For Advent this year, I wanted to put up a few posts looking at Matthew and Luke’s Nativity stories as they were meant to be read: as two separate stories with their own purposes and themes. We often just mush them together, and I think we lose something in that process. Last week, we sat with Matthew’s Nativity story. Today, we turn to Luke’s Christmas.
Matthew’s Nativity focuses on how Christmas plays right into Israel’s own story; how this is exactly how the Jewish Messiah should be expected to have come into the world. Luke’s Gospel, on the other hand, emphasizes Jesus’ significance to the entire world, all parts of society, and the entire cosmic order.
In other words, Jesus’ mission in Luke is much larger than simply Israel. These and other Lukan themes are brought out quite strongly and explicitly in his Nativity narratives. Today we’ll see how he does this through signs of the universal mission of Jesus, the story’s emphasis on the lowly and powerless, and his stories of Spirit-filled joy.
For Advent this year, I wanted to put up a few posts looking at Matthew and Luke’s Nativity stories as they weren’t meant to be read: as two separate stories with their own purposes and themes. We often just mush them together, and I think we lose something in that process. Today, we look at Matthew’s Christmas Story.
It’s well-known that the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations. But the path Matthew takes in doing this moves against the way most messianic expectations played themselves out at time. Matthew recalibrates these expectations to show how even in Jesus’ infancy and birth, his “Messiah-ness” includes a retelling of Israel’s own history, both good and bad.
You can see this especially clearly in the way Matthew crafts his version of the Nativity story. Today, we’ll look at three particular aspects of this story that show his unique thematic and purposeful crafting of the birth story: his use of people and names, geography, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament.
This Church season of Epiphany primarily celebrates the coming of the wise men to see the young Jesus. Now think of the popular conceptions of the “wise men”. I imagine the picture that comes to mind is much like the one above: a quaint manger, farm animals, some shepherds, and the three wise men, presenting their gifts to the newborn Jesus.
I’m not sure how many of us know how wrong this is.
The wise men did not visit Jesus in the manger, their paths did not cross at all with the shepherds (that we know of), and, contrary to some of the most well-engrained church and musical traditions, their number is not given–“three” is just a guess. This guess is probably based on the fact that three gifts were offered (though the 6th-century Armenian Infancy Gospel, the source of the Western tradition of the wise men’s names and ethnicities, lists far more than just three gifts). The Eastern Church tradition even says it was twelve.
And yet, for over a thousand years, on into the present day, these traditions concerning the Wise Men have persisted. We know the sources of these traditions, we know when they became popularized, and we know how they’ve been used in Christian preaching and church life through the centuries. Every Advent season, even the most cursory drive in the suburbs will offer nativity scenes peppered with three wise men adoring the manger-laden Christ.
This reminded me of Jannes and Jambres.