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Saturday, December 19, 2009

part two

As I mentioned in the last 5th page, there is no sermon for this week, as the Trinity choir is doing a very nice Christmas Cantata. In the last 5th page I recycled a piece I wrote for the Advent Alphabet letters series last year. Here is the piece that follows it:

On Christmas morning at our house we have a tradition of reading about the birth of Jesus from the Bible before we do anything else. At times it is enough to hear the story again, listen with the heart, and open our spirit to receive God’s gifts. (Then we move on to exploring our stockings, and tearing away at wrapping paper!)

I suggested that you take time to read from Matthew and Luke, and note any differences you saw between them, in their treatments of Jesus’ birth. While there are times to soak in the wonder of the biblical stories- there are also times to use our considerable intellectual gifts.

Both Gospels offer a “genealogy” for Jesus. (Matthew’s is in chapter one, Luke’s is in chapter three) These family trees are very different. One example is that Matthew says Jacob was Jesus’ grandfather, and Luke says it was Heli.

Matthew does not describe the birth of John the Baptist or the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, announcing that she will bear a child. Matthew does not describe Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, or Mary’s recitation of the Magnificat (which is almost certainly lifted straight from Hannah’s song in the Samuel story). Matthew makes no mention of the journey to Bethlehem. There is no Roman census. Jesus is not wrapped in bands of cloth or laid in a manger. There is no inn, no stable, and there are no shepherds or angels (except the angel that appears to Joseph in his dreams). In Matthew, the Magi visit Jesus in a house.

Luke’s story does not include the Magi, or the star. There is no mention of Herod ordering the death of all Hebrew boys under the age of two, and Mary and Joseph do not flee to Egypt with Jesus.

Despite the efforts of pageant directors to “harmonize” these two stories, a close look suggests they are not complimentary tales that each fill in blanks left by the other.

There are some things about which these writers are in agreement. They both say that Jesus was born near the end of the reign of King Herod. Bethlehem was his birthplace, but he grew up in Nazareth. They both present Joseph as the father of Jesus (in fact, the genealogies, though different in detail, demonstrate that as Joseph’s son, Jesus was of the line of King David.) They agree that Mary was the child’s mother, and that his name was Jesus. In both stories an angel announces that this child is destined to be a saviour. (In Luke the angel tells Mary, in Matthew, Joseph is told by an angel in his dream.)

Both gospels say that Mary and Joseph were betrothed but not married at the time of Mary’s pregnancy, and that Jesus was born after they began to live together. Both suggest that Mary was a virgin, and that Joseph was not involved in Jesus’ conception- that it was by the Holy Spirit.

What do we do with all of this? Personally, my faith in God, and my passion for following the way of Jesus are not dependent on the reliability of the stories about his birth. If we read the rest of the stories about Jesus, as we have them in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, there are many discrepancies and disagreements. As I have mentioned earlier, I don’t think they were writing history- they were telling stories to teach theology. I am drawn to the meaning of the stories, and the “rightness” of the way that Jesus taught.

Outside of the two Nativity stories, and the story of the boy Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52) having a theological discussion with the Temple priests, the Gospel stories are all about Jesus as an adult. (There are fanciful tales about the boy Jesus as a trouble-maker and wonder-worker, but they are not found in the Bible. They are found in documents written much later, that are considered of doubtful authenticity.)

Until the moment that Jesus began his public ministry, and was gathering followers, why would anyone (outside of his family and neighbours) have known about his early life? He was the child of simple, probably illiterate people, from an obscure village in an unimportant province of a small territory of the Roman Empire. Who would have been there to write down the “real story”?