Let us try to understand the background to some of the words and events recorded in the readings of Advent and Christmas every year, to go a little deeper into the meaning than perhaps we usually do. During the coming weeks in our hymns and carols, our weekly and daily liturgies, even our everyday reflections, the same Christmas vignettes, memories and stories will be continually repeated. Here is a very sketchy introduction to the way that these stories and incidents came to be written in the first place.
Most of the material I refer to is to be found at the beginning of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. That material is often called “the Infancy Narratives”. What is interesting to note is that these narratives belong to a special category of scriptural writing, (sometimes called ‘myth’ or ‘midrash’), where the profound and beautiful meaning is more important than the accuracy of the historical fact. This need not worry us since the best of our Catholic scholars have always taught this. The early chapters of these two gospels are better treated as prayerful theology rather than pure historical knowledge. They are mainly about our love and faith in the Messiah and we read them like a poem.
The stories about the birth of Jesus were all added on to the beginning of Matthew and Luke, some time after the four Gospels were completed. In essence, they sum up and prepare us for the whole purpose of our Saviour. Composed at a later stage than the gospel which was first preached (beginning in all four gospels with the baptism of Jesus), the infancy gospels are an attempt to show the full significance of his ministry, as foreshadowed in the events around his early years. What is chronologically first (the birth accounts), must be understood in the light of the later, full revelation (of Pentecost).
Not so much fact as meaning
To put the same thing in another way, The real purpose of what we commonly called the Christmas story, was more profound than simply to relate isolated incidents from Christ’s infancy. It was to deepen the belief and conviction of the listeners and readers in the mysterious meaning of his work. The four completed gospels had dealt with his public life and work. The purpose of the infancy gospels is to show that the same was true even of his hidden childhood at home with his parents. The overall truth that the infancy narratives are based on, is the full mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
There is another explanation that helped me to grasp more fully the nature of those universal Christmas narratives. Have you ever noticed that after the death of certain great and gifted people, stories arise about their childhood, early attitudes, unusual gifts, strange circumstances surrounding their birth and early years? One of our best Scripture scholars, Father Henry Wansborough OSB wrote, “It is a recognised phenomenon of popular literature that stories about the childhood of a hero begin to be told later than the stories about his time of greatness; obviously people have their attention attracted by his achievements before they begin to ask about his boyhood. This does not, of course, mean that the stories of his boyhood are false, but only shows that they are likely to have been composed from a different angle, and with a more developed and mature thought about the hero.”
Matthew’s genealogy, for example, has more in common with a piece of drama than with your average family tree. Full of omissions and repetitions, the total number of names mentioned amount to 42. All kinds of vagabond men and colourful women are included and some twice. Jesus, indeed, had a chequered history! The 42 names are broken down to groups of 3 x 14, or 6 x 7. Jesus (and thereby the church, and all of us) are then designated as the next or ‘seventh seven’, the long-awaited completed of the first creation. What a beautifully imaginative, compassionate and consoling way to prepare for Christmas!
Gospel in Miniature
Until I took some time to read and pray with some popular, but authentic, commentaries about these moments of the birth stories, I had no idea how nourishing and exciting they are. Once you’ve ‘cracked the code’, so to speak you can find the fullness of the achievement of our saviour packed into those few short chapters. A fresh panorama of satisfying understanding will fill your mind and soul. The verses come alive with new insight – a kind of 3-D perspective.
They are like the whole gospel in miniature with implications for your life, personally, professionally and in community. We may not be all that certain about the factual, historical details that surround the birth of Jesus, but we have in the Infancy Narratives, in the Christmas Story, a most beautiful and moving summary of all that is delightful good news about our lives our families and our communities.
I hope you will find time and energy these weeks to explore a little more about the Advent readings by writers such as Raymond Brown, Wilfred Harrington, and Henry Wansborough and many more. Sound and careful articles and books are easily available. May you have an exciting Advent of discovery!
(Article in the Catholic Post when Daniel was Episcopal Vicar for Formation in Leeds Diocese)