I am a day late in observing that yesterday, December 17, was a pivotal day in the Advent observance. The calendar date December 17 marks a change in the Church’s liturgy, particularly in the Lectionary of Readings. Prior to December 17 the Gospel readings are generally oriented toward the ultimate coming of the Christ in an awesome yet glorious future. December 17 marks the switch in the Gospel narratives to the historical coming of Jesus, the events leading to his first coming in Bethlehem. Those who regularly pray Vespers in the Liturgy of the Hours also recognize December 17 as the first day of the famous “O Antiphons,” the ancient acclamations of prayerful expectation. The USCCB has the text and excellent summary of the antiphons here.
This may be a good moment to consider the sources of the event we call Christmas. Every year here in Central Florida our Disney neighbors down the expressway stage a magnificent Christmas pageant at EPCOT, with a famous actor or celebrity reading the text. I had the experience of attending once when Gary Sinese was the narrator, and his script was, I believe, the essential story that most Catholics carry in their heads and hearts—a mixing of two distinct story lines, actually, one from St. Matthew and the other from St. Luke. Take a look now at your own home crèche: do you have the Lukan shepherds standing shoulder to shoulder with Matthean Magi? (Many countries, by the way, do not place the three kings into the scenario until the Feast of the Epiphany.)
Matthew and Luke are the only two Gospels with distinct infancy narratives. Mark has none; John begins his Gospel with the literary theological masterpiece of “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” and then proceeds to the narrative of the adult Jesus and John the Baptist. The Lectionary for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day selects texts liberally from Matthew and Luke, and does include the option to read the opening of John’s Gospel as well. The Lectionary has a preference for each Mass (the Vigil, Midnight, Dawn, Daylight) and you might be surprised that the first choice in the Lectionary for the Vigil Mass (where most U.S. Catholics attend with children in tow) is the Genealogy of Jesus, the “begats” text. What preacher has the courage to read that? Fortunately, the texts can be interchanged and it is common practice to hear St. Luke’s revered account at just about any Christmas Mass in your home parish.
The Infancy Narratives have posed a curious problem for scripture scholars for centuries because of their variations. As modern scholarship began to better appreciate the specific themes of each Gospel writer, it became more common to adopt a position that the stories surrounding Christ’s birth might be literary creations at the service of theological ideas. This is not as far-fetched an idea as it may sound, and the Pontifical Biblical Commission has never insisted that the Christmas accounts enjoy the same level of factual certainty as the words and deeds of the adult Jesus of Nazareth.
St. Matthew’s opening chapters are a good case in point. Throughout his Gospel Matthew portrays Jesus as the New Moses, come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets and establish the new and eternal Jerusalem. So Matthew’s infancy/youth sequence begins with the Genealogy originating with Abraham, the father of Israel, and concludes with Joseph. The miracle of the pregnancy of Mary is revealed to Joseph, not Mary, in the medium of an angel in a dream, and Joseph takes charge, protecting his betrothed from significant legal difficulty as well as her virginity. Matthew never describes the actual day of the birth except to say that it happened.
Meanwhile, astrologers from the East bearing precious gifts arrive in Jerusalem, to the court of King Herod, having followed a star. (This text is derived from Isaiah 60, which is read in our churches on the Feast of the Epiphany). We hear about Bethlehem for the first time (again, derived from the Hebrew book Micah) and the astrologers proceed to Bethlehem and find the young Jesus in his house. There they paid him homage and presented their gifts, rich in symbolic meaning. They, too, get word from a dream, to avoid Herod and return home via another route.
The paranoid Herod is now moved to take action. An angel warns Joseph in a dream to take the child and his mother to Egypt, out of Herod’s jurisdiction, where the child will find deliverance. It might be occurring to you here that we have an interesting parallel between Herod and a certain Egyptian pharaoh twelve centuries earlier, and the fact that two babies, Moses and Jesus, find deliverance in Egypt. This is no accident from Matthew’s pen. Joseph keeps his family in Egypt till Herod dies. Then he receives yet another dream advising him to return to Israel, though Joseph proceeds with an abundance of caution and relocates to Nazareth, not Bethlehem, and thus Matthew can connect this birthing narrative to the city where we find Jesus some three decades later.
I have not overlooked Matthew’s account of Herod’s murderous rampage in the region of Bethlehem, a systematic killing of boys two years of age and under, with the obvious purpose of eliminating a suspected contender for his throne. Although these children were Jewish, they are celebrated as Christian martyrs in the Catholic Calendar, appropriately enough on December 28, three days after Christmas. Regrettably, Matthew is our only source for these killings. There is no secular verification, a significant omission given that the contemporary historian Josephus catalogued the Herodian abuses in great abundance.
I have gone to some detail here to bring to bear what we learned in the Gospel of St. Mark, that the unity of the Gospel narratives provides us with a powerful richness, each in its own right. Christmas is one of those occasions where the temptation to “cherry pick” segments from multiple narratives is strong, and given popular piety, probably unavoidable to some degree. In the next few days we will look at an overview of Luke’s narrative and then determine what we take away from each evangelist in our spiritual celebration of “the Word made flesh.”
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By the way, Chandra Wilson of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame is telling the Christmas Story tonight at EPCOT. Free with a $100 park admission, a $20 parking stub, and a metal detection screening.
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