St. Luke's Majestic Infancy Narrative
I missed posting yesterday as my Christmas shopping took a bit longer than I expected, and we attended the Vigil Mass in the late afternoon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The Gospel of last night’s (and today’s) Masses is the famous scene from Luke’s Gospel we call the Visitation, recalled frequently during the year as the second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary. Come to think of it, all of the Joyful Mysteries are drawn from Luke; little wonder that throughout history the rosary has often been referred to as “the poor man’s Bible.”
On Friday I raised the discussion of the two different Christmas narratives in the Gospels, and outlined Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth as the New Moses. Liturgically speaking, however, it is Luke’s Gospel narrative that will carry most of the Church’s public observances up to the Eve of the Epiphany, an event reported only by Matthew. Our blog’s primary biblical source this year for Luke’s Gospel, Joel B. Green’s commentary, describes at some length Luke’s intentions as he creates a birth narrative that is distinct from Matthew’s on many points. Green observes that Luke wished to establish a literary and theological continuity between the Hebrew Scripture narrative of God’s saving deeds. Matthew chooses to do this in a somewhat businesslike fashion, opening his Gospel with the Genealogy of Jesus (1:1-17).
Luke’s Gospel does include a genealogy, but not in the Christmas narrative. It is located at the conclusion of Chapter 3 (3:23-38) and after the baptism of the adult Jesus as he begins his public ministry. There is another difference in the transmission of the family line, so to speak. Matthew begins the line with Abraham, but Luke begins with Adam. In the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours of December 17 I was surprised to see that the fifth century giant St. Leo the Great commented on this difference: “Matthew’s Gospel begins by setting out the genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham, and then traces his human descent by bringing his ancestral line down to his mother’s husband, Joseph. On the other hand, Luke traces his parentage backward step by step to the actual father of mankind, to show that both the first and the last Adam share the same nature.” Jesus, the savior of Israel is indeed the savior of the human race.
Luke’s Christmas narrative is actually a lived genealogy, for truth be told, it begins in the Old Testament era with a high priest performing his sacred duty in the temple, a priest who would father the last of the great prophetic figures, his son John. In step with the events of the nativity of John will be the events of the nativity of Jesus. The key difference in the births in Luke’s narrative is the conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. While Jesus himself would say years later that of men born of women there was none greater than John, Jesus himself is the sole divinely conceived human. Luke is the evangelist of the Holy Spirit in the way he personifies the Hebrew experience of the Spirit of God into the living Jesus of Nazareth. Luke has written a parallel narrative of John and Jesus which allows the reader to grasp how, even as a human, Jesus is the living breath of God.
I should add here that in Luke’s second volume, The Acts of the Apostles, his work opens with another overpowering of the Holy Spirit, this time upon the Twelve in the upper room in the event we know as Pentecost. This is Luke’s way of maintaining Jesus’ continuity and the Spirit’s work in the community he left behind, namely the Church.
The Lukan Christmas narrative itself is very compelling. Zachary, husband of Elizabeth, experiences his once-in-a-lifetime moment to enter the holy of holies in the temple. In that moment, he encounters the angel Gabriel, who announces to him that he and his wife, childless and along in years, will conceive a son who will be “great in the eyes of the Lord.” Gabriel is displeased with Zachary’s doubts about fathering a child at this point in his life, and the priest is struck dumb. Luke is careful to note that their child is conceived in the normal fashion, angelic announcement notwithstanding.
Six months later the same angel Gabriel appears to Mary in the scene we know quite well, the Annunciation. Interestingly, Mary’s question to Gabriel sounds a lot like Zachary’s (i.e., how will this happen?) but her question gives Gabriel the opportunity to establish without any doubt the divine paternity—and thus establishes Jesus’ conception as unique from John’s.
In the scene from today’s Gospel, Mary rushes to see her cousin Elizabeth. When they encounter each other, Elizabeth reports that the child she is carrying leaped in her womb. This event was predicted in 1:15 when Gabriel had told Zachary that his son “will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb.” Elizabeth has quite a bit to say here, something of a theological interpreter of what is happening to both of them. (There is a touch of the Shakespearean in this visitation scene.) Mary’s response to her cousin is the majestic “Magnificat,” an embodiment of thanks and hope in the promises of God.
In the established time line Zechariah’s son is born first, to great family and neighborly fanfare. Having been struck dumb, Zechariah cannot easily explain either the vision of Gabriel or the child’s preordained name, which leads to the dramatic scene on circumcision day where he takes a tablet and writes solemnly, “His name is John,” confirming what his wife had been declaring to no avail. Zechariah’s tongue is loosened and he is permitted to speak, and does he ever, proclaiming what has come down to us as “Zechariah’s Canticle,” the hymn prayed at the Church’s morning prayer every day. Luke then dismisses John from the narrative, reporting that he lived in the desert until his adult public appearance years later.
Three months later Joseph and Mary journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Obviously they would not have done this on their own, but living in an occupied country, they are ordered to do so, probably for tax purposes. Luke, of course, wants to emphasize the city of Bethlehem because of Micah’s prophesy (the one that had rattled King Herod in Matthew’s account) and its connection to the Davidic line. It is here in Bethlehem that Mary gives birth to her son in the forlorn setting of a barn. Luke explains simply that there was no room in the travelers’ lodge, though the symbolism of Jesus’ birth in humble circumstances is certainly consistent with Jesus’ later ministry to the poor in this Gospel. (If Joseph was indeed a carpenter—a homebuilder in today’s lingo—and he was summoned for a tax reporting, he was not a poor man by any stretch.)
Unlike John’s birth among family and neighbors, Jesus and his parents are alone, which gives Luke the opportunity to create the narration of the angel to the shepherds. There is a parallel here to Elizabeth, who served as a useful guide to explaining events. The angel (possibly Gabriel?) explains the nature of Jesus as Savior to awestruck shepherds in the vicinity. In truth, the angel does not command them to go—but they do so of their own volition, and upon their visit, “they understood what had been told them concerning this child.”
In contrast to John’s circumcision narrative, Luke devotes all of one line to Jesus’ circumcision, commenting only that the name had been provided by the angel before his conception.
In keeping with his desire to maintain continuity with the Hebrew Scriptures, Luke includes two visits to the temple in Jerusalem. The first, in Jesus’ infancy, is made in accordance with Jewish law that “every first-born male shall be consecrated to the Lord.” It is during this visit that two Jews of impeccable faith and observance, Simeon and Anna, true people of the temple, thank God for the birth of the child and proclaim his great future. The second visit recorded by Luke takes place when Jesus is twelve, and his parents travel to Jerusalem for Passover. This is the episode where Jesus disappears for three days and is discovered listening to the temple teachers and asking questions perhaps precociously for his age, as he drew admiration for his intelligence and answers. His parents, according to the text, were less pleased, and Mary is not surprisingly vocal about his unexplained three-day absence from the travelers’ entourage.
Luke closes the infancy narratives in a satisfying way. Jesus explains to his parents that the temple and its religion would be the focus of his future, but he returned to Nazareth with his parents “and was obedient to them. Luke concludes that Jesus progressed steadily “in wisdom and age and grace.” Centuries later, when Thomas Jefferson produced a bowdlerized New Testament which denied the divinity of Christ, he edited Luke’s text to read that Jesus progressed “In wisdom and age.”
I will be away tomorrow (Monday) but will post again on Tuesday.
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