The Search for Our Roots

The Search for Our Roots

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Published:
May 29, 2020

In my childhood days it was customary in conservative Protestant families in the Netherlands to read a chapter from the Bible after the daily hot meal, either at lunch time or at supper time.

This was also the case in our family and in the home of my maternal grandparents. In my grandparents’ home my grandmother would do the reading. I can still hear her rather rasping voice. She was deaf and could not hear her own voice, but she would not have benefitted from this spiritual exercise if grandpa had done the reading. Somehow, it repeatedly happened during the summer vacation, when we were staying with our grandparents for a week or two, that the reading consisted either of a very long psalm, which would be read in its entirety, or of one of the genealogies of Jesus. Being a child, I just switched off without really hearing who “begot” whom. I just waited with keen anticipation for the moment the large Bible would be closed, so that we would be free again to play in the garden and the orchard around their home in the Dutch countryside.

I must admit that later, as I began to read the Bible for myself, I never paid much attention to the genealogies of Jesus. As my knowledge of biblical topics increased, I discovered there were discrepancies between the version of Matthew and that of Luke, as well as omissions and some other issues, and that the pattern of three times fourteen names in Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy could not be coincidental! I even preached a few times about the rather unexpected inclusion of a few women in Matthew’s list. But I never worried too much about most of the details.

Jesus’ roots

There is a consensus among New Testament experts that Matthew wrote his gospel primarily for an audience of Christians with a Jewish background. He wanted them to realize that Jesus is indeed the King, whom God’s people had waited for: the anointed Messiah in the royal line of David and a descendent of Abraham. It was important to stress Jesus’ credentials as the One who had come to redeem Israel. This Jesus was not just some miracle worker, a talented teacher, and certainly not a person with political aspirations, who would lead in a revolution against the Roman occupier. He was, as Matthew 1:1 indicates, the “Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

For Christians, who are living some two thousand years later, and who are mostly not Christians “from the Jews,” but Christians “from the Gentiles” (i.e. non-Jews), the fact that Jesus was a descendent of Abraham and David may not be such sensational news as it was for the people Matthew tried to reach. We may actually be more impressed by Luke’s genealogy (3:23-37). Luke traces Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph. Though he himself knew better, he adds that Jesus was “the son, so it was thought, of Joseph.” Luke, who did not write specifically for a Jewish Christian audience, proceeds with his genealogy beyond Abraham to Adam, who was “the son of God.”

When I read these words of Luke, which trace Jesus’ origin back to his divine status — by referring to him as, ultimately, “the son of God” — my thoughts go to a piece of music composed by the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935). I had never heard of him until my work for the church took me repeatedly to the Baltic countries. On one of these occasions I was presented with a few CDs of Pärt. I was immediately fascinated by his unique, mostly spiritual, kind of music. And it was great to actually see him once, when my wife and I attended a concert in the famous Festival Hall in London, where one of Pärt’s compositions premiered in his presence. Wikipedia describes him, very aptly as follows: “Pärt has worked in a minimalist style that employs his self-invented compositional technique, which is in part inspired by Gregorian chant.”

The work that I have found perhaps more fascinating than all his other well-known compositions is somewhat strangely named: “…which was the son of.” In this piece, Jesus’ genealogy of Luke is sung by a mixed a cappella choir. It sounds a bit like a repeated mantra, with a touch of gospel music. I find it totally other-worldly. Words cannot do justice to this magnificent work of art. The music swells to a crescendo when the choir reaches, “which was the son of David,” and even more so, when it comes to “which was the son of Abraham,” and it reaches its grand finale when it ends with “which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.” I know of no more impressive and beautiful way to relate to Jesus’ genealogy than the manner in which it is communicated by Alvo Pärt. He understood what New Testament scholars tell us in their scholarly language: Genealogies are more than just statements of facts. They are channels with a theological meaning, leading us to the One who cannot be captured in human formulas. They help us to pray and worship rather than to understand.

A paradox

The roots of Jesus form one of the foundational paradoxes of the Christian faith. According to classic Christian doctrine, God is one, and yet he is three. As finite human beings we do not have the kind of language to reduce this paradox to a concise formula. As soon as we try to explain the doctrine of the trinity, we will inevitably do injustice either to the one-ness or to the three-ness of God. The church has invented the term “trinity” as a label for this “mother” of all paradoxes.

We meet something similar when we try to define the origins of the Bible — God’s revelation as it is put into human language. The Bible is God’s work, but also the work of the human instruments he chose to use: “Men spoke from God, as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Inspiration is a paradox: it has a divine and a human component. When trying to say something about the miracle of inspiration we always run the risk of over-emphasizing the divine aspect at the expense of the human aspect, which leaves us with a mechanical theory of inspiration with serious problems. But if we stress the human element to the detriment of the divine aspect, the Bible may easily lose its authority and its real meaning for our lives.

The New Testament confronts us with a similar paradox with regard to the roots of Jesus Christ. He is described as the Son of man, but also as the Son of God. On the one hand, the Scriptures emphasize the full humanity of Christ, as, for instance, in 1 Timothy 2:5: “For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus!” The men and women who associated with Jesus on a daily basis, when he was among them, had no doubt that, whatever he was, he was a human being in the fullest sense of the word. He was born of a human mother, as Matthew’s genealogy indicates (Matthew 1:16; see also: Galatians 4:4). Like any other human being, Jesus could be hungry (Matthew 4:2) or thirsty (John 19:28). He needed sleep (Matthew 8:24) and could be tired (John 4:6). He knew of sadness, as the shortest text in the Bible tells us when reporting the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). And, of course, the ultimate proof of his humanness was that he could suffer and die.

However, Jesus also was “the Son of God.” There never was a time when Jesus Christ was not. He was “with God” and he “was God” (John 1:1). Full divinity implies eternity. Isaiah spoke prophetically of a child that was to be born as a sign to Ahaz, a king of Judah in the eighth century BC (Isaiah 9:6). The words of this Old Testament prophet were later applied to the Christmas child that was to be born as the “Prince of Peace.” Matthew recognized that Isaiah already referred to Jesus as “the Mighty God” and “the everlasting Father” (Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23). Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16) and Thomas exclaimed, when looking into the eyes of the risen Christ, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

How do we reconcile Jesus’ humanness with his divinity? Once again, we are faced with a momentous paradox. To be our Savior Jesus had to be human and also divine. He was born in Bethlehem and lived in Nazareth, but his ultimate roots were in heaven. Yes, he was the son of Mary and the adopted son of Joseph; he was the son of Abraham and of David, but he was also the Son of God!

Our family roots

Thinking about Jesus’ roots makes me inevitably also think of my own roots. A number of years ago a church member who shares my surname told me she believed that we were related. I doubted this. Bruinsma may not be as common as Smith or Johnson, but the name is not so rare that all those who have this surname must be closely linked. This Mrs. Bruinsma thought otherwise. She decided she was going to prove our family connection.  Her efforts provided me with a lot of information about my roots (without, however, any sign that she and I were indeed related). She was able to go back as far as 1680, when one of my ancestors, a certain Hendrik Claessen, had a son whom he named Meine Hendriks. From there she could follow my genealogy until the present — to my grandfather (with whom I share the same Christian name Reinder), who was born in 1879, to my father, who was born in 1905, and to myself, who dates from 1942.

There are no terrifying skeletons in my family’s closet. My ancestors were all working-class people, who did not adopt their family name “Bruinsma” until the time of Napoleon. When in the early years of the nineteenth century the Netherlands was briefly under French rule, with Napoleon’s brother as the king, it was decreed that everyone should, from then onwards, have a family name. I have no clue why the name Bruinsma was chosen. But I have no complaints; it could have been much worse. In fact, some very awkward, or even ridiculous, names were adopted, since many believed this business of surnames was just a temporary fad for as long as the French rule would last.

The information that my namesake was able to dig up did give me, however, a definite sense of where my family fitted into a broader historical picture. Originally, my family came from Friesland, one of the northern provinces, as the last few letters of my surname indicate. All Dutch names with -sma at the end are Frisian names. But, as time went by, my forefathers moved a bit south, towards the province of Drenthe. When extreme poverty struck that area in the 1930s, my paternal grandparents moved to Amsterdam. My father followed him, met my mother, and I can proudly say that I was born in Amsterdam.

Tracing their ancestry has become quite a sport for lots of people. Some may hope to discover that they have famous, even noble, or royal roots. However, they may also discover that there are some shady characters in their family tree. Suzanna Jansen, a Dutch journalist, decided to write some articles about a unique institution in Veenhuizen, a hamlet in the Dutch province of Drenthe. After the departure of the French in the early nineteenth century the country was left in a rather disrupted state with a lot of extreme poverty, especially in the cities. Three asylums were built in Veenhuizen, to house a large number of those poor people, many of whom had been reduced to begging, and to rehabilitate as many as possible. As the years went by, however, Veenhuizen got more and more the character of a penitentiary institution where people were “sent to,” and eventually locked up. As Suzanna did her research, she discovered that several of her forebears had been so destitute that they had become “guests” in Veenhuizen.

Shocking though they were, the discoveries of Suzanna Jansen, were, after all, to her advantage! The tragic story she unearthed prompted her to write a book, entitled The Pauper Paradise, which became a bestseller in several languages. I wonder how I would have reacted if I had found in my family tree a close connection between myself and Klaas Bruinsma (1953-1991), the infamous Dutch criminal who was often referred to as the “drugs baron”? Indeed, we are eager to know more about our roots, but hope we will be saved from major embarrassments.

Sons and daughters of God

The desire to know about their roots leads many adopted children and persons to go in search of their biological parents, sometimes in faraway parts of the world. Some resort to DNA-testing in order to find out about their family ties. They feel that this is important for their sense of identity. To know where they have come from helps them to know who they really are.

But when all is said and done, we realize that our human roots are only of relative importance, and they do not define who we are today or are destined to be. For all of us knowing where we come from has a much deeper dimension than establishing current or past family relationships.

The New Testament paints a picture of a loving personal God, who relates to us as our Father. The followers of Christ are repeatedly referred to as his children. 1 John 3:1 is crystal clear: “How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called children of God. And that is what we are!” Unfortunately, many believers are not so sure.  When asked: “Are you a child of God,” they may reply with: “I hope so,” or, “I think so.” Some feel we can never be certain that we have been accepted into God’s family. This is not, however, what the Bible tells us. Read 1 Corinthians 12:27. It is part of a letter addressed to the Christian believers in Corinth. They were far from perfect. But they could be sure they belonged to God’s family: “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of your is part of it!”

And then I suggest you read Ephesians 2:18, 19 and let it sink in: Through Jesus Christ we have “access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners or aliens but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” Paul here addresses people who had no Jewish roots. He insists: Even though your family background is not Jewish, you are fully accepted and have become fully part of God’s family. Via the people in Ephesus, Paul addressed these words also to us. Whatever our blood ties, we are part of God’s family. We are sons and daughters of God. God has told us: “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18).

Perhaps that is why I am so fond of the musical piece of Arvo Pärt, for I hear in his music the echo of some additional words: “Reinder Bruinsma (or just fill in your own name): …who is the son (or daughter) of God.” No further genealogical research can beat that wonderful certainty.

 

Listen to Arvo Pärt’s “…which was the son of” by the Gracias Choir‪, directed by Boris Abalyan:

 

Reinder Bruinsma is a native of the Netherlands who retired in 2007 after a long career in pastoral, editorial, teaching, and church leadership assignments in Europe, the United States, and West Africa. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree from Newbold College and a Master’s degree from Andrews University, he earned a Bachelor of Divinity with honors and a doctorate in church history from the University of London. He recently interrupted his retirement to serve as the president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Belgium and Luxemburg. He has authored more than twenty books, in Dutch and English, and a large number of articles. He has also translated various theological books from Dutch into English.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

 

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