Matthew’s genealogy highlights the fact that the humanity of Jesus comes entirely from his mother. Depending on your translation, we have the words “begot” or “was the father of” repeated thirty-nine times before we come to a striking break in the chain when, instead of “Joseph the father of” as we would expect, we get: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” The sequence of forty males and their patrilineage is broken dramatically by a woman who bore a child without a man. Moreover, this male genealogy is filled with heartache and confusion. David is a king with many wives who murders one of his most loyal soldiers because he is afraid of being discovered after he has used his kingly status to take his faithful soldier’s only wife. David comes from a family in which a Moabite widow risks everything to find food for her Hebrew mother-in-law before they are both saved by a kinsman redeemer. Another mother named is the only survivor left after the destruction of Jericho—a prostitute who took the side of the Hebrew spies. Finally, we have another foreign widow twice over who is left destitute by her father-in-law Judah until she tricks him into fathering a child with her.
All of these men and women are Mary’s ancestors as well as Joseph’s, but Matthew’s account highlights that Mary is the only one to pass this heritage on to her son. While the women named before Mary within this lineage are far from innocent wallflowers, they are all longsuffering in the face of terrible tragedy and often horrific abuse, and several of them are astounding in their courage and faithfulness despite their circumstances. The human heritage that Mary passes to her son is not just a story of abuse and deception although it is terribly disfigured by both. It is also a story of courage, faithfulness, and generosity.
Despite being very much a daughter of this human family, however, Mary also stands apart. In fact, all four of the women named among the long line of men listed by Matthew stand apart in striking ways as foreigners and as those who would typically have been despised for several reasons. These women all bless Israel from the outside in some fundamental sense. Mary herself is the ultimate outsider when the Archangel Gabriel comes to her and announces God’s intention to make her the mother of God. She is being invited directly into the divine, timeless, and triune life of God in an unprecedented and unrepeatable way. Moreover, this invitation into the life of God also puts her immediately at risk of being rejected and even killed by her own people. Mary, however, is entirely in control and makes her fateful choice with her eyes wide open. Despite being “greatly troubled” at the angel’s initial greeting, Luke notes that Mary “tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Even after eliciting a second round of details, Mary continues to evaluate this message carefully and to further cross-examine the messenger of God: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” After she has received her third explanation, Mary graciously accepts God’s will for her: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Mary, although fully part of a human family that is most clearly fallen and suffering, stands apart from the long story of confusion with her careful discernment and her courageous choice. She accepts the offer to make a new family for herself—a family with no human father. As Matthew’s account so strikingly emphasizes, the only father of her child is God. This is not a slight to Joseph and in no way sidelines him. Joseph is noted as Mary’s husband, and his gentle, faithful care is evident throughout the accounts of both Luke and Matthew.
However, it is significant that Joseph’s most prominent means of participating in Mary’s divine family is by sleeping, dreaming, and receiving visions. The household of Mary and her son Jesus is no simple human family. Mary and her baby are a new humanity. Not only is this little household a new humanity, it is a new creation. The entire cosmos is contained in this love of mother and child where God and man are reconciled. Mary’s cooperation with God has created the world anew after its terrible fall. Joseph is not left out of this new humanity, but his participation is suitably contemplative and sublime. All of the old icons show Joseph sleeping and receiving visions from angels because that is virtually all that we hear about him in the scriptures themselves. This was a critical part of his means of participating in the new creation of Mary and Jesus. Just as we are called to participate in the new humanity and creation of Mary and Jesus now by means of contemplation, prayer, and liturgy, so Joseph was called to dream dreams.
When we gaze upon the love of this mother and son, as so many of us do during this time of year, we gaze upon our own new adoptive family, upon our own new humanity, and upon a cosmos entirely remade by their love.
Many old hymns compare Mary’s womb (and the cave in which traditional icons depict her giving birth) to the Garden of Eden because this new family of God, Mary, and Jesus is a restoration of life with God. This Troparion for the Forefeast of the Nativity is one wonderful example:
Make ready, O Bethlehem; for Eden has been opened for all. Prepare, O Ephratha; for the tree of life has blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin; for her womb has appeared as a supersensual paradise in which is planted the divine tree, whereof eating we will live and not die as Adam. Indeed, Christ will be born, raising the likeness that fell of old.
Mary’s intimate love for her child is encompassed within a cave where she sits alone with this gift of God. We see even Joseph sitting outside this cave in all of the old images as he faithfully dreams of his new life with them in God. However, as set apart and intimate as this new creation clearly is, it is nonetheless opened to all. Every beast in the stable, angelic choirs, all the shepherds on the surrounding hillsides—all are called to attend. A mighty new heavenly light, wise men from Persia—these and many more over the years will heed the invitation. We too are called to dream the dreams that will bring us into this Eden that has been opened for all. It is only here (with Mary and her son) that we find Mary taking the humanity that she has offered to God, the humanity received by Christ, and offering this first true humanity back to us all as our own. In this family of wise mother, helpless child, and almighty God, all of creation finally takes place as God has intended that it should from all of eternity. May we find ourselves there as well.