December 16, 2013
This is the fourth of a series of posts on the Christmas story in the gospels. The first one concerned Matthew’s account, and the second concerned Mark’s account. I’m dividing consideration of the story in Luke into two parts. The first is here.
Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah, Gabriel’s appearance to Mary. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the birth of John: these events preceding the birth of Jesus take up all of Chapter I in Luke, and it is a relatively long chapter (80 verses). By contrast, the account of Jesus’s birth takes up just the first 20 verses of chapter 2: it is much shorter, and yet this is much more what we focus upon at Christmas. Here, too, there are striking differences from the account in Matthew – even ones that contradict the Nativity story there.
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city” (2:1-3). Those are words many of us know as the beginning of THE Christmas story.
In Luke, because of the enrollment decree, Joseph and Mary set out from Nazareth (in Galilee) to go to Bethlehem, David’s City (in Judea), even though Mary is very pregnant. Mary gives birth in Bethlehem, in the stable, “because there was no place for them in the inn” (1:7). Mary and Joseph later return to Nazareth, their home, taking Jesus with them.
In Luke, then, there is no detour to Egypt, and Herod is barely mentioned. There is no killing of the innocent children of Bethlehem
In Matthew, by contrast, Mary and Joseph’s home city is Bethlehem, not Nazareth. In Matthew, there is no mention of an enrollment. Mary gives birth in Bethlehem presumably in her own home. There is no stable or manger: Mary and Joseph had no need of either. In Matthew, Jesus, Mary and Joseph settle in Nazareth only when they return from Egypt, trying to evade Archelaus, Herod’s son, Herod already having murdered all the young boys of Bethlehem.
Where the witnesses to the divine birth in Matthew are the three wise men, in Luke the witnesses are a band of shepherds. “And an angel of the Lord and the glory of the Lord shone around them,” and “the angel of the Lord said to them, ‘Be not afraid, for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord’” (2:10-11). This is quite a public announcement of the Savior’s birth, and the shepherds, unlike the wise men in Matthew, talked to many about it (“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them” 2:20; and “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them” 2:18).
In Luke’s telling there are two more witnesses who publicly celebrate the birth of the Christ. Both are present for the purification, a ceremony for Jewish children performed shortly after birth that, for Jesus, was performed in Jerusalem. When his parents take him there, a righteous and devout man named Simeon took Jesus in his arms and delivers a public prayer of thanksgiving for the birth of the Savior. Also on that occasion, an elderly prophetess Anna “gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:38).
With so much public notice being taken of Jesus’s divine birth in Luke’s account, we should also observe this: after the Nativity stories in this gospel, there is no mention whatsoever of Jesus’s divine birth. You could start reading the gospel of Luke at the beginning of chapter 3, where Luke tells the John the Baptist story, and never notice that there were two missing chapters. The events in those first two chapters play no part in what follows. It is as if everyone forgot those miraculous events. (This is true of Matthew’s account as well, but then fewer people were in the know, and the Holy Family goes ‘underground,’ as it were, in Nazareth.)
Along the same lines, it is only in Luke’s Gospel that we have the story (2:41-52) of 12-year-old Jesus staying in Jerusalem after the Passover without his parents’ knowledge. When they find him after three days, they find him in the temple sitting among the teachers, “and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (2:47). Jesus says to his parents, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house” (2:50)”, but then he returns home with them, once again settling into being just an obedient boy in Nazareth. Mary remembers all this (“his mother kept all these things in her heart” [2:51] but doesn’t talk about any of it. Among all others (even Joseph?), this event, also appears to be forgotten by the time Jesus begins his adult ministry: so many miraculous signs, and none of them remembered.
[Image: Robert Campin, Nativity, ca 1425, in the collection of the Musee des Beaux-Artes, Dijon, France]