On this Second Sunday after Christmas we are given Matthew’s version of the birth of Jesus for our reflection. Of the four Gospel accounts, only Matthew and Luke provide birth narratives, and these differ in some significant ways. Each Evangelist tells the story differently in order to explore different theological themes.
The overarching theme of Luke’s account is one of expectation and adoration. The annunciations to Mary and Zechariah, the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, and the angelic epiphany to the shepherds create a mood of increasing anticipation of the birth of the Messiah. They help us to get ready for this momentous event.
And when the child is born, we are not disappointed. The joyful adoration of the shepherds, the contemplative adoration of Mary, and the prophetic adoration of Simeon and Anna when the baby Jesus is presented in the Temple all reinforce the sense that the world is about to turn. This is the child for whom we’ve been waiting. Nothing will be the same. This is good news of great joy for all people.
Matthew’s account is quite different. Joseph, rather than Mary, is the focus of the angelic announcements. His dreams about the birth of the Messiah, however, are filled with misgiving and danger. Here, the overarching theme is one of opposition and resistance. Joseph must overcome the shame and dishonor of this quite unexpected pregnancy, and navigate the political machinations of King Herod, for whom this birth is a threat. Apparently, not everyone receives the birth of this child as good news.
Whereas, Luke’s birth narrative ends with the triumphant presentation in the Temple (with a later appearance of the boy Jesus there for his bar mitzvah providing a brief coda), Matthew’s narrative ends with the Holy Family escaping to Egypt as refugees from Herod’s brutal slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem; returning only after Herod has died and then to Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem to avoid the jurisdiction of Herod’s son, Archelaus. Luke gives us triumphant fulfillment of a long awaited promise. Matthew gives us subversive resistance in the service of an uncertain future.
What are we to make of these two accounts? It is important to remember that while Jesus is an historical figure, the stories of his birth are not biographies. They are more true than that: yhey are myths. They are not grounded in historical facts but in interior truths that have been projected onto the screen of mythic narrative, objectified so that they are available to inform our own spiritual development. As myth, what connects both Luke and Matthew is their focus on Jesus as the mirror in which we can observe the birth of the divine in us. They are concerned with our own spiritual awakening.
And both Matthew and Luke connect spiritual awakening with the experience of joy. For Luke, it is the good news of great joy announced to the shepherds. For Matthew, it is the wise men, overwhelmed with joy when the star brings them to the baby Jesus. The birth of Jesus is about the birth of joy, about getting in touch with the divine ground of our being.
One way to understand these stories is as complimentary accounts of spiritual birth or awakening. In Luke, there is an undercurrent of anticipation that erupts in unexpected epiphanies – to Mary, to Zechariah, to the shepherds. Here, joy just comes upon them with little or no preparation. Sometimes our experience of spiritual awakening can be like that. It bursts into our awareness. Suddenly, we wake-up and feel the joy of being fully alive in God.
But sometimes – perhaps more often than not – spiritual awakening is an arduous process. Unlike the joy of Luke’s account, which moves directly from epiphany to adoration, the joy of the wise men and of the Holy Family is hard-won. Their joy is found in the midst of long and risk-filled journeys. The joy of spiritual awakening is discovered and nurtured in the midst of conflict and suffering. That is the difficult truth of Matthew’s version of the story.
Matthew wishes us to ponder the ways in which our spiritual awakening may be co-opted or sabotaged by others - or ourselves - much as Herod seeks to undermine the birth of Jesus. We may run with joy directly to Bethlehem like the shepherds, or we may be fiercely determined to follow the star in the face of great opposition like the wise men.
Sometimes, our spiritual awakening leads to exile, following the subversive path of the Holy Family in a culture that does little to support spiritual growth. We may find the experience of spiritual awakening and the transformation it entails to be a threatening prospect. Like Herod, we may try to kill it before it takes root in us or in others. We’d rather settle for familiar pains and pleasures than be changed by the experience of true joy.
Most likely, our experience resonates with all of the above. It isn’t easy to persevere in the expectation of spiritual awakening, or to preserve its fruits; except of course, when it is easy – because sometimes it is! We both desire spiritual awakening and we resist it.
When the joy spiritual awakening overwhelms us, we would do well to realize the gifts that the wise men offered to Jesus. Gold is a precious metal, a symbol of royalty, and a reminder of the great treasure of spiritual awakening. It is of unsurpassable value, the Great Pearl, the Lost Coin, the one thing necessary. It is the realization of our divine maternity – we are children of God. Hold on to your identity. We are so much more than we think we are.
Frankincense is a sweet-smelling resin, an offering of incense, a symbol of thanksgiving. Make thanksgiving a continual offering to God, the source of joy that undergirds us on every step of the journey. Hold on to gratitude.
Myrrh is another resin, a bitter spice often used in embalming. It is a symbol of suffering and death. Do not be afraid. Joy transcends and includes the reality of finitude and mortality. Hold on to reality – all of it – even the hard parts.
The stories of the birth of Jesus are our stories. They are mirrors in which we perceive our own spiritual awakening. We may travel different roads to get there. It isn’t always easy. But in the end, it all comes down to joy – the joy of discovering Christ born anew in us.