December 9, 2013
It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas at our house. We’ve acquired a tree, but it’s still in the garage waiting our unearthing the stand. A smaller artificial tree is up and now has lights, and there is candle lights in each of the front windows. Ribbons are beginning to festoon light fixtures. And we’ve made our first two batches of Christmas cookies. Much more to come in preparing the house for the season, but we’re well begun.
To prepare my heart for the season, I’ve been reading the Christmas story, trying to see it afresh, and not in the highly decorated and embellished way I’ve taken in the Christmas story from so many re-tellings and children’s pageants.
For me, and perhaps for you, the Christmas story is a smooshed together version of bits from various gospels. It includes Mary and Joseph, wise men and shepherds, angels and stars, Bethlehem and Nazareth, and a host of other people: Herod and inn keepers, Elizabeth, Caesar Augustus and more. It’s a crowded crèche we erect in our minds. This Christmas I’m trying to look at the gospels one by one to see what story is being told. I’m struck at how different they are.
The Christmas story in Matthew (Matthew 1-2) is a version that includes just the holy family, some angels, the wise men, and Herod.
It begins with a long genealogy to show that the lineage of Jesus from Abraham through David. “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob…” it begins. And this passage concludes (1:17) “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.” It is a litany all of men, except in the middle (1:5) we have “… and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth,” and then at the end (1:16) we have “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” I know why Mary is mentioned, but I have no idea why Rahab and Ruth are mentioned. (Because Ruth is one of my favorite people in the Bible, I’m always delighted when she makes an appearance.)
Of course what is remarkable is that Matthew immediately goes on to say that Joseph was in no way biologically responsible for Jesus’s birth. “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit; and he husband, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly (1:18-19).” Might that not completely undermine the lineage back through David to Abraham: that long line of patrimonial responsibility? Perhaps the point of the genealogy is to insist that even with the Holy Spirit’s intervention, the line of male descent is important in making Jesus the Christ.
An angel intervenes at this point in Matthew’s story speaking to Joseph in a dream, assuring him that Mary’s pregnancy is a good thing, and that he should proceed with the marriage. “He took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus (1:24-25).” Notice the focus on Joseph, not Mary in the telling.
The second chapter of Matthew’s version is the story of “wise men from the East.” They come first to Jerusalem, saying (2:2) “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” Herod, the (political, Roman-appointed) king hears of Jesus’s birth apparently from these wise men and is troubled, but (I’d never noticed this) Matthew says “he was troubled and all Jerusalem with him.” All Jerusalem!
Herod’s advisors tell Herod that the prophecy (Micah 5:2) tells that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem. He tells the wise men, secretly, to go to Bethlehem, and let him know what they find, “that I too may come and worship him” (2:8). The wise men set off again, “and lo the star they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was” (2:9). They rejoice, worship the young child, and offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They do not tell Herod, however, what they have seen and done. “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (Given how often Bible stories mention place names, it is striking that the country of origin of these wise men is never mentioned.)
A second time an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream, saying “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him” (2:13). Joseph, Mary and Jesus do go to Egypt and remain there until Herod’s death. Again a prophecy is fulfilled: (Hosea 11:1): “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” Meanwhile, Herod, “in a furious rage” having been “tricked by the wise men,” kills all the male children in Bethlehem who are less than two years of age.
A third time in this telling an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream saying (2:20) “Rise, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” But, the story tells us, Joseph learns that Herod’s son Archelaus is now on the throne in Judea and he is afraid to return there to Bethlehem, and “being warned in a dream” (a fourth visitation) he took his family instead to Galilee (in the north of Israel), to Nazareth, that “what was spoken by the prophets (Isaiah 11:1) might be fulfilled, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’ (2:23).
From here, Matthew’s gospel leaps to John the Baptist (3:1): “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” We’ve abruptly leapt three decades in time and leapt geographically back to the south. The Christmas story is far behind us, and Jesus’s ministry is beginning.
Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is very focused upon Joseph. It is his lineage that is established; of Mary we learn next to nothing. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, not Mary, and not once but four times. This angel of the Lord appears each time in a dream
There is a pronounced emphasis in Matthew’s telling on the fulfilling of prophecy. The suggestion is not that the birth of Christ is a striking turn in the story of God’s effort to call His people to righteousness, but rather that the birth is all according to a plan that has been foreshadowed by prophets well in advance – if we were paying attention.
There is a pronounced emphasis on the threat that Jesus’s birth posed to established political figures, not just Herod but “all of Jerusalem.” It is wise men from another country – presumably people of some stature, power and wealth –who tip off the political establishment to the fact of Jesus’s birth. It is only in Matthew that we hear of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem. The wise men and Herod are the supporting cast; not shepherds or domestic animals.
One more thing to note: the story begins in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph live there as the story opens. Jesus is born there, but no mention is made of a stable or any other temporary shelter. The story proceeds from Bethlehem to Nazareth, with a long detour to Egypt. Nazareth becomes their home only after Jesus has become a boy a few years old.
There is a great deal here that is quite different from the other gospels, even from the account in Luke, the only other gospel to tell the story of Jesus’s birth. But that is for another day.
[The painting above is Paul Gauguin's Te Tamari No Atua, the Nativity, 1896.]