On the Sunday before the Lord’s Nativity, we listened to the Lord’s genealogy, from the Holy Evangelist Matthew. I remember that when I first started going to church, this list of names seemed so boring and pointless. And from the outside, that’s how it is. But, in practice, this boring list of names – which is difficult even to listen to, not to mention to apply in our lives – shows us just how long it took for God to repair the fall and begin again His dialogue with man.
We can’t grasp this. And many times in our life, we also turn again toward God, most often due to a misfortune or mishappening. Rare are the cases in which, from childhood, a person flies smoothly toward God. The majority among us have known what it means to be fractured, ruptured, far away from God, estranged from Him, which according to Saint Gregory Palamas means spiritual death. We all have experienced this spiritual death, meaning the soul’s separation from God.
Well, when we hear this genealogy and, in general, everything that happened in the Old Testament, we can observe just how long it took before God healed this rupture. God needed the Theotokos. The Holy Fathers say that humans tried to build the Tower of Babel to reach from earth to heaven, just like today they pretend to dominate the world, but for this brashness God confused their tongues. But He was secretly building up another Tower of Babel, the true one, which could reach from earth to heaven. This true tower is the Mother of God, who united heaven and earth. The Mother of God is the ladder Jacob saw, on which angels were ascending and descending (cf. Genesis 28.12), because she forms the link from earth to heaven. Humanity brought forth the Mother of God on the tip of the tallest mountain, and she refashioned the missing link to heaven. God could not act without this great and prolonged effort.
If from Saint Matthew we heard a listing of names, then from Saint Paul we heard a more dramatic listing of the works of the righteous ones. Some were sawn in two, others wandered as nomads, they suffered while waiting and calling upon God and they didn’t receive the fulfillment of their requests. And this entire chain of righteous ones, of whom the world was not worthy (cf. Hebrews 11.38), was God’s economy with mankind, so that the Son could become incarnate. And barely then could God begin acting upon man’s salvation. All of this effort is just for God to become incarnate, to begin making His economy manifest.
In applying this to our life, the idea is that, when we turn again toward God, despite our knowledge that He is good, that He receives us, that He forgives us, yet something still prevents Him from coming to us. And we don’t understand what, because we feel ourselves to be so well-intentioned. It is good to understand how God acts. As we have seen, barely after the Son of God’s incarnation did the economy of mankind’s salvation begin properly. But He could not become incarnate without this long series of righteous ones, this prolonged effort – the entire history of the Old Testament is about this, about how you cure death, about how you escape from the web of sin and from under the dominion of evil. Hence why these events and actions appear in the Old Testament.
We begin with the flood, which perhaps signifies a misfortune in our families. There are also rare cases, after the image of the Mother of God, who did not experience separation from God, such as the Mother of God, Saint Porphyrios, and some other saints. Smooth travel, smooth flight toward God. Yet we fly with more turbulence toward God, not so easily and beautifully. Thus, we experience a shock, a forceful wake-up call which brings us to church. Faith appears, represented by Abraham who has remained a symbol of faithfulness toward God. Yet this is just the beginning, because the passions are still alive, just how the idols were still present in the history of Israel. The Egyptian slavery is explained spiritually as enslavement to the passions. Thus, after returning to faith, there is a moment when we put a stop to our sinful life, corresponding to the exodus from Egypt (cf. Exodus 3-20). But we still have not escaped from passions, which translates in the Old Testament to the idol worship that continued for hundreds of years. The passions are idol worship (cf. Colossians 3.5).
Then appears the main weapon in the fight against the passions – namely, repentance – whose image is the Prophet King David. This fight ends neither quickly nor easily. Barely after the Babylonian captivity (centuries VI-V B.C.) is the Israelite people healed from idol worship. Likewise with us: through repentance and endurance of other trials, we are healed of the passions. And barely after that, there is a more mystical period of 400 years in the history of Israel, until the Mother of God appears and the Lord can become incarnate. And in our life, this corresponds with humility, which can beget Christ within us.
This would be an image of our salvation, as a parallel to the Lord’s genealogy.
Thus, let us be attentive. Even if it’s evident that God desired our salvation much more than we did for ourselves, we see that He could not fulfill it when He desired because He awaited man’s response. We understand that, in order to act, He needed a heart that could receive Him. Par excellence, the heart that received Him was that of the Theotokos. She had this pure heart. We recall that when she was dedicated to the temple at 3 years old, she didn’t even look back to her parents, but went to the high priest, Zacharias. This is the image of the person who gushes forth toward God spontaneously, without calculation, because she was only 3 years old. Well, her heart remained that way, desiring after God and preserving itself pure, far from sin. Any sin is enmity toward God and a chain that the enemy uses to keep us far from God (cf. 1 John 3.8). But the Mother of God’s heart was pure, entirely dedicated to God. These two conditions were necessary: purity and yearning after God. We ought to cultivate these two conditions in our heart as well. Purity is obtained with more difficulty, but yearning after God can be present even from the beginning.
And from this genealogy, we also learn that the problem never lies with God. He, as God, could have begun to carry out our salvation at any time. But He didn’t have with whom to do so. It was necessary for the human race to prepare itself. As long as no one could receive Him, He could not come. The Mother of God received Him with all her heart. It is the same with us: our heart needs to receive Him. And as long as our heart is stubborn, God cannot act in our life. Something happens in us that prevents God from acting. With our lips and mind, we seek after God, but our heart repels Him. “Go away from here! I don’t want You in my life. Your presence is killing me, I object.” Like with the Garadenes: “We’ve seen what You can do, but go away, because You scare us” (cf. Matthew 8.34). The message our heart gives is totally different from that which we express consciously. That’s why God says, “My son, give Me your heart!” (Proverbs 23.26). Well, we’d give it to Him, if we knew how. That’s why all our effort and everything God ordains in our life have the sole purpose of cleansing our heart so that it can receive God. To become humble and wise, because the problem is with the heart.
This is how we might explain why the Incarnation happened after so many years. Salvation is not something mechanical or exterior, but rather it passes through my heart. My heart needs to call loudly after God, to weep because it is far away from Him. Like how all the righteous ones who struggled in sheepskins. They offered repentance for the entire nation and didn’t receive a single promise. But they cried out. Our heart should do the same until it opens up and finally receives Him. This process takes time. That’s why the fall, separation from God, and spiritual death were so frightening. And then so much heartfelt compunction was necessary to mend it. Because the heart needs to seek God freely, and then God will act slowly but steadily.
Therefore, the Old Testament teaches us how much God loves His creation and just as He could not act then, He sometimes cannot act now in my life. But the problem is not with Him, but always with us. We should stand before Him in prayer with this awareness so that our heart may be prepared. And when it spills over and tears begin to flow, that’s when God begins to act. Our heart needs to discover its own language in order to attract God. Amen!