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DECEMBER 23, 2012: FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Readings: 

Micah 5: 1-4a
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

Was Jesus of Nazareth actually born in Bethlehem? Or is that just a theological way for Matthew and Luke to convey their belief that he was the Messiah?

Although a majority of Scripture scholars still believe in the geographical accuracy of the gospel accounts, a significant minority question that part of the infancy narratives. Even a cursory reading of Matthew and Luke's narratives surfaces significant contradictions. Though both evangelists agree that Jesus was born in David's hometown, each has a different way to get Mary and Joseph to the town for the blessed event. Matthew presumes the pair already live there. (He then must find a way to eventually get them up to Nazareth.) Luke, on the other hand, creates a Roman census to move this newly married couple from their home in Nazareth down to Bethlehem.

No one familiar with Jewish history can deny that the evangelists' focus on Bethlehem was rooted in their belief that Jesus was the Messiah whom their fellow Jews had been expecting for centuries. Because the original concept of Messiah revolved around Jewish kings - all descendants of David - the earliest biblical references to Messiah frequently mentioned Bethlehem, as we hear in today's Micah reading. "You, Bethlehem-Ephrata, too small to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; whose origin is from of old, from ancient times." In other words, we're waiting for a special descendant of David to arrive, someone who will return us to those glory days of old.

No wonder Jesus' first followers presume that, if he were the Davidic Messiah, he, like his ancestor, would have to be born in Bethlehem.

Yet those same followers also were convinced that Jesus of Nazareth offered much more than the vast majority of first century CE Jews expected of their Messiah; among other things, as the author of our Hebrews passage mentions, he set up a new way of worshipping God. "In holocausts and sin offerings you (God) took no delight.... These are offered according to the law. Then he (Jesus) says, 'Behold, I come to do your will.' he takes away the first to establish the second." Jesus is a Messiah who taught that doing God's will was more fulfilling and righteous than carrying out all the minutiae of liturgical regulations. No one seemed to be expecting that kind of a savior.

Luke believes that those who follow such a unique Messiah have one basic task: to hear God's word and carry it out. He focuses on Jesus' mother as the person who constantly fulfills that responsibility. Notice that whenever Mary appears in Luke's gospel, there's always something mentioned about her fulfilling God's word. For instance, in the annunciation, she responds, "Let it be done to me according to your word." And when someone from the crowd later yells out to Jesus, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!" he yells back, "Blessed rather are those who hear God's word and carry it out!"

In today's pericope, Elizabeth is given the honor of mentioning Mary's special "messianic" characteristic. "Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."

In some sense, it doesn't matter where Jesus was born. Because his earliest followers believed he was the Messiah, Bethlehem certainly had to come into the picture. But whether it was Bethlehem or Nazareth, it was essential for them to imitate those parts of his personality which were really messianic. Perhaps the big question today is how do we surface the word of God which contains God's will?