I have been reading Testimony of Hope by Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, a collection of the spiritual exercises he preached to the papal household in 2000. Cardinal Văn Thuận, who was imprisoned by the Communists in his native Vietnam for thirteen years, begins his exercises by reflecting on the first chapter of Matthew, which describes the temporal genealogy of Christ. "For Asians," he notes,
and in particular for me as a Vietnamese, the remembrance of ancestors has an immense value. . . I myself know the names of fifteen generations of my ancestors going back as far as 1698 . . . Through our genealogies, we come to realize that we are part of a history greater than we are, and we welcome with greater truth the sense of our own histories.
Jude will know next to nothing about the ancestors who are, to use the Italian word, his genitori, the ones who physically and biologically generated him, or about his family history. My husband and Otepoti will visit the orphanage to which he was brought after being found by the police, and the place where he was found, in order to be able to salvage some scraps of his unknowable past. But essentially Jude will be a deracinated person, transplanted into our family. I wonder what this will feel like for him as he grows older.
I must confess that, compared with Cardinal Văn Thuận, I know next to nothing about my own genealogy. I know when three out of my four pairs of great-grandparents came to this country (all at roughly the same time, about a hundred years ago). I even knew one of my great-grandmothers very well, because she lived with my family when I was little. But of the others, I know very little, and that's unlikely to change.
A few years ago I had a gig in Rome, and afterward I traveled south to the village of some of my own genitori to meet my distant Italian cousins for the first time. Although it was a marvelous trip, I felt very strongly while visiting that I was nothing like them, that I had nothing in common with them, that I was wholly unmarked by the biological circumstances of having been engendered by the same ancestors. While we shared certain physical characteristics, our lives, our circumstances, and our ways of thinking diverged so much that it was hard to believe we were branches of the same tree. But the truth is that I had felt myself from a young age to be a deracinated person, too, without much commonality with the culture of my family, and in some ways I had consciously striven to set myself apart from that culture and that family.
In Testimony of Hope, Cardinal Văn Thuận notes that the "book of genealogy of Jesus Christ" is full of unexpected, even bizarre, disruptions of the biological family line. Abraham chose Isaac as his heir, rather than his first son, Ishmael. Isaac "wished to bless Esau, his firstborn son, but according to the mysterious plan of God . . . blessed Jacob." Jacob, in his turn, chose neither Reuben, his firstborn, nor Joseph, "the beloved and best of all his sons," but rather Judah, who with his brothers had sold Joseph into slavery. Likewise, the women Matthew mentions "find themselves in strange situations. Tamar is a sinner, Rahab a prostitute, Ruth a foreigner. The Gospel does not even dare to name the fourth woman; she is simply 'the wife of Uriah'" -- Bathsheba, with whom David committed adultery and whose husband he contrived to have killed.
But, as Văn Thuận asserts, "This list of sinners' names presented by Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus does not scandalize us. Rather, it exalts the mystery of God's mercy."
While not, in the terms of immigration law, a refugee, little Jude will be coming to us from a place of suffering and persecution. What I hope is that our home and our family will not be a place of exile for him from what he might under other circumstances have considered his true home. While in one sense he will be uprooted, deracinated, a person from nowhere, I want him to know the full citizenship that only love can confer. We are all in exile, refugees from the true home, and God in His mercy has adopted all of us; those of us not biologically engendered from the bloodline of Abraham He has most mercifully grafted onto the tree of the royal house of Israel. May we never forget His mercy in having adopted us, and may we all know the full citizenship of love.
Above: Belgian refugee children in England, 1940.