Spotlight on Sophie
On an evening in early September, I called my 6-year-old niece Sophia and asked her to tell me a story. Specifically, I asked her to tell me the story of Baby Jesus.
After a moment’s pause to gather her thoughts—which, given that school had just started, leaves were still green and attached to trees, and she probably hadn’t thought much about this particular story for the past nine months, is only fair—she began:
“Mary is the mom. Joseph is the dad. Jesus was the baby and he loves us.”
“Mary is the mom. Joseph is the dad. Jesus was the baby and he loves us. And there is an angel on the top (of her nativity set) that sings, ‘We love you LORD Jesus and ask you to stay close by us forever and love us we pray. Bless all the dear children in your tender care and bring them to heaven to live with you there.’”
Already at age 6, Sophia knows the story of Baby Jesus, or at least the main characters. Already at 6, Sophia can tell this story as her own. She knows that Jesus loves her. (Her mother assures me that, at the height of the Christmas season, she knows that Jesus is God too.) She knows that Jesus wants to bless the children and that being close to Jesus is a good and special thing.
In a child’s retelling, the absences and insertions may be more noticeable, but if we’re honest, each of us approaches this story as we do every other story: in a way that includes and excludes according to our abilities, preferences, and intentions.
The Gospel writers are no different in this regard. Mark, in writing the earliest account of events, is anxious to get to the heart of the matter and skips over the birth narratives altogether. John, who wrote significantly later, was more interested in providing perspective and interpretation than factual narrative. It is mostly, then, to Matthew and Luke that we turn for our understanding of Jesus’ birth story.
Most church pageants rely on narrative slices from each gospel to make up the whole Christmas pie. The effect is familiar, comprehensive, and certainly, not wrong. But something gets lost in this translation.
What would we hear with fresh clarity if we allow Luke the whole pageant spotlight for a moment, then afford Matthew the same opportunity?
We don’t often hear Matthew tell the story as his own. We don’t often honor Luke by letting him tell the story in his unique way. I wonder what we would hear with fresh clarity if we allow Luke the whole pageant spotlight for a moment and then afford Matthew the same opportunity?
Spotlight on Luke
Dr. Luke begins his account with his credentials, having “carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account.”
First, the angel appears to Zechariah, and Elizabeth conceives a child. Then the same angel (who is named in both accounts) announces to Mary that she is to bear the Christ-child. Mary and Elizabeth come together to share their pregnancy stories. Mary sings and John the Baptist is born. Zechariah sings and Jesus is born.
It is because of Luke that we know Jesus was born in the days of Caesar Augustus, that Joseph and Mary traveled to the little town of Bethlehem to be counted in the census, and that the baby was tucked away in a manger. According to Luke, shepherds watched their flocks by night and angels were heard on high.
Finally, in Luke’s account, the baby is presented at the Temple to fulfill the visions of faithful Simeon and Anna and so that Joseph and Mary do “everything required by the Law of the Lord” before retiring to Nazareth, where Jesus “grew and became strong,” being “filled with wisdom and the grace of God.” Careful and orderly indeed, Dr. Luke!
Why this voice? Beyond the desire to make a careful and orderly report, Luke also has a particular story to tell. Luke always writes with an eye toward the outer edges of the crowd. He writes for Gentile hearers, those people who wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the Temple.
Luke cares deeply and passionately about the marginalized, the excluded, the “less-thans” of society—the people who wonder whether this magnificent and grand story could really be for them. For their sake, Luke makes several specific, interpretive choices:
- Angels feature prominently in Luke’s account. These messengers of heaven come to earth demonstrate the coming nearness of God-with-us.
- The experience of women is emphasized in Luke’s account. For all we know from Matthew, Mary sneezed violently and out popped Baby Jesus, perfectly pink and swaddled in purple robes in anticipation of the Magi’s visit. Luke the doctor knew that a woman’s labor requires mention in order to emphasize again the nearness, the flesh-and-blood reality of God-with-us.
- Luke draws in the shepherds’ story—ordinary, unspectacular people encountering the extraordinary hosts of heaven. Ordinary, unsuspecting people encountering the newborn Savior, Messiah, and LORD. Ordinary, unsuspecting people who continue encountering the world with a new story.
- Luke wrote after the church, The Way of the Christ-followers, had formally split from Judaism. His inclusion of the temple tableau reminds us that there was and always must be a continuity between the forward-looking faithfulness of Anna and Simeon and faithfulness in the shadow of the manger, the cross, and the empty tomb.
Luke 19:10 is widely credited as Luke’s thesis statement: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”Here, as throughout Luke’s story-telling, the inclusion of the outsider and the outcast draws the marginalized toward the center of the gospel.
The story of the Son of Man born of a woman’s labor pains, heralded by angels, and praised by ordinary shepherds is told by Luke. The spotlight shines on the awesome presence, immanence, and “with-us” nature of God in Jesus Christ.
Luke withholds his final argument for Jesus’ baptism account. After the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and a voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my Son,” Luke includes a genealogy that traces Jesus’ Sonship: “the son of Seth, the Son of Adam, the Son of God.”
Luke wants to make sure we know that this Baby Jesus is one of us. This Baby Jesus is for us. This Baby Jesus is God with us.
Spotlight on Matthew
Matthew begins where Luke trails off—with the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Included within we find Matthew’s thesis statement, that is the story of “Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Hold him to it—every detail included or excluded from this point on speaks to verifying this claim.
The genealogical claims follow Joseph’s family back to King David and Father Abraham. Immediately following, the birth narrative of Jesus begins, primarily focused on Joseph’s decision making in the shadow of Mary’s improbable pregnancy.
An unnamed angel appears and tells Joseph what he ought to do. He links Joseph’s experience with Old Testament prophecy of the future Messiah’s virgin birth. Next thing we know, the Kings of Orient are bearing gifts and traveling far. They enter Herod’s kingdom and ask his permission to search for “the one who has been born King of the Jews.”
Having seen and worshiped Jesus, the Magi return home, Joseph and Mary flee in exile, and King Herod lets the blood of the innocents flow in Bethlehem’s streets.
Why this voice? Matthew has a claim to defend—that this child is, in fact, the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. This is Matthew’s particular story to tell. While Luke looks toward the outskirts of the crowd, Matthew is concerned that those closest to the story not miss it.
Matthew writes for a Jewish audience, a well-trained and educated one. An audience whose expectation of this Messiah has been built up generation upon generation and who needs irrefutable, incontrovertible proof that this story, this man, this salvation is what they had been waiting for their whole lives.
So for this audience Matthew chooses to include the following:
- Rather than trace his lineage all the way to Adam, Matthew is content to let Jesus’ heritage rest with David and Abraham. Powerful King David and Covenant Father Abraham are the necessary predecessors of this child who is the long-expected Messiah, the one who reigns as King and fulfills God’s covenant promises to God’s people.
- The prominence of the Magi in Matthew’s telling is intentional—highlighting again the royal power and authority imbued in this small child. Indeed, the Kings of the East owe a state visit to this newborn “King of the Jews.” The gold, frankincense, and myrrh highlight the honor and reverence such a king requires.
- And then there is Herod. We don’t hear about Herod much. His part in this story is disturbing. Far better the cherubic Jesus of mangers than this cruel tyrant on the throne. But Herod knows and acts on a truth many of us are inclined to gloss over in this season of merry-making and goodwill to all mortals: this baby has come to subvert the powers of our world.
Here, as throughout Matthew’s story-telling, the subversive power of the kingdom of God begs our allegiance. While Luke wants us to embrace the comfort of a God who goes to the greatest lengths to be God-with-us, Matthew acknowledges that this baby, while just as sweet and cuddly as any human infant, is also majestic, mighty, and powerful, demanding of all people a loyalty and faithfulness that leaves no portion of our lives untouched.
We miss that emphasis sometimes, preferring to deck it out with holly, demanding cheer at this most wonderful time of the year. We miss something that even wicked King Herod knew. Anglican priest Joy Carroll Wallis writes: “The birth of this child is a threat to [Herod’s] kingdom, a threat to that kind of domination and rule. Jesus challenges the very power structures of this evil age.”
Matthew wants to make sure we know that this King Jesus changes everything. This King Jesus changes us. This King Jesus changes the world in order that his kingdom might come, “his will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”Indeed, his “is the glory and the kingdom and the power forever. Amen” (Matt. 5:10, 13).
Spotlight on You
Matthew has the spotlight for his story. Luke has the spotlight for his story. Even Mark and John have their take on the centrality of Jesus’ birth. It used to be the case that scholars worried themselves over the distinctions between these stories, trying to harmonize details and smooth out the wrinkles developed by apparent disagreements. But we are entering a period of scholarship that is more willing to let each account stand as its own perspective, and I happen to think that’s a good thing.
I recently watched the film The Manchurian Candidate (1962 and 2004). In this story an ill-tempered, ostracized soldier, Raymond Shaw, comes home a war hero. Each soldier in his unit can tell the story of how Shaw, under enormous and intense pressure, saved their lives. But slowly their stories begin to disintegrate, and it isn’t their discontinuity that makes them uncomfortable. Rather, it is that each soldier tells the exact same story, down to vocabulary and inflection.
As anyone who’s ever witnessed a traffic accident and reported his or her version of events knows: vantage point, perspective, life experience, and intention always influence the story we have to tell. It isn’t malice. It isn’t falsehood. It is simply the way human minds and experience work.
So too, Matthew and Luke share their stories each according to his own vantage point, perspective, life experience, and intention. Each assumes that the historical events of Jesus’ life are relevant to the kinds of people we are meant to be today. And that the historical events of Jesus’ birth teach us something of what we ought to believe about God.
At Christmas, we have the chance to tell Jesus’ story again, not just in sermons or pageants but to neighbors and at company holiday parties. So I am left wondering, How do I tell Jesus’ story?
Trusting that these long-ago events are still relevant in my neighborhood, with my family and friends, what pieces of Jesus’ birth story help me to further understand what God is attempting to birth in my life this Christmas and in the year to come? Do I need the comfort of God-with-us to hold me through trials and deep pain? Do I need the kingdom of God to challenge my own easy assimilation to the values of the kingdoms of greed, materialism, or convenience? How is Jesus yet to be born in my life, and how can I find words to share THIS story in my own voice?
About the Author
Meg Jenista is pastor at The Washington DC Christian Reformed Church.