2017, April 11, Tuesday
I have been away from my “Journal” for several days now. We went to my daughter’s Senior Art Exhibit at Oberlin College for the weekend, returning early Sunday morning. I went to the Palm Sunday service, participating in the reading of the Passion. Afterwards I was quite tired. In fact, I was not feeling well, not on Saturday, not on the drive home, nor on Sunday or yesterday. I have a busy day today. I hope my strength comes back for I have to work into the night.
I finished the book by Mother Mary Francis, A Right to Be Merry, and started Ben Montgomery’s book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk. A Right to Be Merry was first written in 1956 (though it was updated) and still reflects ways of thinking that predate the Second Vatican Council, thinking that I find unhelpful. For example, she has a concept of penance that doesn’t work for me and she tries to rationalize the cloister in a way that Clare never attempts to (though Clare accepted it, it was imposed on her and the women’s Orders by the church hierarchy). Pope Urban IV indeed imposed a Rule on the sisters that gutted Clare’s achievement only a decade after her death. The sisters did not get to re-appropriate Clare’s Rule until after Vatican II. Mother Mary Francis, however, describes the life of the sisters together in a cloister and she does this well.
2017, April 12, Wednesday
I want to spend a little time looking again at the whole of Matthew chapters 3 to 7 before we move on to chapters 8 to 10. Let us begin by backtracking.
We open Matthew’s gospel and at once confront a genealogy. This would not be so peculiar in terms of Biblical texts, though it does signal that Matthew intends his gospel to be read as Scripture. Its purpose at first seems to be to show that Jesus, whom we call the Messiah (Christos in the common Greek tongue), is in the royal lineage of David. Not only is Jesus a descendant of David, but he is a descendant in the line of the royal dynasty. Unusual is the fact that several women appear in the record—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, her [who had been the wife] of Uriah, and Mary, none who were even born Israelites; at least the middle three are of gentile descent (possibly Tamar is too), and all are interesting—and important. Their mention is noteworthy and should make us wonder about Matthew’s intent.
What is even more startling is that Jesus, the Messiah, is not in this lineage by birth but by adoption. “And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” He enters the royal lineage of David only because Joseph names him as his son at his B’rit Milah (or bris). He is therefore entirely Joseph’s son legally, but how he comes to be this is surprising. The irony that the Messiah would be the son of David by adoption is also interesting, and should also make us wonder.
The rest is nice and neat. The thing about the three sets of fourteen generations—though not entirely accurate for generations are skipped to make the numbers come out (there is something numerological going on)—shows that Jesus was born in the appropriate generation, at the right time.
Then Mary comes on the scene, and Joseph to whom she is engaged. She is with child by the Holy Spirit, with neither Joseph’s participation, knowledge, or consent. Jesus may have been adopted by Joseph, but his generation is not diminished on this account for he has a higher origin, perhaps reminding us of Isaac in comparison to Ishmael, and that whole cycle.
Stop for a moment and consider the names. Mary (Maria or Mariam in Greek) is in Hebrew Miryam, the name of the prophet and sister of Moses, or Mara (from which Miryam seems to derive), the name that Naomi, the mother of Ruth, gave to herself (in Ruth 1), which is the same word as Marah, the bitter water that was sweetened by a tree (in Exodus 15). The word means “bitterness.”
Miriam kept watch in the bulrushes when the daughter of Pharaoh, while bathing in the Nile, discovered the baby in the pitched basket. She also arranged for the child to be reunited to his mother. She also had a role in the Exodus, and is the prophet who led the women in singing the song of victory after they crossed the Red Sea. The Talmud names her as one of the seven major female prophets of Israel. She is named alongside of Moses and Aaron as those sent before Israel when the Divine delivered them from their exile and bondage in Egypt. During the wilderness journey, she represented the people of Israel, and according to the Talmud, provided them water. Her name is associated with the birth of Moses in the River and the birth of Israel through the Sea; she is again associated with water and the satisfaction of thirst in the wilderness of the Sinai. She also is the leader and representative of her people before the Divine.
Though Mary is only the name Jesus’ mother was given at birth, how her name alludes to Miriam and the water of life (and victory) and sustenance in the desert, and to the bitter tears of bereft Ruth, and also the bitter water that turns sweet (by a tree), is rich with allusive value both as to Mary’s role and experience, and both with respect to Jesus’ birth and passion.
Mary, however, is not the focus of Matthew’s attention in chapter 1 or 2. Because I adore Mary, I would love to go into the significance of her name in relation to her experience of her Son’s suffering, death and resurrection. This would be appropriate, I think, when we reflect upon Luke’s gospel, which does focus on Mary’s role. However, it probably does not help us understand what Matthew is doing in chapters 1 and 2.
But why would Mary, the mother of the Divine, be named “bitterness”? Following John Duns Scotus (though he wasn’t the first to think like this), the Incarnation would have happened whether or not the human race screwed up its relationship to reality. The Son of the Divine, himself equally divine, would still have emptied himself and incarnated in a human being, and at a certain point his humanity would still have been glorified or divinized, as was Jesus’s humanity in the resurrection. This would have had to happen in order for the creation to even exist and to reach its end! (The alpha of time is dependent on time’s omega; in one sense the alpha only exists because of its telos—the omega—and in another sense, the alpha enables the omega to happen. In order for the creation to be divinized, it much have been created with this potential; which means that the creation could not have even existed if the Incarnation were not going to happen.) Only, if humanity had not had the rupture with the Divine that it had, the Incarnate one would not have had to lay down his soul and die. The bitterness of Mary is on account of our sin that makes her Son’s suffering necessary for our salvation and glorification. This meditation on the suffering of Mary, however, is an aside from our reflections on Matthew.
Joseph (Yosef, said in Genesis to mean both “taken away” and “add or increase”) is also the name of a Biblical figure, the patriarch beloved by his parents, a dreamer, who was rejected by his brothers, and through humiliation and exaltation became their savior during a time of hardship (famine), removing them to the land of Egypt. Joseph’s role in Matthew’s gospel is instrumental. He too is a dreamer, and, like his namesake, he also removes the family to Egypt during a time of hardship (the pogrom of Herod). Like Mary, his name is rich with allusive value.
Matthew, then, begins his narrative by connecting it very firmly to Israel’s past and the meaning of its history, especially the recurring irony embedded in its history. This prepares the reader (or auditor) for what is ahead: the story of the Messiah and Son of David is going to be fraught with irony and irony is going to be essential to its interpretation. Moreover, the Divinity itself is revealed in this irony. The richness of the Divine and its glory in creation is revealed in, by, and through the poverty and humility that is intrinsic to the Divine.