The Christmas Stories 1
This book explores the stories of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. It looks at the way the stories are told, where they have come from, and what they mean. It offers information, encourages further investigation and suggests ways in which the Christmas story might meet us in the present day. It is designed for individual reading and reflection, but also as a resource for study groups and for preachers and teachers.
It is dedicated to the people of Australia and New Zealand who celebrate a summertime Christmas. Not so many years ago sombre preachers would ponder dolefully on the deep spiritual meaning of Christmas in the midwinter in Europe and North America, where Christmas is celebrated in the cosy warmth of the family home. In Australia and New Zealand Christmas could never be like that. Instead it would be swallowed up by holiday fever and could never achieve significant depth. This book is written to help people to make the journey to Bethlehem under the summer sun. It is written in the belief that Christmas down under in the summertime is a wonderful gift and a wonderful opportunity. For our Christmas is Christmas at the end of the year. The year of school is over. The year of work is over. It is the main time for a break. It is not slotted into a busy winter semester, like a second long Easter weekend, as in many northern countries. It is the climax of the year. The new year is about to begin. What more appropriate time to celebrate the Christmas story and be touched by its power!
At the same time, for those who read this book in the northern hemisphere and feel rightly reluctant to cede to the south that the world is upside down, my hope is that its content will warm your interest in the context of your wintry and perhaps white Christmases. For us in the south, Christmas comes, therefore, at a time when most men and women have leisure and time to relax, enjoy life and reflect on its meaning. Christmas time is holiday time. Holidays are a good thing. They can be the year’s quiet moment of renewal: on the beach, in the surf, at the barbecue, or out walking on a warm summer’s night. They can he profound times of awareness of God. Holidays can also be days of crisis. In houses where suddenly everyone is home all day, hidden tensions often come to the surface. Routines are disturbed. It is a time of arguments and conflict. Many people hate holidays for this reason. Unspent energies swirl about and suppressed sadnesses now find time and space to reappear. But the holiday crisis is also an opportunity for contacting ourselves as we are. And it is particularly helpful that right at this time the message of Christmas comes to us with its word of grace and hope.
Christmas down under shares in the extensive commercialisation that the Christmas season brings throughout the western world, together with its many negative aspects. But a positive aspect is the large profile Christmas takes on in our community. People’s lives are affected. It is as though December marks a change of gear. People are busy, some busier than ever. But there is a new openness to celebration and fun. Children prepare Christmas dramas at school. People begin singing carols. The serious, lined faces of formality relax and smile. It is a time of fantasy, of Santa and his reindeer. It is a time of make believe. People talk about "Christmas spirit" and mean a greater willingness to be flexible and generous. Christmas is a time for the child in us to come to the fore, a time to tell stories and dream dreams, a time for poetry and song. It is the season of symbols and signs. It is therefore a time when we are most in the right mood to tune into the stories of Christmas. For while we live Christmas in the key of celebration, it is also in this key that the Christmas stories are written and to be understood.
Stories in the key of Christmas
The Christmas stories of Matthew and Luke are not statements of dogma or discourses on belief. Rather they invite us to listen to adventure and surprise. They encourage our imagination. They offer us a way of finding our path home again to what really matters. In telling stories of Jesus’ birth in this way, Matthew and Luke are following a widespread practice in the ancient world. This was to paint pictures of the birth of famous people in a way that brought out the significance of their life to follow. Images and symbols were subtly introduced which for the knowing reader evoked the person’s great achievements. Moses’ rescue from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, for instance, would have been seen as fore-shadowing his own work of liberating the people of Israel from Egypt, the land of the river. Such story tellers were less interested in recording exactly what happened at the birth of a great person, though their accounts often include historical data. They were more interested in portraying the impact and significance of the person’s life as a whole.
Similarly the birth stories of Jesus are to be seen not so much as reports of his birth, but as saying something about the significance of his whole life as Messiah, Saviour and Light to the Gentiles. We miss the point of the Christmas stories if we concentrate on the historical side. They do contain historical data, but they are closer to poetry than to prose, closer to drama than to reporting, closer to dream than to visual observation. They celebrate the truth of the whole story seen from the end, but told from the beginning.
Because the Christmas stories are celebrations of truth rather than statements of doctrine or history, they are to be enjoyed freely and their drama is to be entered. We are invited to become the shepherds, the wise men, the prophet, the prophetess. We will embellish them with our imagination and with the imagination of tradition, though always we need to go back to the unembellished and hear the original stories afresh. Because the stories proclaim Jesus in his fullness and not just in his babyhood, we may confidently expect to meet him and his word as we allow ourselves to be met by the stories and enter into them.
There is another reason why I have written this book, beyond my enthusiasm for the down under Christmas. It is my concern that often the Christmas stories have not been allowed to speak, because they have been locked into literalism. Too often they have been divorced from the rest of the life of Jesus and treated as if they intend nothing else than a report of proceedings in the immediate pre- and post-natal period of Jesus’ life. Failure to understand the nature of birth stories in the ancient world has frequently meant that Christmas has been reduced to harmless sentimentality. It is easy to celebrate the birth of a baby. It is not so easy to encounter the full-grown person. Christianity is quite saleable at Christmas time if all it offers is a lovely story. It lends itself well, along with Santa Claus, to serve the sales pitch of the business world.
When we perceive the birth stories as a lens through which to see the whole life of Jesus, including his cross and resurrection, and ultimately to see God encountering humankind, then we may suddenly find the carved figures of the Christmas crib begin to move and to take on familiar shapes. We will perhaps see the threatened political tyrant crucifying the little people, hear the cry of peace, and find ourselves invited nonetheless to take our place by cross and cradle. In the process of exploring the birth stories of the New Testament, we shall observe what each set of stories says, the similarities and the differences. Then we shall examine Matthew and Luke in turn, to see how each has shaped the stories and why, but also to discover possible sources of the material at their disposal. Finally we shall look again at same of the main groups of symbols of the Christmas story.
The Christmas card
On the Christmas card stands Joseph, Mary seated beside him. Oxen and asses look on and overhead a bright star sheds its light on the manger where the little baby lies. Before the manger are the three wise men, kneeling, bearing their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, camels waiting off-stage, and to the side are shepherds about to return to the fields. We would need a change of scene to bring in Herod the Great. That story follows, with its slaughter of the infants. Earlier scenes might show the angel greeting Mary or Joseph meeting an angel in a dream. But on the Christmas card there would also perhaps be angels singing glory to God in the highest, not to speak of a Christmas tree, bells and bright decorations and perhaps Santa with his sleigh.
It is a familiar scene reproduced in endless variations in Christmas cribs, school pageants, shop decorations, sand trays and picture books. Carols rehearse the sequence in their stanzas and little children old and young warm to its simple story. There is something beautiful in what lies before us. It is a composite picture made up of elements of Matthew and Luke and legends of later times. To unpick its seams and lay out each part, returning it to its original setting, seems almost irreverent. Yet as long as we see only the composite picture we can easily miss what Matthew and Luke in turn wanted to say. And when we hear the stories again in their original settings, then perhaps their contribution to the whole will be all the stronger for us.
Christmas in Matthew and Christmas in Luke
Which elements belong to which Gospel? Beyond certain fundamental similarities, Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts are quite different. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy which is very different from Luke’s. Matthew has the announcement of Jesus’ birth and of his name given to Joseph. Luke has it given to Mary. Matthew tells of the star and the wise men coming to Herod. Luke does not have these stories and reports nothing of the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the infants and the return from Egypt. Matthew, on the other hand, does not have the story of the shepherds, the census, the presentation of Jesus in the temple, Simeon, Anna, the Magnificat, the Benedictus or any of the birth stories of John the Baptist. In addition Matthew dates the birth of Jesus to the last years of Herod the Great who died in 4 B.C.E., whereas Luke places the birth of Jesus at the time of a census known to have taken place in 6 C.E. Matthew knows nothing of a census motivating the presence of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem and explains the return to Nazareth quite differently.
The dissimilarities include irreconcilable elements, so that our composite pictures inevitably have to gloss over details in one or other Gospel. The dissimilarities are a major hurdle for those who see the birth stories primarily as historical reports. If their intention is to give a ‘ball by ball description’ of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, then interpreters must work very hard to bridge the gap with imaginative hypotheses. Some have worked hard, but most answers are little more than the solutions of embarrassment. When, however, we realise that birth stories were written for very different reasons, which included, but went far beyond mere historical concerns, then we can not only understand the variations in the stories; we can also find ourselves at an exciting new point of discovery of their meaning as the Word of God to us.
Christmas outside Matthew and Luke
There are other indications that the birth stories are not purporting to be primarily historical reports. One is that outside Matthew and Luke we have no evidence that they were known and certainly they are not given such a central place in the teaching of the early Christian communities as to be mentioned by other writers. Mark has no birth stories. Nor does John, though there are some indications that John knew of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and of his Davidic lineage (7:41f; 7:52). Even within the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and in Acts no further reference is made to the birth stories. On the surface they read as the conclusive proof of who Jesus was, that could be referred back to again and again. But this is not the way they are treated, even by Matthew and Luke who include them. They are clearly not seen by them to operate in this way, but serve another purpose. Had they been understood as basically historical reports, then we should expect them to have played a crucial role in the propagation of the faith.
A further indicator that we should not treat them in a literal fashion is indicated by the picture the earliest Gospel, Mark, gives us of Mary and Jesus’ family. It portrays them as fearing he was mad and seeking to call him back home (3:21, 31-35). On a literal interpretation of the birth stories, either Mary and her family had seriously lapsed and forgotten the clear implications of the events of his birth or Mark is mistaken. Neither is the case, for a literal interpretation misreads the stories. It misunderstands the scope and intention of birth stories in the ancient world. According to Matthew and Luke, Jesus became Son of God by God’s miraculous intervention bringing about the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of Mary through the Spirit. According to John’s Gospel Jesus was already Son of God and existing in heaven before becoming flesh. He knows no story of a virginal conception. On the other hand, Matthew and Luke do not have the belief that Jesus existed beforehand as Son of God.
The Christmas focus
All of these factors suggest that we should tread warily in evaluating the historical content of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke and see them primarily as fitting the mould of birth stories of famous people in the ancient world. If we read them with this focus, many of the historical issues become irrelevant and the great power of the symbolism is allowed its fullness. This is not to say that the stories are without any historical foundation. Despite their diversity, Matthew and Luke do have some traditions in common. These include the link between the birth of Jesus and the reign of Herod the Great; the Davidic descent of Joseph; the miraculous prediction of Jesus’ conception in the womb of the virgin Mary promised to him in marriage; the instruction concerning his naming and his identification as Saviour; Bethlehem as the birth place and Nazareth as the place where he was brought up.
Most of the features held in common in both Gospels are found in the few verses in Matthew 1:18-25. There is no indication that Matthew and Luke draw upon a common written source here, so that both in various ways use different versions of Jesus’ birth which have common features. This does not necessarily mean that common features must be historical. Material peculiar to Matthew or Luke may also contain historical sources. The relative historical merit of each tradition must be weighed for its own sake. What matters most is to read the stories as we have them before us and to get in touch with their power and message as they stand. To this end we turn first to Matthew.