Do You Know the Christmas Story?
Of all the stories in the Bible, surely the Christmas story is one all Christians think they know very well. Parts of the story are used in many illustrations. Some people even decorate their homes with nativity scenes. Most churches have an annual Christmas program in which kids and teens dress like the main characters and act out the story. These programs begin with Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem because of a census. Soon, baby Jesus appears and is placed in a manger near some animalsa lamb or two, a cow, and maybe a donkey. After this, the story usually focuses on the shepherds who see and hear angels singing about Jesus' birth. Later come the wise men, following a star that leads them to the manger scene, where they present gifts to the baby. At the end of the presentation, shepherds and wise men crowd around the baby to worship Him. This is the Christmas story that is told over and over. The only problem with this traditional version of the Christmas story is that it is not the biblical story. To be sure, the traditional version is based on the Bible. All the characters come from the Gospels, and in most cases the characters even speak direct quotes from the Bible. Yet, a close examination of the traditional Christmas story shows that it is really a combination of two distinct stories, one found in Luke's Gospel (2:1-20) and the other in Matthew's (1:18-2:12). No one should object too much if we sometimes harmonize the distinct Gospel stories. At the same time, no one should object too loudly if we consider what happens when we combine stories in this manner. First, any time Gospel stories are harmonized, it creates another story that is different from the stories recorded in the Gospels. Take the traditional Christmas story. It typically has the wise men arrive at the manger scene much like the shepherds. While Matthew's Gospel included wise men, his story says nothing of a manger and shepherds. Instead, the wise men followed a star that seemed to appear when Jesus was born. Then they followed that star until they arrived at Mary and Joseph's home in Bethlehem. There, Jesus was no longer a baby, but a one- or two-year-old child. The traditional Christmas story simplifies Matthew's account and conforms it to Luke's. However, this blurs the distinct voices of Matthew and Luke in ways that make it difficult to hear each of them clearly. When we only listen to the harmonized Christmas story, we are no longer listening to the Bible. Our Bible records two distinct stories that, when combined, do not say what Matthew and Luke intended. Let's look a little more closely. Matthew's account tells the story of the wise men and the star (2:1-12). These wise men from the East noticed the star and recognized that a king had been born in Judea. This sign was not given to them alone, but to all who would take the time and effort to notice it. Matthew's story points out that no one in Judea noticed. Those who were supposed to be God's people did not see the sign, nor did they follow up on it when the whole city of Jerusalem was disturbed by the wise men's questions (2:3). Only foreigners, not God's people, discerned that the true King of Israel had been born and deserved their worship. Furthermore, when someone in Judea finally did notice, that person, Herod, decided not to worship Jesus, but to have him killed (2:13-21). Luke's account is very different. God's people received signs that they could not deny. Shepherds saw and heard angels in the fields. These shepherds then found Jesus in the manger as the angels had promised. Afterwards, they went throughout the town proclaiming what they had heard. Luke recounts the birth of Jesus as a blessed event for all of God's people, with no hint of the opposition that would later be part of Jesus' ministry. Foreigners were not part of Luke's scene. The angels implied that their message was for all people (2:10), and later Zechariah spoke of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles (2:29-32). Yet at the moment of Jesus' birth, Luke focused on the humble beginning of Jesus' life, and the good news Jesus' birth brought to God's people, beginning in Bethlehem. Although the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke are distinct in other ways, this makes the point. Matthew and Luke tell their own stories about Jesus, and each must be heard separately if we want to know the biblical Christmas stories. Our traditional Christmas story is simplified so we can preach and teach the biblical message that all people from every walk of lifeboth Jew and Gentile, rich and poorcan come to the baby Jesus and find salvation. This is good preaching. This is good theology. In fact, it highlights well Paul's vision of the end time when he writes: "at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, . . . and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2:10-11, NRSV). Yet, as helpful as the traditional Christmas story is, we must take care not to substitute the Word of God with a simplified harmonization. May the Christmas story we know so well inspire us to read more closely the four biblical stories of Jesus recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. William H. Malas, Jr. is assistant professor of religion at Eastern Nazarene College. Holiness Today, November/December 2005