Friday, December 20, 2019 - Updated: 10:44 am
QUESTION: I assumed that the “Christmas story,” as we know it, comes right out of the Bible. But as I read the Gospels, no one Gospel has the whole story. Why is that, and how do we know what really happened?
ANSWER: The birth of Jesus is described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The description found in Matthew’s Gospel is told through the eyes of Joseph (see Chapters 1 and 2). It is Joseph who is told that a son will be born with the power of the Most High; it is Joseph who is warned of the evil designs of Herod; and it is Joseph who is given the sign to return from Egypt. Matthew’s account includes shades of challenge and danger.
Luke’s account, however (see Chapters 1 and 2), is told through Mary’s eyes, and is filled with joy and fulfillment. It is written in the context of beautiful descriptions of John the Baptist and Jesus (told in a parallel narrative style).
The birth of Jesus is not described in Mark’s Gospel because, being the shortest account and likely the earliest, it was intended to give just the essentials of the message. When John’s Gospel deals with the birth of Jesus, his concern is with the existence of the Christ before his birth — a reflection on the relationship of the Christ to the eternal God.
Knowing the sources, we can deal with what they say. First, we should acknowledge that the inspired authors of Scripture were captivated by their message and were not simple reporters but participants relating experiences that meant a great deal to them. In this light, details became less important than essentials. Thus, regarding the essentials, there are no doubts — conception by the Holy Spirit; birth from the Virgin Mary; Jesus as the fulfillment of the Davidic promise; Jesus as savior and sign of contradiction.
The details, however, diverge; not because some are true and some aren’t, but because the inspired authors were writing for specific communities with different questions and concerns. Thus, we have a central message with differing details. For example, only Matthew mentions the magi. In doing so, Matthew never calls them kings, but rather uses the Greek word magoi (magi in Latin). These were seen as astrologers known for their wisdom. Their number is never specified and, in ancient traditions, varies to as many as 12.
The “star” is recorded only in Matthew’s account and is employed to explain the presence of astrologers. Its meaning, however, is found as an echo of the passage from the Book of Numbers that says: “... a star shall advance from Jacob” (Numbers 24:17). Were there animals at the manger? Scripture does not record their presence. Yet, later reflection recalls the text from Isaiah: “an ox knows its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger” (1:3).
What then is the “true” story? Each of the Gospels record a faith-filled experience that was accepted as true. Both of the inspired authors and their communities heard the Gospel accounts with hearts filled with faith. The “real” Nativity story then can be accepted with the same faith in which it was written and heard within the Gospel communities.
Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.