17 December 2007

Root to trunk to branch to flower

3rd Week Advent(M): Genesis 49.2, 8-10 and Matthew 1.1-17
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Beyond tongue-tying dyslexic presiders at 7.00am, what purpose does this genealogy serve? Over your many years as Catholics you have heard many explanations. The genealogy establishes Jesus’ lineage as David’s heir to the throne of Israel. The genealogy shows us Mary’s place in the long history of a male-dominated culture. The genealogy reaches back and back into the graying mist of near-legend and story to retrieve a solid rock of evidence that Jesus is the Christ. The genealogy begins the gospel of Matthew as a way of giving legitimacy and authority to a gospel told to the Jewish people about their long-awaited Messiah. None of these is wrong. And there many more. What these explanations have in common is a singular notion of genealogy—tracing back a familial line through history in order to show a person his or her origins. Bear with me while I give you a slightly different definition of genealogy and provide another theological interpretation.

Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, opens his 1977 essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” with the following, “Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times.” Towards the end of that essay he writes, “The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity but to commit itself to its dissipation.” At the risk of taxing our morning brains with French philosophy, let’s say that what Foucault is proposing here is that genealogy is really about dispersing one’s identity rather than firming it up; in other words, we trace a family line not to find our where we’re from but rather to find out how large we’ve become, how scattered (like seed) we are—as a family, a tribe, a nation, even as a person firmly glued within a history.

Now, back to Jesus. As Christians, we read out Jesus’ familial genealogy this time every year to show again where Jesus came from, to show that he has the basic qualification to be the Christ—he is heir to the throne of David. But as Christians we do not doubt this bit of history. Even without the genealogy we have experienced Jesus as the Christ and struggle to live our collected lives as his followers, as his body. We are, however, more than just followers. And we are more than just members of his body, the Church. We are on our way to becoming Christ himself. If Foucault is right about his notion of genealogy in general, then we have in this particular genealogy a record of the dissipation of Jesus’ identity into the body: “Of [Mary] was born Jesus who is called the Christ.”

Why does this matter? It matters to us b/c as we approach the birth of our Savior, we are forced to remember our own nativity and more than just our own births: we are forced to remember our rebirth in Christ, our coming again into the world as Christs. Jesus’ lineage is our lineage; his history is our history. And what’s more, we are charged, commissioned by Christ himself to live lives of dissipation, not decadence or debauchery, but lives of active dispersal—going out, growing deeper, spreading further, blooming more, producing more and better fruit, grafting others onto Jesse’s branch, and branching and branching up until he comes again and claims his orchard harvest. This bit of genealogical knowledge is not wisdom in itself, but surely it is wise to know that each of us and all of us together are heirs to David’s throne—priests, prophets, and kings, all given the delicate but arduous task of being the Father’s Christ in the world.

May his name and ours be blessed forever!


  1. Anonymous1:09 PM

    Yes it was rather a mouthful for Fr although he handled it wonderfully!

  2. Anonymous8:13 PM


    "Presiders?" You OFFER Holy Mass. You CELEBRATE Holy Mass. You are a CELEBRANT.

    Leave the Novus-speak with Piero, where it belongs!

    Your pal,

    Humbert, T.O.P.