Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Stories Converge at the Nativity

At the beginning of each Star Wars movie, there is an opening crawl with yellow words playing across the star field setting the scene for where we are picking up the story from “the last episode”.  There is typically a wide shot from space before the camera pans in on the action unfolding.  

The Bible sort of does that with the four Gospels—each tells the story of the life of Jesus from a different perspective.  Interestingly, you will not find a description of the birth in the Gospel of Mark, which is believed to be the earliest Gospel written.  Like Star Wars movies, Mark starts his story in medias res; he doesn’t feel the need to “set the stage” with “yellow words” across the star field.  (Perhaps he assumes his readers already know the backstory?) When Mark’s Gospel begins, adult Jesus is already on the scene and the opening scene is one of John the Baptist's fiery proclamations to "prepare themselves" for his arrival. 

While Mark gives us no description of how Jesus came to be, it’s abundantly clear that he very much is.  But perhaps every good story needs an introduction, and Matthew, Luke, and John, all of whom had Mark as a reference (as well as other sources), each saw fit to provide one.

The Gospel of John is like the view from space in Star Wars. John 1:1-15 reads like “yellow words” setting the scene for the birth of Jesus—and all subsequent Episodes.  This “cosmic perspective” says that on that night when Jesus was born, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; Light entered the world and the Darkness could not overcome it.   The Word was barely audible at first and not many heard it; the Light started small and fragile, a smoldering wick that could’ve easily been snuffed out on many occasions—but, remarkably, wasn’t. 

Perhaps after the birth itself, the greatest Christmas miracle of all is that, against all odds, the Word and Light managed to take hold and grew in volume and intensity.  To this day the Darkness has not overcome it!

As Jesus grew up, and became a man and began his ministry, the Word spoke louder and the Light shone brighter.  The Word and the Light eventually came into conflict with Rome.  In the world in which Jesus was born, Caesar was the word; the Emperor was viewed as the light of the world.  Into that world, comes Jesus claiming a completely different revolutionary reality for those that chose to follow him.   Jesus would not stop proclaiming the Word nor shudder the Light—ever—and ultimately that refusal led to his death at the hands of the Romans.  But the Word was so powerful and the Light so bright that even brutal death didn’t have the last word; even ultimate Darkness did not prevail.  The Word and the Light endured—and continue to endure today. 

Of course I am giving away “spoilers” here, let’s get back to Christmas...

The "birth narratives" in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 give us the “view from Earth”— a much more “human” perspective.  Luke tells us the miraculous stories of the birth of John the Baptist and the conception of and birth of Jesus.   That same account says that shepherds tending their flocks saw a host of angels telling them about this birth, assuaging their fears and proclaiming glad tidings of great joy.  The shepherds hurried to Bethlehem to see what was going on. 

Matthew’s version of the story also tells us the birth story, but more from Joseph’s perspective. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is actually born in Nazareth.  Also according to Matthew—a few years later—wise men come from the east, having followed a star that led them to the house where toddler Jesus and his family lived.  Matthew also tells us that the Holy Family is forced to flee Bethlehem to escape Herod’s infanticide to exterminate the threat to his throne; they go into exile in Egypt (evoking parallels to Exodus) until it is safe to return. 

Our typical Christmas nativity draws primarily from Luke’s story, but then amalgamates elements from Matthew’s account.  We usually add the wise men at the manger for convenience—but they likely weren’t there for the birth.  If we mention the infanticide and exile to Egypt at all, it usually isn’t until the weeks following Christmas, when the “poinsettias” have disappeared and attendance is much lighter.

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