Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Notes on Nativity stories in the four Gospels

One of world's foremost sopranos sings one of the most beautiful songs ever written

All four Gospels mention the mother of Jesus, Mar but only two of them - Matthew and Luke - tell about events related the birth of Jesus.

Evangelist Mark begins from the moment when already adult Jesus of Nazareth comes to John the Baptist. Mark has been called :passion of Christ with introduction". It contains no materials about the birth or childhood of Jesus.

The Gospel according to John has a magnificent opening which is deeply theological. After these famous Logos paragraphs the narrative focuses on Jesus and John the Baptist. There is no material about the birth or childhood of Jesus.

Matthew has a number of short but powerful texts that reverberate throughout the Christendom every Christmas.

Matthew focuses first on Joseph, the husband of Mary. Rather surprisingly from  a literary point of view, the Gospel opens with his genealogy from patriarch Abraham to Jacob Ben Matthan, the father of Joseph.

Next Matthew tells about the difficulty Joseph had with Mary who became pregnant while they were only engaged ("plegded to marriage"). The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told what was going on. The angel commanded Joseph to take Mary as his wife. The point of view in the Gospel is decidedly on Joseph. We get the impression that Matthew expects the reader to know about the events from Mary's side and complements the picture in this way.

There is no mention of Nazareth in the story about Joseph and the unexpected pregnancy of Mary. Matthew tells that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea during the time of king Herod (Herod the Great  74/73 – 4 BC).

After the birth of Jesus Magi came from eastern lands (eks anatole) to worship him. This focuses on the wise men and king Herod, who had evil plans in his mind. Joseph is not mentioned, they saw the child and his mother Mary. Because the lavish presents included three things, gold, myrrh and frankincense, church traditions have it that the visitors were three kings.

Joseph sees the angel of Lord another time at night and is told to escape from Bethlehem. The holy family travels to Egypt being safe from king Herod's wrath when all two year old and younger boys are murdered in that city. They returns after Herod's death but since the new king is Herod's son Archelaus (23 BC – c. 18 AD) they move to live in Nazareth.

After these narratives about the birth of Jesus the Gospel of Matthew focuses on Jesus and John the Baptist.

Luke concentrates largely on Mary, mother of Jesus.

The narratives about the birth of Jesus begin in the Judeaan hills near Jerusalem where Zechariah and Elizabeth were living. While serving in the temple Zechariah is told that he will get a son and must name him John.

Next Luke tells in detail of a very private moment in the city of Nazareth in Galilee that was witnessed only by virgin Mary herself. No other human was present. Accordingly, the only way these intimate details could have reached Luke is that Mary herself has told about it to someone.  Angel Gabriel tells her about the coming pregnancy, about the majesty of this baby boy and that she must be called Jesus.

Mary now visits Elizabeth in Judean hills (traditionally the beautiful valley village of En Karem near Jerusalem). When Elizabeth sees Mary the child in her womb kicks in happiness and the mother is filled with Holy spirit.

Next Luke gives a beautiful and theologically loaded Song of Mary that is a rare example of very early Judaeo-Christian hymns.

After John the Baptist is born Zechariah says a prophecy about him in Holy Spirit.

Luke says that Jesus was born in Bethelhem of Judea, the city of David, during the time of a census ordered by Caesar Augustus (63 BC–14 AD). Everyone had to travel to his original home place to be taxed by the authorities there. Joseph and pregnant Mary came to Bethlehem for this reason, as Joseph had royal blood in the line of king David.

The shepherds (traditionally from the green valleys of Beit Sahour east of Bethlehem at the edge of the Judean Desert) were the first visitors to greet the newborn baby. Interestingly, it has been suggested that the shepherds south of Jerusalem raised lambs for the Passover meals in Jersualem where there could be over 100.000 pilgrims during the feast. The angelic song about whichLuke tells from the shpeherd's field is heard every Christmas all over the world in countless languages.

According to Jewish tradition, Jesus is circumcised on the eight day after birth. Matthew does not mention this ancient crucially important ritual for Jewish boys. It has been suggested that Theophilus to whom Luke addresses the Gospel may have been a high society Sadducee, so this particular detail is important.

Finally, Luke tells about the sacrifice in the Temple that the Law of Moses orders to all firstborn boys. The choice of two pigeons indicates that Joseph was not particularly wealthy.

It is in human nature that we wish to create a single logical and seamless Christmas texts contained in Matthew and Luke. But this is not the correct approach.  Would Holy Spirit want to give us a single narrative without any internal contradictions and other problems He would have done so. A single Gospel would have been enough for that.

Instead, we have four different books, three of which look at the things from similar point of view (synoptics) but differ in many details and the fourth looking at events like an eagle from up in the sky seeing a much larger picture. The four complement each other but also challenge us creating a genuinely human collection of memories with the feeling of genuineness and wonder. 

The Christmas narratives in the Gospels do not call us just to memorize and repeat what is written but they challenge us study, question, doubt and believe growing in us and nourishing us as we grow up mentally and spiritually.

Freedom of expression
Yes, birth of Jesus can be told in many ways .There is great be artistic freedom to express what is felt important and no need to only repeat literally what is written.   These narratives inspire us in powerful way and they are so fresh from Christmas to Christmas.

Especially we enjoy the joy in children's eyes when they here about these wonderful and mysterious events of incarnation.

Please, father and mother, push that pagan santaclaus aside and give priority with your children to  moments by the Bible and the true Christmas story!