Of the four gospels, only Matthew and Luke, give an account of Jesus’ birth and these are probably the most familiar of all scripture passages because of the popularity of the Christmas holiday even outside the Christian churches. Mark’s shorter Gospel begins with the coming of John the Baptist and therefore we do not hear him during this season. John begins with a theological reflection on ‘The Word’ which describes Jesus’ existence ‘in the beginning’ and this leads to the proclamation of the core message of Christmas: ‘The Word became flesh and came to live among us.’
Matthew and Luke in their detailed stories emphasise some of the same points, such the virgin birth and the town of Bethlehem. Other details, however, are quite different. They do not out-and-out contradict each other, and over the centuries Christians have intermingled them, setting up a pattern that is familiar in paintings, carols, and crib scenes. Various traditions have also added details that are not in the scripture; some of these are logical, like animals around the manger.
In the liturgy sequence, the Church reads Matthew 1:1-25 at the vigil on December 24, and Luke 2:1-14 at the first mass of Christmas at midnight. (Christmas is unique in having three masses, although of course most people will attend only one.) The second mass ‘at dawn’ takes up the next set of verses in Luke 2:15-20, telling of shepherds coming to find Jesus. At the third mass ‘during the day’ we have John 1:1-18, taking us through the reflection on the nature of ‘the Word’.
While we in our celebrations and liturgies will be putting the various stories together, it is worthwhile to take each gospel on its own terms for the emphasis of each evangelist. Finding some quiet time to read Matthew and Luke in their written order helps one appreciate the richness of the several points of view the gospels give us.
Matthew tells the Nativity story from the viewpoint of Joseph, while Luke focuses on Mary, as he did in his earlier sections with the ‘Annunciation’ and ‘Visitation’. Matthew’s Gospel throughout takes a special interest in the Jewish background, and that focus is found in the infancy stories. He has four quotations from the Old Testament in the opening account, which he finds ‘fulfilled’ in the life of Jesus. He further shows Jesus as a descendant of David and Abraham in the genealogy with which he opens his gospel. Thus the incarnation of Jesus is seen as carrying out the promises made by God to the Jewish forefathers.
At the vital points of Matthew’s story, Joseph receives information from God in a dream. We never hear one word from Joseph himself, but we see that he does what the dream vision tells him to do without any objections. First he takes the pregnant Mary as his wife. Matthew does give any details on the birth, and the next scene brings the Magi who find Jesus ‘in the house with Mary his mother’. If one read only Matthew, you would assume that Mary and Joseph lived in the town of Bethlehem, for he lacks all the details we find in Luke of the travel from Galilee. In Matthew, the family will go to Galilee after the return from the ‘Flight to Egypt – an event that Luke does not mention.
Although his emphasis is on Jesus’ as a Jew among Jews, Matthew also forecasts the coming of Gentiles to Jesus. He does this in his story of the ‘Magi’, traditionally translated ‘wise men’, who were probably astrologers from somewhere east of Israel. They would have studied the skies and thus come to believe in a sign in the stars of a new king to be born. Just what this might have been in terms of modern astronomy can only be a guess, and various theories have been suggested. Matthew, however, treats it more as a miracle in which the star ‘moves’ and directs the journey of the Magi. He does not give the number of these visitors, but because three gifts are mentioned custom has settled on that number. Matthew, however, does not call them ‘kings’ and it is unlikely that they were. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were kingly attributes but they are to honour the new-born king rather than indicate the royal status of the givers. A number of Old Testament texts do mention kings come to honour the Messiah and those texts have led to the common picture of ‘three kings of Orient’. Even as we recognise some details as non-biblical, we can still enjoy our art and music depicting kings kneeling before Jesus for this does recognise Jesus as above all earthly rulers, ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’.
Matthew sets Jesus in the political context of the time with the involvement of Herod, the ruler who feels threatened by the reported birth of new king. The irony of course, is that Jesus will be a different kind of king, especially different from the violent Herod, known in history for his jealousies and murders. Matthew’s account of the slaughter of any young child who might fulfil the Magi’s prophecy is in character for Herod. Matthew telling of the young child taken down to Egypt allows him to present Jesus fulfilling the history of the Hebrew Exodus, a point Matthew makes by applying the scripture quotation, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
The liturgy spreads events in Matthew over several feasts. We celebrate the coming of the Magi or Wise Men on Epiphany, January 6. On the feast of the Holy Family, December 30, we read of the trip to Egypt which comes later than the Magi, so the order of Matthew is mixed up in our readings.
The details in Luke are quite different. We first follow Mary and Joseph on their trip to Bethlehem. Although Luke does not quote Micah as Matthew does to show that is the prophesied location of the new king’s birth, he knows the tradition. A census, that has been hard to identify historically, explains their travel from Galilee. There is no ‘house’ for them, for as all our carols and art remind us, there was no room even in the inn – probably a very basic ‘lodging’ where travellers and their animals could shelter. There is a mix of care and necessity in the details – Mary using ‘swaddling bands’ was a at that time thought considered the very best care, but she had no baby bed for her child. Luke stresses often in his gospel what is now called ‘God’s preferential option for the poor’, and thus the poverty Jesus shared at his birth unites him to the people he came among. Showing the shepherds as the first recipients of the good news, simple labourers rather than the King who hears of it in Matthew, carries out this theme. Luke in his first two chapters has shown a fondness for songs, and he gives us one in the ‘heavenly host’ who sing in praise of the event. This ‘Glory to God’ has found a lasting place in our masses.
In the liturgies on following days, we will hear of more events in Luke, first the circumcision which stresses, in a different way that Matthew, his identity as a Jew. (Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God) Luke also has a different way of setting Jesus on the world scene, by mentioning the time as the reign of Augustus Caesar and lesser authorities. Only Luke tells of Jesus being taken into the temple forty days after his birth, where two faithful Israelites prophesy about him and his mother. (Holy Family)
Both gospels find ways to hint that persecution lies ahead for Jesus, Matthew with his story of Herod’s attempt at murder, and Luke with the prophesy to Mary that ‘a sword shall pierce’ her heart. Luke twice tells us that Mary ‘pondered these words in her heart’. Although Luke has piled up titles in his opening chapter for Jesus, there was still mystery for his mother to contemplate. We can understand that caring for the baby and the growing child would have led her on a long journey to understand a human being who is also the Son of God. She would also have needed time to see God’s work in the suffering that would meet the Saviour, Lord, Messiah. When we have time during Christmas we could do worse than copy Mary in her meditating on all this.
The first readings at most masses continue with the prophesies of the Old Testament, with Isaiah having pride of place. The second readings, from several books of the New Testament, fill out the theological meaning of Jesus coming among us, and how he carries out his work of salvation and leads us to God.
Letter to the Hebrews 1:1-3
‘At various times in the past, and in various different ways, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets. In our time, the last days, he has spoken to us through his son that he appointed to inherit everything and through whom he made everything there is. He is the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of his nature, sustaining the universe by his powerful command.’
May the readings of this season enrich your experience of the message of Christmas!