Dec 18, 2019 3rd Week of Advent – Day 18 of the Advent Alphabet
On Christmas morning we have a family tradition of reading about the birth of Jesus from the Bible before we do anything else. At that moment it is enough to hear the story again, listen with the heart, and open our spirit to receive God’s gifts. (Then we move on to exploring our stockings, and tearing away at wrapping paper!)
While there are times to soak in the wonder of the biblical stories- there are also times to use our considerable intellectual gifts. (The wonderful minds God has given us.) A good exercise is to read the first 2 chapters of Matthew, and compare them to the first 3 chapters of Luke. It is amazing how many church folks, and other followers of Jesus have never done this. It only takes a few minutes. You may want to have 2 Bibles handy, so you can read them side by side.
In seminary, we used a special book called “Gospel Parallels” which lays out Matthew, Mark, and Luke in 3 columns, grouping the similar stories, and highlighting the parts unique to each Gospel- they are not the same!
We’ll leave Mark out of this discussion, because that Gospel has nothing to say about Jesus before he began his public ministry, as an adult.
Both Matthew and Luke offer a “genealogy” for Jesus. (Matthew’s is in chapter one, Luke’s is in chapter three) These family trees are very different. Matthew says Jacob was Jesus’ grandfather, and Luke says it was Heli. Each genealogy asserts that Jesus, through Joseph, is a descendant of King David. Matthew traces the family line back to Abraham. Luke traces it back to Adam. (For now, we might set aside questions about why the family lineage would be traced from Joseph’s side.)
Matthew does not describe the birth of John the Baptist or the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing that she will bear a child. Matthew does not describe Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, or Mary’s recitation of the Magnificat , which is almost certainly lifted straight from Hannah’s song in the Old Testament story of Samuel. Matthew makes no mention of the journey to Bethlehem. There is no Roman census. Baby Jesus is not wrapped in bands of cloth or laid in a manger. There is no inn, no stable, and there are no shepherds or angels (except the angel that appeared in Joseph’s dream). In Matthew, the Magi visit Jesus in a house.
Luke’s story does not include the Magi, or the star. There is no mention of Herod ordering the death of all Hebrew boys under the age of two, and Mary and Joseph have no cause to flee to Egypt with Jesus.
Despite the efforts of pageant directors to “harmonize” these two stories, a close look suggests they are not complimentary tales that each fill in blanks left by the other- they are different stories, told by different authors, who each had their own audience, and their own theological points to make.
There are things about which these writers agree. They both say Jesus was born near the end of the reign of King Herod. Bethlehem was his birthplace, but he grew up in Nazareth. They both present Joseph as the father of Jesus. They agree that Mary was the child’s mother, and that his name was Jesus, although in Matthew he is also called “Emmanuel”. In both stories an angel announces that this child is destined to be a saviour. (In Luke the angel tells Mary, in Matthew, Joseph is told by an angel in his dream.)
Both gospels say that Mary and Joseph were betrothed but not married at the time of Mary’s pregnancy, and that Jesus was born after they began to live together. Both suggest that Mary was a virgin, and that Joseph was not involved in Jesus’ conception- that it was by the Holy Spirit.
What do we do with all of this? Personally, my faith in God, and my passion for following the way of Jesus do not depend on the reliability of the stories about his birth. If we read the rest of the stories about Jesus, as we have them in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there are many discrepancies and disagreements. I don’t think they were writing history- they were telling stories to teach theology. I am drawn to the meaning of the stories, and the “rightness” of the way of living that Jesus taught.
Outside of the two Nativity stories, and the story of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52) having a theological discussion with the Temple priests, the Gospel stories are all about Jesus as an adult. (There are fascinating tales about the boy Jesus as a trouble-maker and wonder-worker, but they are not found in the Bible.)
Until the moment that Jesus began his public ministry, and was gathering followers, why would anyone (outside of his family and neighbours) have known about his early life? He was the child of simple, probably illiterate people, from an obscure village in an unimportant province of a small territory of the Roman Empire. Who would have been there to write down the “real story”?
The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, pastor at the United Church in Harrow, Ontario. Each day in Advent, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. These reflections will be sent out via email to those who have asked to be on the mailing list, and will also be posted to Rev. Darrow’s Facebook page.