In the past -Tribes - Now individuals
Dec 14, 2016
We come from a very tribal background. The tribes arise from significant individuals who establish a bloodline and customs in which eventually a culture arises that is unique to itself. Scripturally we see this in the rise of Abraham, a man who was old and childless who trusted in the promise of God that he and his wife Sarah would eventually have descendants numbering the stars of the sky or the sand of the seashore. Because he believes in this promise from God he is awarded with seeing the promise fulfilled in the birth of his son Isaac. In his day Isaac and his wife Rebekah had two sons (who were twins) Esau and Jacob. Both sons begin to establish their individual tribes, but the one we are most familiar with is Jacob who between his two wives and one concubine generate twelve sons. These twelve become the twelve tribes of Israel. Although they are related through Jacob, they each develop their won tribe and their own customs.
As this happens within recorded Jewish history the same story holds for the development of most of our family groups. My family has its own peculiar customs that have faded over time while the next generation establishes its own pattern of life as a family. This is in accord with the proclamation at the creation of humanity: "Therefore the man leaves his mother and father and joins his wife and the two shall become as one." (Gen. 2:24) At one point within salvation history God chose to act through the tribes instead of the individuals. This is the epic story of the Exodus where the twelve tribes are led forth from their slavery in Egypt to be brought to the promised land of Israel. He makes a covenant with the tribes that in exchange for their faithfulness to his commandments he would protect and nurture their growth as a nation. This doesn't work out so well as the history unfolds. Although there may have been individuals within each tribe who tried to uphold the Law, generally speaking, they fail as a whole in following God's covenant.
In their failure there came a punishment: the tribes were pushed out of the promised land and exiled to live with other tribes and customs. They could no longer live the way they wanted to, but instead they had to adapt to the customs of their captors. In this exile God began speaking in a new way to these tribes of Israel. He promised that He would come and He would establish a new covenant that will last forever. We hear this in the Advent readings from the prophet Isaiah. Though none of the prophetic language is precise and detailed so that we can clearly say this was supposed to happen, there are enough allusions to what is to come that when God fulfills his word in Jesus Christ those words of the prophets finally make sense. In the Gospel, today we hear Jesus answer to John's question: are you He who is to come: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me." (Mt 11:3-4)
God comes to establish individual relationships with humanity. He no longer is interested in a tribal relationship, but instead he comes directly into the world to touch individual human beings. Paul will say that in Christ there is no longer slave or free, male or female, Greek nor Jew. All are one in Christ Jesus. His coming changes the context of our interrelationships. We move from a tribal understanding to a personal encounter with other human beings just as Christ has shown us in his life and death. This is the great promise of the Incarnation that we can finally look past protecting ourselves and our families so that we can reach into the peripheries to find the Christ who lives there even as He lives with each of us.