Friday, March 11, 2011

Christmas stories

Links: my other postings on Lent ; our church's reading plan
Yesterday's Scripture reading according to our church's reading plan included verses from Matthew and Luke: Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38; Luke 2:21-40. Why just Matthew and Luke, and why ordered like this?

Well, Christmas -- the birth of Christ -- is only mentioned in these two gospels. That's right -- Mark and John do not talk about the Lord's birth at all. All four gospels talk about Christ's death and resurrection, but only two talk about his birth. Yet, as Buechner says, Christmas is as much of a miracle -- it's the invasion of the Creator into his created order.

Why start with Matthew 1:18-25 and then do 1:1-17 afterward? I guess it's so that the day's reading starts with some action. Here's how Jesus was born, Matthew tells us, recounting the unexpected pregnancy, Joseph's thought of possibly divorcing Mary quietly (rather than having her shot), the various revelations Joseph got through dreams, the Magi's visit, the flight to Egypt, and so on.

Next we get Luke's account, the passage millions of Americans heard and perhaps memorized from A Charlie Brown Christmas: Luke 2:1-20, including the shepherds' visit. An interesting thing I heard recently, from a Christmas eve sermon actually, is that "no room at the inn" (Luke 2:7) might be better be translated "guest room was already occupied." Apparently, in towns like Bethlehem, people might have an upper room or guest room. The entire family (including domestic animals) might live on the lower level. And a manger (Luke 7) is where a newborn child might normally be placed.

So the message of Luke 2 isn't so much about rejecting Jesus (as John 1:11) -- that came later -- as it is about how when Jesus came, he came in the way any peasant child might come, wrapped in cloths ("strips of cloth" or "swaddling clothes" in other translations) and placed in a manger, as any peasant child would be.

The genealogies come next; tradition has it that Matthew's list describes Joseph's lineage whereas Luke's list describes Mary's. This is consistent with a totally uninformed theory of mine, viz., that Luke got a lot of his information through interviews with Mary, and that she lived long after Joseph had passed away. (Here's a short piece summarizing my understanding of what Matthew's genealogy tells us about Jesus's identity.) In any case, I think the editors of the reading list did well to give us the genealogies after the birth story.

What I got out of these readings is Jesus's radical identification with us: he is at once the Savior and Sacrifice, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and yet also came through a line of ancestors that included Rahab and Ruth and Tamar, arrived as any peasant child, fled like a criminal in the earliest part of his life.

What an amazing love our God has for us, to enter into this sorry world during a dark time, to have to flee for his life, and eventually to die for our sins. How fortunate and blessed we are to be loved like that!

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