When I was young, I remember the Christmas story being very simple and straightforward: God sent the baby Jesus to save the world. Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger because there was no room at the inn. There was a special star… and angels… and shepherds… lots of singing and rejoicing… and kings… and presents! And it all happened a long, long time ago. Simple. Later I learned that Mary and Joseph had had to travel to Bethlehem from their hometown of Nazareth because of something having to do with taxes. And then there was something about King Herod… Holy Innocents… and a trip to Egypt. Hmmmm. That was a bit more complicated… and disconcerting… especially the part about the Innocents.
Later still, someone clued me into the fact that the kings were probably not actual kings… just “wise men” (whatever that meant) or perhaps even astrologers! Not quite as impressive. And that the wondrous “star of Bethlehem” was most-likely only a rare, but naturally occurring, astronomical phenomenon: a comet or a triple conjunction of stars that happened to have taken place around the time of Jesus’ birth. And that Jesus’ birth didn’t actually occur in the year 1 AD, but might have happened six years before… or six years after… or somewhere in between. And that the mother of Immanuel, as foretold by Isaiah, would not necessarily have had to be a virgin… maybe just a “young girl.” Now things were really getting complicated.
Somewhere along the way I figured out that none of the Gospel writers was actually part of Jesus’ inner circle of (twelve) apostles, and that there were differences between all of the supposedly “infallible” Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. I knew that not all of the Gospels included the story of Jesus’ birth, but it wasn’t until I was in seminary that I got around to doing a side-by-side comparison of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (the two that do contain birth narratives) and noticed that, while both affirm that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, only Luke tells of Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem… and the stable and the manger. Surely, there were angels and shepherds in Luke’s Gospel, but no star of wonder… no wise men. Matthew, on the other hand, doesn’t even mention Nazareth until he informs us that Joseph and Mary settled there after their return from Egypt (a trip that Luke neglects entirely). Apparently, Matthew would have us understand that the story of Jesus’ birth begins and ends in Bethlehem. But Matthew does tell us of the star and the Magi…and the massacre of the Holy Innocents.
And it was also in seminary that I learned that the reason the Gospel narratives each tells the story of Jesus Messiah a little differently is that the writers were likely responding to the needs of their own worshipping communities in their specific place and time. For example, the Gospel of Matthew was likely written in Antioch in Syria in the last quarter of the first century, while Luke’s Gospel was written around the same time but in a different part of the Hellenized (Greek speaking) world… perhaps in Ephesus or Smyrna, in modern day Turkey. We may not be able to pinpoint times or places with exactitude, but we can absolutely discern the efforts of the Gospel writers to establish a connection between the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and the nascent Christian communities springing up in different parts of the Roman world. One can read between-the-lines in Luke’s Gospel the Evangelist’s concern with leveraging the Good News of Jesus Christ to help promote justice and equity for all people, not only within his local community, but in the wider world. The subtext of Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, reminds us that the life and ministry of Jesus fulfills all of the Old Testament prophesies concerning the advent of a “Messianic apocalypse,” wherein the Jews will be rewarded for their faithfulness and “the nations” (non-Jewish gentiles) will stream to the light of the God of the Hebrews (Isaiah 60:3). And these are all wonderful rabbit holes we can explore together one day… but not today. The present takeaway is that Matthew likely felt that the story of the star… and the gentile wise men coming to pay homage to the king of the Jews… was important because it foreshadowed the coming Jewish Messianic apocalypse. The Magi were the first gentiles to get on board.
As for detailed timelines, do we really need them? What do they do for us? We work so hard to bring God down to our level… to rationalize and explain the unexplainable, that we run the risk of missing the point: whether Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great or while Quirinius was governor of Syria (they are about twelve years apart) isn’t the key issue. The writer of the fourth Gospel tells us, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . [and that] from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14a, 16). That’s the Good News: that the Word became flesh for all of us—for all races and ethnicities, all genders, for the rich and the poor, and for everyone in between. For saints and for sinners… for people who believe… and for people who do not. For all of us. God loves us that much! So simple. So profound. And as for the star, maybe it was a comet or a triple conjunction… or maybe something else… but I’m pretty sure that the God of all Creation could plant a no-kidding “Star of Wonder” in the heavens to signify and celebrate the birth of the Word without breaking a sweat. What do you think?
The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, is God’s ultimate gift to the world. And each of us is also given a gift through which we can glorify God and hasten the coming of the Kingdom—if we choose to do so—if we are faithful. Some people’s gifts make headlines: the gifts of people like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King, Jr. But not everyone is called to be famous. Just as Jesus came to be a Messiah for all of us, so too are all of God’s gifts to be valued and cherished. Towards the end of the movie “The Nativity Story” (2006), we find Joseph and Mary on the final leg of their journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary is cold and worn out, and she and Joseph gratefully accept the offer of a shepherd… to warm themselves by his fire for a few minutes. Mary says to the shepherd, “I will tell our child about you—about your kindness.” The shepherd responds, “My father told me a long time ago… that we are all given something. A gift. Your gift is what you carry inside.” “What was your gift?” Mary asks. “Nothing…” the shepherd responds, “nothing but the hope of waiting for one.” The shepherd’s gift was the most humble gift imaginable: the gift of hope. We are not left simply to hope in the absence of a gift from God. Hope is a gift from God. And in this story, the shepherd’s offering of kindness… of light and warmth and hope, helped to ease the cold and weariness of the Mother of Christ as she made her way to Bethlehem to help bring about the salvation of the world by delivering the gift of light to a people who walked in darkness (cf. Isaiah 9:1-7). And just as wise men from the East followed a star to bring their gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the Christ child—a long, long time ago—so too are we to bring our own gifts to lay before the feet of Immanuel in this day and time, to help bring about God’s Kingdom on Earth.
What is your gift? How will you choose to pay it forward? I pray that you will experience a renewed epiphany of Jesus Messiah in your life, and in your heart, in the next days and weeks as you work to discern your role as a member of the Body of Christ in God’s ongoing Christmas story… for a world in great need of hope.