Let me begin by stealing a line from a discourse by Saint Andrew of Crete, bishop, which I found in the Office of Readings for this feast:
Let everything, mundane things and those above, join in festive celebration. Today this created world is raised to the dignity of a holy place for him who made all things. The creature is newly prepared to be a divine dwelling place of the Creator.
Only such language is adequate to celebrate the birthday of the mother of Jesus. The Evangelist Matthew celebrates the wonder of Mary’s existence and her place in sacred history in a manner that is even grander, but in a style that is strange to our ears. I am referring to that lengthy genealogy with which he begins his gospel. Let me quote a bit to refresh your memory:
The Book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,
Abraham became the father of Isaac,
That may seem like a roundabout way to celebrate the person and role of Mary. But that is in fact what Matthew is doing. For ancient Jewish genealogies were a totally masculine matter, a list of legal fathers. But Matthew deliberately breaks that convention by inserting the names of women who entered this history in rather irregular ways, to state it mildly. In the portion quoted above, the first surprise is the name of Tamar. Genesis 38 tells how Tamar made it into the genealogy in a rather devious way; when her husband Er died early and childless, her father-in-law, Judah, refused to obey the Levirate law which required him to supply another of his sons, to raise up children in the name of Er. Tamar secured her right to bear a child by dressing up as a prostitute and seducing Judah to get pregnant by him. The second woman to be named, Rahab, is unusual in another way; she was a real prostitute and a Canaanite, to boot.
The next few verses contain two more surprising female entries:
Boaz became the father of Obed,
Ruth stands out as a foreigner, a Moabite woman, who marries into the covenant people by way of Boaz. And then there is the woman discretely referred to as the one “who had been the wife of Uriah.” Readers familiar with the story of David in 2 Samuel: 11-12 would immediately recognize her as the Hittite woman Bathsheba, whose husband David arranged to be killed so that he could have her for himself. Why, you may be asking, would Matthew bother to include in his genealogy of the Messiah these four women who had entered the line in such irregular ways? He was preparing for a person who comes some twenty-six names later--the fifth woman, Miriam (Mary), who participates in the genealogy with an irregularity that tops them all; she became the Mother of Jesus through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, through virginal conception.
Remember that her own conception through the union of Joachim and Anne was perfectly normal. We celebrate that conception in her mother’s womb as the Immaculate Conception, meaning that she was preserved from the effects of original sin from her very beginning, but the mode of her conception was brought about in the normal marital manner through the union of her good Jewish parents. Her own birth, nine month later, was also like the birth of any child of her time and place. The wonderful “irregularity” came in the way she became the mother of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus.
So we celebrate the ordinary birth of Mary because of who she turned out to be and whose mother she became.
The point of Matthew’s genealogy was not simply to prepare for the virginal conception of Jesus but also to celebrate Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s history; Jesus does not just come at the end of that history; he embodies Israel’s vocation and further implements it, helping Israel become Isaiah’s “light of the world.” In this process Mary was not simply the vessel; she was the perfect example of an Israelite who hears the word of God and responds to that word. Fulfilling this ideal of Jewish obedience to God’s will enabled her to become the kind of mother who could raise her child to be the man that Jesus was and is.
Let us celebrate Mary’s birth with gratitude and with a commitment to imitate her faith. Because of Mary, we are beneficiaries of the divine story sketched in Matthew’s genealogy. Our baptism into the body of Christ has placed us in that lineage.
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