One of the things that I’m struck by each Christmas is the way that we talk about Jesus and his family. We want to paint Jesus as an everyman, so we depict him and his family as being from the lowest of low estates. In our artwork, we show the holy family as if they are homeless, downtrodden, and a symbol of the most taken advantage group in society. Basically, we depict Jesus, Joseph, and Mary through the lens of our own culture using them as a palate to highlight whatever social issues plague our current day and culture.
To be sure, the Church has a job to do when it comes to being a voice for the voiceless and speaking up for the downtrodden, but I think that seeing those issues through the lens of Jesus’ family actually misses the point of Jesus’ family tree. Matthew begins his Gospel with a very different focus in mind. While the genealogy of Jesus doesn’t exactly offer a page-turning start to the story that one is going to tell, it does remind us of something important. Jesus’ lineage, through Joseph, is that of royalty, albeit forgotten royalty.
Jesus’ family tree includes people like King David, Solomon, and Josiah. These were some of the most important figures of Israel’s history. King David, through his faithfulness to God’s promises, had helped make Israel into a mighty people. King Solomon ruled with wisdom and helped oversee the construction of the Temple; the thing which defined religious life for the Jewish people for centuries. Even people like Josiah, a boy who became king and rediscovered God’s law, who are mentioned should fill us with a certain amount of awe at the king of pedigree from which Jesus comes.
And yet, by the time of the Messiah’s birth, all of this is simply forgotten. Jesus, who has every right to claim the authority that comes with such a heritage, emerges out of Nazareth as a servant and a teacher. His court that is formed does not come equipped with the sort of dignitaries and religious authorities that one would expect in Jerusalem, but instead it comes with a ragtag group of disciples from all sorts of different middle-class professions.
The powerful lesson of Jesus’ birth is the fact that Israel had a king, indeed, we have a king, but one that we are apt to forget and leave by the wayside given our all too easily distracted nature. If we want to look to fiction for examples of this same thing, this is something that I think J.R.R. Tolkien got exactly right in The Lord of the Rings. That story is, after all, not a tale of a peasant who rises up and climbs the ladders in order to become king of his country. Instead, it is a story of a man from noble birth and lineage, Aragorn, who the kingdoms have simply forgotten about. Even the Steward of Gondor has forgotten what his task was all about; preserving the throne for when a king would emerge.
In Tolkien’s story, Middle Earth is restored after the ring of power is destroyed through the work of two hobbits, and this forgotten king is once again elevated to the throne wherein he can rule with grace and majesty. I’m always struck by the way that this story reflects our own moment as well. As a culture, we seem to have forgotten about Christianity’s importance in our lives. Christians, I’ve noticed, can get quite frustrated by our society’s ambivalence toward the truths of the faith. More than this, as members of the Church, we too can fall into the same trap. We become distracted by the sinfulness of the world around us. We worry about petty political squabbles, which remain part of a world that is passing away, as St. Paul tells us. The story of Jesus’ birth, and even the story of the forgotten king of The Lord of the Rings, should remind us that we need not be distracted by the brokenness of our culture or our present moment. There is still a king who rules and reigns, even if many have forgotten his name. And the Church’s confession is that this king who rules our hearts and minds will come again in glory as he grants us grace and life everlasting. Many may forget who that king is, but the Church continues to remember that it is Christ Jesus, of the house and lineage of David.