The week between Christmas and New Year contains a stream of major feasts of saints that often gets overlooked in the aura of the Nativity observance. It may seem odd that the daily prayer life of the Church—the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours—is dominated for the most part by feasts which seem somewhat unconnected to the theme of Christmas. A simple explanation is that some saints enjoyed established observances before the liturgical feast of Christmas took root in the fourth century. In other cases, there is good historical proof that a saint died during the Octave or eight-day solemn observance of Christmas.
December 26: St. Stephen. According to St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles [Chapters 6 and 7], Stephen is a major figure in the first years of the post-Resurrection Church. Formally designated by the Apostles as a deacon or community servant, Stephen was an outstanding preacher whose vigorous proclamation of Jesus as Savior in the Temple before the Sanhedrin led to his being stoned to death. He is venerated as the Church’s first martyr. According to St. Luke, as Stephen lay dying, he prayed aloud, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And again, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
December 27: St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. This is the feast of the Apostle and Evangelist, and while we do not know exactly how and where he died, Christian legend has it that he miraculously escaped a martyr’s death. Third century Church writers state that he died in Ephesus, or present-day Turkey. It is certain that he was venerated with an annual feast long before the December 25 date of Christmas was established.
John is portrayed with Peter in the Acts of the Apostles as performing signs and wonders in the days immediately following Pentecost. His greatest legacy is his authorship of the Gospel of John, though the final draft may have been completed by one of his disciples. The Church has long identified John as “the beloved disciple” of this Gospel. Likewise, John’s authorship is attested to four other New Testament books, i.e., three Epistles and the Book of Revelation.
December 28: The Holy Innocents. The Church in Rome established an observance in the sixth century of the Holy Innocents. In Matthew 2 the evangelist writes that King Herod slaughtered all young boys about two years of age in Bethlehem, in a desperate effort to kill Jesus, who with his family had sought refuge in Egypt. This early Roman feast was observed in mourning and penance. Today these victims are honored as martyrs who died because of their relationship to Jesus, tenuous as it was, innocent victims of events far beyond their control.
The plight of these children is indeed disturbing [Christian Romans certainly thought so], and thus it may be of some comfort that historians have never been able to verify St. Matthew’s Gospel account. In particular, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus has no mention of this crime of Herod’s in his history of the Jewish people, written in the first century. St. Matthew’s narrative of the Innocents is theological in nature, as is his entire Christmas narrative. It should be remembered that in the Book of Exodus the Egyptian pharaoh sets out to kill the firstborn babes to depopulate the Hebrew peoples. The infant Moses was rescued from this massacre. St. Matthew’s catechetical goal, so to speak, is to depict Jesus as the New Moses. St. Matthew’s intended audience of Jewish-Christians would have caught his intentions immediately.
December 29: St. Thomas Becket [1118-1170 A.D.] St. Thomas Becket is closest to our times; he was martyred on December 29, 1170 in the Canterbury Cathedral. In many respects his life parallels the later St. Thomas More, a chancellor of England who ran afoul of his king.
Becket was nominally a cleric, specifically an archdeacon. In fact, he was the executive assistant and father figure to King Henry II, and eventually Chancellor of England, who supported his king in his encroachments on Church property and policy. He was rewarded for his efforts with appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury.
King Henry’s policies of appointing bishops came under fire from the reformist pope and later saint, Gregory VII. It seems that in his later years Thomas underwent a profound personal conversion and became an ardent protector of Church integrity and papal authority. His conversion greatly angered Henry, who famously proclaimed in the presence of several of his knights, “Who will rid me of this troublesome bishop?” Thomas was hacked to death in his church.
Becket’s death has been immortalized in the twentieth century by T.S. Eliot’s 1935 play, Murder in the Cathedral.
December 31: St. Sylvester. This fourth century saint is venerated for his long tenure as Bishop of Rome [314-335 A.D.] during the reign of the Emperor Constantine and the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. This Council, summoned by Constantine, declared the divinity of Christ against a heresy known as Arianism. The Nicene Creed, proclaimed at Mass, is a product of this Council and several that proceeded it; hence the name, “Nicene Creed.” The position of papacy was not yet developed, but Constantine invited Sylvester to attend the Council. The latter declined but sent two legates.
Legend has it that Sylvester baptized Constantine and healed him from leprosy. In turn Constantine awarded to Sylvester [and his successors as bishops of Rome] spiritual and temporal authority over most of civilized Europe in a grant called the Donation of Constantine. This document was often invoked by future popes but was found to be a forgery in the fifteenth century.
I recommend a reading of Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 2, as an introduction to today's post.
All four of the Gospels describe the adult Jesus as beginning his public ministry as a “Nazorean,” so it is safe to assume that the oral strand of belief received by Matthew in the 80’s A.D. included a common agreement that Jesus was a Galilean from the town of Nazareth. One can easily recall the Passion accounts where a crowd gathered in the courtyard and quickly identified Peter as a disciple of Jesus. Mark 14: 70 captures the scene well, as onlookers comment that “even your speech betrays you.” Nazoreans, in the region of Galilee, were removed from the more “metropolitan” Jerusalem by distance [about 100 miles], dialect, and sophistication. And while I have the Atlas open on my desk, Nazareth is also about 100 miles from Bethlehem.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that Matthew has gone against the grain by depicting the home and residence of Jesus in Bethlehem at the time of his birth, and for about two years after that by his internal reckoning [Matthew 2:1]. By departing from common belief, Matthew has set the stage for the next scene in his introduction of Jesus as the New Moses. For Chapter 2 of his Gospel introduces new players and new information—this new “King of the Jews” would in fact be worshipped as a universal savior by Jew and pagan alike, while at the same become the object of rejection, persecution, and death. The future Gentiles who would be saved by Jesus’ cross are embodied in the beloved Christmas characters, the Three Kings.
The Gospel does not tell us that they were kings, nor even that there were three of them. It does tell us that there were three presents. The Paulist Biblical Commentary admits that we look back to Matthew’s text through the eyes of later devotion and storytelling. The term magi “comes from the Greek magos, meaning “people possessed of superior knowledge, experts in some field, especially—as would appear to be the case here—astronomy/astrology.” [PBC, p. 912] The most important contribution to the story of these visitors is their non-Jewish identity. They are seekers of universal truth, and the unusual appearance of a star in the direction of Israel leads them to deduce that a new king has been born there. Kings and royalty came and went in the ancient world, so the interest of these magi in the destiny of Israel is rather remarkable.
Matthew has created this account to demonstrate how all the nations of the world will come streaming to the New Jerusalem at the end time to worship the Lord. The Matthean text is inspired by the apocalyptic Isaiah 60, which happens to be the first reading of the Feast of the Epiphany in the Roman Catholic calendar. Matthew, in view of his Jewish-Christian audience, expands the definition of a “coming messiah” far beyond the restoration of a throne or a national revival; the New Jerusalem, of whom Jesus is its divine fulfillment, will bring God’s deliverance to all persons seeking truth and the way. There is no need to alter your home Christmas Nativity creche so long as we remember that the kings or wisemen were Gentile kings and wise men, or magi. The relationship of the future Jesus mission and the Gentiles is key to the text.
If Matthew is unclear about how many magi actually stopped in Jerusalem on their quest, he is emphatic in his narrative of the danger they have stepped into, personified in King Herod the Great [73 B.C.-4 A.D.] Herod’s entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica makes for interesting reading. He had been a “player” in the famous Octavian-Marc Antony-Cleopatra drama and though he bet on Antony, the victor Octavian established Herod as king of all Judea and supported him until Herod’s final years, when paranoia and probable atherosclerosis created a dangerous and murderous tyrant. The Roman Emperor Augustus himself observed that “It’s better to be Herod’s pig, than his son.” In Matthew’s account, the magi approached the Jerusalem court at about the worst possible time to inquire where this newborn king could be found.
The presence of the magi led the court and the temple to search what Scripture had predicted about the birthplace of the messiah, understood to be a Davidic future king. Matthew quotes the prophet Micah [Micah 5:2], though the PBC notes that Micah 5:6-7 is more likely a prediction of a new David, all the worse from Herod’s neurotic state of mind. Mindful of David’s own ruthlessness, Herod was determined not to become the new Saul, and he sends the magi on their way to Bethlehem, primarily to identify the child. Herod expresses enthusiasm in venerating the new young king, but his intent is to kill him.
The magi follow the star “to the place where the child was.” i.e., at his home in Bethlehem. A key phrase in this narrative is the visitors’ prostrating themselves and doing homage.” [Matthew 2:11] It cannot be emphasized enough that these sincere seekers have come from Gentile lands, not to satisfy their curiosity but to adore God’s presence on earth. It is unlikely that these visitors understood Catholic incarnational or trinitarian theology, but their gifts give a splendid insight into what they did believe. Their gifts of gold and frankincense are inspired by Psalm 72:10 and Isaiah 60:6. Matthew’s inclusion of myrrh, an embalming ointment, does not have a direct reference in the Hebrew Scripture. It is a unique and inspired inclusion by Matthew, whose entire Infancy narrative is intended as an introduction to the new understanding of the messiah as “the suffering servant” whose body will need myrrh after the crucifixion.
The magi were indeed wise men, for they returned to their country “by another way,” under the guidance of an angel, traveling nowhere near the Jerusalem court. Similarly, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and advised him of the dangers posed by Herod. The angel advised Joseph to take his family into Egypt [the journey from Bethlehem to Alexandria, Egypt is about 200 miles.] The “flight into Egypt” is a well-known staple of Catholic catechetics, but the parallel between Jesus and Moses has come into greater appreciation in modern times. The narrative is arranged to highlight the dual flights of Moses and Jesus from an Egyptian pharaoh and a Jewish king respectively, both children finding refuge in Egypt in divinely influenced fashion. A review of Exodus [1, 2] is helpful here.
The Exodus narrative describes a frustrated pharaoh who is witnessing a dramatic demographic shift in which a healthy Hebrew fertility is threatening to override the native Egyptian population. After several measures to refract this population trend have failed, pharaoh is reduced to desperate genocide, ordering the execution of all young Hebrew boys on sight. King Herod is focused on the birth of just one young boy; the other youngsters of Bethlehem are collateral damage, and the Church has remembered them as victims of Herod’s search for Jesus in the December 28 Feast of the Holy Innocents, the first martyrs associated with the New Moses. Their deaths reinforce one of Matthew’s entire Infancy themes, that Jesus and his followers can expect persecution and death. Commentators also look to Jeremiah 31:15 as an indication that the loss of these children was foreseen by God.
An an established Christmas devotion, the story of the massacre of the Innocents nonetheless cannot be verified by historical sources. Most commentators agree that, based on records we do have regarding Herod the Great, he was certainly capable of such a thing [he murdered his own family], but the massacre cannot be independently verified. The best historian of Herod’s time, Flavius Josephus, does not record the Bethlehem tragedy in his history of the Jewish people. In the Matthean narrative, this tragedy made it impossible for Joseph’s family to return to their home and given that Herod’s son Archelaus was reigning in Judea, Joseph took them to the safety of the rural town of Nazareth. The next time we encounter Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 3, he will be an adult known as a Nazorean when he presents for baptism from John the Baptist.
Matthew 1 [for reference]
Matthew’s Infancy narrative begins with a genealogy of Jesus, “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” [Matthew 1:1] In his Coming Christ in Advent  Father Raymond Brown writes that “I have been conducting a somewhat solitary campaign to make this Matthean genealogy a major Advent topic” and in a footnote he reminds us that “It is also assigned to the afternoon Mass on December 24—a Mass that seems not to be frequently celebrated in the U.S.A.” [p. 17] Personally I can only recall this opening text of the Gospel read once at a public Mass, and I must admit I never read the full list of Jesus’ ancestors at a public Mass as a pastor. In popular church lingo, the two genealogies of Jesus [from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke] are sometimes referred to as the “begets” or the “begats,” as in “Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot the father of Achim, Achim begot Eliud,” etc.
The Paulist Biblical Commentary  explains that genealogies enforce the nature and importance of their subject; in the Matthean text Jesus is clearly defined as the offspring of David and Abraham. Identified with this heritage, Jesus will go on in this Gospel to fulfill the promises of Abraham and David. Abraham, of course, was esteemed as the father of the Jewish people; by the time of Jesus many of the twelve tribes had died out, and it is no accident that Matthew will describe Jesus’ selection of “the twelve” [disciples] as a statement that the integrity of Israel’s being has been restored. Likewise, the inclusion of David at the opening of the genealogy symbolizes that Jesus has fulfilled the expectations of a new David, though the Gospel bears witness to much confusion surrounding the way in which Jesus will define the promise of David. In Matthew’s later depiction of Holy Week, the crowds on Palm Sunday will salute Jesus with “Hosanna to the Son of David” but less than a week later will call for his death, agitated by the leadership of the Temple.
The Hebrew language assigns a numerical value to its letters, and the name “David” equates to the sum of fourteen. Matthew, to enhance the Davidic relationship to Jesus, divides the genealogy into three clusters of fourteen descendants. Given the times and sources available, stretching back over two millennia, the literal accuracy of Jesus’ heritage cannot be assumed, but Matthew does include some “family skeletons.” The PBC commentator observes that there are several women in the family line with “histories;” some sexual, as was the case of Bathsheba, and some with a strong Gentile connection. The inclusion of women and sexual misconduct in the family line may have been Matthew’s way of inoculating the reader for the very peculiar conclusion of the genealogy. Matthew 1:15 reads “Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus, who is called the Messiah.”
Last night at Mass as I professed the Creed I was struck again by the mystery and complexity of that phrase where we bow our heads and affirm: “For us men and our salvation, He came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man.” Familiarity need not breed contempt, but it can dull our minds to the literal impact of these words and how the Incarnation event was experienced by the actual persons involved. Matthew’s text gives us a window into those events. He concludes the family line [1: 16] by defining Joseph as the husband of Mary, and Mary as the mother of Jesus. But Matthew is quick to point out that there is more to this story than meets the eye, and his narrative [1;18-25] outlines this complexity in his depiction of the conception and birth of Jesus.
Matthew explains that Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but “before they lived together, she was found with child through the Holy Spirit.” [1: 18] Matthew makes it clear that Joseph is not the natural father of Mary’s child. Joseph is described as a “righteous man,” i.e., a devout observer of the Jewish Law, who is greatly distressed that his future bride is carrying a child that is not his. Matthew’s account differs significantly from Luke’s in that the Matthean account provides no indication that Mary understood her pregnancy. Joseph, faithful observer of the Law, would have been within his rights to present his apparently unfaithful future bride to Jewish authorities for censure; Deuteronomy 22: 22-23 states that the penalty for infidelity in betrothal was stoning, though by Joseph’s day the penalty was mitigated to public disgrace and banning of the unfaithful woman [and her partner].
That Joseph, given his noted fidelity to the Law, would nonetheless seek to shield his bride-to-be from public wrath is an indication of an extraordinary moral sensitivity that goes beyond the Law and would foreshadow the mercy of Jesus later in this Gospel. Continuing the narrative, a divine intervention spared both Joseph and Mary the consequences of their dilemma. Joseph is visited by an angel in a dream, who counsels him to have no fear in taking Mary as his bride and Jesus as his legal son. Joseph learns from the angel that the child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, a son who will “save the people from their sins.” Joseph then took Mary into his home in Bethlehem, with the evangelist explaining that “he had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he [Joseph] named him Jesus.”
Matthew’s Christmas narrative illustrates the central role of Joseph in the unfolding of events, given that the genealogy has progressed from Abraham and David all the way to Joseph. Matthew’s narrative intends to reinforce the role of Jesus as Israel’s savior by emphasis upon the divine and legal fathers of Jesus. Given that Matthew’s Infancy Narrative is less well known than Luke’s, it may come as a surprise to hear that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem, and that Jesus was, so to speak, born at home. How he would come to be known as “the Nazorean” is explained in Matthew 2, the next portion of the full narrative.
Matthew’s statement that Joseph had no relations with Mary until she had borne Jesus has led some to wonder if Jesus had younger brothers and sisters. The scholars I have read indicate that this is unlikely. In the first instance, Matthew’s intention is to establish that Jesus is truly the offspring of the Holy Spirit, that there is no possibility Joseph himself sired the one we worship today as “Son of God.” Second, the evidence from Scripture and secondary sources that Jesus had siblings is just about nonexistent. And finally, for Catholics, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth appears to have roots from earliest Christian days. In his classic A Marginal Jew I  Father John Meier presents third century evidence that enemies of Christianity in the third century attacked the Church by attacking Jesus’ legitimacy. The Christian writer Origen, around 250 A.D., reports hearing a tale from his enemy Celsus that Jesus fabricated the virgin birth scenario to conceal his illegitimate birth at the hands of a Roman soldier. Meier suggests that Celsus or someone created this slur by reworking the actual Gospel of Matthew, which was already widely available and read throughout the Mediterranean world. [pp. 222-229]. He adds that if enemies were attacking this doctrine so early in history, then belief in the virgin birth was already well-established in the Christian world.
Advent 3: The Magnificent Opus of St. Matthew and the Introduction of Jesus as the Fulfillment of Israel's Longing
The four Gospels are a remarkable literary accomplishment, collectively and individually. Forget for a moment that Christian cherish these works as God’s truth, shared by the Holy Spirit in the inspiration of the writers, there are few if any parallels to these narrative biographies in their literary magnificence, and their compelling beauty is indeed no small aspect of God’s revelation here. The evangelists may or may not have been familiar with the fathers of written history, Herodotus and Thucydides, the Greek originators of the modern art who, five centuries before Jesus, crafted the “doing” of history into a narration of events with interpretive meaning.
For many centuries St. Matthew’s Gospel was called “the Gospel of the Church.” Through the medieval era this title seemed logical and appropriate. At the time, the Matthean Gospel was considered the first of the four to be composed; it is the longest of the four, and there survives many a stained-glass window with the evangelist, pen in hand, listening to the whisperings of an angel. St. Matthew’s Passion account, for example, was read annually on Palm Sunday. By 1800 scholars of the bible had begun critical studies of the four Gospels and gradually came to an understanding of both inspiration and biblical dating. By the twenty-first century the prevailing wisdom holds that St. Mark composed the first Gospel, that St. Matthew composed his Gospel at least a decade, and possibly more, after St. Mark’s and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Matthean text rests upon the Markan text, an independent “Q Source,” and the evangelist’s own inspiration—an inspiration which producing a “Christmas Narrative.”
We know next to nothing about the identity of St. Matthew. For several reasons, scholars are doubtful that the Apostle Matthew—the former tax collector—is the same person who composed the Gospel under that name. We are on safer footing in drawing from the internal clues of the Gospel itself. The Matthean text indicates an author who is deeply influence by the Hebrew Scripture. The term “according to the Scriptures” appears in St. Matthew more than in any other New Testament work. [The term “Scripture” in the early Church applied exclusively to the Hebrew canon of books, the “Old Testament.”] The author depicts Jesus as doing the works of Moses, such as delivering God’s law from on high, i.e., Sermon on the Mount, and feeding the people in the wilderness, i.e., the distributive miracle of the loaves and fishes.
St. Matthew’s Gospel is believed to have originated in the city of Antioch [near modern Antakya, Turkey] at least a decade after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Relations between Christians and Jews who lived side by side were tense. Christians were wont to see the fall of Jerusalem as God’s judgment on Israel for rejecting the messiahship of Christ. Many Jews regarded Christians, particularly converts from Judaism, as traitors and blasphemers, outraged by the Christian contention that the crucified Jesus was one and the same as God [Yahweh].
Considering that Roman authorities generally tolerated the Jews for their ethic and long history while periodically persecuting Christians as subversives, it is easy to understand how Jewish Christians were tempted “to return home,” so to speak. It is in this context that the Gospel of Matthew developed, a text written to establish for all time that Jesus is the Messiah, the true son of Abraham, the new Moses, who has come to deliver the fullness of the Law and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesies. In its unfolding biography the Gospel of St. Mathew will describe a Jesus who delivers a new moral code [the Eight Beatitudes], who battles with scribes and Pharisees over their legalism, and who takes a dim view of the mediocrity of Temple worship to the point that its leaders wanted him dead and were instrumental in making that happen. Only St. Matthew records the infamous line, “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.”
Using the text of St. Mark and the Q source, St. Matthew adds his original material under the influence of divine inspiration. Like his contemporary St. Luke, St. Matthew wished to lay out his theological position before delving into the adult ministry of Jesus, and he sculpted an infancy narrative as his signal statement of both the identity of Jesus and his meaning to the world. The infancy narrative, the first two chapters of his Gospel, is inspired in both a human and divine sense. Unfortunately, it is a narrative of which most Catholics are unaware, as the Gospel of St. Luke, with its Bethlehem portrayal, is the usual Gospel of choice for the Masses of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I would point out, though, the Matthean Christmas text is the recommended one for the Christmas Eve vigil Masses, though pastors have the option to use St. Luke and even the introduction to St. John’s Gospel. I might add here that the Christmas creche display is inspired primarily by St. Luke’s account, but the displays themselves were first erected in 1223 by St. Francis of Assisi.
In the next post on this sequence, I will walk through St. Matthew’s Chapters 1 and 2 for a closer look at the faith realities expressed in each section, beginning with the genealogy of Jesus. I might recommend that you read St. Matthew’s Christmas texts as if you had never heard of St. Luke’s and were approaching this material for the first time. I recommend this particularly to catechists, preachers, and parents of young children who educate their offspring as “the first teachers of the faith.” In my previous Advent post I talked about the second century church writer Tatian, who attempted to morph together all four Gospels in his Diatessaron, an error that inhibits a fuller understanding of the divine inspiration behind each Gospel. It is an easy shortcut to fall into, and the multiple Christmas narratives are as good a place as any to teach foundation understanding of biblical reading and scholarship.
The Advent-Christmas cycle of feasts brings to us some of our most colorful and cherished Biblical narratives from both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. From the prophesies of Isaiah to the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, the biblical/liturgical texts of the Church observances are probably the ones most easily retrieved by most of us. As a past teacher of catechists, I find the Advent-Christmas texts very useful in introducing Bible studies in general, for we rarely have a season when so many distinctive traits of Scriptural literary forms bump up against images so vivid in our seasonal art, hymns, story-telling, and catechetics.
Of course, our pastoral memories of the birth of Jesus are based on a part of the whole. There is a bit of cherry picking in the way we teach or narrate the “Christmas story.” There are some inconvenient truths in both the Hebrew and Christian texts that intrude upon our nostalgia, and woe to the preacher, teacher or parent who breaks this news for the first time. The dedicated student of the Bible can be quite puzzled at Scripture’s full presentation of Christmas and all that leads up to it during Advent. As Father Raymond Brown put it in his masterful An Adult Christ at Christmas  “That is why I claim that for many people the narratives of Jesus’ birth and infancy ‘constitute “the last frontier” to be crossed in gaining an appreciation of the implications of a modern scientific [critical] approach to the New Testament.’” [p. 3]
For starters, the Infancy Narratives or Gospel Christmas stories of Christ’s birth are plural, not singular, specifically written by two different evangelists in two different settings. Surprisingly only Matthew and Luke contain material related to what we know as “Christmas.” Mark [the first evangelist] and John [the last] begin their gospels with an adult Jesus, indicating that the exact details of Christ’s birth as history were not major preoccupations with first century Christians. By contrast, the Baptism of the adult Jesus—the final feast of the Advent-Christmas cycle and the beginning of Ordinary Time, is reported across the board in all four Gospels, passing what scripture scholars call “the law of multiple attestation test,” or “the more an event is reported across the board of New Testament writing, the greater likelihood of its historical grounding.” More surprising, the two narratives of Matthew and Luke do not agree with each other on significant points in the Christmas narrative. Why is this so, and do such discrepancies discredit the Bible as a whole?
One need not worry that the Bible is not inspired by God, or that it does not constitute everything that we need to know and believe to be saved. The recently published The Paulist Biblical Commentary  includes a summary of official Church teaching on Biblical interpretation and scholarship over the past century [pp. 1615-1621]. While too much detail to produce here, the Church recognizes that while the inspiring wisdom of God is perfect, it is narrated and revealed by humans with the limitations of personality, time, and culture. Thus, biblical scholars attempt to know much about the identities and characteristics of the authors, specifically their intentions in writing what they understood, and how their communities or first hearers formed and received the preaching and/or writing. The Gospels, for example are the products of actual events in the ministry of the adult Jesus which were preserved by a believing community and then put in writing by the four evangelists, each inspired by a necessary and unique understanding of the Christ. It is not an exaggeration to say, for example, that the Holy Spirit inspired the Christian Church to accept the New Testament and verify its veracity.
Scholars have long recognized that the words attributed to St. Peter in Acts 2: 22-24 may be our closest connection to what the earliest apostolic church communities held to be a faith biography or creed about Jesus: “Jesus the Nazorean was a man commended to you by God with mighty deeds, wonders, and signs, which God worked through him in your midst, as you yourselves know. This man, delivered up by the set plan and foreknowledge of God, you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death, because it was impossible for him to be held by it.”
The 1964 Pontifical Biblical Commission, writing on the historicity of the Gospels, said this about the four evangelists: “This primitive instruction [of the Apostles] was passed on orally at first, and later written down. Indeed, it was not long before many attempted "to draw up a narrative” of the events connected with the Lord Jesus. The sacred authors [Evangelists], each using all approaches suited to his specific purpose, recorded this primitive teaching in the four Gospels for the benefit of the churches. Of the many elements at hand they reported some, summarized others, and developed still others in accordance with the needs of the various churches. They used every possible means to ensure that their readers would come to know the validity of the things they had been taught. From the material available to them the Evangelists selected those items most suited to their specific purpose and to the condition of a particular audience. And they narrated these events in the manner most suited to satisfy their purpose and their audience's condition.”
The Gospel writers thus had considerable leeway in the ways they conveyed the meaning of Jesus’ life. The 1964 Pontifical Decree, along with several others to follow in the twenty and twenty-first centuries, acknowledge that the four evangelists, working from a primitive historical oral base, have enlarged the meaning of Christ into unique narratives. One may ask why the Church does not synthesize these four Gospel narratives to smooth out notable differences. In fact, such a project was completed between 150 and 200 A.D. by one Tatian, at a time before the Church had formally defined the canon or books of the New Testament. Tatian believed that a harmonization of the four Gospels would be useful, and he blended the books together into one, known as the Diatessaron. Scholars estimate that about 25% of the Gospel material was eliminated from surviving copies.
Tatian’s work is today considered counterproductive to the Church because it assumes two critical factors that modern scholarship rejects:  that the Gospels were intended to be read as raw history, not theological history, and  that narrative differences and disagreements were problems, not clues. Today there is general agreement that the Gospels are faith statements generated from preaching and belief of a Jesus whose detailed history is unavailable to us. The “differences” among the four evangelists enable us to understand the unique theological vision of each inspired writer on the meaning of the Christ. The Christmas narratives illustrate in a striking fashion. The “Christmas stories” were not part of the earliest apostolic preaching, for the simple reason that no apostle—or anyone else, for that matter—witnessed the event. From a purely historical point of view, the few details outlined in the Christmas texts of Matthew and Luke cannot be verified, either. King Herod’s “Slaughter of the Holy Innocents” is nowhere recorded in secular history, not even by a reliable historian of the time, Josephus, who does record a brief sketch of the adult Jesus and his crucifixion.
Rather, the Christmas narratives of Matthew and Luke are twin theological statements. Matthew describes Jesus’ birth as the fulfillment of Jewish destiny and Jesus himself as the new Moses. Luke’s Christmas narrative emphasizes the Holy Spirit as the life of the Church and Jesus as savior of the world. These writers’ theological emphases account for two depictions of Jesus’ origins in a way that would help the Church shape its identity. We will look at those different Christologies in the next post.
We are now into that seven week observance of the mystery of the Incarnation, God becoming man: the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany-Baptism of the Lord pageant of feasts, fasts, and observances with the potential to awaken any soul with Christian leanings. I am a little late getting off the block with an introductory post, as I continue to care for my wife, who is recovering nicely from surgery after a biking accident in late October. With a new rod placed in her upper arm, she has been something of a “one-armed bandit”, but her spirits are good. We spent the Thanksgiving weekend decorating our home for Christmas and we are one trip to The Dollar Store away from getting the job finished [The last string of Christmas tree lights did not survive the year! What else?]
So, what is Advent and what are we supposed to do with it? Advent, from the Latin for “coming” or “arrival,” is a period of fasting and prayer in preparation for the First and Second Comings of Christ, the events that we sum up in our creeds and catechisms as the “Incarnation,” from the Latin caro, flesh. As the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. decreed, drawing from such Gospel sources as John 1:14, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The reality of the Incarnation sets humanity in a new and exalted state, capable of hearing divine revelation, morally acting in imitation of God-on-earth and destined for an eternal reward. The doctrine of the Incarnation was further clarified in the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which defined Jesus Christ as equally God and man in one functional being, which is about as far as the unaided human mind can carry a definition of divine manhood. As the doctrine developed, so did the liturgy which celebrated it.
Historically speaking, a feast of the Incarnation was established early in Church life, but there was no knowledge of the precise date and circumstances of Jesus’ birth. The Feast of Christmas was established probably in the 330’s A.D., the date falling on or near the winter solstice. The two Gospels that lay out a birth scenario for Jesus do not attempt to date the event; they were more concerned with the implications of Jesus’ birth as we will see in future posts this month. Moreover, the early Christians did not celebrate birthdays of saints, particularly martyrs. Rather, feasts of saints, and even Jesus, were observed on the day of their deaths, most often martyrdom. Why the Feast of Christmas was eventually established on December 25 may be explained by the fact that many cultures and religions celebrated a major feast around the winter solstice or shortly thereafter, a kind of “victory of the sun” celebration as the days become longer after December 21. Christians may have set the date of Christmas as a countercultural sign. A historical tidbit: when the date of December 25 was ultimately chosen, the day was already occupied by another feast, the martyrdom of the virgin Anastasia, whose biography of charity and courage was a major source of inspiration in the early Church. St. Anastasia is one of seven women martyrs remembered in today’s Eucharistic Prayer I in the Mass missal, and she is still remembered in the dawn Mass of Christmas Day.
As Christmas Day took on greater importance in the development of Church worship, the practice of a solemn preparation began, first in the monasteries of both the Western and Eastern branches of Christianity. In the Roman West, the Council of Tours in 587 A.D. instructed monks to fast every day in December until Christmas, and gradually a liturgical season of penance developed in preparation for the Christmas feast throughout the entire Church. Vatican II reforms emphasized the difference between the Advent spirit of watchfulness and fasting for Christ’s twofold comings and Lent’s 40-day penitential fast in preparation for the Easter Triduum. Some churches use blue vestments instead of violet/purple, a minor violation of Church law.
Advent is somewhat shorter than Lent. The First Sunday of Advent is always dated as the fourth Sunday before Christmas, putting it near November 30 every year and, here in the United States, on Thanksgiving weekend. To the naked eye, the change in color from the green of Ordinary Time to the violet of penance is evident, as is an Advent wreath—the four candle symbol of the Advent observance usually lit and blessed in church. Many families create or purchase Advent wreaths for their homes; most parishes provide accompanying resources for prayer at the daily lighting in homes.
In the twenty-some days of the Advent season, the Church focuses upon the coming of the person of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Hebrew Scripture promises and the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time. It can be a bit confusing that the First Sunday of Advent places emphasis upon the second coming and not the first; in fact, the weekday Gospels of Advent through December 16 feature the futuristic preaching of the adult Jesus, a mood of caution to prepare for future judgment while at the same time looking forward to an ultimate deliverance and eternal life. From December 17 the weekday and Sunday Gospels draw from the two narratives leading up to the birth of Jesus, from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke exclusively.
In the next several posts we will look at the Advent-Christmas cycle more closely. For example, what can history tell us about the expectations of a savior and the content of the two Christmas narratives of Matthew and Luke? How do scripture scholars go about their work in unpacking the nature of Christ [Christology] from the Biblical texts? Who is John the Baptist, and what is his relation to Jesus? Similarly, how is Mary portrayed in the Advent-Christmas cycle of feasts? It is difficult, I know, to focus our meditation on such things in the hyperactive civil observances around us, but perhaps the Christians faced the same issues in the pagan atmosphere of fourth century Rome…and made December 25 their rebuttal with things real.