Have any plans for the next few days?
As we take a collective deep breath amid the helter-skelter of the season on this fourth Sunday of Advent—and not until today in our Advent Scripture texts—we hear the first whiff of divine childbirth in today’s Gospel.
First Sunday of Advent gave us cosmic brooding with focus on the Second Coming of Christ, while the Second and Third Sundays of Advent brought edgy John the Baptist in our face, but this Fourth Sunday turns the corner to announce pending new birth and new hope.
However joyful, painful or zany the coming days may be for you, I hope this Fourth Sunday of Advent provides spiritual reboot and reconnection to the holy roots of this season.
For all the hype of Christmas, you may be surprised to know that Jesus’ infancy narrative takes but a tiny fraction of the New Testament.
In aggregate, the four Gospels—MT, MK, LK and JN—occupy 89 chapters, and yet only four—only two if you omit genealogies—chapters and can be found only in MT and LK.
MK omits baby Jesus entirely and begins his gospel with the adult Jesus at the River Jordan.
JN’s great prologue—In the beginning was the Word—waxes profound about light and darkness but omits any obstetrics.
What we know as Christmas comes down to MT and LK, and yet they give us radically different stories with no overlap in detail.
Except for Mary and Jesus, every other 2-legged and 4-legged Pageant creature from last Sunday walks off the stage and never returns in Jesus’ adult ministry—e.g., no aged Magi telling stories from back in the day.
Last Sunday and this morning at 8:45, our Jesus class explored the Infancy Narrative texts from MT and LK—we’ll take another lap around the manger after church in our Forum.
MT’s much shorter Christmas stories mixes adrenaline and dramatic imagery, as exotic Magi visit, Herod plots infanticide, and Joseph grabs newborn Jesus by the diaper to flee into Egypt with uncanny resemblance to Moses
LK’s much longer and more bucolic version gave us all of last Sunday’s Pageant, the double births of cousins John and Jesus, the census, the manger, smelly sheep and quiet return to Nazareth.
While materially different in detail and often conflated in the modern telling, both narratives tell a powerful birth story while also connecting Jesus to his unique vocation from the first moments of life, even life in the womb.
To the extent that you are facing a rugged extended family visit in the coming days, remember also that the Christmas story bristles with a fugal theme of tension between Jesus’ biological and eschatological family—2000 years later, we’re still debating whether Joseph supplied the DNA
Which brings us to Matthew’s Annunciation story that we heard in today’s Gospel
Interestingly, in MT the angel speaks to Joseph, where in LK the angel speaks to Mary—both give us the Bible’s version of a gender-reveal party.
First, you don’t have to be a Jungian analyst to appreciate the biggest sleeper of the entire season—Joseph learns of Jesus’ unique birth and, later, the threat of Herod—in a dream, reminding us again to pay attention to how God works us night and day.
In today’s story, we find the roots of the so-called Immaculate Conception—causing centuries of snickering or rolling eyes—yet this piece has less to do with sexual prudishness than God’s and Jesus’ unique bond in utero onward.
Joseph may have missed one piece of the action, but he claims his unique role—encouraged by the angel—to name Jesus as the definitive act of paternity.
Everyone has a birth story, and in this season Jesus gets his—two stories, actually, in MT and LK.
For all the joy and innocence we experienced in last Sunday’s Pageant—again, all LK, no MT—Jesus’ infancy narrative also fulfills decidedly adult themes that foreshadow his destiny and provide a Gospel in miniature.
MT presages the reality that some will come to pay Jesus homage—like the exotic Magi that we’ll revisit on Jan 5—while others will seek to do him harm—like mad Herod.
Centuries later, Martin Luther would proclaim that Jesus was born in the hardwood of the manger before dying on the hardwood of the cross.
Born with no silver spoon in his mouth, darkness nearly snuffs out baby Jesus before his harrowing escape into Egypt.
While we hear no stories about Jesus’ ear infections or colic, we experience both the joy and harrowing reality of what it means to be a mother or father if Jesus and his parents fully embody our earthly human condition.
Finally, Jesus’ birth narrative speaks to decidedly adult themes that shook the early Jesus Movement as the embryonic Church took shape.
Is Jesus simply a very good man, the best of breed—Mr. Rogers on steroids—or is Jesus God incarnate?
Did Jesus eventually have to prove his unique vocation by harrowing acts like crucifixion, or did his unique Sonship become apparent in gestational events like today’s Annunciation?
Was Jesus the fulfillment of Hebrew hopes, or did decidedly non-Hebrew witnesses like the gentile Magi come to pay him homage—by extension, how would Hebrew and Gentile Christians get along?
Was the Christ an ethereal divine force above the fray, or did Jesus get his hands dirty in his human incarnation?
That’s a lot of stuff to pack into 2-3 chapters from two Gospels
If your existential center of gravity leans to the dramatic and contingent side of life, I suspect you like MT’s version of Christmas and find LK a bit dull
If you like to chill and reduce cosmic stress, however, I suspect you will identify with LK
If you are unsure, please come to today’s Forum, where we’ll make a final decision
As we turn the corner toward Christmas Eve and Day, I hope you will reflect and say a prayer of thanks for God’s greatest gift of all, a divine savior born in a manger (at least for LK)
On this first full day after the winter’s solstice, light a candle in the spirit of St John, who reminds us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it
Give personal thanks to Andrea Dedmon for deleting Matthew’s slaughter of the innocents from last Sunday’s Pageant, but remember that Jesus lives with full human contingency and threat of harm from his first moments of life in his complete identification with our human condition, culminating in the events of Good Friday
On Christmas Eve when we sing Silent Night—definitely LK, not MT—give thanks for the Prince of Peace who beckons us toward the Good, True and Beautiful of this world.
As the great theologian and hymnist Phillips Brooks will remind us this week, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”