By Fr. Mark Perkins
This past Sunday, I had the unusual privilege of presiding at a ceremony called the Kirkin’ of the Tartans at the 44th Central Florida Scottish Highland Games, a religious ceremony of somewhat ambiguous historical origins celebrating Scottish heritage and culture. The service included the Collect and Gospel for the day — Epiphany II — but I used the homily, published below, primarily to reflect upon the question of what ancestry and heritage mean, and how they relate to our lineage in Jesus Christ — our heavenly citizenship.
Not too many years back, I might have objected to any such service as a syncretistic manifestation of “Christian nationalism” — a phrase that has become entirely too well-worn of late. As the homily itself suggests, I do think there are real tensions between national identity and allegiance to Christ, and in a different context I might have explored those ambiguities more. But I have always recognized the fundamental (though not, of course, unblemished) goodness of particular and distinct ways of life. The problem of nationalism can only be resolved by submitting a given community’s way of life to the lordship of Christ — and I have come to better appreciate how the judgment of Christ not only condemns that which is evil but also honors that which is good. Doing both is the mark of a healthy Christian critique of culture and nation.
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It is an honor to preside at the Kirkin’ of the Tartans here at the 44th Central Florida Scottish Highland Games… but I did find it a little bit ironic that I was invited to preside, given that I am a priest in the Anglican tradition, whose orders trace back through the Church of England. And when I look at my grandparents, I see the English Perkins’, Irish Flurry’s, northern Irish Johnston’s, and German Hartman’s — but, alas, nary a Macpherson, Duncan, or McGrew to be found.
Ancestry is an interesting concept. I am quite proud to be the thirteenth generation of my family in America, dating back to Henry Perkins, who came to Massachusetts Bay Colony from England in the 1630s. Our best guesses are that he was either a debtor or some sort of criminal… which I’m not usually too proud of, but in the present company I figure it’s safer to be descended from English criminals than English lords or landed gentry… Biologically speaking, though, I’m not carrying around a lot of old Henry’s DNA. Think about it: you’ve got two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, sixteen great-great-grandparents… then 32, 64… and so on. It turns out that old Henry is just one of my 4,096 great-great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-grandparents. Chances are I share as much DNA with any random Native American contemporary of Henry’s than with Henry himself (In light of which, I’m thinking if this whole priest gig doesn’t work out, I might move to Massachusetts and run for Senator…)
The point is, once you’re a few generations back, your biological inheritance from any one ancestor becomes minimal. So if you were a crude and crass materialist, then this whole festival might seem ridiculous. I’m sure some of you are of recent Scottish ancestry, but I imagine that for most of you, the last time your direct ancestors were in Scotland was around the time of the Civil War, and some of your families probably go just about as far back in America as old Henry in the 1600s.
But when it comes to history and heritage, ancestry is not really about biological inheritance. You imbibe your Scottish heritage not through your DNA sequencing but primarily through storytelling and narrative. Your Scottish heritage comes from the stories you’ve been told and the stories that you tell about your forebears. Those stories — the stories of the Scottish clans — preserve and perpetuate the particular Scottish virtues our service celebrates: unwavering loyalty and steadfast faith; respect for truth and justice; regard for liberty, life, and the equality of all. Your heritage is a gift you were given and a gift you can give — by transmitting those same stories and those same virtues to posterity. That’s what it means to have a family and a name and a history and a heritage. That — and not a reductionist view of genetics — is how virtually all human cultures have thought about their ancestry.
As it turns out, this is also the biblical way of thinking about ancestry. A couple weeks ago at St. Alban’s Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, I preached on the story of Jesus Christ in light of the first two chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel, which opens the New Testament. The New Testament begins not with the Christmas story but with Jesus’ genealogy. In doing so, St. Matthew embeds the story of Jesus’ birth within the broader story of Israel. On the surface, any genealogy offers pretty tedious reading. But, if you know your Old Testament, and you get what St. Matthew is up to, the names of our Lord’s genealogy spark flashes of narrative memory: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob… Judah, Tamar, Rahab… Boaz, Ruth, Jesse… David, Solomon, and on and on. The names act as a kind of shorthand evoking old stories — the good but mostly the bad, an occasional triumph amidst a sea of tragedy, some wisdom but more foolishness, and, through it all, God’s faithfulness to his people and his promises.
Now, according to St. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus through the Blessed Virgin Mary, the great King David was 42 generations back from Jesus and therefore one of literally trillions of Christ’s ancestors. Of course, after about ten or twenty generations, everyone is marrying a cousin of some remove, so you shouldn’t imagine trillions of unique ancestors, but the basic point is that Jesus’ biological inheritance from King David was not likely to be much more significant than that of any other Israelite at the time. And actually, St. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus runs through Joseph — who, St. Matthew goes on to clarify, is not even Jesus’ biological father in the first place! Nevertheless, through his biological mother Mary and his stepfather Joseph, Jesus’ story runs right back through to David and to Abraham and to Adam, in a way that transcends genetics.
Today’s Gospel text gives us the opening verses of St. Mark’s Gospel, beginning with a quotation drawn from the Old Testament. It ends with Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens are rent apart, the Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven declares, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
In one sense, this is a unique declaration of Jesus’ divinity. Jesus alone is the Son of God and God himself. And yet Christ’s baptism is also the template or model for our own baptisms, which — to use the language of the New Testament — made us children of God (Jn 1:12), joint-heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:16-17), and even partakers of the divine nature (2 Pt. 1:4). At every baptism, the heavens are rent, the Spirit descends, and the voice of God speaks:
“Thou art my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased.”
Hence, we who have been baptized into Jesus Christ share his lineage, even if we have no Jewish ancestry. The story of Israel becomes our story — not by DNA and biology but by adoption, by being grafted into the family of God, as wild olive branches are grafted into a cultivated vine.
The lineage and family that is ours in Jesus Christ transcends all other ties of kinship and loyalty. In Matthew 10:37, Jesus somewhat shockingly declares, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This does not mean that, when you become a Christian, you cease to be an American or a Scot. Henry Perkins did not cease to be part of my story upon my baptism. The book of Revelation tells us that the people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will be present in eternity (7:9). We will somehow carry our earthly histories and kinships into the kingdom of heaven with us. Whatever is good in the story of Scotland and the Scottish people will be caught up and honored in the story of Jesus Christ. So teach the stories and celebrate the virtues of Scotland. Pass them on to your children and your children’s children. But remember that the virtues of the kingdom of heaven come first. The nationality on your passport and your ancestral heritage must take a far-distant second to your heritage as children of God and joint-heirs with Christ Jesus.
The response to this is not to suppress your Scottish heritage — quite the opposite! My old rector used to say that God loves us in all of our oddness — in everything that makes us inescapably ourselves. Your job is to extol and to honor and to love your heritage in such a way as to honor God. The beauty of Scottish pipes and drums, of highland dance and country dance, of stone carving and kilt making — dedicate these gifts to the glory of God. And as you reflect upon the Scottish legacy of fierce resistance to tyranny and steadfast dedication to a particular and peculiar way of life, consider how these Scottish virtues can inform your own dedication to Jesus Christ and to his Body the Church amidst what St. Paul called “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4).
Because, at the end of all things, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob — the God made flesh in Jesus Christ — that God will judge you, and Scotland, and the whole world. And the measure by which God will judge is the role you played in the story he is telling, the great story of Jesus Christ.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.