I’m a sap for Christmas. In my former parishes, never did I get through the opening solo of “Once in Royal David’s City” without a tearful thank you for yet another generation of young people, acolytes kneeling at the altar rail. At the little rural church I serve in retirement, never once have I made it through “Silent Night” sung in candlelight without a tearful thank you for the faithful service of this elderly congregation that never lets age get in its way.
Wondrous beyond words is the image of the Word made flesh lying as a newborn in rough conditions and threatening times, yet proclaimed by angels and adored by shepherds.
And, yes, I’m the same guy who’s lectured about the historic origins of Christmas celebrations; the uncertainty of the place, date or time of year of Jesus birth; and the unpleasant news that Luke and Matthew can’t be harmonized into a fabulous Charlie Brown pageant.
It’s true that Mark says nothing about the birth, and doesn’t begin the story of Jesus until his baptism when he was about 30 by John the Baptist. John the Evangelist, also says nothing about the birth, and his story begins with the beginning when God began to create. Only Matthew and Luke have anything to say, and they tell two very different stories about the birth. I don’t think they invented them out of imagination. I think the stories were old, their origins springing from the event itself. However mutated they became through their telling and retelling, they nevertheless bore truth that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not long before Herod the Great died. There was scandalous doubt about his parentage. Locals who witnessed it told of strange, inexplicable events in the skies.
I don’t know why Mark had nothing to say about it. Maybe he’d heard the stories in all their various forms too often, and deciding to skip what he could not resolve, got right to the heart of the matter –– the start of Jesus’ adult work. John, on the other hand, was aware that Matthew and Luke had told their versions, so why repeat them. It was more important for him to answer a different question: What do we mean when we say Jesus is the Son of God?
Maybe the larger question is why Matthew and Luke felt it necessary to include a birth narrative. I’ll never know that answer either, but have a guess. First, they had the stories. Second, they may have thought Mark was wrong in not including them, especially since they were now writing for audiences living far away, unfamiliar with Judaean Judaism, and naturally curious about where Jesus came from. Third, they may have thought the birth narrative was a necessary bookend to the resurrection narrative, which taken together, leave no doubt about who Jesus is as the Word made flesh.
I suppose we could discuss questions such as these for a long time, as previous generations have for centuries. But it would lead us away from the awesome mystery of God’s incarnation in the most vulnerable way possible. As others have in their times, our time seems dark and vulnerable. Prophetic hope seems more remote than it did a few decades ago. During the World Wars we had a clear understanding of who the enemies of peace were. During the Cold War, we thought we did. Today we’re in endless wars of no particular purpose or end. Today we see the most threatening violence and strife not elsewhere, but within our nation. Day and night we scan the world for enemies, but iniquity and trouble are within it; ruin is in its midst; oppression and fraud do not depart from our marketplaces (Ps. 55). No need is so pressing that we cannot stop, reflect, and go to the manger to see this thing that has taken place. What better time than this to “hush the noise and cease [our] strife and hear the angels sing.”