I dread Christmas Eve. I dread it throughout all of Advent. I dread Christmas Eve, not because of the crowds or the attempts at vehicular homicide in the parking lot after Mass, but because the Gospel reading for Christmas Eve is Matthew’s genealogy.
I dread the genealogy because of all those Hebrew names. I don’t worry about mispronouncing them. After all, who would know the difference? I dread the names in the genealogy because it takes such effort for me to read them aloud without laughing. They just sound funny to me.
When I read Matthew’s genealogy I can’t help but think that the names of Jesus’ ancestors sound like the names of the many medications taken by my parishioners. Cymbalta begat Adalimumab. Adalimumab begat Xanax. Xanax begat Celebrex and Xeljanz, whose mother was Symbicort. Xeljanz begat Eliquis, the father of Xarelto. Xarelto begat Lamisil, and Lamisil begat Ibuprofen at the time of the great arthritic inflammation.
Sorry, I got carried away.
Perhaps this unlikely association in my mind between the names of Jesus’ ancestors and the names of prescription medications is the result of a theological image from the first few centuries of Christianity. It was common for Patristic writers to refer to Jesus as both the physician who treats spiritual maladies and as medicine that heals the human soul.
This Patristic image had its origins in Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus was well known as a faith healer. (Matthew 14:35-36) The healings he performed were prophetic signs intended to announce the proximity of God’s Reign. (Matthew 4:23)
It was an easy leap of the imagination from the Gospel narratives to the images presented by authors such as Clement of Alexandria and Ignatius of Antioch. Clement of Alexandria described Jesus as “the only Physician one needs for healing both the body and the soul” (Paedagogus 1:2). Ignatius of Antioch described exactly how Jesus provides spiritual healing to us. He wrote that when one professes Jesus as Savior, the profession of faith necessarily leads to love of God and eternal life. (Ephesians 14:4)
According to Ignatius, each of us is responsible to give our full allegiance to God’s saving truth, and to avoid being distracted by falsehood. (Ephesians 17:4) This responsibility is incumbent on every baptized person. Our responsibility to take seriously the Divine healing that Jesus offers is much like the responsibility that falls on a patient taking medical treatment for a physical malady. Every patient has the responsibility to follow their doctor’s prescription faithfully.
The so-called “super-bugs,” that is, infections that are resistant to treatment, are in large part the result of patients not completing their prescribed courses of antibiotics. In the same way, the spiritual maladies that afflict people are the result of not following the full course of treatment prescribed by Jesus, the Divine Physician.
There are several ways in which we can sabotage Jesus’ work to bring us spiritual healing. I’d like to bring to your attention one of the ways in which we sabotage our spiritual health. The healing effects of Jesus, the Divine Physician, depend upon our willingness not to fall into the trap of self-medication. I don’t mean only over-indulgence in alcohol (where many of you are headed after Mass). I am referring primarily to spiritual self-medication: trying to come up with a plan of salvation that is an “improvement” upon God’s plan.
There are numerous iterations of this available to us: materialism, half-heartedness, etc., but worst is the completely destructive and unhealthy idea that you and I are the most important people present at this Mass. There is a form of idolatry woven into the fabric of American culture. It tells us that the most important person in the world is self, and it leads each person to worship themselves as their own god. This malady doesn’t afflict only the unchurched or non-believers; it is just as prevalent among those who attend church regularly. (Those who complain that Mass doesn’t do much for them might be worshiping the wrong deity.)
Of all the idols that you and I love to worship, the one we love the most is ourselves; this is also the one that is most unhealthy. There are some clear indications of self-deification; chief among them is the belief that one comes to church to get something. It doesn’t really matter whether one intends to get Sacraments at church or to get some quiet time alone or to get some kind of blessing or favor. If we make church about getting stuff for ourselves, we’ve made ourselves into the most important person in church, and the most important person in church is always God.
I recommend avoiding all self-prescribed attempts to remedy personal and social problems; we are not qualified to be our own physicians. After the genealogy I find so challenging, Matthew’s Gospel relates how Mary and Joseph came to be the parents of the Incarnate Savior, the Divine Physician: they acquiesced to a message spoken by an angel. Their humility was a reflection of God’s humility expressed in the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, Divine healing is offered to all, but it is received only by those who accept it as an unmerited gift from God.
Funny sounding names aside, there is deep wisdom in Matthew’s genealogy. That nearly unpronounceable list is a stark reminder that none of us got here on our own, and none of us will last forever. Each of us was begotten by someone else, and there will come a time when our names will sound just as archaic as the ones in Matthew’s genealogy. The Gospel is a necessary reminder that God (alone), is beginning and end of human existence.
At the time appointed by God, after many centuries of hope and struggle, Jesus was born of the Virgin; God’s eternal Word took human flesh in order to heal us of the effects of sin and death. Jesus is the Physician of the soul. We experience His Divine healing by our profession of faith and love of the One, True God.