How Luke turned three magi into a lot of shepherds
Through Jesus, God extends loving mercy to everyone
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
We're past the New Year and that means we're through with Christmas, right? Well, not exactly. The church's Christmas season doesn't end until Epiphany, best known as the time when we mark the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ. So we hear the story of wise men coming to the manger. We also celebrate the presentation of the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem and the giving of the name, Jesus, meaning savior.
The infancy narratives of Matthew recount the visit of the Magi, while only Luke tells of shepherds' visits and about Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple. (Also, only Luke mentions the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple.)
Remembering what we said (Dec. 21) about the infancy narrative of Matthew being a miniature version of that entire Gospel, we now see how Luke accomplishes the same thing with his gospel. Both Matthew and Luke seek to accomplish three purposes in their infancy narratives. Fr. Francis Gignac, SJ, chair of biblical studies at the Catholic University of America, notes these purposes: "Infancy narratives are gospels in miniature, written in light of and as reflection on the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus... We celebrate at Christmas not the birth of the baby Jesus, but the beginning of our salvation."
For Luke, Jesus is to be seen as the fulfillment of salvation history and the one who brings God's mercy and forgiveness to all. 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 reveals how this good news comes to the poor -- from the angels' news to poor shepherds to the dying Christ's good news to the repentant thief.
In the infancy narratives, we see the joy Jesus' advent brings -- from the words of Elizabeth ("the baby leapt in my womb for joy") to Mary's Magnificat ("he has raised up the lowly") to Anna's joy in the Temple ("she gave thanks to God" upon seeing the Child).
Understanding Luke's themes of fulfillment, God's loving mercy, joy, and the journey to salvation -- both for Jesus and those who follow after him -- we can better understand some of the 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 salvation history and the fulfillment of God's plan in him. Using the childless, elderly couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Luke reminds us of Abraham and Sarah.
Scripture scholar Fr. Robert Karris, OFM, notes that Luke here is showing that "God does again, in fulfillment of (a) promise, what God has done in the past: the impossible, the giving of a child to an aged sterile couple."
Augustus Caesar: Luke used historical settings to anchor his stories. His mention of Augustus, the architect of a peace that lasted over 200 years, serves not just as an historical note but also as a stage to introduce Jesus. As Benedictine scripture scholar Fr. Jerome Kodell said, "the Pax Romana is an exterior calm enforced by military power. True peace will come through Jesus."
The shepherds: As already mentioned, shepherds were among the poor and outcast of society in Jesus' time.
For Luke, they serve the same purpose as Matthew's magi: showing how those on the outside are welcomed in because of their acceptance of the Good News. As New Testament scholar Frederick Danker notes, "Mangy, stinking, bathless shepherds are in their ritual uncleanness an encouragement for all who lack religious status."
Manger: The manger, a feed box for animals, can be seen as foreshadowing the Eucharist. Franciscan Scripture scholar Fr. Robert Karris says "in accord with Luke's overriding interest in the theme of food, it seems best to interpret the manger ... as a symbol that Jesus is sustenance for the world."
The inn: Surprisingly, the inn in Luke is also a symbol of food -- and a hint at the passion. Fr. Karris notes that "although born in lowly circumstance and without hospitality, Jesus is the one who will be hope to starting humanity. Fully grown and about to lay down his life as a servant, Jesus hosts in an inn (22:14) a meal that his disciples will continue in his memory."
Temple: Luke has a special focus on Temple -- beginning both his gospel (the story of Jesus) and Acts of the Apostles (the story of the church) there. For Jews, the temple was the place of God's presence on earth and Luke uses that fact to link the Old Testament to the New. God's eternal presence among his people, seen fully in Jesus -- and, through him, in the church that spread from Jerusalem -- is central for Luke. (Remember how Emmanuel -- "God with Us" -- was central for Matthew.)
Simeon and Anna: Another elderly couple serves as witnesses to the fulfillment of God's promises in Luke's story. Here we have another reference to the passion in Simeon's reference to the sword that will pierce Mary's heart. Fr. Kodell says the Simeon's words foreshadow "the universal salvation that will be proclaimed in Jesus and of the necessity of suffering in the mission of this Messiah ... later followers of Jesus are not to be surprised that suffering is encountered in their pursuit of a gospel life."
Role of Mary: No more clearly is the ideal of a disciple's life seen than in Luke's portrayal of Mary. From the annunciation and her Fiat (agreement), to the visitation and her Magnificat, to the finding in the temple where she "kept all these things in her heart (2:51), Mary plays a central role in Luke's infancy story.
Throughout this Gospel, Mary continues to play the role of the perfect disciple of Jesus, providing a model for all. Fr. Brown said of Luke's Mary: "the first one to hear about Jesus is a model disciple according to the criteria of Luke 8:21 and 11:28, namely, being willing to hear the word of God and keep or do it."
(Sources: Catholic University of America's public affairs office; Infancy Narratives in the New Testament Gospels; The New Jerome Biblical Commentary; The Collegeville Bible Commentary)