Friday, December 25, 2015

Magi or Manger?: The Infancy Narratives of Jesus

           First of all, merry Christmas! I've posted this blog entry on Christmas day, but I'm guessing you're probably reading it sometime after the 25th. I don't blame you. Who has time to read a blog on Christmas. Nevertheless, chances are it is still Christmas according the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church. The Christmas season has only just begun today, and it continues up to the celebration to the Baptism of our Lord (January 10th this year). So keep drinking that eggnog, and I repeat, merry Christmas!

            Given this current season, it's no surprise that today's post is going to be about the infancy narratives of Jesus. To begin, if you have a nativity set displayed in your home at this time, take a close look at it, or – if you don't want to leave your chair (and trust me, I know the feeling) – simply recall what it looks like in your mind. What do you see? A stable. Shepherds. An ox and/or donkey. Maybe some sheep. A man and a woman looking over an infant in a crib full of hay. Three men in fancy robes with treasures in their hands. Perhaps there is a star or angel on top.

            It's a beautiful image, and it's just about as recognizable in or outside of Christian culture as the cross is. Most of us know the story of Jesus' birth... or at least we think we do. We've heard it proclaimed a Mass or other religious services. We sing the Christmas carols that recount the story. We've seen A Charlie Brown Christmas and have heard Linus recite Luke 2:8-14. We know it from other movies or works of art. We have nativity sets in our homes or at least have seen them displayed elsewhere. In short, we have a pretty good sense of the story of Jesus' birth from pop culture. But when was the last time you actually read it straight from the Scriptures? Did you know that there are, in fact, two distinct infancy narratives in the Gospels, which can be found in Matthew 1:18-2:23 and in Luke 1-2. (I know, right? One baby story just isn't good enough for Jesus.) Only these two Gospels have any account of Jesus' infancy or childhood, and, not surprisingly, – especially given the differences we have already seen in Matthew and Luke's  genealogies – these two narratives agree on very few points.

            Perhaps you are already familiar with the differences, but to those for whom this is news, do not be afraid (did you see what I did there?). Like the genealogies, the infancy narratives were written from the perspective of faith, not with historical facts in mind. These passages in Scripture are a perfect introduction to a theme I hope to expound upon more as this blog continues in the future, and that is the difference between Truth (with a capital "T") and fact. When it comes to the infancy narratives – especially since there are two accounts which hardly agree on anything – there is very little that biblical scholars can point to with certainty as being historical. But this shouldn't concern us. As Daniel Harrington, a Catholic Jesuit priest, says in his commentary on Matthew, "The more important issue is determining what these stories meant to [the evangelist] and his community."[1] To add to that I would also say what the Scriptures are saying to us by extension of what it meant to the Gospel writers and their communities. Therein lies part of what I mean by Truth, for you see, the Scriptures are less concerned with what can be proven by the senses, which is typically how modern thinkers understand "truth." Instead, they are all about revealing who God is, what God's relationship to humanity is and vise versa, and what our relationships should be like with each other as fellow members of the human race. So as we take a look at the infancy narratives, ask yourself: What is this saying about God's relationship to humanity? What is this saying about who God, revealed in the person of Jesus, truly is? This will help us come to know better the Truth that God is communicating to us in these sacred texts.

            Like I said, the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke agree on very little. The two main things that they do agree upon are that Jesus was born of a virgin named Mary who was betrothed to Joseph and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. That's about it. All the stuff about shepherds and a manger belongs to one Gospel, and all the stuff about magi and fleeing to Egypt belongs to another. So if you've taken a look at your nativity set and have found both shepherds and wise men on display, you're combining two distinct stories. Don't worry; I'm not criticizing you if you do have it that way. I tend to put the wise men out a little later, but eventually they make their way right up next to the shepherd figurines. It's easy for us, though, to confuse the two narratives and try to mesh them together. Pop culture has been doing this for centuries. We like to stack up all the Gospels together like a quadruple-decker club sandwich because it's easier that way. However, although it may look tasty, somethings are going to fall out of a sandwich that big, and we'll fail to appreciate the subtle and unique deliciousness that each Gospel has to offer. As a Bible nerd, I try to keep the narratives separate, so for our purposes today let us take a look at some of the major elements in each of the distinct, individual narratives.

Matthew's infancy narrative.

            Obviously there is a lot that can be said about any part of Scripture, so this is by no means an exhaustive look at Mt 1:18-2:23. In fact, I'm going to try to keep it brief because it's Christmas, and you and I both have things to do. Am I right?
            One of the things you may notice in reading this passage is the uncanny similarity to another birth narrative in the Old Testament. A wicked king wants to destroy all the infant boys in the land, and one is rescued. Sound familiar? Yes, Matthew is paralleling Jesus' infancy to that of Moses'! In fact, this is not the only place in Matthew that he draws this connection. One of the reasons that Matthew places Jesus on a mountain when he delivers the so-called "Sermon on the Mount" is because Moses received the Law from God on a mountain. Jesus, in Matthew's Gospel, is a Moses figure, the new law-giver, the one who leads his people out of slavery. If you recall from last week's post, Matthew's Gospel is written to a very Jewish Christian audience, so these Old Testament parallels would not only have been easily recognized, but would have had a lot of significance to them. You'll also notice that Matthew makes a lot of other connections to passages from the Hebrew Scriptures, constantly quoting them even when it doesn't seem that necessary.

            Joseph, who plays the central role in Matthew's narrative rather than Mary (even though he doesn't say a word), is also paralleled with an Old Testament figure. In the genealogy he is said to be the son of a man named Jacob. Why? Think of another man named Joseph in the Old Testament who was the son of a Jacob. It is that very Joseph we find in Genesis, who likewise had dreams and eventually went down to the land of Egypt where he and his family experienced solace for a time. 
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           The attitude toward Egypt in Jewish thinking was a bit ambivalent – at times a place a refuge, and at other times the place of slavery from which Israel must be freed. Not surprisingly, then, the Holy Family finds refuge in Egypt, but Jesus, the Moses figure, is also brought out of there and into the land of Israel. It's significant that the Holy Family is portrayed as refugees and immigrants in the narrative, both for the Gospel's original hearers and for us today. Protection of the "stranger" is common theme in both the Old and New Testament, and as we seek to understand the Truth in Scripture, such repeated motifs most assuredly have something to say to us about how we should strive to live together  as a human family.
            But what of those magi, those wise men? Where are they paralleled in the Hebrew Scriptures? It's a less familiar story, but in the book of Numbers a foreign prophet, Balaam, is called upon by his king to curse the Israelites. Instead, however, he utters a blessing for them. The star that Matthew refers to may even be traced to the Balaam's prophecy: "A star shall advance from Jacob, and a staff shall rise from Israel" (Num 24:17). Of course, another Old Testament reading associated with the magi comes from Isaiah 60, in which Israel is depicted as a light to the nations, and foreign kingdoms shall come and pay Israel homage – "Caravans of camels fill you, dromedaries from Midian and Ephah; All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense" (Is 60:6). Not surprisingly, the Church pairs this reading from Isaiah with the passage about the magi on the feast of the Epiphany. Listen for this if you plan on going to Mass on January 3rd.
            It appears that Matthew had an agenda about the inclusion of the Gentiles into the Christian story of salvation. Recall, also, in Matthew's genealogy his inclusion of those foreign women. Since the evangelist strongly believed in the continuity of the Jewish faith with the Jesus event, he was flabbergasted that so many of the people of Israel did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. So at the end of his Gospel he turns his attention to the Gentiles: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations..." (Mt 28:19). The magi from the east, representing the Gentile population, contrast with Herod and his court. These foreigners from the east (probably Persia, modern day Iran) come to pay the newborn king of the Jews homage, while Herod seeks the child's life.

Luke's infancy narrative (see chapters 1-2 of Luke)

            Luke is a masterful storyteller, and his narrative of Jesus' birth is very near and dear to our hearts. The bulk of our nativity sets and memories from nativity movies derive from his version. In Luke, Mary plays the central role, being the one to whom the angel announces Jesus' birth. Women in general often have a prominent role in Luke's Gospel. Both Mary and Elizabeth are key figures in the first two chapters, and in Lk  2:36-38 it is not only Simeon but also a prophetess named Anna who praises the child. The inclusion of women in Luke's Gospel is not so much an expression of 1st century feminism, but has to do more with Luke's theme of mercy to the poor and lowly. Unfortunately, women all throughout history and in most places around the world today have been among the most powerless. At the annunciation scene, Mary, as a young, unmarried and childless woman would have been one of the lowliest persons in society. She is not only the personification of God's poor, but she is also a voice that proclaims God's favor and love to the meek. When she visits her relative, Elizabeth, she announces in her resounding speech: "He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty" (Lk 1:51-53).
            The theme of poverty and lowliness permeates the entirety of Luke's infancy narrative. Jesus' birth scene may seem cute and darling to our modern sensibilities – the stuff of children's Christmas pageants. (No criticism of nativity plays intended. They're a good learning tool for kids.) But the fact of the matter is that Luke's portrayal of the savior's birth is far from cute or glamorous. The son of God is born into the world in a state of utter poverty. There was no room at the inn. He was wrapped in strips of cloths (presumably that is what the arcane term "swaddling clothes" means). And he was laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals. Pet peeve, by the way: a stable is not the same thing as a manger. Animals live in stables and eat from mangers. I get all bent out of shape whenever I hear people say that Jesus was born in a manger. Think about it; that would be a an awkward situation. Luke doesn't actually say under what kind of shelter, if any, Jesus was born. The word "stable" does not appear at all in Luke's infancy narrative. We might presume he was born in a stable, but for all we know it could have been al fresco. The point is, the setting and environment of Jesus' birth in Luke's Gospel is a poor one indeed. It would likely be the equivalent of being born in a subway station today.
            And the imagery of poverty continues, for the shepherds in particular were among the lowest classes in that society at the time. I'm not entirely sure what a 1st century, Palestinian shepherd would have been like, but I'm certain he did not resemble a Precious Moments figurine. I'd imagine such shepherds would have been strong, unkempt men who could fend off attackers or wild beasts with brute force, and they probably reeked of sheep and manure (or insert another word that is alliterative to sheep). Yet Luke portrays these poor folk as being the first to receive the Good News.

            Both Joseph and Mary are portrayed as poor yet obedient and faithful Jewish people. They journey to Bethlehem for the census, and there they are depicted as strangers who could not find shelter. Later, in accordance with the Mosaic law, they have Jesus circumcised eight days after his birth, and they go to the Temple for Mary's purification. Luke actually implies that it was for both Mary's and Joseph's purification, but according to the law only the woman who gave birth was required to be purified. You can't blame Luke for getting wrong this bit about Jewish custom though; he was a Gentile, and what do they know anyway? Nevertheless, I think he makes his point clear about the humble obedience of the couple. And furthermore, he is careful to note that they offered a pair of turtledoves for their sacrifice, which was the offering of a poor person who could not afford to offer up a lamb.

            Through the faithful examples of Mary and Joseph, Luke firmly roots Jesus in the Jewish tradition. Luke is demonstrating to his Gentile audience that Jesus and his family were good Jews. Jesus was born a Jew and died a Jew. And since Luke is writing to Gentiles, there may have been a concern among them that God's promises to the people of Israel had been revoked. Therefore, he wants to assure his audience that this was not the case, that the promises to the people of Israel have indeed been fulfilled, that they have not been found wanting, and therefore the Gentiles can trust that God's word to them is true. The canticles of Mary (Lk 1:46-55), Zechariah (1:68-79), and Simeon (2:29-32) all bear this theme of the fulfilled promise to the people of Israel. And the last of the three, Simeon's prayer when he encounters the infant Jesus in the Temple, explicitly brings together the fulfilled promise to Israel and the extension of blessing to the Gentiles: "...a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel."

            So what are we to take from all this? Well, to borrow from Shrek, Sacred Scripture is like an onion. It has layers. Indeed, there are numerous layers of meaning that can be gleaned from these infancy narratives, and I have barely peeled back even just one of those thin, sheer layers.
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The layers of meaning are there for us to unfurl and meditate upon, and they are never exhausted. As we discern the Truth which God is communicating to us in these sacred texts, let us ask ourselves some of those questions I mentioned earlier: What this scripture saying about God's relationship to humanity? What is it saying about who God, revealed in the person of Jesus, truly is? And what is it saying about how we as a human race ought to live with one another? Perhaps this will help us sift deeper through the layered meanings of Scripture and allow it to touch our heart more personally.

            Just to remind you of a few themes discussed in these narratives to guide you in your meditations:

* Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses. Moses led his people out of slavery, spoke with God directly, and gave the Law from God to his people on Mt. Sinai.

*Jesus is adored by foreigners, but rejected by the powerful and those who should have known better.

* Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are portrayed in both Gospels as migrants or refugees and, especially in Luke, are among the poorest in society. In Luke, the savior, Messiah, and Lord is born in the lowliest of states.

* The Good News of salvation is first proclaimed to poor social outcasts.

* God fulfills his promises to his people in the person of Jesus Christ.

* I didn't mention this earlier, but it's worth emphasizing that the infant Jesus was laid in a feeding bin. I cannot say whether or Luke intended this (probably not), but I smell a Eucharistic metaphor. Think about it.

            Hopefully this gives you plenty to reflect upon during this joyous season of Christmas (Dec. 25 – Jan. 10). I don't know if I will have the opportunity to post a new blog for the next couple of weeks, but I think the infancy narratives have enough things in them to chew on for a good while – probably for a lifetime and then some, but there is a lot more in Scripture to ponder. Until next time, I pray you have a blessed Christmas and a happy New Year. And, as always, you may post questions or comments on this page, the Bible Codega Facebook page, or to my e-mail:

God's peace!

[1] Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of  Matthew, Sacra Pagina 1. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), 47.

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