After spending some time reflecting on the Liturgy of the Word as a whole, this week we begin looking more closely at each part, beginning with the First Reading. We might hear the lector proclaim, “A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. In the days of Ahaz, king of Judah, son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, Rezin, king of Aram, and Pekah, king of Israel, son of Remaliah…” (Isaiah 7:1-9). With all these names, which many of us may not even know how to pronounce, we might wonder: Why do we use the Old Testament at Mass, anyway?
As we said earlier, the First Reading at Mass is generally from the Old Testament. When we hear the stories of the Old Testament, we hear about how God called and began to form his people. If you are familiar with the Old Testament, you know there are times of faithfulness and falling away. There are prophets, judges, and other leaders that help call the people back to faithfulness. There are times where God is clearly directly involved and times where he seems to be more in the background. We learn about God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of our unfaithfulness. I am often struck by that faithfulness of God: we know we don’t deserve it, and yet there he is, consistently loving, forgiving, leading, providing, and protecting, doing all the things that good fathers do for their beloved children. Hopefully, as we hear those words each week, they remind us we can always go to our loving God and Father.
As we reflected before, generally when we talk about the Old Testament, we talk about a preparation. Through Moses, the prophets, and other writers, God was preparing his people (and us) to receive the truth about Jesus—that he truly is the Messiah who came to set us free from sin and death so that we might live with the Father forever. The Old and New Testament work together: the Old prepares for the New, and the New tells us what we’ve been waiting for, namely, Jesus Christ (cf. Dei Verbum, no. 15).
But why do we need all those names? The whole Bible, even parts we don’t understand or that don’t seem helpful, is part of God’s precious word to his people. Charles Belmonte reminds us that, just as every particle of the Body of Christ is precious, so too is every word (and name) of the Bible. Sometimes the readings may seem “obscure” to us because we don’t understand the ancient cultures of the Middle East. Sometimes they just mildly hint at one of the great mysteries of God and their importance can be easily overlooked. Sometimes we stumble over the names or we don’t understand the poetic language. “Nevertheless, we can be sure that if we do our best, the Holy Spirit will give us enough capacity to grasp whatever we may need for our sanctification and mission in life. And even if what we have read [or heard] does not stay in our memory, the Word of God has purified and nourished our souls” (Understanding the Mass, p. 85)
We might think that the names aren’t that important, but what they show us is a continuous string of people who are in relationship with God, an ongoing family which the Lord is building over time. Just like we remember the names of our grandparents and great-grandparents because they are part of our family tree, so too do we remember the names of these people who in some way had (and still have) an important part to play in God’s family tree. As the Church teaches, “Christians should accept with veneration these writings which give expression to a lively sense of God, which are a storehouse of sublime teaching on God and of sound wisdom on human life, as well as a wonderful treasury of prayers; in them, too, the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way” (Dei Verbum, no. 15).
One of my favorite things about the Old Testament is that God teaches us little by little. There is always a story to go with what we hear; there is always a bit-by-bit explanation for what God is trying to tell us. The Old Testament isn’t just strange names and long stories with some songs and poetry mixed in. It is God speaking to us and saying gradually, “Come a little closer… Please get to know me… You will find happiness in me… I want to take care of you… I will send the Messiah to save you… I am your loving Father.”
1. In light of the insights on the significance of names and genealogy in the Old Testament, revisit Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 and/or Luke 3:23-38. Recall what you know about any of the persons whose names feature in these genealogies. For any names you do not recognize, pause and invite the Lord to help you see more clearly how he accomplishes his work through men and women throughout salvation history.
2. Do you have a written or visual “family tree” of your own heritage? If not, consider developing one for yourself or with your family. Take time to pray in thanksgiving for God’s presence through your genealogy, and lift up any persons in particular need of healing or mercy.