Matthew’s story of the birth of Jesus is about economic refugees, war and resistance that takes place on the margins of empire—and it still resonates grimly today.
During Advent, 2010, I’ll offer four brief meditations on Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth, one for each week. I won’t follow the Year A Revised Common Lectionary’s Sunday readings, however, because it doles out Matthew’s birth narrative in disjointed pieces (Mt 1:18-25 = fourth Advent; Mt 2:13-23 = first Christmas; and Mt 2:1-12 = Epiphany). Rather I’ll look at the story whole, and in context.
Advent is the season of unexpected arrivals. In the biblical drama, re-enacted each year in the cycle of the liturgical calendar, Advent is the time when salvation history stands still, holding its breath in anticipation. We look for the One who has come, who is here, who yet will come: Emmanuel (Mt 1:23). But when, and how, does this One appear?
Contrary to the popular triumphalistic fantasies endemic to our North American churches, the New Testament insists that the One slips into our world like a “thief in the night” (I Thess 5:2). God comes among us unnoticed, as one of the outcast poor—yet this unheralded epiphany, the Book insists, poses a sharp challenge to the rule of domination by the rich and powerful.
May this sacred tale from the entrails of a long-vanquished Leviathan, spun and preserved by people of conscience with no certainty of the consequences, give us hope in our own season of imperial foreboding. The Bible has seen our own historical moment before, and God, we are assured, is in the midst of it.
First Week of AdventAn Introduction to the Gospel “Christmas Pageant”
The biblical nativity stories, in their focus on the struggle for life by people of conscience in the midst of overbearing imperial strategies of death, can serve as an alternative compass from which we can set new bearings for our holiday celebrations. They invite us to re-imagine Advent/Christmas as a time to resist not only the delusions of our consumer society, but also the rule of Domination in the world.
The popular (and thoroughly domesticated and sentimentalized) version of the Christmas story that is sung in carols and portrayed in manger scenes is a highly selective conflation of the two gospel accounts. In fact, the narratives of Matthew (Mt 1-2) and Luke (Lk 1-2) have few details in common. Yet they agree on one basic theme: God slips quietly into a world of brutal rulers and hard-pressed refugees, and a few unheralded people manage to recognize the Presence, and act accordingly.
Whereas the literature of antiquity (like the media in our culture) focused almost exclusively upon rich and famous personalities as the proper subjects of story and history, the gospels portray ordinary people as the protagonists of the Christmas narrative. Joseph and Mary are unlikely heroes: their low social status is indicated by their inability to procure lodging when in desperate straits (Lk 2:7), but they are spiritually powerful, sensitive to dreams (Mt 1:22-23; 2:15; 2:23) and visions (Lk 1:26ff). They are distinguished by their courage to endure harsh conditions (Mary gives birth in a barn, Lk 2:16) and to make hard choices (fleeing the country, Mt 1:14-15). Surrounding the Holy Family, meanwhile, is a dubious and obscure cast of characters: faithful “church-goers” (Lk 1:5-25; 2:25-38), caring relatives (Lk 1:39ff), foreign emissaries (Mt 2:1f), shepherds (Lk 2:8-20), and angels everywhere.
Here I will focus on Matthew’s narrative, which is composed around three elements:
a) a genealogy (1:1-17);
b) Joseph’s dreams (1:18-25; 2:13-15; 2:19-23);
c) and the murderous plotting of King Herod (2:1-12; 2:16-18).
The latter two elements are woven together into five “scenes” which constitute the first “act” in the theatre of Matthew’s gospel. Each scene turns on a citation from the Hebrew Bible:
1. Mt 1:18-25: Jesus’ birth, Joseph’s first dream (1:23 = Isaiah 7:14);
2. Mt 2:1-12: Herod, the Child and the Magi, Joseph’s 2nd dream (2:6 = Micah 5:2);
3. Mt 2:13-15: The Holy Family’s flight (2:15 = Hosea 11:1);
4. Mt 2:16-18: Herod’s reaction (2:17f = Jeremiah 31:15);
5. Mt 2:19-23: The return to Nazareth, Joseph’s third dream (2:23 = Isaiah 11:1?).
By relating the events surrounding Jesus’ birth to the prophetic tradition, Matthew seeks to strengthen their credibility and anchor them in the wider scope of salvation history.
The three dream sequences are a literary vehicle with much the same function, and are identical in structure. The deteriorating plot is interrupted by an angel who appears to Joseph in a dream (1:20; 2:13; 2:19). The angel issues a command, along with its rationale; Joseph then “gets up” and obeys (1:24f; 2:14f; 2:21). These revelations signal that Yahweh is intimately involved on the side of the weak and disenfranchised in a struggle with the Powers (represented by Herod) for true sovereignty.