A word used constantly in this year of the pandemic is ‘unprecedented.’ The news is full of questions about how people can celebrate Christmas, treating mostly as a family feast, a time to party and ignoring the one whose title lies at the heart of CHRISTmas. For some of course, there are more serious challenges to holiday joy, with Covid sicknesses and deaths, or loss of jobs or homes and those only able to manage with the use of food banks. Yet whatever we face, our faith tells us ‘God is with us’ – the meaning of the title ‘Emmanuel’. Jesus is always ‘coming’ – in the words of Revelation 3:20, ‘I am standing at the door and knocking, and if anyone will let me in, I will come and feast with them.’ If no ‘room in the inn’, we can make room in our hearts.
Probably not all this year will be able to attend the services they are used to with the restrictions on numbers who can gather in our Church buildings. We can, however, read the scriptures, meditate and perhaps pray with our household, creating a home liturgy, with what music, candles and decorations we have.
‘Unprecedented’ is an adjective that would apply in the deepest sense to the event of Jesus’ birth, and people have pondered this over centuries, and still we call ‘the Incarnation’ a ‘mystery’ –something we recognise as true but which eludes our best efforts at explaining it in words. The Gospels mostly don’t try, although the opening of John goes into this most deeply, with the poetic symbol of ‘The Word’ which existed ‘from the beginning’ and ‘became a human being and lived among us.’ This chapter is good to reflect at any time, but especially at this time of year.
Of the four gospels, two – 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. Matthew and Luke in their 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 obviously 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 extensions, 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. Both Matthew and Luke are literary artists but they vary in composition as well as style and focus, and it is good to let each speak to us separately. Reading them slowly with attention, we may find something new in the familiar stories and the message of each section may steep more deeply into our hearts.
Matthew tells the Nativity story from the viewpoint of Joseph, while Luke focuses on Mary, as he did in his earlier sections. 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 hesitation. He takes Mary as his wife, when she is already pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, thus adopting Jesus and giving him Davidic lineage. (Matthew’s genealogy has emphasised some unusual arrangements in listing 4 women with unexpected background.) Matthew does give mention of the birth, and his 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.
With this emphasis 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. (One is that it was the conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn, which occurs again this year a few days before Christmas.) 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 who 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 of our cultural heritage 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’.
The journey the three make from seeking the new-born king in the palace, to finding him in an ordinary house being cared for by his mother foreshadows the journey the disciples would have to make from expecting a regal earthly king to accepting one who will be persecuted and reach his ‘kingdom’ through sacrifice and death.
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 his fear 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 repeating 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, 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 with the focus on Mary, beginning before the birth with the ‘Annunciation’ and ‘Visitation’. When he reaches the time for Jesus to be born, we first hear Mary and Joseph travelling 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 clearly knows the tradition. A census, that has been hard to identify historically, explains their need to go there from Galilee. There is no ‘house’ for them as in Matthew, for as all our carols and art remind us, there was “no room in the inn’ – which probably a very basic ‘lodging’ where travellers and their animals could shelter. There is a mix of care and meeting unusual conditions in the details – Mary using ‘swaddling bands’ was at that time thought considered the very best care for a baby, but she had no prepared 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, makes a similar point.
Luke in his first two chapters has interspersed songs that expand his themes, and he gives us one in the ‘heavenly host’ who sing in praise of the birth event. This ‘Glory to God’ has found a lasting place in our masses. It is of course especially appropriate at Christmas time.
In the liturgies on following days, we will hear of more events in Luke, first the circumcision which stresses, in a different way than Matthew, his identity as a Jew. (Now our celebration of that day is called ‘The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God’) Luke’s way of setting Jesus on the world scene is by mentioning the time as the reign of Augustus Caesar and listing some lesser authorities in the nearby area. 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. (Gospel selection for ‘The 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 pondering 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!