“The” Christmas Story
I have never been a fan of “the Christmas story.” I honestly don’t know why. I know why I am not a fan of it now and it is a real temptation to project those reasons back into my past and to “discover” that that is why I was not a fan of it back then.
The truth is, it never made sense to me as a story. I didn’t put it that way. I just knew I wasn’t drawn to it. It was great for inducting my kids into the beauty of it. They loved it. Different things at different ages. There were angels and shepherds and Wise Men and Joseph and Mary in a stable with all those animals and all that. What’s not to like?
So I have had an inarticulate dissatisfaction with the “story,” and at some point along the way, I discovered Raymond E. Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah. About a third of it is given over to the Birth Narrative (BN) as Matthew tells it and the other two thirds to the BN as Luke tells it. That seemed strange to me.
So I adopted the practice of reading one account one year and the other the next year. It was like scratching an itch I had not known I had. The surprise and the pleasure combined were powerful.
I still read Brown like that. One account each year. By now, I have assigned Matthew to the U. S. political years. The politics is so much more prominent in Matthew. Then the other account in the other year. I read each account five times in a decade and every time I read it, I find things I am ready to see now that I had not been ready to see before. Along with that, I pass over things that I am now taking for granted. And as I have read other scholars, I sit less firmly on some of the things Brown says. It’s all good.
So now I have two “Christmas stories.” The muddiness and lack of clear narrative shape which I now think were the things that bothered me at the beginning—and that I had no idea of at the time—have just gone away. In their place, I have two crisp clear dramatizations of how the birth of the Christ child came about.
This year, I taught a three-session mini-series on the BN as Matthew tells it. The first session was about what Matthew is trying to tell us when he says that Joseph was a righteous man but/and (the Greek is kaì) he wanted to avoid embarrassing Mary, who unaccountably got pregnant. It’s an important point. It isn’t just about the conjunction. It is about what righteousness means to Matthew and what he wants to tell us about Joseph.
The second session was about building rival groups into the story. The Wise Men and the Scribes are as different as the Sharks and the Jets. And Matthew makes them more different from each other than he would have to because each group helps to define the other. When, for instance, the magi see the star in Jerusalem, it fills them with utter delight. Without that, would we have noticed that aligning the prophecy about the Messiah and the news brought by the magi would mean virtually nothing to the scribes? The gentiles were ecstatic; the Jewish scholars were not.
The third session was about the lengths Joseph had to go to to keep the identity and the whereabouts of his son secret. It began, after awhile, to sound like a witness protection program to me, so that is what I called it. Off to Egypt in the middle of the night. Going back to Israel afterwards, but not to a place where they were known and not in the territory of the nastiest of Herod’s sons.
Those are three episodes in a story that makes no sense at all in the light of the narrative Luke gives us. And, as I will say next year, vice versa. But it makes perfect sense of how Matthew sees Jesus and how he wants us to see Jesus.
Emphasizing how different and how powerful each of the narratives is was a big deal for me. It took a story I really wanted to like and made it one of my favorites,. Well…two of my favorites. So imagine my surprise when I discovered people who liked the story just as it was. They took the elements of these two stories and put them in the blender and were delighted by the results.
To the child laid in a manger, you add the exotic recognition of foreign scholars and the celebration of a sky full of angels. To the dreams of Joseph, you add the visitation of Gabriel to Mary. There is no reason now for anyone to be confused, since God has revealed his plan to both, but on the other side, you get two distinct revelations of God’s intention—one to Joseph and one to Mary. These events, which could be seen as alternatives, are added up like so many jelly beans in a jar. The more jelly beans the better, right? Who doesn’t love jelly beans?
So I have learned, each Christmas, to step more softly. I am not as cheerleader for the “two narratives” approach, the way I used to be. I honor, as best I can, the fully complementary goals of the writers. Luke’s way has a lot to be said for it. It is so incredibly Jewish, for one thing. And we have a new way to assess the meaning of the events of Jesus’ birth because all the same ones happen to his cousin, John the Baptizer. The magi recognizing the little Jesus in Bethlehem and old Simeon recognizing the infant at the temple n Jerusalem and two ways of getting the one thing done.
I say, no harm, no foul.