Matthew’s Gospel and Advent
I was never very successful in trying to learn classical Greek, but New Testament Greek was somewhat easier. I remember the first time I opened Matthew’s Gospel in Greek, I was blown away by the opening sentence: “Book of genesis of Jesus Christ…” This is what the Greek words literally said. The word genesis has many meanings: it can mean beginning or origin, creation or generation or genealogy. In the Book of Genesis it has all these meanings. The meaning of the word genesis in Matthew’s Gospel is clearly genealogy, and what follows immediately is a long list of Jesus’ ancestors: a genealogy. But the real power in those opening words is lost without the literal translation. I don’t know of any translation that includes it.
What Matthew literally claims to be writing is a new Book of Genesis, an account of a whole new creation in the coming of Jesus the Christ, a new Beginning. It strikes me as important for us to know this as we enter into the season of Advent, first, because Advent marks the beginning of the new Liturgical Year, and second, because the Gospel of Matthew is almost the only one used until the middle of the third week of Advent, when we change to Luke’s Gospel.
Luke, however, is used on Tuesday of the first week of Advent and again on Monday of the second week of Advent: his account of the paralytic lowered through the roof (Luke 5:17-26) presents us with a tiled roof such as those found in Greece, rather than a roof of palm branches, customary on small houses in Palestine (Mark 2:4 doesn’t mention tiles or branches, just the roof). Palm branches could be easily removed and a stretcher easily lowered between the poles that supported the branches.
A tiled roof is something else. Tiles are heavy, and the sturdy supports for them would have to be fairly close together. Removing part of a tiled roof would require removing or cutting some of the supports as well, in effect destroying much of the roof. All of which supports the belief that Luke is not only a Gentile Christian but also a Greek. Matthew, however (in 9:1-8), doesn’t even mention the roof: it would seem that his paralyzed man is presented to Jesus in a much less dramatic fashion than in either Mark or Luke. But I digress.
Matthew is a Jewish Christian, and his Gospel, at least in its two opening chapters, builds upon Genesis, the first book of the Jewish Torah, with its story of Joseph the dreamer who goes down to Egypt.
It’s not until December 17, however, that we are given Matthew 1:1-17, with the genealogy that was mentioned above and that mysterious, hidden opening sentence: Book of Genesis of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. Thus, it’s as we approach the end of Advent that we are reminded that Matthew’s Gospel is indeed a new Book of Genesis, and that Jesus the Messiah recapitulates in some way the history of his people and the history of creation.
The first gospel is simply doing what the fourth gospel will do later, harkening back to the beginning: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The liturgy of Christmas will save these striking words from the Gospel of John for the Mass during the day, on Christmas Day itself (John 1:1-18). But it’s Matthew’s Gospel that has set it up for us in Advent.