Here we are in the middle of Christmas — yes, it is still the Christmas season, even if the rest of the world has tossed out their Christmas trees.
The church’s Christmas season lasts from Christmas Eve through the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Jan. 13 this year). At one time, the church’s Christmas season lasted until Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. On that day, we hear the story of the infant Jesus being brought to the Temple.
By Feb. 2, however, we will also have been hearing Gospel stories about the adult Jesus. So the Feb. 2 reading transports us back to a portion of the Gospels we traditionally call “the infancy narratives.” These are the stories we know and love to repeat at Christmas: about Bethlehem, angels, shepherds and the Magi.
Even though we know these stories, many of us don’t always remember that only two of the four Gospels say anything about the childhood of Jesus: Luke and Matthew. The late Scripture scholar, Sulpician Fr. Raymond Brown, and others, have referred to these infancy narratives as “the Gospels in miniature.”
You could almost call Luke and Matthew’s infancy narratives a sort of “Cliff’s Notes” study guide to what you will read if you tackle all four Gospels.
Here, in these Christmas stories, we hear how God’s promise to Adam and Eve and to Abraham was fulfilled. The salvation that will be won at the end of Jesus’ earthly life takes shape here at the beginnings of Jesus’ life. Therefore, the infancy narratives — both written around 75-80 A.D. — serve three main purposes:
- They bridge the Old and New Testaments;
- They present the major themes of each Gospel;
- They foreshadow the cross and Resurrection.
Yet Matthew and Luke approach these condensed versions of the Gospels differently.
While we are used to the Christmas story told in children’s plays, many of those familiar cast members only appear in one Gospel or the other.
For example, the shepherds, angelic choirs and manger are only in Luke; while the Magi and star only appear in Matthew. This is because both evangelists were writing to different audiences.
Matthew’s audience was mainly Jewish Christians. So Matthew wanted to make clear to them that Jesus was the promised Messiah, come to fulfill the Law and the prophets. Matthew also wanted to show Jesus as truly “God with us” — Emmanuel (the name given by the angel in Joseph’s dream).
By knowing that Matthew wanted to show Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, as well as the fulfilled hope for all creation, we can better understand Matthew’s purpose in several incidents that are unique to his story:
Genealogy: This Gospel’s famous opening “begats” serves to show Jesus as descended from Abraham and David — clearly setting him in Jewish history.
Joseph’s dream: This reminds readers of the patriarch Joseph, who interpreted dreams for Pharaoh and saved his own family from starvation by bringing them to Egypt. Mary’s husband, Joseph likewise follows the message of God, given in a dream, and takes his family to Egypt.
Herod: King Herod can be seen as a sort of Pharaoh in Matthew’s story. Herod seeks to kill the male children of Israel just as Pharaoh did in Moses’ time. For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses who brings his people into the eternal Promised Land.
Star and Magi: Only Matthew mentions a star or wise men bearing gifts. These serve two purposes. The star indicates that Gentiles see God’s power through the people of Israel. (The story of the prophet Balaam and a star can be found in the Book of Numbers 24:17). The Magi serve to remind people of the Queen of Sheba who came to Solomon in Jerusalem, seeking a wise king. Also, by calling Jesus “the newborn ‘King of the Jews,’” the Magi allude to the cross, which bore the same inscription. Finally, the Magi show how God’s promise — given first to the Jews — goes out from the Jews to the entire world.
Luke’s audience was gentile Christians. They had no background in the Law, Moses or the prophets. So while Luke also shows us Jesus’ ancestry, he does not do so in the infancy narratives, but only after Jesus’ baptism.
Luke’s Gospel is meant to show Jesus as the savior, the one who brings God’s mercy and forgiveness to the whole world. Luke shows this in Jesus’ words at the start of his ministry: “He has sent me to bring glad tiding to the poor” (Lk 4:18, quoting Isaiah). Luke’s entire Gospel shows how this news goes out to the poor everywhere — from the shepherds to the repentant thief beside Jesus on the cross.
Knowing Luke’s theme of God’s loving mercy, healing and peace offered to all, we can better understand stories that are unique to Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth:
Zechariah and Elizabeth: With this elderly couple, Luke accomplishes the same purpose Matthew does with his opening genealogy: reminding us of Jesus’ place in history and the fulfillment of God’s plan through him. By using Elizabeth and Zechariah, a childless and elderly (thus pitiable) couple, Luke reminds us of Abraham and Sarah — who were wandering nomads in a pagan land.
Augustus Caesar: Luke used history to anchor his stories. His mention of Augustus, the architect of a peace that lasted more than two centuries, serves not just as a historical note, but as a stage to introduce Jesus: the eternal Prince of Peace.
Shepherds: Shepherds were among the poor and outcast in Jesus’ time. For Luke, they serve the same purpose as Matthew’s Magi: showing how those on society’s edges are welcomed into God’s plan of salvation.
Manger: The manger, a feedbox for animals, foreshadows both the Eucharist — and the many times Jesus fed others — and the cross, where Jesus offered himself for us.
Angels: While Matthew’s infancy narrative has one angel — in Joseph’s dream — Luke has angels appear to Zechariah in the Temple, Mary in Nazareth and shepherds in the hills. Angels are messengers from God. The presence of angels in Luke should remind us that God’s eternal presence and the good news of Christ is always offered to all people.
Mary: No more ideal disciple exists than in Luke’s portrayal of Mary. From the Annunciation and her fiat, to the Visitation and her Magnificat, to the finding in the Temple, Mary “kept all these things in her heart” (2:51). Mary, in Luke’s Gospel, provides a model of discipleship for all — Gentile and Jewish Christian alike.
Sources: usccb.org; Catholic University of America’s public affairs office; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; The Collegeville Bible Commentary; The Birth of the Messiah; and Infancy Narratives in the New Testament Gospels