The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing,
as they rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as people make merry when dividing spoils.
For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.
For every boot that tramped in battle,
every cloak rolled in blood,
will be burned as fuel for flames.
For a child is born to us, a son is given us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful,
from David’s throne, and over his kingdom,
which he confirms and sustains
by judgment and justice,
both now and forever.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!
The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own,
eager to do what is good.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David,
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Have you ever noticed the contradictions in the two gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth? Perhaps one of the most significant disagreements revolves around where Joseph and Mary lived before their son’s birth.
In today’s Lucan pericope, they originally reside in Nazareth and temporarily end up in Bethlehem because of a return-to-hometown-census decreed by Caesar Augustus – an improbable census which no historian has yet been able to track down. After a short stay in David’s city, the three return to Nazareth where Jesus spends his childhood.
In Matthew, on the other hand, Joseph and Mary already live in Bethlehem. Their roundabout path to Nazareth is triggered by King Herod’s slaughter of children in an attempt to kill the Messiah – an atrocious action which even National Geographic claimed several years ago most probably didn’t happen. The Holy Family first flees to Egypt, then, instead of returning to Bethlehem, eventually decide to settle in Nazareth.
We’ve traditionally gotten around these contradictions by combining the two narratives into a third account which we use for our school Christmas plays and display in the crib sets under our Christmas trees. Since we’re so unfamiliar with Scripture almost no one notices this crime against divine inspiration. (I trust over the centuries that God has mercifully been shielding Matthew and Luke in heaven from this atrocity.)
Having heard these gospel birth stories all our lives, most of us believe we’re listening to historical, accurate accounts of this important event, yet we’re actually coming into contact with each evangelist’s unique theology, not unbiased history. If we only had one gospel, we might be excused if we think we’re listening to history. Thankfully we have two narrating the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. The contradictions are one proof we’re dealing with theology, not history. It’s one thing to see something happen; quite another to understand the meaning of what happened. Theology’s main goal is to convey meaning. That’s why we almost always find contradictions in biblical theology. There’s always more than one set of implications for any given event.
Like most Christians of his day and age, Luke was theologically convinced Isaiah was speaking about Jesus as Messiah when in today’s first reading he proclaimed the Messiah’s Prince of Peace “dominion” over all people. No wonder Luke calls upon angels to announce “peace to those on whom (God’s) favor rests.” If you’ve experienced such peace in your following of Jesus, then you theologically insert something about that peace in your birth narrative.
The unknown author of the letter to Titus does something similar in our second reading. Because he theologically interprets Jesus’ death and resurrection as a cleansing of ourselves from “lawlessness,” he encourages his readers to “reject godless ways and worldly desires,” until the day when the risen Jesus returns in glory. It’s important to note that as meaningful as this theology is for many Christians, it significantly differs from Luke’s theology of the same event.
Perhaps one way to avoid the “schmaltz” accompanying our modern celebrations of Christmas would be to create our own theology of Jesus’ birth. Imitating Matthew and Luke, we shouldn’t start our theologizing with Bethlehem and Nazareth, angels and shepherds, but with our own personal, unique experience of the risen Jesus in our daily lives. With what would we compare that experience? Is there anything we’ve read or seen that would help others know what happens when we daily imitate Jesus? Or even better, would help ourselves more deeply understand that experience?
Jesus’ birth not only had meaning for people 2,000 years ago, it should also have meaning for us today. If on this special day we don’t explore that significance in our own lives, we’re simply freeloading on other peoples’ experiences.