There are a whole lot of things I like about the revised Common Lectionary but the one thing that I most resist is how quickly we are forced to move away from the celebration of Christmas.
The various cycles of the three years rather leave alone any recognition of the new year. They launch rather quickly into what few infant texts we have of Jesus and family, the flight to Egypt and then of Jesus appearing in the temple as a young adolescent.
I want to stay with the Christmas season for a bit longer. We spend four weeks of Advent getting ready and then moving on ensues. Some European traditions hold for a number of days following for a Christmas season. Some families keep their household decorations up for a longer period of time; but in the end, not much survives longer than the middle of January.
In the four Gospels, we actually have scant information about the birth event. In the Gospel of John, we hear a lengthy “Prologue” which establishes, without mentioning the name of Jesus, the relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. After that we are fast forwarded to an introduction of John the Baptist. There is no birth narrative.
Similarly, Mark drops up in at the baptism of Jesus, again with no birth discussion or family lineage.
Matthew and Luke have a lot of similarities but yet hold out numerous differences. I have long questioned the seemingly glaring differences between the two evangelists. There is general agreement among scholars that the two writers shared in a common source for much of their writings, often referred to as the “Q” document.
It is clear that the two were trying to communicate with different audiences; Matthew to Jewish hearers, and Luke to Gentile followers and who might come along later. Although written quite differently, the objective was the same; to convince that this Jesus was in fact the right person of prophecy. The promised Messiah.
Matthew opens the book with a lineage back to Abraham and then counts forward with increments of fourteen to get to David, then fourteen more to the exile and then a final fourteen to get to Jesus. This little piece of numerology has its problems in Matthew’s assessment as this should have added up to 42 but there are far more names listed. But for his purposes, Matthew gets there and everything looks on the up and up.
To be clear however, Luke was not in any sense anti-Jewish; but seems much less interested in Jewish history rather, he seems to be more interested in connecting gentile converts to this God of creation. , and draws the lineage back to Adam.
For both of the evangelists; this is the awaited Savior.
About the only two things that Luke agrees with Matthew are the virgin birth and the location of Bethlehem. Luke spends a lot of time dealing with shepherds in a field and their travels to town. While Matthew deals with the encounters with Mary and the dreams of Joseph to set aside fears of what the neighbors might think. Luke says nothing of this. Further, Matthew uses traditional use of conversations with God through angles and dreams. All things well known to the Hebrew ear of the day.
Luke, in his telling, gives us two wonderful statements of faith, one through Mary and what is called the Magnificat and the other is a text that he ascribes to Simeon, who was of great age who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. In older worship books it is called the Nunc Dimittis, or Song of Simeon in newer hymnals.
Some scholars solve some of these differences with the premise that Luke was written later and he was filling in the blanks left behind by Matthew. I am led back to an earlier paragraph where they were addressing different audiences.
So let us explore our modern day storytelling and acting out of the birth event of Jesus. I have long questioned the seemingly glaring differences between the two evangelists.
- What do we associate with the telling of the birth events in Christmas worship gatherings? We tell of shepherds (Luke only) and the arrival of the Magi (Matthew only). Often told of together.
- Does this discussion alter your understanding of the Biblical texts?
- What might you leave in and what could be set aside?
- Is this so much hair splitting?
- What do you think of live nativities in front of churches or in church sanctuaries on Christmas Eve?
- Does any of these differences distract you from experiencing this great gift of God into our lives that we celebrate each year?
- Are you pulled now further into the mystery of our God and loving mercy of Jesus?
- This is the first of two parts with the second to come up on this website this coming Thursday, January 7th, 2023.
- Take a short while and read through the birth narratives of both Matthew and Luke and see what you draw from it. If your Bible has footnotes, follow them and see where they take you.
I will close this discussion in the second part with my take on it as far as I understand it.
Perhaps this could be an interesting epiphany season exploration for you.
Much of this conversation is based on a very large book called the Birth of the Messiah by Raymond Brown. C. 1977 & 1993 by Doubleday as part of the Anchor Bible Reference Library. I have had this book for many years and still have not gotten through all of its intricacies.