We all know the Christmas story and we hear it each year, but each Christmas we also hear a different version depending from which Gospel we read. We often hear the birth story from Matthew and Luke, but sometimes we do read John. Our pageants tend to blend them together, but each of these Gospels has its own author and draws from different sources. These various narratives communicate different components of the Incarnation and enable the Holy Spirit to move in different ways to and through us today. It is important to understand each Gospel narrative and, to really squeeze this analogy, have a deconstructed reading!
The Church has always loved Matthew and we often hear this Gospel’s birth narrative. Matthew first makes painstaking efforts to link the genealogy of Jesus to Abraham and David. You will also notice that this is Joseph’s Gospel to shine. Joseph is a “righteous man” who doesn’t divorce his wife Mary for her pregnancy. Joseph had a dream with a flashback to Isaiah, “’Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means God is with us.” Did you ever notice how Joseph has more attention in Matthew? The wise men (the Greek has them as magi or astrologers as well), followed the star and did not follow Herod’s orders to tell Herod of Jesus’ location. Instead, Joseph dreams (again) where he is warned and they flee to Egypt until it is safe. Then they travel to Nazareth.
We will skip ahead to the second most popular birth narrative…Luke. We begin Luke with an account of Elizabeth and Zechariah who find out they will be parents to John the Baptist. It is then in Luke when the Angel appears to Mary and she is told the Holy Spirit will enable her to have a baby. Joseph is mentioned, but certainly not a prominent character here. The angel tells Mary to name the baby “Jesus.” Mary responds to this news with “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Elizabeth and Mary meet and John the Baptist leaps in Mary’s womb! Mary then says the wonderful Song of Mary, also called the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” This song is based upon Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2.
Continuing in Matthew, Elizabeth gives birth and we enter into more of the birth narrative for Jesus. There was a registration (census) taking place and Joseph and Mary returned “to their own towns to be registered.” While going home, it was time to give birth in Bethlehem and we have a single line about being “laid in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.” Then, enter the Shepherds in the field who were terrified and told to go to Jesus (no star? No gifts?). There is even more detail of Jesus’ infancy, his presentation in the temple, circumcision. Let us not forget the prophet Anna! Yes, there is so much here on Jesus’ infancy.
Ok, phew, no wonder we often hear so much of Luke. But did you notice the differences? Joseph prominent in one and Mary in the other. Wise men/magi/astrologers (we call them kings…) with star in one and shepherds in the other. Manger in one, not in the other.
In Mark, the oldest Gospel, we jump into the ministry of John the Baptist who baptizes Jesus. John sees Jesus, who comes from Nazareth and John “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” We do not hear the birth narrative!
The Gospel of John begins, “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This references Jesus’ existence before his birth into humanity. In verse 14, we hear, “and the Word became flesh and lived among us…” John was written later and is much more theological and was written for a particular audience; the Johanine community.
Each of these Gospels teaches and tells us about the Incarnation of our God in different ways. We often mix our Gospels up into Gospel soup! Each story is important! What does reading a single narrative, forgetting the others momentarily, communicate to you about Jesus and the nature of God? Imagine if you only had Matthew, or Luke, or Mark, or John!
We are deep in the book of Numbers now and, if you have not yet gathered, numbers themselves have significance throughout the Bible. The book of Numbers is named for the census (that part where you may have nodded off) that takes place at the beginning and end of the book (about 603,550 and 601,730 males 20 years old and older respectively). We often see numbers such as 3 (Holy Trinity!) or 7 (How many days in creation?), and, of course 12.
Why is the number 12 such a significant number? God made a promise, covenant, with Abraham and this covenant was established and re-established with Abraham's son, Isaac, and then Jacob. Jacob (later named Israel) had twelve sons and this covenant was passed onto the nations of Israel, that is the nations derived from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). The link between the twelve tribes of Israel and associated covenant that God made with them is then embedded in other areas where we see that number. Whenever we see that number, those writing and the readers, know that it is not only a factual number but symbolic of God's promise to them as God's people.
Throughout the Israelite history, we then see the number twelve and its multiples in many locations from the number of military divisions (1 Chronicles 27:1-15), to items for the tabernacle (Leviticus 24:5), and in other locations. Perhaps those establishing rules or numbers used this number to signify God's presence. It would be seen as advantageous, for example, to have such a significant number and presence on your side during battle.
When we cross into the New Testament, we see 12 in many locations there as well with the most obvious being "The Twelve!" or the disciples of Jesus. Also, remember in Mark when Jesus sets off to heal a daughter who was 12 years old and is stopped along the way by a woman who had been hemorrhaging for, wait for it, 12 years (Mark 5)? The intentional use of the number 12 in the New Testament carries over the symbolism of God's particular presence, a sign of God's continued promise, and the extension of that saving promise to all, inclusive of the gentiles. Israel is restored but is not limited to the geographical and tribal limitations as seen on the above map. It is now -re-established through The Twelve and carried out through Christ's church, established by Christ and carried out by such workers as the original 12 disciples and all of us today.
When Noah hit dry land, he placed a rainbow in the sky as a sign of the promise made to him and we recall that promise when we see a rainbow. Biblical writers and even the people our stories have the number 12 everywhere as a sign of God's promise to all people completed in Christ. We carry this significant number over into our secular lives as a "dozen" is used as a prominent means of measurement (and likely originated from this promise!). Take note of 12 and its multiples in the Bible (and everywhere) and remember the significance of this number with promise and Presence by and with God extends to you and all of us today.
- Much of the research for this article came from Joseph F. Scrivner in his article "Twelve," in The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible.
Since this is my first attempt to ever read the entire Bible, I was hoping the habit and accountability would be ingrained in my daily routine within a few short weeks. Little did I realize it was only a matter of days for the Bible treading to pleasantly capture my daily routine. It must be from the Bible’s spiritual inspiration and wisdom combined with the fellowship of knowing so many others are reading the same scripture as I read each day. In fact, I found myself reading too far ahead, even reading the notes in my New Oxford NRSV Annotated Bible, and beginning to weaken that feeling of fellowship, so I had to slow the pace to resynchronize and regain that feeling of fellowship. I have not taken the step of going into Zabriskie’s “The Bible Challenge” though. I hope everyone is finding fulfillment as we progress through the Good Book together in a year. Warm regards, Colgate Salomon
What's with the incredibly long lifespans in the Old Testament? How do we interpret it when someone lives to be 900? Was it real? What does it mean?
Our minds like to approach such historical texts as how we approach the history books from our education system. However, they were not written in the same way nor were they intended to be taken as literal history. Noah lived 950 years and is only outlived by Jared who lived 962 years. "Adam would still have been alive during the lifetime of Noah's father Lamech," states biblical scholar Michael Coogan, "and Noah would still have been alive when Abraham was born." If not literally, then why?
The number of years often have significance such as Enoch who lived 365 years, the same as the number of days in a year or Lamech who lived to be 777, symbolic of retribution to be given as one of Cain's descendants. Pay attention to the specific number and there is usually a reason it is assigned.
We also note that gradually, people start to live normal lifespans. The chart above shows a gradual decrease over time and a drastic decrease after the flood. Long life was associated with divine favor and the decrease in lifespans indicated a decrease in divine favor. While this might not be literal, it indicates a growing decrease in favor from God over time to the point of necessary redemption from God. God's promise through the covenant continues and humankind, as we do, wrestles with our ability to follow such a covenant exactly. We are humans and we fall away from our promises to God, but we return!
Compared to other narratives at the time, our biblical characters actually lived a shorter period of time. King Alulim of Eridu reigned for 28,800 years and other kings reigned for 64,800 years. Still other kings are written to have reigned for more than 385,000 years! Look at the epic of Gilgamesh which occurred during much of our biblical times and he reigned as king for 126 years. These Sumerian texts seem to exaggerate lifespan much more than our Hebrew texts.
By the first millennium BCE, our lifespans became more normal. This is closer to the time when God became incarnate for the redemption of the earth. A flood destroyed the peoples of the earth and now God came down to redeem all the peoples in heaven and on earth. The theology describes a decreasing ability to stay within our covenant until the redemption through the power of God in Christ with the New Covenant.
As we grow older, we certainly comprehend that time is relative. It tends to speed up on us! How might we use our lifespan to glorify God in the knowledge that we are offered hope through a God who became incarnate and died after only 33 years. Perhaps we interpret not length but in how we build our relationship with the God who created us and who offers a promise of love, more than divine favor, but an open invitation to an eternal relationship. And, how do we share each day to the Glory of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
- Much of the research from this post is from Michael D. Coogan's book, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. If you are reading from the Oxford Annotated Bible, he is one of the primary contributors.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is pictured above in his ornate vestments as leading Bishop in the Anglican Church of which we are a part. Each piece of clothing and color have a particular meaning and there are particular reasons for wearing them. Weddings, Baptisms, Confirmations, and other days of celebration often bring out the fanciest of liturgical attire.
I was probably not the only one whose eyes glossed over a bit with the description of this clothing for the priesthood of Aaron. I returned to read it more carefully. While this passage is not prescriptive for the modern church, it described something special. When we encounter God's presence, you see biblical characters remove their shoes, bow their heads, and more. When they represent God, they do so with intention.
St. David's does not inhibit attendance based upon how we look when we go to church. In fact, I love to see soccer uniforms alongside suits. Worship is accessible from all who desire to come and we are authentic in that belief, Thanks be to God.
There is a reason we arrive, as we are or dressed up. We come to worship and give thanks to our God especially as was made incarnate in Christ. Our space is beautiful and we organize the service, including vestments and altar hangings intentionally. Our focus does not move toward how we look in outward appearance for each other but in the intention of our hearts when we enter that space and encounter each other in the name of Jesus. Bishop Doyle reminds us this week that our worship of God extends into our lives when we walk out of the door. That same intention, when brought to worship is then carried out into our lives.
Whether it is in our dress, actions, or words, know the intent is for God who sent Jesus into the world to die for our sins and whose Resurrection offers an eternal hope.
The Rev. William L. Packard
I am excited to read the Bible with you, not only for the knowledge and ability to say, "I've read the whole thing," but for the wonderful things that occur when Scripture is read intentionally each day.
St. David's Episcopal Church & School
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