“He went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” Matthew 2:23
One of the highlights of the Christmas season for me was a long talk with my cousin Danny Michael at our family Christmas gathering. Danny is a military historian and the curator of the firearms gallery at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. His new wife, Kristen is also a historian and museum curator, and heads up a county museum focused on pioneers and native Americans. Danny said they were really lucky to find jobs just a few counties apart. Though because it’s Wyoming, this means a three-and-a-half hour commute over two mountain ranges. He assures me that another plan is in the works.
Danny always has great stories about his new artifacts and the larger-than-life outlaws and heroes behind them. He’s started up a podcast and the renovation he helped develop at the museum has been featured in national newspapers.
But when you talk with historical museum people, eventually you come around to the other side of the business. Visitor numbers are down nationwide for museums like Danny and Kristen’s. A recent survey indicated that only 24% of Americans over 18 visited a historic site or museum in the past year. The census at the Park Service’s five most popular Civil War battlefields is down 70% from 1970. Colonial Williamsburg loses $148,000 a day.
People just don’t think history is important in the way they once did. Its place is minimized in public school curricula and there are far fewer college majors. History carries less weight in tech-obsessed modern America – and indeed some parts of our national heritage have become cultural battlegrounds. We are a more diverse people than we once were, and American heritage probably means something different to people who can’t trace themselves back to a bewhiskered ancestor who crossed on the Mayflower or fought at Gettysburg.
People who love history like Danny and Kristen work hard to bring it to life for new audiences. They plan activity days for kids and use flashy digital tools to engage with people who love their artifacts, even if they never get around to seeing them in person. Sometimes this is fun and creative for them, and sometimes it’s just annoying, having to persuade people over and over again that the past really does matter.
Danny and Kristen are both committed Christians. When I tell them that there are more than a few similarities today between trying to lead historic museums and historic churches, they smile faintly and nod knowingly. We all aim to bring old stories to life, stories about deep and powerful things, among people for whom the past seems an ever more distant land.
Christians who engage non-believers usually concentrate on the philosophical problems or the psychological challenges that are raised in response to our message. They assume people are staying away because they can’t deal with why bad things happen to good people or because they won’t surrender the freedom to define morality on their own terms.
But losing track of why history is important surely has to be part of it as well. We’re singing two-hundred year old music today, and I’m wearing the street dress of a 4th century Roman gentlemen. In a minute I’m going to get around to talking about a 2000 year-old text. If you aren’t prepared to see yourself as part of a story going far back in time, this isn’t going to mean as much to you as it does to someone like me. If you rule out things as irrelevant just because they’re old, you may not think we Christians have anything meaningful to say to you.
We practice a faith that is inescapably historical. There may be good reasons to shake off the dust a little from time to time, but it’s also important to make our case. And if you hope for a Biblical account for why the past matters, today’s Gospel reading is a great place to look. It comes from the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, who of all the Gospel writers tracks Jesus’ place in the history of Israel most carefully. Over and over again, he shows us how Jesus, in his words and deeds, fulfills God’s promises and repeats the patterns of Israel’s history.
St. Matthew begins his Gospel with a long genealogy, showing how Jesus fits into a long line of ancestors. He is connected through the generations to Abraham and Jacob, to Rahab and Ruth to David and Solomon. When he tells the stories of Jesus’ birth and early life, St. Matthew cites the words of the prophets to show that God had long promised that a virgin would conceive and bear a son, that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
Today’s lesson references two more fulfillments. Israel had once sought refuge into Egypt. But after they became slaves, God brought them back to their native land. God told Hosea, “Out of Egypt, have called my son.” And so it was when wicked old Herod was dead, and God sent an angel to tell Joseph it was safe to bring back his family to his native town.
Here St. Matthew sees another prophecy. Joseph and Mary were from Nazareth, a village in Galilee, territory once assigned to Israel’s northern kingdom. The link to the prophets isn’t immediately obvious. Nazareth, a tiny village in antiquity, isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament. But its name is significant. Archaeologists have discovered that people have lived there since the stone age. But the site was abandoned in the 8th century, when the Assyrians destroyed several towns in the region, in the advance that led to the Northern Kingdom’s fall.
We don’t know what that original settlement was called, but it almost certainly was not called Nazareth. That was a symbolic name, chosen by people who knew and loved the history of their people, and people who believed that God’s promises were being fulfilled in them. The archaeological record indicates that Nazareth was resettled, with new houses built a century or two before Jesus’ birth.
The name came from the Hebrew word nezer, which means “branch,” and the founders almost certainly had a particular branch in mind. Isaiah 11 begins, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Nezer, the branch, Nazareth, the town for Jews planted by God in the ruins of their ancient homeland, to make a new start, as He had long promised.
Nazareth’s first settlers had been exiles, descendants of the old families of Jerusalem who were hauled off to Babylon in the sixth century. Many exiles did well in Babylon and never returned to Israel. But the truly dedicated listened when God promised through the prophets to make a way, “every valley lifted up and every mountain and hill laid low,” They were pioneers, who made a new life for their families in a land that was partly abandoned and almost entirely inhabited by Gentiles.
These Nazarenes were courageous, but also deeply pious, loving their heritage and living it out with passionate fidelity. The Gospel writers often show how carefully Joseph and Mary observed the religious laws. St. Matthew tells us that the whole village of Nazareth traveled each year to Jerusalem for the Passover. Technically, that was the expectation, but a whole village, travelling at harvest time 100 miles each way on foot every year–that must have actually been very rare. As a teenager, Jesus astounded the temple scholars with His wisdom and all His teachings are steeped in the narratives of Israel’s history and the words of the prophets and Psalms. To be sure, His gifts were unusual, signs that he was God’s Son, wisdom in person.
But it’s also significant that when God sent his Son to redeem us, he planned that Jesus would be prepared for his ministry through the kind of formation Nazareth could provide. God chose a pure and faithful woman as his mother, and just and kindly man for his father; and for his neighbors, God chose people with this sense of purpose and connection to their past.
When St. Matthew says that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy, “He shall be called a Nazarene,” he is pointing to that passage about the nezer, the branch in Isaiah 11 that his hometown claimed for its name. But going a little deeper, a branches are, by definition, connected back to the trees came before–their life flows from roots sunk deeply into the ground.
Cultivating what we might call a historical consciousness, for me at least, is a crucial practice at the heart of the Christian life, part of the way that we become like Jesus. All of us, as St. Paul would say in a slightly different context, are all branches of a kind, some growing naturally out of the people of God across the generations, others grafted in by His mercy. Every Jew and every Christian is the beneficiary of a rich heritage, gifts handed down from the faithful who came before us. It’s both arrogant and ungrateful to suggest we have the right to make to recast the faith and practice according to our own lights, using only the insights that happen to be more popular in our own time.
That doesn’t mean we’re bound to assume that everything that’s old is good or that nothing should ever change. The Nazarenes, you might recall, fell tragically short of God’s plan when they couldn’t get their minds around this local boy being the Messiah they had long prayed to see. Our ancestors were sinners as we are, and sure God often does mean to do new things.
But the God we worship and serve is One who acts in history, who has revealed Himself through deeds of power and love generation after generation. We know and praise Him rightly when we acclaim His faithfulness and thank Him for all He has done before. He has given us, though the faithful who came before us, Scripture and Sacrament, worship practices and spiritual disciplines, buildings and customs.
The Holy Spirit is ever active among us doing new things. But new things must be tested, so we can be sure it is the Spirit of God at work, and not merely the Spirit of the age. God’s work is marked by creative continuity, when new insights help us receive those old treasures more fully and with greater confidence. God’s work is to help us know ourselves as branches of His ancient tree, still bearing fruit as so many have done before us.
The Rev. Mark Michael is rector of St. Francis Church, Potomac, Maryland, and editor of The Living Church.