Saturday, December 17, 2011

God is Relentless

Our pastor’s homily this morning shed new light on what I’ve long considered the most boring Gospel reading of all time—the genealogy of Jesus Christ, all 42 generations back to Abraham. That’s farther back than you can go using the best available genealogy software or service. Those old Jews kept some records!

I am in the family history business, helping people write and publish their memoirs, so while genealogy is not my field, family history is my passion. Today, for the first time, as Father read the Gospel (Matthew 1:1–17), I was struck by the humanity of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Intellectually, I understand that Matthew was writing for a Jewish readership, to convince them that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah they had been waiting for so long. But my heart said more: this was a child with a family. 

Therefore, this was a child.

In his homily, Father Barnes acknowledged that he too once found this Gospel boring. He said that the first time he “really heard” it was in the seminary, and he thought it was boring then! That assuaged some guilt about rolling my eyes over that Gospel all these years.

Since the seminary, Father went on, he has come to love this Gospel, because it demonstrates what he called “the relentless provenance of God.” That is a direct and striking quote. What follows here is paraphrase and personal reflection.

I flinched initially at the word relentless, which I have always thought of as negative or at least aggressively persistent.  But then I thought, That Old Testament God was one not-to-be-messed-with fellow—who punished sins and kept on giving, who created men who became murderers and adulterers and kept on giving. Provenance is another word that struck me. It is a genealogical word. It suggests one who provides but it refers also to the origin of things. The relentless provenance of God is a beautiful phrase that kept echoing.

I stood outside the sacristy waiting to talk with Father Barnes after Mass. I was fiddling with my key ring, trying to put back a key I had loaned to a friend last night. I heard the sound of someone’s foot tripping and I looked up from my distraction just in time to see an older woman reach for the bannister above the stairs leading to the lower church. Having tripped and then missed the bannister, she fell heavily and head over heels down the steep linoleum-covered granite steps to the lower church.

Before I even had a chance to react, Father Barnes—the son of a cop, a former Navy chaplain himself,  and a generally not-to-be-messed-with kind of guy—dashed out of the sacristy with his alb still half on. “Who was it?!” he shouted, and before I had a chance to identify the woman, he shouted again, “Don’t move her!” And again, “Don’t move her!” With his alb still trailing off his shoulder, he reached to his pocket for his mobile phone and was dialing 9-1-1—as I say, before I even had a chance to react. Two minutes later, he was personally leading the paramedics into the lower church by the most direct door. I was still half numb.

We have all been praying for “Mary” this morning. Father Barnes later told me that she had “at least broken her arm.” We will continue to pray.

Some may have wondered—along with me—how such an accident could happen immediately after the Holy Mass. The answer has continued to echo in my mind: the relentless provenance of God.

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