Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Matthew's Christmas

Most of us know Luke's version of the Christmas story--Bethlehem, innkeeper, manger, shepherds, angels. We hear that version every year at Christmas. We probably know some of Matthew's version, too, because Christmas pageants often add the magi and Epiphany to the script. What I don't often do is read Matthew's version of the birth account by itself, without comparing it with Luke's version, trying to reconcile the two very different accounts into one script-worthy story.

This Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year A, we hear Matthew's version of Jesus' birth, but, if you're not paying close attention, you might miss it altogether. Mary, we are told, was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph, before he had divorced her quietly, was told in a dream that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the child within her was by the Holy Spirit. I'll write more about that in a minute, but skip ahead to the end of the dream and see that "When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus." Merry Christmas, y'all!

Since, compared with Luke, we don't often get this story by itself, I want to dig around in it for a little while. For starters, notice how Matthew begins his gospel account in the seventeen verses before Sunday's gospel lesson: "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham..." You may not like reading lists of names, but take some time and read through it. Some of the names aren't all that familiar (Nahshon and Salathiel, for example), but a good number of them have played a big role in the story of salvation (like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, like Boaz and Ruth, like David and Solomon, like Hezekiah and Josiah). Matthew gives us a tidy summary that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to King David, fourteen more from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen more until the Messiah's birth. Matthew doesn't only want us to remember the names. He wants us to see the symmetry--the perfect and beautiful balance that has made Jesus' birth more than just a timely moment. For Matthew, it's a perfect moment in salvation history.

Matthew uses Hebrew prophecies to make a similar point. Not only in Sunday's passage but throughout his account, Matthew goes out of his way to make clear theological connections between what he knows about the Jewish tradition and what he understands to be true in Jesus. This week, we hear him remind us that Isaiah predicted that a virgin would conceive and bear a son and name him Emmanuel. Notice not only what prophecy Matthew highlights but also how he does it. The angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus. But Matthew reminds us as an editorial comment that "all of this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet." Matthew isn't worried that the prophecy points to a virgin-conceived child named Emmanuel, not Joshua or Jesus (same name). For him, Jesus' birth is a broader yet clear fulfillment of that prophecy. As we find in the story of the flight to Egypt, making connections between Jesus' life and the Jewish tradition is important for Matthew because it shows us how clearly and intentionally Jesus is the focal point of God's larger story of salvation.

Lastly, as I've read through Matthew's birth and infancy narrative, I'm reminded how unimportant Mary seems. This is more or less her shining moment--that she was found to be with child. Matthew gives no account of how she got pregnant except to say that it's by the Holy Spirit. Matthew doesn't let us see her experience of that news as Luke does. Instead, it's all about Joseph. He has the dream. He decides to keep her. He has no marital relations with her. He named him Jesus. If you read ahead, he's the one who has a dream that warns him to flee Judea. Matthew tells us that "Joseph took the child and his mother" with him on that journey to a foreign land. Already, by that point, Mary's identity has become subordinate to her child's. Why? Because, in Matthew's mind, other than being a virgin who conceives, Mary has no role in the fulfillment of prophecy. It starts with the genealogy and continues from there. Perhaps it's interesting that, despite emphasizing the role Joseph plays, Matthew never refers to him as Jesus' father (something Luke does frequently). In the end, because of his emphasis on the patriarchal story (in fact treating Joseph like a patriarch, through whom God acts), Matthew neglects to tell us much about Jesus' mother, and, despite not being much of a Mariologist, I miss it. But I suspect that Matthew, who has a different understanding of how and why Jesus' story should be told, would be confused at that sense of loss.

As we read and hear Matthew's birth narrative, I encourage you to do more than compare it with the version you know better. Notice why this is important to Matthew. If you haven't read all the way through Matthew's gospel account yet this liturgical year, do it. Hear again why the genealogy is important, why Joseph plays a critical role, and how Matthew understands Jesus' birth, life, and death as more than just another chapter in salvation history. If we don't stop to hear it now, it may be three more years before we notice again.

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