Joy and Sorrow at Christmas
A Christmas Reflection
Fr Francis J. Moloney SDB
Our annual celebration of the Birth of Jesus is full of joy. There is only one moment when something sombre breaks into the celebration: the Feast of the Holy Innocents on December 28.
An atmosphere of joy is generated by the fact that the Churches use the Infancy Story of the Gospel of Luke. The role of John the Baptist, so important for Luke that he is also announced (to Zechariah: 1:5-25), and his birth and naming is described (1:57-80). As both John the Baptist and his cousin Jesus are presented side-by side across the Lukan story, we hear of the encounter between the two mothers (1:39-56), so that Elizabeth can sing the praises of Mary, and recognise the forthcoming birth of Jesus. No matter how wonderful the conception, birth, and naming of John the Baptist, Jesus is more wonderful, for he “will be called holy, the Son of God” (1:35).
In the midst of such joy, where does the story of the slaying of all the innocent young males at Bethlehem, whose “martyrdom” is celebrated on December 28, come from? The answer, of course, is that it forms an important element in the Infancy Story of the Gospel of Matthew (1:1-2:23), closely associated with the role of the three Wise Men from the East, who play a cameo role at Christmas-time, especially in the many Cribs that are constructed all over the world. They are especially celebrated on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, as the Gentile world worships the newborn King (see Matt 2:2, 11). In many places only the Lukan shepherds (Luke 2:8-14) are placed in the Crib for December 25, and the Matthean Wise Men join the Lukan shepherds later—on January 6.
Seeking a King whose star they have divined in the heavens, they introduce consternation, anger and violence (Matt 2:3, 7-8, 16-18). Warned in a dream, they must return home via a different route, in order to avoid the wicked King Herod (Matt 2:12). Their experience indicates that Jesus’ mission will reach out to the ends of the earth (28:16-20), but at what cost?
Luke tells us of joy-filled annunciations, miraculous births and naming of two children, sent by God to transform the human story. He closes his infancy story with two episodes in the Temple, the place where his Gospel will also end (Luke 24-52-53): Mary, Joseph and the child will be “about the affairs” of God (2:49). But Matthew’s story is darker: suspicion of an illegitimate birth, a plot to execute Jesus, the slaying of the Innocents, and the subsequent flight into Egypt. After Herod’s death, the family returns, only to find a further wicked King, so they flee again to Nazareth.
Much scholarly ink has been spilt over the two Infancy Stories in the Gospels. There are many shared elements in the two stories: Herod, Joseph, Mary, virginal conception, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the name Jesus, and many other details. There is certainly something “back there” in the earliest Christian story-telling traditions that joins these stories. But we simply do not have sufficient evidence to reconstruct any such source. We thus must listen carefully to what Luke and Matthew tell us about God’s design in the sending of his Son.
In the end, these wonderful stories proclaim what God has done for us in and through Jesus. But they do it in their own way, and we are blessed to have this narrative diversity. The Infancy Stories of Luke and Matthew are not to be contrasted, but read and meditated side-by-side, so that they might complement one another and thus enrich our Christian tradition and nourish Christian spirituality.
If that is the case, why is there so much “sorrow” in Matthew 1-2? The author of the Gospel of Matthew is very careful in the composition of his story. One of his major concerns, however, was to show, from the very beginnings of the life of Jesus, that this man will be surrounded by conflict, death and difficulty. Indeed, many of the words that appear in the Infancy Narrative about the consternation of Herod and the people when the Wise Men ask about the birth of the new-born King are repeated when Matthew tells of a similar consternation among the people and their leaders at Jesus’ trial and execution.
But is it all “sorrow”? Blended splendidly into Matthew’s story of Jesus’ origins (1:1-17), conception (1:18-25), birth (2:1-12), and subsequent experiences (2:13-23) is the indication that the coming of Jesus, for all the difficulties that it may produce for those who commit themselves to him (Joseph, Mary, the Wise Men), is the long-awaited fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel: “this was to fulfil the Scriptures” (see 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17-18, 23).
It is common Christian experience that the ways of God, indicated to us in and through the fulfilment of Sacred Scripture, are often not the ways of our contemporary society and culture. Crucial, in this respect, is the promise of the Word of God that opens the Gospel of Matthew, and the Word of Jesus that closes it. Despite the conflict that can emerge from a courageous Christian presence in today’s secular society, the birth of Jesus fulfils the promise of Isaiah: “‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be Emmanuel’ (which means God with us)” (1:23). Jesus’ final words in the Gospel of Matthew indicate that this promise shall not be thwarted: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (28:20).
Although Matthew highlights the darkness and Luke highlights the light, the contrasting Infancy Accounts of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew proclaim the same message: the never failing presence of the love of God whose Son came “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79).