In my previous post
I looked at the Christmas story as it appears in the Gospel of Matthew. Now I'm going to look at the Christmas story as recorded in the first two chapters of Luke
If there is a theme to Luke's version of the Christmas story, it's the unexpected.
The gospel begins with the story of a couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth, who don't appear anywhere else in the Bible. They are an older couple with no children. Zechariah is a priest. While he is offering incense, the angel Gabriel appears and tells him that his wife will soon get pregnant. Zechariah is skeptical, and as a consequence his voice is taken away until the child is born.
Next, Gabriel finds a girl named Mary, and tells her that she too will soon be pregnant. Like Zechariah, Mary is skeptical. She tries to explain to Gabriel that she can't get pregnant while she is still a virgin, but Gabriel isn't interested in a biology lesson. God will make it happen, he tells her.
Right at the beginning, we have two unexpected pregnancies. After both women have conceived, Mary visits Elizabeth. Elizabeth feels her child leap in her womb. He wasn't even born yet and he already recognized the presence of the Christ. (Later, John would send messengers from prison to ask whether Jesus was the one. (Luke 7:18-23) Did he forget?)
Mary responds to Elizabeth with a song of praise that includes the words:He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
I can't recall any Christmas carols of our time that use harsh words toward those in power. But in the context of Luke's gospel, this reversal of fortune is just one more unexpected element of the story.
After Mary leaves, Elizabeth gives birth. Because Zechariah still can't speak, others are prepared to give the boy his name. They choose the name Zechariah to honor his father, but his father surprises them by writing the name John -- the name Gabriel gave him -- on a tablet. Once again, the unexpected.
After naming his son John, Zechariah is able to speak again, and he wastes no time speaking about what great things John will do. And yet, within Zechariah's prophecy, he says that John's role will merely be to "prepare the way" for the Lord. And that's the end of chapter 1.
Chapter 2 begins with one of the best known stories of the Bible, Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem, giving birth in a stable because there was no room in the inn. There are two unexpected turns in this part of the story. Jesus of Nazareth was not from Nazareth. He was born in Bethlehem, the City of David. And yet, the one who would later be called King of Kings and Lord of Lords was born in a barn.
It's such a familiar part of the Christmas story that we might have trouble imagining Christmas without it. Yet, as history the Bethlehem trip is problematic for two reasons. First, it contradicts Matthew's account of Mary and Joseph having a house in Bethlehem, and second, Galilee was not under Roman authority until some ten years after Herod's death. There's simply no reason that Joseph should have taken his pregnant fiancee into Roman-controlled territory to register for a census when as a Galilean he would be exempt. And yet, if the gospel of Luke has anything to tell us about Jesus' birth, it is that nothing matches our expectations.
After Jesus is born, a group of angels announce his birth. They hand out cigar-shaped bubble gum with the words "It's a boy!" written on the side, and post a picture of him on the Internet. No, wait. That's what I did when my
son was born. No, the angels call a press conference, which is covered live by CNN and Fox News, to announce that the Messiah is here. No? Then they tell the king's advisors the good news that the real
king has arrived, and Herod can step down any time. No again? Well, at least they notify a group of astrologers in another country, who are led to Jesus by a star. No, that's the other gospel.
In Luke, the angels announce Jesus's birth by informing some shepherds, of all people. They wouldn't have been my first choice to notify, but maybe there is more to this than meets the eye. Perhaps this is foreshadowing the day when Jesus would be known as the good shepherd.
Eventually Mary and Joseph leave Bethlehem and go, not to Egypt as Matthew states, but to Jerusalem for the rituals of purification. Jerusalem is Herod's city, but Herod is not mentioned here. Two people are mentioned, though, the prophets Simeon and Anna. They both praise God for this baby. Simeon even says that he can now die in peace, knowing that he has seen God's chosen one. Then Mary and Joseph take Jesus back to Nazareth.
The conflict with Herod, the massacre of the innocents, the flight to Egypt simply don't appear in this gospel. I suspect this omission is intentional by Luke, to emphasize just what Jesus's role was as Messiah. Jerusalem was both the political and the spiritual center of Judean life, yet even when he was an infant Jesus's focus in Jerusalem was on the spiritual. That's not the kind of Messiah everyone was expecting.
I'm sure there is a lot more to each of these birth narratives than I've listed in these two brief posts. I've got a lot more studying ahead of me before I'll be able to say I understand the birth of Jesus. But one thing I have learned is this: These two gospels don't absolutely need each other. Each may lack some details that are covered by the other, but both birth narratives are complete in themselves. While it may sound odd to our modern ears to hear a Christmas story without both shepherds and wise men, or without both the journey to Bethlehem and the flight to Egypt, the reality is that each of these gospels has something to tell us about Jesus's birth. While we may learn something from combining the two, we can also learn by letting each one speak for itself.