In December of 1122, Pope Calixtus II convened the First Lateran Council, the ninth in a series of so-called ecumenical councils in the West. At issue was the relationship between the church and its laypeople and what privileges laypeople could exercise within the church as well as the relationship between the church and state and what authority the state could exercise over the church. As pressing as those issues may have been at the time, however, the First Lateran Council is most famously remembered for the declaration of its twenty-first canon: "We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons, and monks to have concubines or to contract marriage. We decree in accordance with the definitions of the sacred canons, that marriages already contracted by such persons must be dissolved, and that the persons be condemned to do penance." Thus began the practice of the clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church.
Of course, official canonical law doesn't always translate into actual practice, even among the popes who authorize and enforce such law. Subsequent to the First Lateran Council's imposition of celibacy on clergy, several popes still managed to father children. Pope Alexander VI, who was pope from 1492-1503, was widely known as a philanderer and fathered four children by his mistress. Then there was Pope Julius III, pontiff from 1550-1555, who was rumored to have had an ongoing affair with his teenage adopted nephew.
Such scandals, as indicated by the sordid side of church history, are nothing new to our day and age. Indeed, there were many similar scandals among other popes, secular rulers, and even first century biblical characters. Even first century biblical characters like Jesus.
Jesus' origin was certainly a source of much calumny among his detractors. In our reading for today from Luke 3, the doctor tips us off to the controversy which surrounded Jesus' birth: "He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph" (verse 23). But there were rumors to the contrary.
In Mark 6, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth to teach in the synagogue. After demonstrating himself to be a brilliant teacher, the people around him ask:
Where did this man get these things? What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us? (Mark 6:2-3)
In this society, it was standard practice to trace someone's family origin through their father, not their mother. But in this instance, they trace Jesus' lineage through his mother, Mary. Why? Because there were rumors afoot as to the true identity Jesus' father. And rumor had it that it wasn't Joseph. That is why, immediately following their questioning of Jesus' origin, Mark says, "And they took offense at him" (Mark 6:3). They took offense at his shady pedigree.
We, as believers in Christ, know Jesus' true origin. True enough, he is not the natural son of Joseph, but he is the only Son of God. Interestingly, right before Luke delineates Jesus' earthly family tree in verse 23-37 and calls him the "son, so it was thought, of Joseph" (verse 23), he proudly proclaims Jesus' true divine origins:
When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." (verses 21-22)
Jesus may have not been the son of Joseph, but he was most definitely the Son of God.
As Christians, whatever our earthly roots, be they wholesome or scandalous, boring or broken, we too have a heavenly family tree - a heavenly family tree into which God has adopted us as his children. As Saint John writes, "How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are" (1 John 3:1)! Through our baptisms, God has said to us, "You are my child, whom I love. In light of Christ's cross, I am well pleased." So today, give thanks not only for your earthly relatives, but for your brothers and sisters from different mothers. For these are your brothers and sisters in Christ.