When I was a child, I remember the Christmas story being very simple and straightforward: God sent the baby Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, to save the world. Jesus was born in a stable in Bethlehem, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger because there was no room at the inn. There was a special star… and angels… and shepherds… lots of singing and rejoicing… and kings… and presents! And it all happened a long, long time ago. Pretty easy for a young mind to take in, right? Later I learned about Joseph and Mary having had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of something having to do with taxes… King Herod and the Holy Innocents… and a trip to Egypt. Hmmmm. That was a bit more complicated, and disconcerting… especially the part about the Innocents.
Later still, someone clued me into the fact that the kings were probably not actual kings… just “wise men” (whatever that meant) or perhaps even astrologers! Not quite as impressive. And that the wondrous “star of Bethlehem” was most-likely only a rare, but naturally occurring, astronomical phenomenon: a comet or a triple conjunction of stars that happened to have taken place around the time of Jesus’ birth. And that Jesus’ birth didn’t actually occur in the year zero BC according to the Julian calendar, but might have happened six years before… or six years after… or somewhere in between. And that Isaiah never actually prophesied that the mother of Immanuel would be a virgin… only a “young girl.” Man! Now things were really getting complicated.
Somewhere along the way I figured out that none of the Gospel writers was actually part of Jesus’ inner circle of (twelve) apostles, and that there were differences between all of the supposedly “infallible” gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. I knew that not all of the gospels included the story of Jesus’ birth, but it wasn’t until much later that I got around to doing a side-by-side comparison of the gospels of Matthew and Luke (the two that do contain birth narratives) and noticed that, while both affirm that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, only Luke tells of Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem… and the stable and the manger. Surely, there were angels and shepherds in Luke’s Gospel, but no star of wonder… no wise men. Matthew, on the other hand, doesn’t even mention Nazareth until he informs us that Joseph and Mary settled there after their return from Egypt (a trip that Luke neglects entirely). Matthew would have us understand that the story of Jesus’ birth begins and ends in Bethlehem. But he does tell us of the star and the magi… and the massacre of the Innocents.
And it was only in seminary that I learned that the reason the gospel narratives each tell the story of Jesus Messiah a little differently, is that the writers were likely responding to the needs of their own worshipping communities in their specific place and time. For example, the Gospel of Matthew was likely written in Antioch in Syria in the last quarter of the first century, while Luke’s gospel was written around the same time, but in a different part of the Hellenized (Greek speaking) world… perhaps in Ephesus or Smyrna, in modern day Turkey. We may not be able to pinpoint times or places with exactitude, but we can absolutely discern the efforts of the Gospel writers to establish a connection between the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and the nascent Christian communities springing up in different parts of the Roman world. One can read between-the-lines in Luke’s gospel the Evangelist’s concern with leveraging the Good News of Jesus Christ to help promote justice and equity for all people, not only within his local community, but in the wider world. The subtext of Matthew’s gospel, on the other hand, reminds us that the life and ministry of Jesus fulfills all of the Old Testament prophesies concerning the advent of a “Messianic apocalypse,” wherein the Jews will be rewarded for their faithfulness, and “the nations” (non-Jewish gentiles) will stream to the light of the God of the Hebrews (Isaiah 60:3). And these are all wonderful rabbit holes we can explore together one day… but not today. The present takeaway is that Matthew likely felt that the story of the star… and the gentile wise men coming to pay homage to the king of the Jews… was important because it foreshadowed the coming Jewish Messianic apocalypse. The Magi were the first gentiles to get on board.
As for detailed timelines, do we really need them? What do they do for us? We work so hard to bring God down to our level… to rationalize and explain the unexplainable, that we run the risk of missing the point: whether Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great or while Quirinius was governor of Syria (they are about twelve years apart) isn’t the key issue. Perhaps writer of the fourth Gospel says it best: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . [and] from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14a, 16). That’s the Good News: that the Word became flesh for all of us—for all races and ethnicities, all genders… for the rich and the poor, and everyone in between. For saints and for sinners… for people who believe… and for people who do not. For all of us. God loves us that much! So simple. So profound. And as for the star, maybe it was a comet, or a triple conjunction, or some other scientifically-explainable thing… but I’m pretty sure that the God of all Creation could plant a no-kidding “Star of Wonder” in the heavens to signify and celebrate the birth of the Word without breaking a sweat. What do you think?
The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, is God’s ultimate gift to the world. And I believe we’re all given gifts through which we can glorify God and hasten the coming of the Kingdom—if we choose to do so—if we are faithful. Some people’s gifts make headlines: the gifts of people like Mother Teresa or Billy Graham or Martin Luther King, Jr. But not everyone is called to be famous. Just as Jesus came to be a Messiah for us all, so too are we called to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ to all. And just as wise men from the East followed a star to bring their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ child—a long, long time ago—so, also, are we to pay forward the gifts we’ve been given, great and small, in continuing Jesus ministry of love in the world, helping to restore all people to unity with God and each other in our own corner of God’s creation. That’s the mission of the Church, you know (BCP 854).
What is your gift? And how will you choose to pay it forward? The word epiphany (Ancient Gk. ἐπιφάνεια) means “manifestation, or striking appearance,” in this case, the manifestation of God’s Christ to the gentile Magi. I pray that you will experience a renewed epiphany of Jesus Messiah in your life, and in your heart, in the next days and weeks as you work to discern your role as a member of the Body of Christ in God’s ongoing Christmas story… for a world in great need of hope.