I have a friend who every Christmas sets up two nativity scenes under her family tree. One is a stable with the new-born Jesus lying in a feed trough; Mary, Joseph, animals and shepherd gather round the baby while angels hover overhead. The other is a house with a large picture window through which one can see the infant Jesus asleep in his crib; Joseph and Mary are busy with household chores, oblivious both to the magi approaching their front door and an exceptionally bright star situated above their roof. The first scene is from Luke; the second, from Matthew.
Most of us know about Jesus’ birth not by reading the two at times contradictory narratives describing the event, but by remembering the Christmas plays and pageants in which we were involved as children, plays and pageants which combined both Matthew and Luke’s narratives into a third, non-biblical account.
Our gospel stories are different because Matthew and Luke’s implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection are different. Christian faith begins not with Jesus’ birth, but with his death and resurrection. It was at least three centuries before anyone even celebrated Christmas. Yet we presume Easter was commemorated the first year after Jesus’ resurrection.
In tonight’s Lucan pericope we hear two of the evangelist’s theological themes: journey and reaching out to the “disenfranchised.” Faith is always a journey for Luke, a journey along which we experience dying and rising with Jesus in our personal, day-by-day lives. So it’s no surprise that Joseph and Mary begin their faith experience with a trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And since Luke constantly reminds his readers that their dying and rising frequently revolves around reaching out to those on the fringes of society, neither should we be surprised that the first people who are told about Jesus’ birth and actually show up at the stable are shepherds - people disdainfully pushed to the perimeter of 1st century CE Palestinian culture. What Luke was convinced the historical Jesus brought about at the end of his earthly life, he presumed could already be discovered at the beginning of that life.
This same conviction also prompted Jesus’ first followers to reinterpret the Hebrew Scriptures. Though modern students of Scripture cringe at this blatant eisegesis of biblical texts, such Christian interpretation was encouraged 1,900 years ago. References and titles originally created and applied to King Hezikiah in tonight’s Isaiah passage were later attached to Jesus. He’s now the one who leads us out of darkness to light; he’s become for us “God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Our experience of becoming one with the dying/rising Jesus has forced us to reinterpret everything.
Writing late in the l’ century CE, the unknown author of the letter to Titus has had a long time to reflect on the significance of Jesus’ risen presence in our lives, and the self-dignity it surfaces. “For the grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways . . . To cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.” Jesus’ birth in our lives causes us to be reborn into a more fulfilling life.
Those who get lost in the details of Jesus’ birth tonight are missing the point our sacred authors are trying to get across. Scholars remind us that the infancy narratives were the last gospel traditions to take shape. The earliest were the passion/resurrection narratives. If during our celebration of Jesus’ birth we don’t surface several ways in which we can die by giving ourselves unselfishly to others, we’ve not correctly listened to the three readings. Our lives are different only because Jesus’ dying and rising has made them different.