The Ancestors of Christ


Prepare yourself, O Ephratha!
The Lamb is on her way to give birth to the Chief Shepherd she carries in her womb.
The God-bearing forefathers will rejoice, beholding Him,
and with the shepherds, they will glorify the Virgin nursing Him.

Kontakion of the Sunday before the Nativity

Part of being a modern man is having relatively few ancestors. At a certain stage in life, it seems, we get interested in geneology (or at least some do). I have a few pages of research, enough to have reached the name of my first direct ancestor to have come to America and vague hints at where in England he may have come from. But I have nothing more.

This is more than some. The modern world, as modern, is inherently anti-historical. History is a limit; tradition an artificial limit to be overcome. We famously re-invent ourselves, the memory of the public being frightfully short.

Watching a prominent politician the other evening, I asked my wife, “Wasn’t he involved in some sort of plagarism scandal a few years back?” She confirmed my memory, but his continued national prominence underlined either the moral bankruptcy of our Republic or the feebleness of our collective memory.

Unless we are royalty, we rarely define ourselves by our ancestors. They, indeed, are the limitations we seek to overcome – each generation excelling the previous. This is the myth of progress.

It should be no surprise that a culture that remembers the Mother of God only with difficulty (even at Christmas sometimes), has virtually no thought for the ancestors of Christ. That the Orthodox Church generally gives two Sundays to their memories is decidedly unmodern.

To hear the reading of the gospel in which the ancestors of Christ are recounted is not only unmodern, it can be decidedly embarrassing (if we were the sort of people to be embarrassed by ancestors).

In St. Matthew’s account Rahab the harlot is mentioned (though she is not referred to as “the harlot”) but it does indelicately state that “David begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Uriah.” The ancestry of Christ is recalled with flagrant reminders of some of its most unseemly moments.

But this is just the point. The God who became incarnate did not come into a humanity that had been pristinely prepared. His geneology, though chosen, hallowed and sanctified by His name, was still full of murderers, thieves and harlots. The most pure virgin stands as a near exception to a common rule (I should certainly add her righteous parents, Joachim and Anna as well).

But it is the brute ugliness of humanity that is remembered in many of the pages of the Scriptures, all of which are a record of sorts of the ancestors of Christ.

But we are all the descendants of harlots, theives and murderers (particularly if you claim any royal blood). The story of humanity, as recalled in Scripture remembers that the murder of a brother was among the first crimes. Such is the human race.

And such is the love of God that He took flesh from that human race and became man. The fact that almost all Christian Churches make no formal mention of the ancestry of Christ, much less a feast day, demonstrates a distinctly modern touch, a growing amnesia that may all too likely forget who Christ Himself is.

He is the God Man who taking our flesh, emptied Himself and entered into the depth of our sin and death. Becoming sin, to use a Biblical expression, He even enters Hell itself to rescue a humanity that we would more easily forget.

When the Orthodox pray for the dead, we sing a hymn, “Memory eternal.” It is far more descriptive of God than us. Our memory is but a feeble flicker, growing ever dimmer. His, a blaze of life, raising the dead. 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





9 responses to “The Ancestors of Christ”

  1. bastrix Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    is a very great exultation for my your activity and I am very glad because your replay. Now I will celebrate the day of St. John of Kronstadt and St. Ignatius Theoforus and I will pray for you and for your family. I am a married priest and probably and you are married, because I see three very beautiful girls in your page. I try, some time, I will translate some aspects of this on my theology blog.
    Thanks for putting my address in your blog.

    Father Dorin,
    Bucharest, Romania,
    19 December 2006.

  2. Eusebios Avatar

    Fr. Stepehen,
    Father Bless!
    Thank you for your continuing thoughts along these lines and for rightly pointing out that all of our pasts are checkered and that Christ also shared in this aspect of our humanity, His lineage being less than stellar in many ways.
    What really struck me however was your statement on “progress”. It is indeed a strange thing thatwe deem the dismissal of history as being progressive. As a student of history, I find this particullarly appaling. Also, though I veer a bit from the topic at hand (mea culpa) it also strikes me as odd that we consider new and improved ways of killing human beings to be progress as well.We have passed through the bloodiest century in recorded human history,and yet consider that we are a highly evolved and advanced global society. The irony seems both rich, and completely lost on most of us.
    As always, I thoroughly enjoyed your entry, thank you.
    In Xp,

  3. Jonathan Avatar

    Fr. Stephen–

    I can relate to your comment about getting into genealogy. Since high school, on and off, I come back to it and try to go back a little further. Though, now you’ve made me curious as to who they were, not just from whence the came.

    Yes, everyone has a checkered past along their family lines. I don’t know exactly how crooked the branches of my family tree are, but I can tell you that my paternal great-grandfather was once put in jail as being John Dillinger. At this point, that’s about as scandalous as it gets.

    And, though I am curious as to what kinds of people I descended from, I’m also somewhat fearful. What if I come across a cold-blooded murderer or rapist, etc.? I think that, sometimes, the troubles of now are better handled with the idea that it wasn’t always that way. But, we know that it has always been that way, so we conveniently forget the past.

    And the above comment on progress in the destruction of human life is all too true. Lord have mercy!

  4. Dean Arnold Avatar

    I am a genealogy buff. Have been since I was in junior high. Go figure.

    I just received my second report from a professional genealogist who is tracing a couple of my lines so I can research them further when I head to England in two weeks for winter/spring.

    You are right in saying that you are the exception, not the rule, in that you have some minimal genealogical awareness and know of one migrating ancestor. I am the only one in my family (along with my mother) who gets into it. I find that less than ten percent of the population knows the names of a single great grandparent or what they did for a living (which is no more difficult to find out than ask your parents about their grandparents).

    I have always been dumbfounded as to why few people get jazzed about genealogy. Clearly, the Bible does not treat it as unimportant. Two of the books I have written deal heavily with the subject.

    I am still trying to figure out the power and draw of genealogy. I’m sure there are many, but the obvious one is the centrality of Fatherhood in all of reality. Our own fathers are our best glimpse into what the Godhead is actually like.

    There is also a kind of immortality associated with remembering our fathers–we share in their lives in the preceding centuries and hopefully our descendents will share in ours.

    A quick obvious comment is: what about those with no children? Firstly, they still have ancestors, so they can enjoy that part. Secondly, I would say that, yes, there is something deeper still about “spiritual adoption” and the spiritual fullness given to those, such as monastics, who dedicate themselves fully to “spiritual” things.

    But I would say, like in many things, the spiritual level cannot be understood and fully appreciated apart from a genuine appreciation of the earthly version. The fascination I have with my ancestors helps me better marvel at that many-layered declaration of “the riches of Christ’s glorious inheritance in the saints.”

  5. Fr Stephen Avatar
    Fr Stephen

    One of my favorite pieces of iconography in many Churches is in the central “drum” which is capped by the dome. The dome, of course, has Christ the Almighty. But typically, around the drum, are the “ancestors” of Christ, i.e. the kings of Israel (some of whom are deeply scandalous).

  6. jeremy Avatar

    Father Bless!

    I’ve recently reflected on the idea that there is an important correlation between the use of geneaology in the New Testament and the Church’s to continuity/apostolicity; using the image of the vine and branches, we have become the spiritual posterity of our forefathers and mothers, we continue as offshoots branching from the One Vine (I am not puporting the “branch theory” of ecclessiological history but rather true rootedness in the Vine). By grace and through the laying on of hands we are engrafted, in baptism we are brought forth from the womb of the waters and birthed into the existing family of God–“the body of Christ”–and sealed as members of the eternal Kingdom by the Spirit. We come to form the spiritual lineage, inheriting and perpetuating the incarnation…


  7. Benjamin Avatar


    It seems to me that an acknowledgement and celebration of our ancestors is truly required for us to be able to claim that we are “the People of God”, in that very biblical, very concrete sense. One need only read through the omnipresent genealogies in the Old Testament Scriptures to realize that people- real, live, flesh and blood people- matter. Being surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses” is somewhat of a useless notion if we don’t know who those witnesses are – if we haven’t celebrated them as family.

  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    The failure to acknowledge the “ancestors of Christ,” is just another indictment, of sorts, of modernized Christianity. It has all too often been transmuted into a idea, or a system of ideas. “People” means something abstract. “Church” even means abstract things such as “all faithful people.” Of course, God knows who all faithful people are, but the denial of the concrete Church and its replacement by the “invisible Church” by some Protestant theologies is simply another example of creeping gnosticism. We don’t know who we are, we don’t know where we came from, I suppose we don’t really know where we’re going (witness the “left behind” books that grossly misunderstand the Scriptures and make entertainment out of mysteries). Christian booksellers in America have made a fortune, perhaps the largest ever in Christian publishing through these books. Christianity is real – as real as oil and water, bread and wine, and the ancestors who have walked this tiny planet. Ersatz commercialized Christianity is a sad substitute. Lord, have mercy on us all.

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