God's Love for Humanity
St. Joachim scales the mountain, sullen and rejected. It is a dismal place. Desert winds, scorching heat, and the baying of his herd are his only company. He has determined not to return home. Shame prevents him. He waits to hear from God.
It all happened some weeks back. He and his wife Anna traveled to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices. The High Priest, Issachar, admonished him, "You are unworthy to offer sacrifice with those childless hands.” The others ridiculed him and thrust him outside the temple. Joachim and Anna had been married for fifty years and lived peaceful, pious lives. They lived off of a third of their income, giving away one third to the poor and another third to the Temple. God blessed them for their devotion and they lived comfortably, except for one curse. They were barren. In the Jewish society of that time, no husband could show himself in public without shame, if he did not have children. So Joachim was despised.
It is hard to imagine the importance of this day. St. Joachim on the mountain, looking up into heaven, desperate and depressed. Little does he know how God had ordained everything since he formed Adam and Eve. God had arranged all these events, and on this day, would change the entire course of human history. Archangel Gabriel appears. Joachim falls on his face and the angel comforts him. God has heard your prayers. You will have a child, "a daughter most blessed, by whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed, and through whom will come the salvation of the world.” They name her Mary.
God’s salvation is so utterly and beautifully human. On every page of the Bible, in each and every moment God intervenes in our lives, God reveals his love for humanity. You can almost smell sweat and skin in the salvation story. God does nothing from a distance. There is nothing sterile, removed, or alien in the actions of God. He empties himself, wholeheartedly, into our earthiness.
St. Paul writes: Jesus Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7-8). This passage should give us goosebumps. The awe of it. He stripped himself of all glory. The prince, in Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper, decided to disguise himself as a pauper. He removed his silk robes and dazzling jewelry, and walked the streets in filthy rags. How much greater is God’s self-empyting.
St. John describes God’s glory in his vision:
“A throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God” (Rev. 4:3-11).
This God, a God of majesty, clothed himself in skin, bones, and the dirt of poverty. Yet, even in condescending to this level, God does it in all joy. He loves humanity. He cherishes our humanity to such an extent that he marries it. He assumes it and lives and breathes humanity as his own, as his crown, for eternity.
This love for humanity is the spirit of our Gospel reading today.
“The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; And Judas begat Phares…” and so on until, “Matthan begat Jacob; And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” (Mat. 1:1-16).
So many names. So much history. When we read through the geneologies in Scripture we usually lose interest after the first line. “So boring,” is the sentiment that comes to mind, because we do not understand it. You have to imagine standing in the shoes of the men and women who first heard these passages. These were their kin, their grandmothers and grandfathers, and great-grandfathers and great-great-grandmothers —these were their family — everything that made them who they were.
What are we listening to in these passages? It is a testimony of God’s love. God has revealed himself to us, in us. God has made himself one with us, with our relatives, with our brothers, sisters, children, and grandparents. This is about God’s overflowing love for our humanity.
What do we find in this list of names? We discover our own place in God’s family. Hebrews writes: “[We are] surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” (Hb. 12:1). I used to work at a Monastery in New Mexico, where, after every service, the monks would walk around the room, venerating the icons of saints dear to them. A visitor saw this and commented, “It looks like they are greeting family members.” We cover our churches in the images of the saints, to remind us of the reality of life in Christ. The Mass is a family reunion.
The context of this passage in Hebrews sheds light on the importance of the biblical geneologies:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hb. 12:1-3).
These words come after chapter eleven in the Book of Hebrews, a long-winded account of all the heroes before us. The faith of Able, Enoch, Noah…the faith of Abraham, Rahab, and David…God breathed life and holiness in the lives of so many men and women, and carried them through so much tribulation and brokenness.
The beauty in this is brought out even more in the genealogy we read today from Matthew. In addition to the saintly Hebrews, this genealogy mentions some very sketchy people. Rahab was a prostitute who helped the Israelite enter the Promised Land. Ruth was a poor Moabite widow, raised as a idol-worshiping pagan. Yet these, and all others in the list, are the family in which Jesus Christ chose to be born. He cherishes his family, with all its quirks and shortcomings. This is the Church. When we look around at one another, do we feel that we are on a family reunion? Do we love our family as Christ loves our family?
We continue this genealogy today, as we celebrate the Holy Mass. Twice, the priest prays a list of names:
“Peter and Paul, Andrew, James, John, Thomas, James, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon, and Thaddæus, Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian, and of all thy saints…[Bid us] to be numbered in the flock of thine elect”
I used to grow tired of this long list in Mass, wondering, “What’s the point?” Then one day it struck me. We are talking about our family. We are pronouncing aloud the members of our congregation, here worshiping with us today. We are asking God to number us among them. While these lists of names once bored me, they have become some of my most treasured moments in the Mass. We say their names now, longing for the day, when we will eat and drink around the same table with our family.
St. Joachim was a loser and an outcast. Today, we celebrate him, together with the heavenly host, as a true hero. Despite all odds and his broken humanity, he was able to submit his life to Christ, becoming an honored member of God’s family. May St. Joachim, grandfather of our Lord Jesus Christ, pray for us and may we persevere to that day when we will sit down for our family meal in heaven.