Sunday before the Nativity
Today’s Gospel reading provides us with the Lord’s human genealogy. The reading is from the Gospel according to Matthew — which provides us with Christ’s legal genealogy, through St Joseph — but the Church also commemorates today all the people mentioned in the genealogy of St Luke’s Gospel (3:23–38) — which provides us with Christ’s biological genealogy, through the Blessed Virgin Mary. Prophetically speaking, the Messiah had to come from a particular lineage; he had to be a descendant of the Prophet and King David, for example. This is why it was absolutely necessary for Matthew and Luke to preface their stories of Christ’s birth with these genealogies.
However, we shouldn’t think that these lists of names have no other purpose than this. Behind every name there is a story, a story with spiritual examples of both virtues and human weaknesses. With each name, the Church is calling us to study and to contemplate these stories and these examples, and to think about how they relate to the birth of Christ in particular, and to our spiritual lives in general.
And so today I wanted to pick just one example from the genealogy, in order to see what spiritual message we could get from it. In the Synaxarion, which was read earlier during the Matins, we see the following:
(On this day) we commemorate the righteous Shem, the son of Noah.
Having wisely covered the nakedness of his father,
Shem found his father’s prayers to be protection and cover.
We commemorate the righteous Japheth, the son of Noah.
Having hidden from the light of day the shame of his father,
Japheth receiveth length of days by the prayers of his father.
In the Book of Genesis, we read how, after the Flood, “Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent” (9:20–21). The Fathers of the Church say this was an innocent mistake on Noah’s part, because he was unaware of the strength of the wine. But the point of the story is not what Noah did, but rather how his three sons reacted.
One of his sons, “Ham … saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside”. However, his righteous brothers “Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness” (v. 22–23). In return for their deeds, one son, Ham, was cursed, while the two righteous sons were blessed.
Put very simply, this story shows us how the sinful man is the one who tries to expose others, who publishes the mistakes and their weaknesses of the other, who taunts and comments and gossips, and who receives some kind of pleasure in seeing and discussing someone else’s fall from grace.
The righteous man, on the other hand, is the one who covers the weaknesses of others, who protects them from shame and disrepute, and who does this with his ‘face turned backwards’ — he doesn’t even want to know what wrong the other person has done, so as not to to judge or commit condemnation, but only looks at his own faults.
A righteous person, in other words, is the one who acts with love and tries to preserve the dignity of the other. And this, of course, is also something central to the meaning of Christmas. When God saw mankind lying naked (without virtue), drunken (in slavery to the passions), and asleep (in a state of spiritual deadness), he approaches us with love. He descends from heaven in order to cover us with his grace, and takes onto himself our own nature so as to restore us to our initial beauty and dignity. Amen.
Fr Kristian Akselberg