David became the father of Solomon, whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.Matthew 1:6
Today’s gospel features Matthew’s historically contorted genealogy of Jesus in order to show that there are 14 generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile, and fourteen more from the exile to Jesus. Matthew’s goal, of course, is to show how all of the history of the chosen people has led to this event of Jesus’ birth. Although Matthew’s count of the generations is unable to stand up to scrutiny, what his genealogy does remind us of is that the incarnation and birth of Jesus is very much a part of the human story. The Word is “made flesh and dwelt among us” because somehow, perhaps more mysteriously than any extraordinary miracle, God is, as St. Augustine said, “closer to us than we are to ourselves.”
What Matthew’s genealogy reminds us of is that in every imaginable human circumstance, joy and suffering, virtue and sin, God is coming to birth in us. For a very long time, Christianity as a tradition suffered from a strange paradox. The tradition whose very heart was that God became a human being created a doctrine and ascesis that seemed ashamed of the human condition. There was a not so subtle suggestion that to become “perfect as God is perfect” required a dissociation from that which made us most human so that somehow a disembodied spiritual self could come into being.
Yet, today we are reminded that no less than Solomon was born of an illicit and immoral union between David and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. The great gift of God to the people that is Solomon comes about as the result of the envy and murderous lust of David. And so on through all of the generations. Every aspect of our humanity is included through the lives of those who constitute the long list of Jesus’ forebears. If anything emerges for us from these “characters” whom Matthew lists, it is that God’s view of human history is strikingly divergent from our own.
For those of us formed in the Christian faith and formation tradition, particularly perhaps Roman Catholicism, as it developed through much of its history, there is a dichotomy between our real and ordinary human life and “the spiritual life.” So, when the life of the spirit is spoken of, we can feel the deep suspicion that our humanity and our ordinary experience is somehow being despised and rejected. This reaction, given our history, is very understandable. The problem, however, is that it leaves us with an impoverished sense of our humanity; the impoverishment that we are currently experiencing in our almost totally secular cultures of the west.
This morning on the news there was a report of the death from a drug overdose of a young tech entrepreneur. All the news item stated was that he was found in his New York apartment with drug paraphernalia at hand. It would seem as if this young man had everything the culture could offer, wealth, success, and possessions, and yet it was not enough, and so he needed to push his body for more gratification (or perhaps relief) than it could give. There was then a promotional announcement for a later story on the epidemic of loneliness in the United States. By this time we are all well aware of the opioid epidemic that is sweeping the country. Admittedly the epidemic in the poorest urban environments of our country is that of death by gun violence. Yet, suicide is not greatest among the poor and deprived; it is rather greatest among those populations who seek to live in such a way as to increase their consumption and wealth and to ignore the poor. To isolate from the reality of the world behind the gates and towers of our accumulated wealth seems to be no solution to the human problem. In fact, it seems only to make those who do so the victims of their own self-imposed isolation and loneliness.
As we are now just one week from Christmas Eve, we, who have relatively comfortable lives as he society measures it, are experiencing the annual Christmas “rush,” the sense of too much to do and too little time. Yet, as I awoke this morning after a lot of preparation yesterday, I was aware that what I so looked forward to in the coming days, beginning today, was being with others to whom I long to be close. It was to share presence with those who lived their own lives truly and deeply and who were not only willing but desiring to share those lives with me and to receive my own in return. Even in its highly secularized form, Christmas continues to remind us of the importance of presence and connection. To be human is to experience a certain “insatiability” in our desire for intimacy and connection. That desire is insatiable because we are never as close even to ourselves as we long to be, as close to ourselves as God is.
Every desire and passion that is part of our human condition is an intimation of our desire for union with God. But union with God is not something outside of ourselves. It is rather finally being at-one with ourselves, in that place within where God is alive in us. Every moment of desperation for us is based at some level in disappointment. Some of the existentialist thinkers of the mid-20th century interpreted the ever-recurring experience of disappointment in us as a reminder of the absurdity of life. In its Latin roots the word “absurd” comes from the word for deaf or dull. Adrian van Kaam teaches that we must learn “to listen to the truth that every pain conceals.” To be sure, one interpretation for the ubiquity of disappointment in our lives is that our lives are absurd or meaningless. Another, however, is that we suffer the incompleteness of every experience, relationship, or love because we are not yet realizing the intimacy to which we are called. We are not yet listening deeply enough to the pain of the current disappointment.
Solomon, the great and wisest of kings, comes to be out of David’s human excesses, excesses that result in the horror of Uriah’s murder. Somehow quite mysteriously, a deeper revelation of God’s love for his people, and, as Matthew would have it, another “step on the way” to the coming of “God with us,” is the fruit of David’s sin and repentance. We are always just taking steps on the way because our longing is for the Absolute. In order to be true to our actual current experience, there is no need for us to deny our spiritual awareness. It is not an escape from our humanity but rather its end, its very reason for being.
This awareness allows us to take each moment seriously, but not too seriously. We are capable of living at once our actual experiences of fulfillment and disappointment, of consonance and dissonance, of virtue and sinfulness. There is, of course, a tension in such a truly human way of living. It is a refusal to dissolve the tension by either dissociating from our human experience, passions, and struggles by living an ethereal and imaginative spiritual life, on the one hand, or reducing ourselves to the “vicissitudes of the ego” on the other. It is giving ourselves to our lives with the passion of David who dances before the ark of the Lord, but who also humbly falls before the Lord in repentance for the horrors those passions inflict on others. It is also, as we live our lives to the full, not ever forgetting that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
To be fully human, then, requires that we learn the art of contemplation. If, in fact, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, we must learn how to see with the eye with which God sees. The “spiritual life” is not a distancing from ourselves but a drawing ever closer. It is to become so at one with ourselves that we are at one both with God and with all others. To refuse our spiritual awareness confines us to what feels to us to be the limits of our own bodies and our own experiences. It is to be cut off from others because we are cut off from our own deepest life. We are made for love and union, and so when we think we are all alone we experience what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:19: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Paul goes on to say, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. . .” This “eternal life” in which we hope is not something that we know only after we die. In Our Town, Thornton Wilder has his narrator say: “There’s something eternal about every human being.” It is by realizing the deep human capacity we have for contemplation that we come to know and so live from that which is eternal in us.
As the Incarnation shows us, this eternal manifests itself in all the aspects of our human condition, in “the common, ordinary unspectacular flow of everyday life.” As we develop the eye to see it, we begin to realize the “life to the full” that Jesus promises, a life that we share will all. So, our response-ability to the needs of all, with whom we are in communion, deepens and increases. Because none of us is alone and each of us is “a part of” all others, none of us can be well if others of us are not. None of us can be safe, if others of us are not. None of us can be full while others are hungry, or fully connected while others are lonely. As Rowan Williams says: “To learn contemplative prayer is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.”
[Contemplation] is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom—freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that come from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative prayer is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.Rowan Williams, “The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Address to the Thirteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops,” (October 10, 2012).