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!