The Nativity Story
The two stories of the first Christmas as recorded in Matthew and Luke are different from each other in length, content and narrative. Yet together these two accounts tell us the story of Jesus’ earthly beginnings not as a king who lived in a palace, but a baby born to poor human parents who were away from home and who stayed in a barn.
Matthew begins his narrative with Jesus’ genealogy of forty generations so that we might understand that the ancestors of Jesus were followers of God and lived a life of faith. Following this list, Matthew tells the story in short paragraphs filled with much detail. Mary was pregnant, engaged to Joseph but had not lived together. Joseph thought about divorcing her but he did not on the advice of an angel who told him through a dream who the baby really was. Joseph is the key role in this scene and is it Joseph who makes a decision- to keep Mary as his wife, accept the baby as God’s Son and to live a righteous life knowing that God knew him.
Matthew then skips from this scene focusing on Joseph to King Herod who hears of a new born king and he is threatened. Wise men from the East search for him in Jerusalem and the King sends them to Bethlehem. This is the beginning of Herod’s plot to rid the kingdom of a rival king. Eventually the Magi find Mary and Joseph and the baby in a house and they honour the baby with special gifts.
The action then skips back to Joseph having another dream with an angel telling him to move his family to Egypt as King Herod plots to kill him. The family lives in Egypt until Herod dies. After his death, Joseph again has a dream and they return to the district of Galilee settling in a town Nazareth.
Matthew’s version of the story does not include the details of why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem. There is no shepherds, stable or singing angels. There is the story of angels and Joseph and the birth of a baby which triggers Wise Men to travel to worship him which leads the family to live in Egypt.
What do we learn from Matthew’s story of the First Christmas? It is similar to the story of Moses early beginnings with an evil ruler Herod or Pharaoh plotting to kill new born males. From the beginning of his life, Jesus was already the new Moses and this is a major clue to Matthew’s Christmas story. Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s point of view- whether he should marry Mary, listen to the angels’ voices or to walk away. And Matthew likes dreams and angels to move the story along in order to keep Jesus safe and to return his family to Nazareth where Jesus was raised into adulthood.
As we read through this narrative what is it that we feel, think and learn about Jesus? What do we know about Joseph and Mary as his parents and what do we hold on to? Joseph was a righteous man and when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy he was devastated. Only an angel could calm him down and explain the truth of the baby. Only an angel could guide Joseph which enabled prophecy to be fulfilled. And only God saw the story unfold this way.
How do you respond to Matthew’s Christmas story? Joseph played a key role in this portion of the story of Jesus’ birth. Where would you put yourself into the story to fully understand what God did in order to keep Jesus alive even at his birth?
Placing yourself in Matthew’s Christmas story often leads us to the role of an observer of an action story. The narrative is short and concise. Joseph, angels and King Herod are hero, assistant and villain and yet when we read the prophecy, Jesus was to come from Egypt and become a Nazarene. Prophecy was fulfilled in this narrative. How do you thank God for his gift to us in Jesus?
Holy God we praise you and thank you for the stories of Christmas from Matthew and Luke. As we read Matthew’s story we cannot help but thank you for sending your angels to speak to Joseph to guide the wise men and to call Joseph to move his family to safety. Why this family had to endure so much in the early stages of being a family is difficult to comprehend but we know many people today struggle with family situations not of kings wanting to kill their babies, but seeking the necessary elements of life and security for their families. We pray O God for families in situations where there is not enough- food, support or assistance in daily living. We pray O God and we offer to you our thoughts for those in need whom we know and those we do not know. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This reflection is based upon some thoughts offered by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really teach About Jesus’ Birth. New York: Harper One,1989, p.4-8, 41-45.