The Meaning of the Lord’s Origins

If someone in Capharnaum or Jerusalem at the time had asked the Lord: Who are you? Who are your parents? To what house do you belong? – He might have answered in the words of St. John’s gospel: “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I am.” (8:58) Or he might have pointed out that he was “of the house and family of David.” (Luke 2:4)

How do the Evangelists begin their records of the life of Jesus of Nazareth who is Christ, the Anointed One? John probes the mystery of God’s existence for Jesus’ origin. His gospel opens: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was made nothing that has been made. . . . He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. . . . And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us. And we saw his glory – glory as of the only-begotten of the Father – full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1–14)

Revelation shows that the merely unitarian God found in post-Christian Judaism, in Islam, and throughout the modern consciousness, does not exist. At the heart of that mystery which the Church expresses in her teaching of the trinity of persons in the unity of life stands the God of Revelation.

Here John seeks the root of Christ’s existence: in the second of the Most Holy Persons; the Word (Logos), in whom God the Speaker, reveals the fullness of his being. Speaker and Spoken, however, incline towards each other and are one in the love of the Holy Spirit. The Second “Countenance” of God, here called Word, is also named Son, since he who speaks the Word is known as Father.

In the Lord’s farewell address, the Holy Spirit is given the promising names of Consoler, Sustainer, for he will see to it that the brothers and sisters in Christ are not left orphans by his death. Through the Holy Spirit the Redeemer came to us, straight from the heart of the Heavenly Father. Son of God become man – not only descended to inhabit a human frame, but “become” man – literally; and in order that no possible doubt arise, (that, for example, it might never be asserted that Christ, despising the lowliness of the body, had united himself only with the essence of a holy soul or with an exalted spirit,) John specifies sharply: Christ “was made flesh.”

Trinity by Andrei Rublev, c. 1410 [Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]
Trinity by Andrei Rublev, c. 1410 [Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow]

Only in the flesh, not in the bare spirit, can destiny and history come into being. . . .God descended to us in the person of the Savior, Redeemer, in order to have a destiny, to become history. Through the Incarnation, the founder of the new history stepped into our midst. With his coming, all that had been before fell into its historical place “before the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” anticipating or preparing for that hour; all that was to be, faced the fundamental choice between acceptance and rejection of the Incarnation.

He “dwelt among us,” “pitched his tent among us,” as one translation words it. “Tent” of the Logos – what is this but Christ’s body: God’s holy pavilion among men, the original tabernacle of the Lord in our Midst, the “temple” Jesus meant when he said to the Pharisees: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19)

Somewhere between that eternal beginning and the temporal life in the flesh lies the mystery of the Incarnation. St. John presents it austerely, swinging its full metaphysical weight. Nothing here of the wealth of lovely characterization and intimate detail that makes St. Luke’s account bloom so richly. Everything is concentrated on the ultimate, all-powerful essentials: Logos, flesh, step into the world; the eternal origin, the tangible earthly reality, the mystery of unity.

Quite different the treatment of Christ’s origin in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. St. Mark does not mention the Incarnation. His first eight verses are concerned with the Forerunner; then immediately: “And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” (Mark 1:9)

Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, painstakingly trace Jesus’ genealogy, the course taken by his blood through history. In Matthew this line of descent opens the gospel. It begins with Abraham and leads via David and the succession of the Judean kings through Joseph “the husband of Mary.” (Matt. 1:16) In Luke the genealogy is to be found in the third chapter after the account of Jesus’ baptism: “And Jesus himself, being – as was supposed – the son of Joseph,” whose line reaches back through Heli, Mathat, Levi through names about which we know nothing but their sound; back to David; then through his forbears to Juda, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, who in turn are linked with the spiritual giants of prehistoric ages – Noah, Lamech, Henoch, and finally through finally through Adam, to God. (Luke 3:23–38)

It is often asked how two such different genealogies came to be recorded. . . . Study of the genealogies makes one thoughtful. . . . He entered fully into everything that humanity stands for – and the names in the ancient genealogies suggest what it means to enter into human history with its burden of fate and sin.

Jesus of Nazareth spared himself nothing. In the long quiet years in Nazareth, he may well have pondered these names. Deeply he must have felt what history is, the greatness of it, the power, confusion, wretchedness, darkness, and evil underlying even his own existence and pressing him from all sides to receive it into his heart that he might answer for it at the feet of God.

Servant of God Fr. Romano Guardini (1885 – 1968), author and academic, was one of the most important figures in Catholic intellectual life in the 20th-century. This essay is adapted from his most famous book, The Lord. He was a mentor to such prominent theologians as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger.