Each of the gospels has a story about the arrival of Jesus.
Mark doesn’t have a birth story for Jesus. The gospel that opens with “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God,” dives right in with the adult John the Baptist announcing the arrival of the adult Jesus. Here he is, says John, the one I’ve told you about. And there, suddenly, is Jesus, being baptized by John, spending some time wondering in the wilderness and then beginning his ministry.
Matthew begins his story with a lengthy genealogy that establishes that Jesus is descended through Joseph, not just from the great king David, but from Abraham. The angel doesn’t appear to Mary, but to Joseph. Then, when Jesus is born, magi appear seeking the promised child that is “king of the Jews.” Jesus is, then, established as the king that was promised.
Luke tells the story of the angel visiting Mary, the journey to Bethlehem, the birth in the stable, the shepherds, the angels. There are no kings of the sort Matthew’s magi expected to find. Mary and Joseph are poor. Angels announce the birth to shepherds, the lowest of the low in social standing. Those who need the most care figure prominently in Luke.
It’s these two stories we combine into the “Christmas Story” that we tell with manger scenes, beautiful works of art and music, even pictures on cards. The almost idyllic pastoral scene of the child, “no crying he makes” the song says, surrounded by Mary, Joseph, the donkey and the other stable animals, sheep and shepherds, and magi (usually three kings) with their gifts and their camels. There may be a star overhead and perhaps an angel.
Each of the stories of Matthew and Luke deserve their own time and attention, but I also don’t disparage combining them into a single representative scene. The hope, peace, joy and, most especially, love that’s at the heart of the story are all there. Yes, please go deeper, but this is a good place to start.
That’s the thing, isn’t it. The story-telling is just the beginning. The real beauty of this tableau is in the thoughts, the questions a good story brings. The real beauty is in the wonder.
This story is full of wonder. Mostly, I think, because it’s not full of fear. Luke tells that the very first words the angel says to Mary are “don’t be afraid.” Matthew says it’s the first words of the angel to Joseph. The angel appears to the shepherds and says don’t be afraid. I imagine Joseph said it to Mary more than a few times on the road to Bethlehem. The shepherds might well have said it to Mary and Joseph when the came to see the child with this crazy story of angels singing. And exotic looking magi who travelled a great distance with precious gifts just because they saw a star? Their first words must have been “please, don’t be afraid.”
And I think they weren’t afraid. I think the characters in this story chose wonder over fear. I don’t think it was easy, but I think they did and that brought hope, it brought engagement and relationships and sharing the good news that in this child is God’s love.
This is the kind of love the adult Jesus lived and taught. That same Jesus who had to remind us so frequently, “don’t be afraid.” See, I think that love is in all of us. Fear masks it. Fear covers it and makes it difficult for us to access it, live it and share it. But wonder opens our hearts to love. Wonder reaches out and, just like in the story, makes connections and builds relationships. That’s the way love gets out and gives life. Love is always there, waiting to be let out.
That’s where the story of Jesus’ arrival in the gospel of John is so important to me. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it … And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
This Word isn’t just about words in a story, it’s the spirit of life itself, the energy, the power of creation, the love that connects us and animates us. It can’t be overcome by the darkness of fear. And it’s here, in this child, in the Christmas Story. Wonder about that.