The genealogy of Jesus in Mt 1:1-17 strikes terror in most lectors and homilists. The strange Hebrew names are hard to pronounce, and it is even harder to identify the figures behind them. Nevertheless, the genealogy provides an opportunity to reflect on the heritage of Jesus. Matthews genealogy is divided into three segments of 14 members each: it moves from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian exile and from the exile to Jesus. Its orderliness suggests that Jesus the Messiah of Israel was born at the right time, in the fullness of time.
The other readings support that impression. In his speech in Acts 13, Paul places Jesus in the context of the Exodus, Gods choice of David and the ministry of John the Baptist. Psalm 89 points to Gods covenant with David as a source of blessing and joy for Gods people. Isaiah 62 celebrates Israels return from exile as proof of Gods renewed love for his chosen people. For Christians, these events in Israels history culminate in the birth of Jesus.
There are, however, some breaks in Matthews orderly genealogy of Jesus. The most obvious surprise is the inclusion of several biblical women of dubious reputation: Tamar, who dressed as a prostitute to get children from Judah (Genesis 38); Rahab, the pagan prostitute of Jericho; Ruth, the Moabite; and Bathsheba, who committed adultery with David (2 Samuel 1112). Their irregularity prepares for the irregular (virginal) birth of Jesus. Moreover, the Jewish males listed in the genealogy are an odd mix of saints and sinners. Most of the kings of Judah receive negative reviews in 2 Kings. And we know nothing about those persons mentioned after Zerubbabel down to Joseph.
In the Christian Bible, Matthews genealogy of Jesus is the bridge between the two Testaments. It roots Jesus in the history of Israel as Gods people while pointing to the surprising new event in salvation history that God has brought about through the birth of Jesus. It reminds us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us in very concrete circumstances. It provides evidence that the God who placed Jesus in such a motley crew of people can continue to guide his church today as a motley collection of saints and sinners from all over the world. (For the Scripture readings for other Christmas Masses, see my essays in America, 12/19/05 and 12/18/06.)