidedly unmodern.
To hear the reading of the gospel in which the ancestors of Christ are recounted is not only unmodern, it can be decidedly embarrassing (if we were the sort of people to be embarrassed by ancestors).
In St. Matthew’s account Rahab the harlot is mentioned (though she is not referred to as “the harlot”) but it does indelicately state that “David begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Uriah.” The ancestry of Christ is recalled with flagrant reminders of some of its most unseemly moments.
But this is just the point. The God who became incarnate did not come into a humanity that had been pristinely prepared. His geneology, though chosen, hallowed and sanctified by His name, was still full of murderers, thieves and harlots. The most pure virgin stands as a near exception to a common rule (I should certainly add her righteous parents, Joachim and Anna as well).
But it is the brute ugliness of humanity that is remembered in many of the pages of the Scriptures, all of which are a record of sorts of the ancestors of Christ.
But we are all the descendants of harlots, theives and murderers (particularly if you claim any royal blood). The story of humanity, as recalled in Scripture remembers that the murder of a brother was among the first crimes. Such is the human race.
And such is the love of God that He took flesh from that human race and became man. The fact that almost all Christian Churches make no formal mention of the ancestry of Christ, much less a feast day, demonstrates a distinctly modern touch, a growing amnesia that may all too likely forget who Christ Himself is.
He is the God Man who taking our flesh, emptied Himself and entered into the depth of our sin and death. Becoming sin, to use a Biblical expression, He even enters Hell itself to rescue a humanity that we would more easily forget.
When the Orthodox pray for the dead, we sing a hymn, “Memory eternal.” It is far more descriptive of God than us. Our memory is but a feeble flicker, growing ever dimmer. His, a blaze of life, raising the dead.