All in the Family
Matthew 1:1-17: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
From W.H. Auden’s “Christmas Oratorio”
“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes - Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic. The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt, And the children got ready for school. There are enough Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week - Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot, Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully - To love all of our relatives, and in general Grossly overestimated our powers.”
“All in the Family”
The package arrived sooner than I had expected: a fat manila envelope, sealed closed with a small metal clasp and slathered with Scotch tape. I had only spoken with my mother’s cousin Rick the week before. “Please,” I implored, “send me anything you have. Anything.” Rick was known in the family as the keeper of the family lore, the compiler of our genealogy. If anyone had information about our family tree, it was Rick. This was the second time I had approached Rick with a request for information. He had never answered my letter five years before, with its plea for names, dates, and family stories. But this time I had called, begging shamelessly for him to share with me the fragments of our family story that he had been compiling steadily for years.
My tactics had worked with Rick, for here was the response I had been hoping for. I tore into the envelope, and pulled out pages of carefully annotated genealogies of my mother’s father’s family, the Gibson and Jones clans of Albermarle and Nelson Counties, Virginia. I read through them eagerly, so it was awhile before I came to the manuscript. The thick document lay in my lap, and across the page was printed in fancy type: “Grandmother’s Story.” Over fifty years before, Carrie Jones Gibson had written the story of her life. Rick had made some cryptic reference to this manuscript, but I had no idea what he was talking about. But here it was, my mother’s grandmother speaking to me directly. I began reading her words:
“Several years after the Civil War, when the Southland was recovering from the terrible blow, the slaves were freed. I thought that this was the right thing to do,” she wrote, “Although I am a Southerner born of sturdy Welsh stock.”
I read on, feeling as if I had struck genealogical pay dirt. Written well over fifty years ago, by a woman then in her late seventies, this story had finally found its way into my hands. Perhaps for the first time, I was ready to hear what she had to say. Her poetic style drew me in, and I felt was as if I were staring into a pan of developing fluid, watching a portrait of my great-grandmother emerge before my eyes as I read on.
“My father was of Welsh descent,” she wrote. “He was a large man, six feet one in height. His left eye drooped just enough to make one look at him a second time. I can still remember the scars on his left cheek. He was a man to know where he stood.” As I read, things began to make sense, and pieces of my family puzzle began to fall into place. Mom used to tell us stories of how Grandma Gibson would sit under the stairs in the back hall whenever there was a thunderstorm. Every time the thunder shook the house, Grandma Gibson would wail loud enough to raise the dead. There were also stories about Carrie’s father, Grandpa Jones, how his hands would begin to shake during church, and it fell to my grandfather, then a young boy, to take him outside. When he got really bad, Grandpa Jones would run out of church and dive under the wagons shouting: “Kill the damn Yankees.”
The stories I had heard about Grandma Gibson made her sound like an anxious, depressed, controlling woman. But reading her story in the first person, as Carrie, brought a new dimension to light. Carrie hinted but never quite said outright, that her grandfather was a slave owner. Her father had fought four years in the Civil War, and was wounded in the Battle of Seven Pines, where over 13,000 soldiers were killed in a two-day period. She had been born after the Civil War, the oldest daughter in a family of eight children. Carrie’s older brother was deaf, and her brother was sent away to a school for the deaf at age eight. Her mother died when Carrie was eleven, leaving her to take responsibility for all of those children when she was eleven years old. Carrie married and their first baby died at nine months. Then, after nine years of happy marriage, her husband died suddenly of pneumonia, leaving her with three small children to raise on her own. Her youngest was my grandfather, who was three and a half years old when his father died.
No wonder this woman was anxious and depressed. She was born against a backdrop of loss, the defeat of the South in the Civil War. Her father probably suffered from what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Carrie lost her mother, her baby, and her husband, marking her forever with the hand of grief. She was one of those early generations of Southern women who had to learn how to live with men who came home broken and defeated from war. The impact of how Carrie was shaped by those losses still reverberates in my family to this day.
The more I dig into my family, the more interesting it gets. There are the mysteries of the relations whose stories I will never know. There are skeletons in the closet. And there are jewels, such as my grandmother Carrie. Though her life was marred by loss, she was also a woman of enormous courage, whose faith sustained her through deep grief, and whose creativity led her to be one of the most sought after dressmakers in Charlottesville. All of the rich and famous wanted to wear Carrie’s stunning creations to the ball.
My family consists of mysteries, skeletons, and jewels…and so does yours. It’s all in the family. This is the stuff of which we are made: human stories that reflect the creative and destructive forces of life; dramas that play out all of the best and worst of what it means to be human. We each stand before our own genealogies, elated and disturbed by what we find there. And we wonder about the force of all those generations to shape and determine and form who we are in this world. We are, after all, branches on our family trees. As we ponder our own genealogy, there may be a temptation to applaud or to boo and hiss or to dismiss the power of the family tree in our lives.
But Matthew thinks that genealogy, mixed bag that it is, is precisely the right starting place in telling us news that is good. Matthew has several reasons to begin his gospel with a genealogy. In writing to Jews who have become Christians, Matthew is trying to communicate that Jesus is firmly rooted in the heritage that has shaped their identity and seen the likes of such greats as Abraham, Isaac, and King David. In writing a gospel for Jewish Christians who are struggling to receive Gentiles into the faith, Matthew includes some unexpected players such as the women he names. And he doesn’t name the nice, respectable matriarchs that you might expect in a genealogy, but at least two of them are Gentiles, foreigners. If that isn’t dicey enough, you might say that the occupation of one of those women, Rahab, might not be something to brag about. Matthew’s genealogy communicates that Jesus is rooted in the old, and that God is able to do something new and unexpected involving outsiders.
But perhaps Matthew holds this long, complex genealogy up for our viewing so that we might see clearly that which should be so obvious: God can bring a savior out of a convoluted mix of great personalities, cads, scoundrels, and complete unknowns. God can bring good even from broken, dysfunctional, and abundantly human families. The trickster Jacob and the bad kings and David who sent Uriah to the battle front to be killed so that he could have his wife, all of these stand alongside the great figures of faith: family is a mixed bag. Listen, Matthew says to us, if God can work such a miracle out of a family tree with such rich roots and unique fruits then imagine what God can do with us.
We gather with our families at Christmas, attempting, as the poet Auden suggests, “quite unsuccessfully - To love all of our relatives, and in general Grossly overestimate(ing) our powers.” We look into the faces of those family members we try so hard to love, to accept, to forgive, and we hear the dim whispers and echoes of those who have gone before all of us. The slave owner and the slave, the courageous women who raised their families alone, those who were successful in business, faith, and community and those who failed miserably: their faces appear before us, and we catch glimpses of who we are and where we have come from.
And there are other family faces in that family tree of ours. Joseph, who covers his face with one hand expressing how terribly overwhelmed he is while his wife holds his other hand as if to assure him everything will be all right. Mary leans over to tuck the blanket around her sleeping baby, examining his tiny features and seeing bits and pieces of Abraham and Ruth and Rahab and David in his face. She wonders if her son Jesus will turn out to be like any of them. The baby stirs in his sleep, and for just a moment, she catches a glimmer of something she has never quite seen before, a flicker of light. God-with-us.