Scripture: Annunciation; Matthew 1: 18-25
Two different predictions of the Christmas miracle
In Luke’s Gospel, an angel announces Jesus’ birth, the Christmas miracle, to Mary; Matthew has an angel announce it to Joseph. Their world was one of myth and miracle, whose truths we can no longer recognize. But like Jesus, we are all part of God’s good Creation. There a spark of the divine essence in each one of us. That, to me, is the real Christmas miracle.
Jesus’ birth narratives only appear in Matthew and Luke. Although they are different, they have in common the miraculous nature of Mary’s child. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, both Matthew and Luke stress that King David was one of his ancestors. They both placed Jesus’ origins and his ministry squarely in the context of Judaism. He was the long-awaited Messiah.
Matthew and Luke both wrote their Gospels later than Mark. Maybe by that time, emerging Christianity concluded that Jesus was a more divine figure than Mark had imagined. That meant that stories about his miraculous birth had started to circulate. But Matthew and Luke tell utterly different stories. The most obvious difference is that Matthew tells about Magi coming to visit the child, whereas Luke’s first visitors were shepherds and angels.
An angel visits Mary
However, those matters come later in the story. Today we focus on the announcement of the birth. Luke’s story is much more familiar. The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary. He tells her, “Don’t be afraid,” and butters her up by saying, “You have found favour with God.” At first, and understandably, Mary had serious reservations to the angel’s suggestion that she would bear a child, and name him Jesus. “Sorry, I can’t do that; I am a virgin.”
Mary eventually said, ‘yes’ to the angel, in the words, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” I don’t know quite how to interpret this response. Was she enthusiastic about her role to birth the holy child? Or, did she feel trapped, and her “yes” was one of resignation? We all face situations when we get trapped into agreeing to things we’d rather not do. Instead of saying, ‘no’, we say ‘yes’ out of obligation or duty. Think of those office holiday parties you wished you didn’t have to go to, but you knew that the boss would notice who had skipped.
An angel visits Joseph in a dream
A notable difference between the two Annunciation stories is the identity of the main actor. For Luke, that actor is Mary. For Matthew it is Joseph. Douglas Hare, in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, suggests that Matthew has a more “active’ understanding than Luke of the human response to God’s call. Mary’s response is passive. But several times, in connection with Jesus’ birth and early life, a dream instructs Joseph to “do” something.
However, Matthew is very ambiguous about Jesus’ ancestry. He identifies Joseph, not Mary, as the lineal descendant of King David. In a genealogy, he calls Joseph “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born …” It’s as if Matthew can’t quite decide whether or not Joseph was the father of Jesus. Maybe the doctrine of the virgin birth was not completely settled when Matthew wrote his Gospel.
In his Annunciation account, Matthew continues to prevaricate on the paternity issue. First, he says that Joseph and Mary had married but had not lived together. (Luke says that they were engaged.) That difference is easy to reconcile. Probably Joseph and Mary had pledged themselves to one another, but the actual marriage ceremony had not yet occurred. When Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, he plans to call off the marriage. He doesn’t believe the involvement of the Holy Spirit. Some of us might have had the same reservation.
Next, Joseph has the first of several dreams that happen to him in Matthew’s Gospel. For the record, his Hebrew Scripture namesake (Jacob’s favourite son) was called “this dreamer” [Genesis 37: 19]. Today’s Joseph dreams that an unnamed angel tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. He, not Mary, should name the child Jesus. This all happens to fulfil a prophesy from Isaiah [7: 15]: Lo, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel” which means “God is with us.”
Matthew changes the prophesy slightly. The young woman becomes a virgin; she will conceive, and they shall name him. When Joseph wakes from his dream, he accepts what the angel told him. He takes Mary as his wife and in due course she has the baby. There’s no mention that the baby’s birth takes place in Bethlehem, only that he, Joseph, names him Jesus. That name means “he who saves”. It is similar to Immanuel, “God is with us.”
Joseph accepts the Christmas miracle child as his
Although Matthew gives no details about the birth itself, we can assume that, by accepting the baby, Joseph becomes Jesus’ father. That reminded me of a TV show I saw some years ago (possibly an episode of Call the Midwife). A man who was sterile wanted to divorce his wife because she had become pregnant. In the (perhaps rather sentimental) ending, he accepted the child as his son, even though he and his wife were white and the child, when it arrived, was black. There is more than one way to act as father or mother to a child than just biologically.
Setting aside Jesus’ miraculous conception, the two Scriptural accounts both show that Jesus was the son of a human mother and the Holy Spirit. The Gospels were originally written in Greek. In the world of ancient Greece, such a child would have been a demigod – half god and half human. Christians assert something different: that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. That idea is a metaphorical parallel for the concept that the divine essence resides in all of God’s creation. Therefore it resides in each of us, since we are all part of the created order.
The meaning of the birth stories for us today
My personal view is that the birth stories of Matthew and Luke tell us more about the theologies of the Gospel writers than they do about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Eighty years had passed between Jesus’ birth and the written stories about it. There were no newspapers or TV, no internet. So little was known about his birth that the early Church chose (yes, chose) to place that event in late December. Christmas competed with the Roman festival of Saturnalia, when light returned to a dark world. Today, eighty years ago was 1940, the year Beatle John Lennon was born. Like Jesus, he had a humble birth. Later, he became famous and died an early death. But without modern media, who today could tell us anything about the birth of John Lennon?
Something else. First century society and culture were completely different from ours. Theirs was a world of myths and miracles. Sadly, we have lost the power of myths to tell truths. We insist that all our truths are literal, rational, and verifiable. Does this mean that we should dismiss the Gospel stories about Jesus’ birth as bunk?
Personally, I say no. These Christmas stories, which we call Incarnation, make the most sense to me when I see the humanity of the Christ-child as a metaphor for each of us. Like Jesus, we were born in the usual messy way. And yet, our births were miraculous. Ask any new parent. Like Jesus, we are all part of God’s good Creation. There a spark of the divine essence in each one of us. That, to me, is the real Christmas miracle.