Friday, December 08, 2006

The Nativity According to Matthew

I began arguing, at the end of When Did the Wise Men Get There, Anyway?, that it might be instructive to reread the separate accounts of the Nativity as the Holy Spirit inspired them--that is, as separate stories, each complete in itself. By suggesting this, I do not mean that the Evangelists invented or altered details in order to fit each one's own version of the events, but they did clearly select events that fit with the portrayal of Jesus that each one was being inspired to write.

In looking at the events of the Nativity in Matthew and Luke, it is startling how little overlap there is, and yet how the stories have so many parallel elements. Both stress the virgin birth. Each one portrays a visitation by an angel announcing the event, but not to the same person. Each one involves visitors to the child, but not the same ones. Each one relates some governmental interference, but not the same level of government. Each one mentions both Nazareth and Bethlehem, but in Matthew the movement is from Bethlehem to Nazareth, and in Luke it is from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We can add up all the details of both stories to get a picture of What Really Happened, but by doing so, we miss the thrust of each individual story.

Matthew's gospel was probably the first one written that presents the story of Jesus' birth. It is startling, when read on its own, how much of our traditional Christmas story does not appear in this narrative. Matthew's focus is on the birth of a King. He begins by presenting the royal lineage of Jesus, tracing His descent through David back to Abraham. We see nothing of the Annunciation to Mary; she is simply "found to be with child by the Holy Spirit" (1:18). Matthew's narrative is largely Joseph's story; it is about how he reacts to Mary's pregnancy, how he is led to marry her, preserve her virginity until Jesus' birth, and protect his family from Herod. Although Joseph was doubtless devastated by the appearance of infidelity on Mary's part, he was still concerned not to disgrace her: his plan to quietly divorce her would have been an act of mercy, not judgment.

But here, God intervenes. An angel comes to Joseph in a dream, and tells him not to "be afraid" to complete the betrothal process and take Mary home as his wife. This would have been a hard command for him to obey, because it would amount to a tacit admission of infidelity: in the eyes of the community, Joseph would be acknowledging that Mary's child was his, and he would share in her disgrace. Nonetheless, he does take her home, in obedience to what the angel has said, trusting that the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that his name is to be Joshua (Hebrew, Yeshua; Greek, Iesous, anglicized as Jesus) because he will save his people from their sins.

Matthew presents the birth of Jesus as the prophesied entrance of the Son of David into history, threatening the powers of this world, gaining the attention of foreign dignitaries, and attested to by the very heavens themselves.This is a child of destiny, an important child, which Matthew underscores by pointing out that the birth of this King is a fulfillment of prophecy, another of Matthew's important themes. Joseph obeys the angel's command to the letter, preserves Mary's virginity until after the birth, and gives the child the name that the angel had decreed.

Matthew places Jesus' birth in "Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod" (2:1). One would not know from Matthew's account that Joseph and Mary had come from some uncouth town in the hills up north; that would not fit with the portrayal that Matthew is giving. Just as in Luke, there are visitors to the child, but what visitors! Magi - exotic wise men "from the east" (probably Media-Persia), who first come to Jerusalem, because where else would one expect to find the heir to the Jewish throne than in the capital city? And they came because the heavens themselves have borne witness to his birth--he has his own star! And these distinguished visitors have come to worship (they themselves probably only mean to pay proper homage and respect to) him.

And so Herod enters into the picture. He is "disturbed," and when Herod is disturbed, the whole city is disturbed (2:3). He was a paranoid tyrant, a puppet of Caesar who had appealed to Rome for the title of "King" and killed anyone whom he imagined threatened his continued rule, including several members of his own family. He finds out from the priests and teachers of the law that Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem (more fulfillment of prophecy) and learns from the Magi when the star had appeared, then sends them on their way, asking them to report to him when they found the child. Although just born, Jesus is already a threat to the established powers of the world.

The star leads the Magi to "the child with his mother Mary" (2:11), and they worship him and give strange and wonderful gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh. Various symbolic meanings have been attached to these gifts; at the very least, they are costly gifts befitting a royah heir. God sovereignly intervenes again through dreams--to the Magi, letting them know not to return to Herod; and to Joseph, warning him to flee to Egypt, which he does, taking Mary and Jesus by night (and fulfilling more prophecy). Herod has all the boys in Bethlehem two years old and younger killed (yet again fulfilling prophecy).

Once again, an angel appears to Joseph in Egypt, this time telling him to return to "the land of Israel" because Herod has died (2:20). Israel is not usually denoted by that name at this time: it has been carved up into the Roman districts of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee; but Jesus, the King, is returning to his rightful land, and so it is called by its rightful name. In Matthew, it is because Joseph learns that Herod's son is on the throne in Judea that he withdraws to a small town in the relative obscurity of Galilee, the north country of Israel. The place that he chooses (we are not told that he came from there in the first place) once again fulfills prophecy: "He will be called a Nazarene" (2:23).

Matthew presents the birth of Jesus as the prophesied entrance of the Son of David into history, threatening the powers of this world, gaining the attention of foreign dignitaries, and attested to by the very heavens themselves. No sweet, sentimental, humble birth here! This Christmas, let's celebrate the inbreaking of the heavenly powers into the vain rulers of this world.

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