FEATURE ARTICLE

Rev. Fr. Francis Anekwe OborjiTuesday, December 27, 2016
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Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)

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TO YOUR FRIENDS

CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR REFLECTION – JESUS’ ANCESTRY NARRATIVE:
A UNIVERSAL-INCLUSIVE LEADERSHIP

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y dear friends in Jesus Christ, this Christmas and New Year, I wish to send you my good wishes and promise of prayers for choicest blessings of the Infant Jesus in the New Year 2017. May the unique Event-of-Bethlehem at Christmas bring peace and love of God in our lives! May it help us to be vanguard of the same God’s love and peace to our fellow human beings and all God’s creation! Amen.

As a custom, this Holy Season, I would like to share with you some thoughts on the mystery of Jesus Christ at Christmas. This year I wish to reflect with you on the gospel narrative of the ancestry (genealogy) of Jesus Christ, the liturgical reading of December 17 (first day of Advent Novena to Christmas). The theme of our reflection is, ‘Jesus’ Ancestry Narrative: A Universal-inclusive Leadership.’ Writing from a Jewish cultural context, Matthew begins his gospel account thus: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Luke, on the other hand, writing from the gentile, universal context, says: “When he began, Jesus was about thirty years old, being the son, as it was thought, of Joseph son of Heli, … son of Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:23-38). My reflection privileges, as it were, the Lukan account of Jesus’ genealogy, which has universal perspective than that of Matthew. Here, we contrast the Lukan account with that of Matthew, to highlight, once more, the universal-inclusive aspect of Jesus’ genealogy and its implication for promoting inclusive leadership in our modern society ridden with racial, ethnic, cultural, religious bigotry and modern forms of socio-economic divisions and fragmentations of the world. In other words, our aim is to show that the Event-of-Jesus’ Nativity at Bethlehem is an antidote to the renewed fragmentation of humanity, leadership of domination by the privileged minority, which some have noted, are at the root of the present-day world conflicts, societal violence, wars, hatred, hunger, and zenophobia! What inspiration do we draw from Jesus’ Nativity narrative as recounted by St. Luke in his gospel towards building an enabling environment for a more just, humane and transparent society and promoting an inclusive leadership?

Luke’s emphasis on Jesus, being “son of Adam, son of God” (Luke 3:23), goes beyond Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus, “son of Abraham.” While Luke, as a gentile convert, emphasizes the universal and inclusive dimension of the Event-of-Bethlehem, Matthew, on the other hand, influenced by his Jewish context and history, interpreted the same event of Jesus Christ with a very narrow and provincial view (“Jesus, son of Abraham”). Furthermore, Luke’s infancy narrative, presents Jesus both as “a light of revelation for the gentiles and the glory for your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). This is Luke’s reinterpretation of the Jewish dominated Christian community to include himself and his gentile friends while not excluding the Jews. This inclusion of the Gentiles is the primary reason for his undertaking to write an orderly account of the “events which happened among us” so that the Gentile, Theophilus may understand accurately and participate in these events as an insider (cf. Acts 2:5-13).

We find the same striking difference between Luke and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ genealogy, also in the sacred writers’ accounts of the response of Peter to the question of Jesus: “Who do people say the Son of man is?” and “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:13-20; cf. Mark 8:27-30; Luke 9:18-21). The Matthew and Mark’s response: “The Christ, the Son of the Living God”, is rooted in the Jewish context and the first part of the question. His disciples reported on the views of the people based on their religious traditions and messianic hopes and expectations: “John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Taken at its face value, the people’s perception was not wrong in itself. Jesus personally aligned himself with the prophets on a number of occasions (cf. Matthew 23:29-39; Luke 4:24; John 4:44). He was persecuted and rejected, especially by his own leaders even unto death as were Jeremiah and the prophets. The people’s culture-based prophetic Christology, therefore, embodied an important element of truth about his identity and mission, but it was inadequate. Jesus next question (“Who do you say I am?”), Peter’s response and Jesus’ interpretation of that response reveal the inadequacy of the people’s view. Differently, from Matthew and Mark, Luke simply records Peter’s answer as, you are “the Christ of God” (Luke 9:20). Then, Jesus said: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this unto you, but my Father in heaven” (Matthew 11:16-17). Luke’s nativity narrative embraces all humanity and includes us all in the mystery of Jesus. Luke in his narrative makes us all partakers of Jesus’ humanity and His birth at Bethlehem.

Consequently, the Lukan formulation gives an arguably universal significance to Peter’s confession of Jesus’ messiahship. It moves this confession (deliberately) from its Jewish moorings to the universal plane. Luke is the only known Gentile among the evangelists, if not among the New Testament and biblical authors generally. ‘Who knows how the Bible, especially, the New Testament as a universal gospel could have looked like if there was no Gentile author as Luke among the four evangelists?’ All ancient witnesses, except the Western Text, agree on his formulation. For him, Jesus is not only the Jewish Messiah, but God’s Messiah or Savior for all humanity. Matthew and Mark record of Peter’s confession of who Christ is, rooted in a Jewish matrix, perhaps, addresses primarily the needs of a Christian Jewish audience. The Lukan interpretation of Peter’s response and Jesus’ consequent designation of Peter as the rock on which he will build his ekklesia already move Peter’s confession from its Jewish moorings towards a universal recognition of Jesus’ messiahship. The ekklesia embraces disciples from all nations as the fruit of Jesus’ completed mission and the conferment of all authority (enabling power that nothing can obstruct) on him (Matthew 20:28). Thus, even in its primary Jewish context, the full answer about Jesus’ identity lay beyond the people’s perception; it came as a revelation of God who engendered Jesus, and had a universal scope. Again, this transformation of a local Christology into a universal one is in keeping with Luke’s consistent hermeneutic of self-inclusion: his reinterpretation of the Jesus traditions to include himself and his gentile friends while not excluding the Jews. Like Luke, Paul also fought the very proclamation of Jesus as Jewish Messiah. For instance, the Jewish brethren in Jerusalem at first equally took great exception to Peter’s visiting and eating with the Gentiles (Acts 11:2-3). They too had to learn and proclaim in spite of themselves the universality of Jesus’ messiahship thanks to Paul’s rebuke and the lesson of Peter: that God can give the Holy Spirit, the fruit of his messiahship, “even to the Gentiles”, without discrimination based on race, ethnicity, culture, sex or class (Acts 11: 18). No less hard was the lesson that Jesus’ messiahship did not mean restoring the kingdom to Israel and getting rid of their enemies as they had hoped. Instead Jesus made those very enemies his brothers and sisters and invited them to embrace these traditional and religious enemies as their own brothers and sisters in him (2Corinthians 5:19). The breaking down of the walls and divisions that existed between Jews and Gentiles is hallmark of the novelty of the Gospel in the emerging ekklesia of the New Testament. The question now is, ‘How can we recapture today, this spirit of breaking down the walls of divisions as taught by Luke and Paul in their writings in our modern society infested with man-made divisions, bigotry, hatred, conflicts, violence and wars?’

Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ ancestry and infancy, invites us to use this period of Christmas and New Year festivities for sober reflection on the happenings around us and in the world in general. The challenge is to read and interpret correctly the signs of times in order to govern and lead the people with a universal-inclusive perspective. The tragedy of new forms of exclusion maintained today by the privileged few that control power and people’s resources makes this challenge an imperative one. Pope Francis calls this present situation of things in the world, ‘new faces of slavery, the emergent social tensions created by exclusion and discrimination of the poor and marginalized by the privileged minority, the growing scourge of man’s exploitation by man, and therefore, a major source of modern conflicts and tensions.’ Pope Francis proposes a new form of development and human relations aimed at generating process of people-building, a principle which calls attention to the bigger reality and concern other than narrow short term results (cf. Evangelii gaudium, 225). This call of the Pope is very cogent today. Tragically, the world is gradually returning to the primordial worship and prioritization of exclusion and discriminatory in human relations, especially against those that do not share the same culture, religion or even race and history with the dominant privileged minority. There is now a new form of divide-and-rule system by the ruling minority, favored group and powerful entities, an enthronement of a winner-take-it-all culture in our social ecology of human relations. The rise of a new form of hegemony, zenophobia, the domineering and daring attitude of the ‘elitist ruling minority” and dominant groups, what some have described as, “the imperialist impulse” that makes the metropolitan powers and their prowess still want to hold the rest of humanity in their thrall – that is, those who like to hold the ‘Word’ captive!

Again, what does Jesus’ Nativity narrative by Luke teach us about the plight of immigrants today in most of advanced countries? What of our leaders who practice divide-and-rule in their very domain through their actions and words just to hold on to power at all cost. Those who use religion, ethnicity or geographical configurations to polarize the people, society or nation they govern! Included here are the new forms of master-slave relationship between advanced nations and impoverished ones of the Southern continents, the exclusion of indigenous peoples, ethnic, cultural groups or geographical zones from echelons of power in their respective nations by the privileged minority. This reality is also played out nowadays even in the style of leadership in some ecclesiastical jurisdictions and religious groups, especially, in the southern continents, the manipulation of power and power structure by the privileged minority, just to keep people from the hated zone out of the scheme of things! Laws and decrees are often, put in place just to maintain this systematic exclusion of people of a particular area from the scheme of things! Sometimes we forget that, if you are a leader and you do not promote people from a particular section of your domain into positions of authority or avail them equal opportunities as others, then, it means you do not love those people. You as a leader, have no moral authority, therefore, to preach peace or unity to the people, because your actions point to the contrary. You live in virtual exile from the space you pretend you govern.

The question now is: should we continue to sweep under carpet and pretend as if these tensions in our society today do not matter – the historical imbalance and injustices that are in large part, root causes of the conflicts and tensions in our society! This is an important question for all of us for meditation as we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ at Christmas. It is an important question for our contemporary world. It is a challenge too: Our ability to read and interpret correctly today, the signs of times for a new redeemed reconciled society and community, as Luke did in his narrative account of Jesus’ ancestry and infancy!

May the Child born at Bethlehem at Christmas be our light and guide as we begin this journey, in the New Year 2017! Merry Christmas and happy New Year!

Lord help me to remember that nothing is going to happen today that you and I together can't handle.

(Blessed Cyprian Iwene Tansi of Aguleri (Nigeria).

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