I have a Christmas quiz for you. Ready? Where did Jesus’ parents live before he was born? Where was Jesus born? How many wise men were there? Got it?
And the answers are—it depends on which Christmas story you are reading. There are two stories, one in Luke and one in Matthew. And they are different stories. In Luke Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth and go to Bethlehem for a census ordered by Augustus. In Matthew they live in Bethlehem. Jesus was born at home in the Matthew story, and born in a manger in the Lucan version.
We really don’t know how many wise men there were, but we know there were three gifts. And the wise men are only in the Matthew story. The shepherds and angels are in the Luke story. The star is in Matthew.
In Luke the main characters of the story include Augustus, Mary, angels and shepherds. In Matthew the main characters are Joseph, Herod, the wise men and the star.
Why am I bringing this up? I think it’s important. Very important. You see, we have homogenized these stories into one grand narrative of Jesus’ birth, which might be nice for children’s plays, but not so good when it comes to thinking about that first Christmas and what Luke and Matthew were saying about Jesus’ birth.
For Luke and Matthew it meant two different things that maybe aren’t so different after all.
Each story is a commentary on power. Political power. Augustus on the one hand and King Herod on the other. Did you know that the name Augustus means “one who is to be worshipped?” Some of his other titles were “King of kings,” “Savior” and “Son of God.” In Luke’s birth narrative those titles are given to Jesus.
In Matthew’s story the wise men ask King Herod where the King of the Jews is that has been born. Jesus is named as the real king, not Herod. Which is why Herod slaughtered innocent children in Bethlehem. To protect his power, a false power to be sure, but a perceived power nonetheless.
These Christmas narratives were subversive. They were counter cultural. They flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Isn’t that after all what God usually does? You know, turns things upside down. And isn’t that the point of Jesus life? To turn things upside down, to bring down those in power and lift up those who are the least and lowest?
If you don’t believe me, read Luke 1:46-56 and 1:68-79.
And the three gifts from the wise men? They weren’t your everyday Christmas presents. They foreshadowed Jesus’ kingship, divinity and death. A death that led to life for all.
In the midst of all of our Christmas preparations, all of our shopping and partying and spending time with family and friends it will be good to think about that first Christmas, what it meant then and what it can mean for us today.
In the four Sundays that lead to Christmas Day churches often use themes to talk about the meaning of Christmas. Hope. Peace. Joy. Love. Too often we are tempted to look back nostalgically at this time of year, longing for something, looking at our lives and our world and sighing, wondering what might be next. We long for a world where there really is hope and peace and joy and love. We look to a future when that might be.
Looking back nostalgically is memory experienced through disproportionate emotion. Faith is memory experienced through feelings of gratitude. Christmas is not about looking back. Jesus IS the hope and peace and joy and love.
The future is now. We just need to live that way.