This year – a couple days before Christmas Eve — my Christmas and New Year’s reflection is the poem “Ring Out, Wild Bells,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809 – 1892). An English poet, Tennyson was the Poet Laureate during much of Queen Victoria’s reign and remains one of the most popular of British poets. Tennyson wrote this poem in 1850, after hearing the bells of Waltham Abbey, 14 miles north-east of central London, on New Year’s Eve.
For all of us, 2021 has been quite a year. To all of my Another Voice friends, my very best wishes for Christmas 2021 and a hopeful and healthy New Year 2022. After a few days of holiday time with family and friends, I plan to be back with you after Nativity. — Jack
Ring Out, Wild Bells
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky, The flying cloud, the frosty light. The year is dying in the night. Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.
Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring, happy bells, across the snow. The year is going, let him go. Ring out the false, ring in the true.
Ring out the grief that saps the mind, For those that here we see no more, Ring out the feud of rich and poor, Ring in redress to humankind.
Ring out a slowly dying cause, And ancient forms of party strife. Ring in the nobler modes of life, With sweeter manners, purer laws.
Ring out the want, the care, the sin, The faithless coldness of the times. Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes, But ring the fuller minstrel in.
Ring out false pride in place and blood, The civic slander and the spite. Ring in the love of truth and right. Ring in the common love of good.
Ring out old shapes of foul disease, Ring out the narrowing lust of gold. Ring out the thousand wars of old, Ring in the thousand years of peace.
Ring in the valiant and the free, The larger heart, the kindlier hand. Ring out the darkness of the land. Ring in the Christ that is to be.
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles make up a two-volume work which scholars call Luke–Acts. The author is not named in either volume. It had once been credited to Luke, “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14), and a close associate of Paul the Apostle. A significant group of contemporary scholars, however, suggest that the author is anonymous. As the noted Catholic biblical scholar, and my friend, Raymond F. Collins observes: “The physician-friend thesis is based on a mention in Col 4:14, but few scholars believe that Paul wrote Colossians.” In addition there are many contradictions between Acts and the authentic Pauline letters.
Last week we saw that Matthew had a keen interest in the Hebrew-Christian community. Luke however is more focused on the broader gentile Christian community. Luke’s genealogy (Luke 3:23-38) goes back not just to Abraham, the father of the Hebrew tradition, but to Adam, the father of humanity. Unique to Luke is John the Baptist’s birth story, the census and travel to Bethlehem, the birth in a manger, an angelic annunciation to shepherds, and a story from Jesus’ boyhood.
Luke’s preface is addressed to “Theophilus.” The name means “Lover of God.” It could mean any Christian although most interpreters consider it a reference to a specific Christian convert and Luke’s literary patron.
Biblical scholars date the composition of Luke-Acts to around 80–90 CE, although some suggest as late as 90–110 CE. There is textual evidence that Luke–Acts was still being revised well into the 2nd century CE.
Luke’s Infancy Narrative is found in chapters 1 & 2, and the author begins his story with the aging and childless Zechariah and Elizabeth. An angel of the Lord announces to Zechariah that he and Elizabeth will have a son. The promised son will be John the Baptizer.
Elizabeth is described as a “relative” of Mary the mother of Jesus, in Luke 1:36. There is no mention of a family relationship between her son John and Jesus in the other Gospels. Biblical scholar, Raymond E. Brown, described it as “of dubious historicity.”
There are many similarities between Luke’s story of the birth of John the Baptizer and the account, in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) of the birth of Samuel (11th century BCE). Cleary Luke’s account of the annunciation and the birth of Jesus are modeled as well on that of Samuel. After Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had a religious experience, praying for a child, she became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel, to the great delight of her husband Elkanah. Hannah’s exultant hymn of thanksgiving resembles in several points Mary’s later Magnificat. (Samuel, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, played a key role in the transition from the period of the Hebrew biblical judges to the institution of a kingdom under Saul, and again in the transition from Saul to King David.)
In Luke’s Infancy Narrative, after the angelic announcement about Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel then announces the virgin birth of Jesus for Mary, a young girl from Nazareth, engaged to Joseph, a descendent of David. The pregnant Mary then goes to Judea to visit Elizabeth, her pregnant relative. The child in Elizabeth’s womb (John) leaps for joy at the presence of the unborn Jesus. Luke wants his readers to understand that, right from the start, Jesus was superior to John.
Some scholars maintain that John the Baptizer belonged to the Essenes, a semi-ascetic Hebrew sect that expected a messiah and practiced ritual baptism. Most biblical scholars agree that Jesus was an early follower of John and that John baptized Jesus. Several New Testament accounts report that some of Jesus’ early followers had also previously been followers of John the itinerant preacher.
While visiting Elizabeth, Mary sings God’s praises for lifting up the lowly and sending the rich away empty. (Luke 1:46-55) This prayer-song is frequently called the Magnificat, based on its first word in Latin. It echoes several biblical passages, but the most pronounced allusions are to the Song of Hannah, from the Books of Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures (1 Samuel 2:1–10).
Mary’s Magnificat, recorded only in Luke’s Gospel, is one of four hymns, from a collection of early Hebrew-Christian canticles: Mary’s Magnificat, Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:67–79), the angels’ Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Luke 2:13–14), and Simeon’s Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:28–32).
After Mary’s return to Nazareth, John is born. His father Zechariah then praises God with the words of the Benedictus.
According to Luke, a census was called for throughout the Roman Empire. It meant that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary had to go to Bethlehem, since Joseph was of the “house of David.” When they got there, there was “no room for them in the inn,” and so Jesus was born and put in the stable’s manger. (Some people really don’t know that a manger is a feeding trough for animals. The English word comes from the Old French word mangier — meaning “to eat” — from the Latin mandere, meaning “to chew.”)
There are major difficulties in accepting Luke’s Roman census account, however. First it could not have happened in the days of King Herod, who had died in 4 BCE. Luke refers to a worldwide census under Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius wasn’t appointed as the governor of Syria until 6 CE. Herod had already been dead for ten years. In addition, according to the annals of ancient Roman history, no such census ever took place. There was no single census of the entire Roman Empire under Augustus. And no Roman census ever required people to travel from their own homes to those of distant ancestors. A census of Judea, therefore, would not have affected Joseph and his family, living in Galilee.
Luke clearly followed the models of historical narrative which were current in his day. He needed an explanation for bringing Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, in order to have Jesus born there. Let’s call the journey to Bethlehem an example of Luke’s creative historical imagination.
In Luke, we have no Wise Men, as we saw in Matthew, but angels appear to lowly shepherds, telling them to go visit the baby Jesus. The angels then sing out the famous words of the Gloria: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward all people.”
Jesus was circumcised eight days after his birth. Then forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem to complete Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth. Mary and Joseph simply followed the regulations in Leviticus 12:1-8. The holy family then returned to their home in Nazareth. (Notice that Luke makes no mention of a trip to Egypt.)
Luke’s Infancy Narrative concludes with a story of the twelve-year-old Jesus. While on a trip to Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph lose Jesus. Then they later find him in the temple astounding the teachers there with his understanding.
Today of course – more than two thousand years later – we too are astounded and encouraged not just by his understanding but by his vision and his spirit that truly animates us and gives us hope for today and tomorrow.
Luke’s Gospel climaxes with the account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (24:13–35). Luke’s Jesus is on a journey with us.
PS Well…a number of friends have asked me if Jesus was really born in Bethlehem. Perhaps I should not write this so close to Christmas, but I have always liked the observation of the Catholic biblical scholar, and expert on the historical Jesus, John Meier. He is the author of the five volume series A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Meier has often stressed that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem should be understood as a “theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.” In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
Reactions to last week’s introductory post about the Infancy Narratives have been quite positive. One person, however, did write that he finds much of the Bible a collection of meaningless fables. I respect all who take time to react. I don’t consider the Bible a collection of meaningless fables. But I can understand this man’s concern. For many people, I suspect the Bible is really unknown territory. We really do need to help people read and understand the Bible.
Understanding the Bible is like learning to read a new language. It has nuance, symbolism, metaphor, historical references, and a theological tonality that one needs to learn. Perhaps it is like learning to read music…Starting with the Abraham figure around 2150 BCE, who struggled with his own religious perceptions (at one time he was ready to do a sacrificial burning of his son), all the way to Jesus of Nazareth – Son of Abraham and Son of God — it tells the story of divinity, disclosure, and human belief and discernment.
The biblical narrative has many twists and turns. Many highs and lows, many noble and heroic people as well as some real scoundrels.Throughout the entire biblical account, however, one truth remains: In our deepest experiences, in the very depth of our humanity, even when we are not fully conscious of it, a living presence beats in our hearts. Truly alive and personal, this presence has been called Yahweh, the Sacred, the Divine, the Ground of Being, the Great Spirit: God.
And now, today, we move on to take a look at the Infancy Narrative in the Gospel of Matthew.
A key element in Matthew is the author’s contention that the Hebrew-Christian tradition should not be lost in a church becoming increasingly gentile-Christian. Composed most likely between 80 and 90 CE, Matthew cites the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) far more than any of the other gospels.
Matthew’s author? In 125 CE, Papias (c. 60 – 130 CE) the Bishop of Hierapolis (today’s Pamukkale, Turkey) suggested that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was Matthew the apostle. Most contemporary scholars reject that notion. The unknown author clearly wrote for a community of Greek-speaking Hebrew Christians, most likely in Syria, who were greatly shaken by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Hebrew temple in 70 CE.
Matthew’s infancy narrative, found in chapters 1 and 2, clearly reflects the author’s Hebrew-Christian background.Matthew’s purpose here is clearly to establish the authentic messiahship of the Hebrew Jesus of Nazareth.
Matthew begins with one of the two New Testament creative genealogies for Jesus. The other, which we will see next week, is in Luke. Matthew begins with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1)
Matthew starts with Abraham, while Luke begins with Adam. The lists in Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies are identical between Abraham and David, but they differ radically from that point on. Somewhat unusual, however, Matthew’s list includes four ancient Hebrew women. They were not the typical Hebrew wives. There are various theories about this. Perhaps, the author of Matthew wanted to call attention to Mary as a non-typical wife, who gave birth to Jesus as a “virgin.”
The function of a biblical genealogy is to link religious VIPs: the starting person and the person at the end. And it includes one or more important people in between. So we start with Abraham, father of the Hebrew tradition. We end with Jesus the Hebrew Messiah. In between we have King David (c. 1000 BCE). He was the second king of ancient Israel. He founded the Judaean dynasty and united all the tribes of Israel under a single monarch.
For Matthew what is important is that Jesus is the “son of Abraham” and the “son of David.” (“Son” here equals “descendant.”) Matthew’s genealogy has three sets of fourteen generations. For an ancient numerical system based on seven, fourteen is twice seven, symbolizing perfection.
Looking at the genealogy, mathematically, if the average life span between one generation and the next is about 25 to 30 years, the period covered in Matthew’s genealogy would be 1,260 years. Abraham (or an Abraham figure) existed around 2,150 BCE. Matthew’s genealogy is not therefore about precise history but a symbolic linking of key people in the Hebrew faith tradition with Jesus of Nazareth.
We continue with Matthew’s infancy narrative: In a dream, a heavenly messenger, an “angel” (from the Greek word angelos meaning “messenger”) announces to Joseph, then engaged to Mary, that Mary is pregnant, thanks to God’s spirit. Thus a virgin birth for Jesus.This Joseph dream calls to mind the story of an earlier Joseph and his many dreams in Genesis 37-50.
About the virgin birth, Matthew here quotes the passage in Isaiah 7:14 from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint. The Greek word used here is parthenos which usually means “virgin.” In the original Hebrew language version of the text, the word used is almah which meant very simply a young woman.
The original text from Isaiah was about the mid 8th century BCE King Ahaz, the twelfth king of Judea. The text promises him that God will make him victorious over his enemies. As a sign that this would happen, Isaiah said that a specific almah (“young woman”) had conceived and would bear a son for Ahaz whose name would be Immanuel, “God is with us.” (The young woman was Ahaz’s wife Abijah. The son was Hezekiah, a religious reformer and a much better king than his father.)
In the ancient world, attributing a virgin birth was a way of stressing the importance of an outstanding ruler. Alexander the Great (356 BCE – 323 BCE) and the Caesars were said, by early commentators, to have been “virgin-born.” Is Jesus’ virgin birth an historic event or a major theological symbol?
Unlike the infancy narrative in Luke, Matthew mentions nothing about a census, nothing about a journey to Bethlehem, and nothing about Jesus’ birth in a stable. In Matthew, after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the Wise Men from the east visit him at Joseph and Mary’s house in Bethlehem. They were led there by a star, as well as the Hebrew Scriptures prophecy of Micah 5:2, which I mentioned last week, that a ruler for Israel would come from Bethlehem.
Most contemporary scholars do not consider Matthew’s story about a star leading the Wise Men to Jesus to have been an historical event. (Nevertheless each year in the Christmas season we still read speculations about comets that appear in December.) The ancients believed that astronomical phenomena were connected to terrestrial events. Linking a birth to the first appearance of a star was consistent with a popular belief that each person’s life was linked to a particular star.
The Wise Men, the Magi, were later called “kings” because of the belief that they fulfilled prophecies found in Isaiah and in the Psalms concerning a journey to Jerusalem by gentile kings.
The Wise Men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem. Later Christian thought found symbolic meanings in the three gifts: gold for Christ’s royalty; incense for his priesthood; and myrrh for his burial; but here, in Matthew’s infancy narrative, the gifts are simply appropriate to the status of a new king.
After hearing about Jesus’ birth from the Wise Men, Matthew tells us that Herod the Great (c. 72 BCE – c. 4 BCE), the ruler of Judea, ordered the massacre of all the baby boys of Bethlehem. (Most Herod biographers, however, do not believe that this event ever really occurred.) Joseph, according to Matthew, is warned again by an angel in a dream, to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Note the similarities between Jesus’ early life and that of Moses. Matthew’s point is that Jesus is the New Moses.
After Herod’s death, an angel tells Joseph (again in a dream) to return to Israel. Out of fear of Herod’s son Archelaus, the new ruler of Judea, Joseph takes his family to Nazareth in Galilee, where Jesus is raised. He will be known as Jesus of Nazareth.
Next week, a look at Luke. Luke presents a broader worldview and has two infancy narratives: one for John the Baptizer and one for Jesus. And Luke has a very positive attitude about women.
Thanksgiving was a week ago. But now we are already nearing the second Sunday of Advent.
Today and over the next two week ends, I would like to share reflections about the birth of Jesus as described in the “Infancy Narratives,” which are found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Today some introductory observations. Next week, a look at Matthew’s presentation.
The “birth day” of Jesus of Nazareth is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament, which is quite silent about the day or the time of year when Mary gave birth to her son. In keeping with Hebrew customs at the time, Mary was most likely between 12 and 14 years old when Jesus (Yeshua) was born. Her husband was probably a couple years older. In Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his parents, Mary was called Myriam.
We really don’t know much about Joseph. In Matthew 13:55 we read: “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” Most biblical translations use the word “carpenter” to describe Jesus’ and Joseph’s trade. But the Greek word can be read in many different ways. The word is téktōn, a common term used to describe artisans, craftsmen, and woodworkers. But it also, can refer to stonemasons, builders, and construction workers. Perhaps even what today we call a “handyman.”
Nevertheless, the early Christians did not focus on Jesus’ birth. The key Jesus-event for them was Easter. They rejoiced in their belief that Jesus was raised from the dead and entered a new form of life: promising new life for all who believed and followed him. Christians are Easter people.
It was not really until around 200 CE that Christians began to commemorate a Jesus birth date. Not at first on December 25 but on January 6. Most likely the earliest source for setting December 25 as the date for celebrating Jesus’ birth is a document written by Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 – c. 235). Hippolytus was an important second-third century Christian theologian. Early Christians connected Jesus to Sun imagery through the use of such phrases as his being the “Sun of righteousness.” They Christianized and took over the Roman celebration of the winter solstice which was held on December 25.
New Testament accounts of the birth and early life of Jesus are found only in Matthew 1:1 – 2:23 and Luke 1:5 – 2:52. The accounts are certainly not fairy tales. But they are not strictly historical either. Our Sacred Scriptures contain a variety of literary forms by which the truths of our faith are expressed and communicated. We find poetry, drama, symbolism, metaphors, imaginative recreations of past events, and varying degrees of historical narration. The Bible is primarily about understanding our faith. It is not primarily a history book. I resonate with the observation by the biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan: “My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”
Most people today ignore the differences found in Jesus’ birth accounts in Matthew and Luke. They simply combine the accounts without noticing the differences; and folkloric legends that arose centuries after Jesus’ birth get thrown into the mix.
Neither Matthew nor Luke, for instance, mentions “three kings.” Matthew mentions “wise men” magoi in Greek, from which we get the English word “magi.” Although the “magi” are now commonly referred to as “kings,” there is nothing in the account from the Gospel of Matthew that implies that they were rulers of any kind; and nowhere in the New Testament do we find them called “Balthasar, Melchior, and Casper.” Those names are creations from the 8th century CE.
In Matthew we find: the visit of the wise men, the star, and Herod’s plot to kill Jesus. These are not found in Luke however. In Luke, on the other hand, we find: the birth of John the Baptist, the shepherds, and the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. But these are not found in Matthew.
The differences between Matthew and Luke are nearly impossible to reconcile, although they do share some similarities. The American biblical scholar and Catholic priest, John Meier, has often stressed that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is not to be taken as an historical fact. Meier describes it as a “theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative.” In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. King David (c. 1010 – c. 970 BCE) was born and raised in Bethlehem. No doubt a text from Micah 5:2 in the Hebrew Scriptures contributed to this belief as well: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the rulers of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
The Church of the Nativity, built in the fourth century and located in Bethlehem in the West Bank, Palestine, is built over a cave where Mary is said to have given birth to Jesus. The church has been undergoing extensive renovation – at a cost of $17 million – since 2013. The church was originally commissioned by Constantine the Great (c. 272 – 337 CE) a short time after his mother Helena’s visit to Jerusalem and Bethlehem in 325–326 CE. Helena had been instructed by her son to find important Christian places and artifacts, since Christianity was becoming the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. She paid her scouts well, and they came up with exciting (though not always historically supported) discoveries. Helena also found the“relics of the Magi.” They were kept first in Constantinople; but then moved to Milan. Eight centuries later, in 1164, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa took the “relics of the Magi” and gave them to the Archbishop of Cologne. Whatever they really are, the relic’s are still in Cologne Cathedral.
As I write this reflection, my wife and I are sorting our Christmas decorations and getting ready to set up our “manger scene.” I suspect that few people today realize that our Christmas manger scene imagery owes a lot to St. Francis of Assisi (c 1181 – 1226).
Francis began the Christmas tradition of nativity scenes, because he wanted to help people gain a fresh sense of wonder about “the first Christmas.” Long before Francis set up his first nativity scene in 1223 CE, people celebrated Christmas primarily by going to Mass where priests would tell the Christmas story in a language that most ordinary people really didn’t speak: Latin. Although churches sometimes featured fancy artistic renditions of Christ as an infant, they didn’t present any realistic manger scenes. Francis decided that he wanted to make a difference.
Francis, living in the town of Greccio, Italy at the time, asked his friend John Velita to loan him some animals and straw to set up a scene to represent Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. The scene was set up in a cave just outside Greccio. It featured a wax figure of the infant Jesus, people in costume playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, and a live donkey and an ox that John had loaned to Francis. Francis’ nativity scene presentation proved to be so popular that people in other areas soon began setting up nativity scenes to celebrate Christmas.
Next week we take a close look at Matthew’s infancy narrative.
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