The story of Jesus’ birth is told twice in the Bible, in Luke’s gospel and in Matthew’s gospel. When we compare the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke with the story of the same event in Matthew, we find two very different stories.
- Wise Men follow a star in Matthew, but we find neither Wise Men nor a star in Luke.
- Angels tell the good news to shepherds in Luke. In Matthew, there are no shepherds, and the only angels in the story are those who periodically bring Joseph up to speed on what’s really going on.
- There’s a census and a stable in Luke, but not in Matthew.
- There’s a massacre of babies and an escape to Egypt in Matthew, but not in Luke.
They are two different stories.
But not only are they like two different stories. It seems as if they are set in two different worlds. Matthew tells his story of Jesus’ birth in a much more sombre way than does Luke.
- Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth seems a bit like an opera or a Broadway musical. Whenever anything important happens in these first two chapters, someone breaks into song.
- Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is more like an old-time evangelical sermon, peppered with scripture quotes whenever an important point is made.
Jesus is born into a world whose secular power is a much more threatening force in Matthew’s gospel than in Luke.
- In Luke, the government is a rather benign force. The Roman Emperor called a census which, providentially, put Mary and Joseph in the right place at the right time for Jesus’ birth.
- In Matthew, the government was seen in the person of King Herod, a violent, redneck king who was imposed on the Jews by the Romans. Herod ordered the murder of the children of Bethlehem, forcing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to become refugees in Egypt.
The religious community seems both more faithful and much more human in Luke than in Matthew.
- In Luke, there are those figures of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and of Simeon and Anna, appearing both before and after the account of Jesus’ birth. They illustrate the many people throughout the centuries, both ordinary and extraordinary, who lived their lives expectantly, with faith and with integrity.
- In Matthew, the religious community itself was part of the problem. The religious scholars were part of Herod’s hangers-on. They had sold out their faith to Herod, perhaps in a similar way to the way in which members of the “Religious Right” in the United States (and to some extent in this country) have sold out their faith to some very scary people. Herod’s tame theologians told the king that Bethlehem was the place to send his death squads.
Even the important figure of Joseph comes off a lot more gently in Luke’s gospel than in Matthew.
- In Luke, Joseph was just there for Mary and the child, no questions asked.
- In Matthew, Joseph was reviewing his options. And some of his options were terrible indeed. In the Middle East in ancient days (and even in some parts of the Middle East today), a man had the power of life and death over a wife or fiancée whom he suspected of straying. Joseph didn’t choose the more violent option, but Matthew gives us the impression he thought about it.
In short, Luke gives us a picture of Jesus being born into a providential world, a world populated by faith-filled, grace-filled, integrity-filled people. On the other hand, Matthew gives us a picture of Jesus being born into a threatening world, a violent world, a world where dictators ruled and were given spiritual support by their tame theologians. In which story is the truth?
The truth is in both stories.
- Jesus was born into that threatening, violent world described by Matthew, but he was born into that world for a good reason.
- He was born into that world to call forth a community of faith-filled, grace-filled, integrity-filled people such as we find in Luke’s story.
- Jesus was born into the world described by Matthew, the world where Herod ruled, to transform us into the sort of people who inhabit the world described by Luke; faith-filled, grace-filled, integrity-filled people.
And Christmas is about transformation. All of the best secular Christmas stories, from Scrooge to the Grinch, are about the power of the Christmas event to transform our lives into something better, something more generous, something more open.
There is this strong cultural message that the season itself brings out our better nature. For us as worshipping Christians, we can take this all a step further. It’s not merely the season. We can say that the whole process of Jesus taking our human nature as one of us brings out humanity’s better nature, for us all and for the sake of the entire world.
- When Jesus embraced our human nature as one of us, he enabled us to become Nelson Mandela-like people in the midst of a Kim Jong-Un world.
- When Jesus embraced our human nature as one of us, he enabled us to become Malala Yousafzai-like people in the midst of a Miley Cyrus world.
- When Jesus embraced our human nature as one of us, he enabled us to become Mary MacKillop-like people in the midst of a Gina Rinehart world.
- When Jesus embraced our human nature as one of us, he enabled us to become Martin Luther King-like people in the midst of a Rupert Murdoch world.
- When Jesus embraced our human nature as one of us, he enabled us to become Mother Theresa-like people in the midst of an Ayn Rand world.
- When Jesus embraced our human nature as one of us, he enabled us to become Pope Francis-like people in the midst of a Scott Morrison world.
By taking our humanity upon himself, Jesus brings out humanity’s better nature, for us all and for the sake of the entire world.
And this process of transformation all began two thousand years ago, on that night when Jesus was born into a threatening world, but born to transform that world and its people into something better. Jesus was born into the world we hear of in Matthew’s story to transform us into the people we hear of in Luke’s story.
In John’s gospel, we do not get a narrative of the birth of Jesus, but we hear an ancient Christian poem in celebration of the Word made Flesh in Jesus; the Word made Flesh to transform our lives into something better, something more generous, something more open.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. … From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
And so, to all of us, as we continue to prepare for Christmas, I wish:
- a Merry Christmas,
- a holy Christmas,
- the wisdom to know that true merriment and true holiness are never in conflict, and
- the resolve to be faith-filled, grace-filled, integrity-filled people, both in the New Year of twenty-fourteen and throughout our lives.