Have you ever noticed a difference in tempo and mood between the nativity stories in Matthew and Luke? It occurred to me only recently. Matthew is filled with dark, anxious urgency. Most of his narrative happens in the night. Joseph anxiously pondered the immediate question of what to do about Mary’s pregnancy. The wise men’s eagerness to find the new born king set the whole of Herod’s court into a frenzy of worry. Their secretive hurried trip home, Herod’s enraged raid on Bethlehem, Joseph’s rush to get his family out of harms way, and his cautious return a few years later are all wrapped up in a few paragraphs of text breathless with darkness and danger.
Luke is languid. Almost two entire chapters are filled with slow moving action, poetry, songs filling the sky, all the time needed to fulfill the law and the prophets, and irenic blessings with only one gentle note of impending discord. No threats of divorce, no raging king, no fleeing to Egypt, just all things done properly and in order with the perfectly natural return of a new family to their home in Nazareth.
In Matthew no power of darkness, no matter how violent, can prevent God from accomplishing what God purposes. In Luke, no amount of celebratory singing can abolish the trials that are yet to come. Each, in its own way, anticipates the victory of the cross and Resurrection sown in the seeds of the Incarnation.
So here is what I wonder. Pastors know that for more than a few Christmas is a dark and foreboding time to be got through and got over as best one can. Luke simply does not speak to them. I wonder what it would be like to produce a Christmas pageant based entirely on Matthew: a pageant filled with brooding darkness, the music of “Jaws” and the tension of Hitchcock. It would be a pageant of God’s, Gabriel’s and Joseph’s dogged determination to never let the light go out. It would end not with the blessing of Simeon, but with the young adult Jesus preaching the beatitudes.
It would not be a pageant for children, and probably not for a lot of adults either. But it would be a pageant for some who struggle mightily with these days, and who desperately need to hear that God knows, understands, is present and cannot be defeated.
7 thoughts on “A Dark and Brooding Christmas Pageant?”
I have been reading Borg and Crossan's book, The First Christmas that discusses the differences and have appreciated the insights, both from them and from you. Keep up the thinking!!!
Of course, Matthew places the family AT HOME in Bethlehem for the birth, and they only settle in Nazareth as newcomers after their fearful trip to Egypt to escape from Herod. Jesus was born in the \”city of David\” as a native, like David. Luke has to go find or invent a census to get Joseph and Mary there, in order to have Jesus born there to fulfill the prophecy in Micah. Like the two genealogies, which tell the ancestry of Joseph, not Mary, and presume a royal line through Joseph, as the father of Jesus. This is the motivation for Herod's jealousy in Matthew (as though there was only one descendent of David in all Judaea!) It is surprising how many people have not seen that the two versions are contradictory and cannot both be factual! I will ask Sarita what Borg and Crossan say in their book.
Yep, I've often taught classes on the differences between Matthew and Luke, but never really focussed on the mood and tempo found in each.CP
I used to give my \”Sunday School\” students an assignment. They were to take a story about this teacher who they viewed as amazing and enlightened and devise ways to deliver it so it was relevant to various communities here in Los Angeles. The students divided up into groups of 3 or 4 depending on the size of the class and the area they were to deliver this story. They would then spend two weeks studying the group they were to \”witness\” to. At the end of this time they came back with the story written so it would be relevant to their group. It was wonderful to see how they kept the gist of the message while adapting the story to make it relevant and \”good news\” to the target group.They all got a big \”ah hah\” when they were done with this assignment.Merry Christmas to you and SSPeaceBruno
Yes, I just now noticed what you discovered, the difference in mood and tempo of Matthew and Luke. The more one studies the four gospels, the more one can see and feel the literary differences. A Christmas pageant, though, based on just Matthew would be a gloomy \”downer\” for both kids and adults! It was the favorite of the Middle Ages, partly because it seemed to tell the whole story, and of course, because it contained the only passage giving the \”keys of the kingdom\” to Peter, vastly strengthening the power of the Papacy and the Church. And Luke was (and is)the favorite of Liberal Christians, since the 19th century, with its message of forgiveness (Prodigal Son) and openness to outsiders (the Good Samaritan), and of course, sheep lovers! Dr B
the most striking thing to me is the split between the two stories – one filled with joy and wonder; the other with fear and urgency. it seems to me that the \”real\” story of Christmas (and of God) is filled with BOTH, usually simultaneously or at least in close sequence. wouldn't it be wonderful to see a pageant and/or gospel uniting the two?
Sounds like the basis for an opera rather than a pageant!I will check these out. Meanwhile, have a great time in beautiful B.C.