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home : from the bishop : from the bishop January 20, 2019

Christmas narratives illustrate core belief of 'God with us'

Bishop David M. O'Connell, C.M.

If you are looking to find out what the Bible says about Christmas, you don’t have to look far. The story of Christ’s birth is only mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in what students of the Scriptures call the “infancy narratives.” As you look and compare the two accounts of the same event, you quickly realize that they differ from one another in detail. 

For some, the differences may give rise to questions, perhaps even doubts about our “knowledge” of the event we celebrate at this time each year.  For others, however, the discrepancies there frame the realization that, as is often the case when reading the Bible, the important thing is not simply the literal details of a particular story but, rather, the point they are trying to make, the truth they intend to support when taken all together. Faith relies on that kind of affirmation: not so much what we see or sense but what we do not see and yet believe, that “confident assurance concerning things hoped for and conviction about things we do not see (Hebrews 11: 1).”

The people of Israel “hoped for” the promised Messiah for centuries before Christ’s birth. Through the ancient prophets “God spoke to our ancestors in many and varied ways (Hebrews 1: 1).” Their predictions, their visions and, yes, their words differed – we hear them throughout Advent – and yet they all contain the truth that supports the ancient “conviction” and faith in “the One who is to come,” Jesus the Savior.

John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets, whom Jesus himself called “the greatest man born of woman,” while visited in prison by his followers, sent the question to Jesus, “are you He, are you the One?” And Jesus’ reply? “Tell John what you see: the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers go clean, the dead rise, the poor hear good news preached (Matthew 11: 4-5)” – everything you “hoped for” in the promised Messiah. 

Jesus didn’t “fit” the picture they expected, didn’t “look like” the Savior they imagined, didn’t “match” all the different “details” they anticipated.  Mark and John don’t even mention the nativity in their Gospels but Matthew and Luke do, albeit in different Christmas narratives. All four Gospels, however, witness to the one central truth of our faith: the Incarnation; the Word made Flesh; Emmanuel, “God with us.”

All the elements of the ancient Christmas story that have passed down to us through the ages in Matthew and Luke have something to tell us, something instructive, something to hold, cherish, believe in and celebrate in all their richly beautiful, wonderful, marvelous details.

The Annunciation of the Angel Gabriel to Mary captures our attention and readies us to believe; Mary’s “yes” and Joseph’s willingness to stay with her foreshadow our “conviction about things we do not see;” the journey of faith of Mary and Joseph to the City of David symbolizes our journey of faith through life; the star in the eastern sky is the light of faith that guides us to find Christ; the stable and manger reveal the humility and poverty needed to recognize and make room in faith for Christ; the angels’ glorious song tells us in faith that his birth is unlike any other the world has or ever will know; the lowly shepherds and the wise kings together in one place reveal that Christ has come for all, the poor, the humble and the rich alike; the gold, frankincense and myrrh point to Christ's kingship, his priesthood, his destiny as Savior; and the infant Jesus who lies in the straw fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah, the Hope of Israel, the desire of all people of faith:

“And a Child is born for us, a Son is given us; and the government shall be upon His shoulder. And His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end (Isaiah 9: 6-7).”

Yes, Matthew and Luke tell us the Christmas story that we celebrate in faith. When we read it; when we hear it 2000 years later; when we look into the manger scene surrounded by all the images and details, traditions and legends that we love to think about at Christmas time, let’s all remember why Christ came and what his birth truly means: the blind see; the deaf hear; the lame walk; the lepers go clean; the dead rise; the poor have the good news preached because of Him ... and even more still.

“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will!”

Merry Christmas!


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