As we celebrate Christmas, I hope and pray that each of us can remember the meaning of Christmas rather than getting stuck on some sort of “literalness” of the stories. I say “stories” plural because if you read the beginning of each gospel you will see four strikingly different looks at the Christ event.
1. The Gospel of Mark – No birth story. Just a vague start with “The beginning of the gospel . . .” and then right into John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism by the Holy Spirit. For me, that is all I need to know.
2. The Gospel of Matthew – Starts off with a genealogy and then views the birth of Jesus through Joseph who has plenty of visits from angels. Notice that there is no registration for taxes and no travel to Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary are there in Bethlehem, their hometown. The magi visit, maybe up to two years after the birth and then the family picks up and moves to Egypt. (Joseph in Egypt – does this story remind you of another Joseph in Egypt?) When it is time to come home, the family ends up traveling north of Bethlehem to Nazareth. Jesus was know as Jesus of Nazareth.
3. The Gospel of Luke – This is Mary’s story. Mary is in Nazareth (1:26) and she and Joseph must travel to Bethlehem to be registered (2:4-5). Angels visit shepherds and shepherds visit Mary, Joseph and Jesus. After naming, circumcising and dedicating Jesus (2:21-24), the family returns to Nazareth (2:39-40). No magi, no death threats, no star in the sky. Jesus is back to Nazareth. Later, people will call him “Jesus of Nazareth”.
4. The Gospel of John – John takes the cosmic view of Jesus who is Word Become Flesh and who existed from the beginning. No birth story, no mention of Mary or Joseph.
What are the similarities of the two birth stories in Matthew and Luke? Jesus was born to two human parents, Mary and Joseph. Jesus was born in Bethlehem (not mentioned in Mark or John). Jesus grew up in and came from Nazareth, which all four Gospels recognize.
While I love to watch Sunday School or Adult Christmas pageants, I recognize, as should you, that those stories are a mash-up of Matthew and Luke. I think we lose the beauty of each story when they are not kept separate. Matthew emphasizes Joseph’s role and responsibility in keeping Jesus safe from a world only intent on money and power and how even Gentiles, foreigners, are welcomed with the Gospel, the Good News. Luke emphasizes the lowly status of Mary, a teenage, unwed, and pregnant girl, and the shepherds who were often viewed like the biker gangs of today. The Luke the Gospel is for the least, lost, and left out in the world.
Tomorrow night, as we hear the various scriptures concerning the birth of Jesus, let us remember the true meaning of the Gospels: God is with us (Emmanuel) and God saves (Jesus). “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Our readings for Christmas Eve, without comment are:
Isaiah 9:2-7 – The Birth of a King
Micah 5:2-5a – The Place of Birth is Named
Luke 1:26-38 – The angel tell Mary of her upcoming pregnancy
Luke 2:1-7 – The Birth of Jesus
Luke 2:8-20 – The Shepherd Visit
Matthew 2:1-11 – The Magi Visit
John 1:1-14 – The Light Has Come Into the World.
Readings for Sunday, December 29 are
Isaiah 63:7-9 – God’s Mercy for God’s People Remembered
Psalm 148 – Let Everything and Everyone Praise God
Hebrews 2:10-18 – God in Jesus becomes human and suffers and dies like us.
Matthew 2:13-23 – “The Empire Strikes Back” as King Herod fears a potential rival.
May God bless you this Christmas with family and friends. Merry Christmas and safe travels.
Peace in Christ,
Pastor Gary Taylor
Peace United Church, Long Prairie
Grey Eagle UMC, Grey Eagle