Matthew and Luke author the texts which are read every Advent and Christmas. A few things about these texts in general. First, they were written in the 80s-90s CE shortly after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70CE). These writers have some major differences in their narratives, showing how each of them wanted to present Jesus to their community in a particular light. Lastly, it is generally recognized that Matthew composed his Gospel first and Luke copied and created afterward. Let us begin with St. Matthew’s version.
Matthew presented Jesus as the new Moses. Jesus’ birth and life reflects the Mosaic narrative : birth during time of crisis, political undertones, escape from Egypt, and people speak of them as one who saves/liberates.
The birth narrative begins directly after the genealogy. Joseph is the lead player in the Matthean narrative. He is the one who is told to marry Mary and name her baby Jesus. Angels communicate with Joseph in dreams. Two years after Jesus’ birth, Joseph takes his new family into Egypt to escape the massacre of the innocents and later goes to Nazareth when it became safe.
Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem. They travel no where to have Jesus, instead they have him in their house. Matthew makes it clear that they are married when they have Jesus. They only make their new home in Nazareth, according to Matthew,
so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’ (2:23)
The scripture quoted is found no where in the Hebrew Bible. In the first two chapters of Matthew, you will find five Hebrew Bible prooftexts. This last one tops it off. These prooftexts lay the foundation for Jesus as the new Moses. Matthew is not trying to be professional, as we try to be in our Western culture, instead he is pointing to something new, something better. The Temple was laid to waste by the time he was writing his Gospel. Matthew was giving his community something to hope in, since probably many of them were Jew themselves. Matthew helped his readers to remember the one who brought the Law down from Mount Herob/Sinai, the one who was laid in the reeds, the one who liberated the people from Egypt (with God’s help, of course). Although, I think that these narratives speak theologically than historically these make them all the more important. If following Jesus was to only believe in historical events then I think we are not believing in God, but rather our literal interpretation.
Luke’s Gospel understood Jesus as one who stands in solidarity with the poor, not just “the poor in spirit” as written in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. This explains why the birth narratives are different. Instead of Joseph having the main lead, Luke tells the story from Mary’s advantage. She is the one who is visited by an angel. She is the one who sings the Magnificat. She is the one who travels, and mainly takes care of herself.
Joseph could not find room in the inn for Mary to bear the child. Jesus, in the opposite manner as Matthew, was born in a stable with animals. This is place is not fit for a birth of a human, but of a calf or a goat. Mary and Joseph are so poor that they can only offer doves at the Temple as a sacrifice. For goodness sake, Mary and Joseph are not even married when Mary has Jesus. Matthew made sure that they were married for Jesus’ birth, Luke says that they were still betrothed. Probably Luke is suggesting that Joseph did not have efficient funds to get married!
The first people who visit Jesus in the stable were the Shepherds who were keeping watch their sheep at night. These were the ones on the fringe of society, the crazy ones, the outcasts. It was the heavenly messengers who came to them to say that the Savior of the World has been born. This Savior demonstrates power by giving up all power. This Savior was born in the worst of conditions yet we repeat it every year without giving anymore thought to its implications.
I could write about all the fallacies found in the texts and with their many differences, but I am not going to. There are books written already that can show you that. I think it is most important instead to say that Jesus was born, Immanuel has come among us. One phrase Jesus said that hits me time and again:
Be compassionate as God is compassionate. (Luke 6:36)
This is the reason why we read and reread these narratives. They remind us that God is compassionate, meaning “to suffer with”. God was in Jesus, born in Bethlehem, so that we may know that God is found in the margins, especially with those who suffer. This suffering does not lead to more suffering, but ends in Love. Victor Hugo was absolutely right when he wrote “Love is the only future God offers.” May it be so.