Christmas through the eyes of Matthew and Luke

I love Christmas! As I think back, my very earliest memory is of Christmas- it took place when I was three years old and was the Christmas before my dad died. In fact, it is the only memory I have of him. He was a brick maker and he had taken my brother and me to a Christmas party at the foundry. I remember seeing the hot furnace where the bricks were placed, and then I remember being taken to see Father Christmas. As much as I loved the furnace, I really disliked Father Christmas and I burst into tears. I remember my dad kneeling in front of me and comforting me. I was taken home from the party. Later that night my dad returned with my brother and he brought me my selection box from Father Christmas. 

Why do I share that Christmas story from 43 years ago? For me, it was what is termed in psychology as a ‘flashbulb memory’. These are events or memories that form “a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid ‘snapshot’ of the moment and circumstances in which a piece of surprising and consequential (or emotional) news was learned about”. As I look over the course of my life there are certain memories that fit this criteria, that I can recall vividly and in a moment. These are memories that perhaps give structure to the events and emotions of my life. Some of these are of specific birthdays but not every one, they are times such as leaving on my mission, meeting Ruth, proposing to Ruth, marrying Ruth, having each of our children, saying goodbye to Eleanor and Gideon as they left on the missions, the day Eleanor returned, the day Abi and Ethan were married. I think as I reviewed that list I can imagine why those days remain vivid in my memory where other days pass into the ether. It’s interesting, though, that as I talk about those days with others there are different aspects that we remember, and give prominence to. As an example, the story of the day Ruth and I met is told with different emphases by Ruth and I, but what is really nice is that each of our children would be able to recount some of those events- maybe even what their mum was wearing, not because they were there, but because of our retellings.

Within the history of the world, there are these flashbulb moments. Moments where the events of the day are remembered for centuries or even millennia because they first of all shaped individuals, but then in turn shaped the world. One of the most important of all is the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ which we remember at this Christmastime. The Anglican theologian Alister McGrath recently said:

The incarnation is a game changer. God comes to where we are to bring us to where he is.

I can’t think of a better summation of the importance of the Incarnation, the birth of the Saviour Jesus Christ. President Nelson at the recent First Presidency Christmas Devotional expressed similar thoughts:

Jesus Christ was born to bless all humankind, past, present, and future. … He came to make immortality a reality and eternal life a possibility for all who would ever live.

If ever there was a flashbulb moment in the history of the world, it was the birth of our Saviour. As we read of the events of over two thousand years ago we realise that the two (three if we count the Nephite record) of the Saviour’s birth are different. We are used to the story where Mary is visited by Gabriel, Joseph is minded to divorce her quietly, an angel appears to him in a dream, Elizabeth (Mary’s cousin) is blessed with a baby- John the Baptist, a census is called, Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, they have the baby Jesus and lay him in a manger because there’s no room for them in the inn, a new star appears, the shepherds are visited by angels and then visit Jesus, he is taken to the Temple where Simeon and Anna recognise him as the Messiah, the wise men visit, Herod commands the massacre of the innocents, and Joseph is commanded in a dream to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt.

What perhaps we don’t realise, however, is that this is a composite version. These are the events recorded by Matthew and Luke, but each of the events is not necessarily remembered by each of them. The two Gospel writers who included the Nativity story chose events that reflected different perspectives. What is important is that the narratives are not contradictory, rather they chose to include different emphases because of their sources, and also because of who they were writing to. What is really interesting is that as we look at the accounts individually we can actually learn more about who Jesus is and his impact on history, the world and on us as individuals than when we focus solely on the composite and complementary version we are so familiar with.

When we read Matthew’s Gospel we read a book that was written for a Jewish audience. Throughout the Gospel, Matthew makes over forty references to what we now call the Old Testament. With this background we are able to look at the way that he relates some of the Nativity story and understand why he chose to emphasise certain events and gloss over, or miss out others. Matthew’s Gospel or ‘Good News’ begins with an outline of Jesus’ genealogy:

The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (v1)

The first seventeen verses of the Gospel are dedicated to the Saviour’s family tree- there are many that we recognise, but also many that the Jews of the time would similarly have connection with. Probably the ones that would stand out the most would be Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as Jesse, David and Solomon. If we look at this second group there are many scriptures of the promised Messiah that suggest a Davidic line:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:… (Isaiah 11:1)

The Doctrine and Covenants highlights that the stem of Jesse, or the descendant of Jesse spoken of is the Saviour:

Who is the Stem of Jesse spoken of in the 1st, 2d, 3d, 4th, and 5th verses of the 11th chapter of Isaiah? Verily thus saith the Lord: It is Christ (D&C 113:1-2).

Perhaps, even more obviously are the writings of Jeremiah:

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS 23:5-6).

Although Luke does mention a genealogy to David it is linked with chapter 3 and is not the first thing that he declares. In so doing, Matthew is establishing the Saviour as the fulfilment of the prophets, he does something similar later in his Gospel in Matthew 5 where in the Sermon on the Mount, the Saviour is seen to be the fulfilment of the Law. I have only focussed on the ‘big’ names in the genealogy but there are others who would be immediately recognisable to the Jewish audience such as Thamar (v3) who has a very interesting story (1 Chronicles 2) that may help people reflect on the idea that it is not one’s background that is so important.

Matthew’s retelling of the Nativity story is also slightly jarring for the narrative that we are used to, because the focus of Matthew’s narrative is the voice of men. The first verses following the genealogy are these:

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:18-21).

This highlights the role of Joseph, the annunciation to Mary seems to have been skipped over. It is not that Mary is unimportant, for in the next couple of verses Matthew quotes Isaiah in recognising ‘a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel’ (v22). It’s that for Matthew and his audience the importance of the powerful male voice is central to the narrative. This is, perhaps, emphasised when the next people that we hear of are the wise men and Herod:

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1).

Why we might not find the wise men in Luke will be discussed later, but for Matthew, Jesus’ birth was a mighty event and while it centred around the powerful in society, it also turned those expectations on their head. The wise men visited Herod to find the new king, but he was not to be found there. But in fulfilment of prophecy he was to be found:

In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel (Matthew 2:5-6).

The gifts which the wise men presented him were befitting one of the lineage of David who would be the anointed one, the Messiah.

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2:11).

Each of these gifts had symbolism attached that would be immediately known to the reader. Gold was a symbol of Kingship and Frankincense as a symbol of the divine as it was often used in a priestly role (see Leviticus 24:7 and Psalm 141:2). It is interesting to me that the Saviour is referred to as ‘Prophet, Priest and King’ (see Hymn 136)- in the Old Testament these roles are usually separate, but they find their fulfilment and come together in the person of the Saviour- He is our Prophet, Priest and King. Matthew establishes this in the first two chapters through the scriptures he uses, and the emphasis that he places in the gifts.

I haven’t mentioned so far the gift of myrrh, as this is a slightly strange gift to bring a child. It was often used in the anointing of the dead. In this gift, the wise men are foreshadowing a day when the Saviour would die. Essentially helping us to understand that the main purposes of the Saviour’s life was to die for us. Even at this early stage of his life, his life and mission were clear to those that understood. The wise men understood this, and so would have the readers of Matthew. Although there are many suggestions as to who the wise men were, Elder Bruce R. McConkie has suggested that were Melchizedek Priesthood holders who watched and waited expectantly for the sign of his birth, in a similar way to the Nephites (see 3 Nephi 1):

As to the men themselves, one thing is clear. They had prophetic insight. It was with them as it had been with saintly Simeon: the Lord had revealed to them, as it were, that           they should not taste death until they had seen and worshipped the Christ. They knew the King of the Jews had been born, and they knew that a new star was destined to arise and had arisen in connection with that birth. The probability is they were themselves Jews who lived, as millions of Jews then did, in one of the nations to the East (Mortal Messiah, Book 1 p. 358) 

…it would appear they were true prophets, righteous persons like Simeon, Anna, and the shepherds, to whom Deity revealed that the promised Messiah had been born among men (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary vol. 1, p. 103).

The Saviour’s birth in Matthew is noticed and includes the rich and powerful of the world. The conclusion to the story highlights again Matthew’s emphasis on the Saviour being a fulfilment of the Old Testament, and in particular Moses. The massacre of innocents by Herod when he discovers the wise men have returned home without reporting to him, would be reminiscent to the Jewish reader of a similar event around the time of the birth of Moses. Like Moses, the Saviour escapes- this time not in a basket, but with Joseph and Mary with Joseph having been warned in a dream to go to Egypt. Thus the reader of Matthew can understand very clearly that the birth of Jesus is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, that he is the Messiah and he is of infinite worth so that even the rich and powerful seek him.

As we read Luke’s account of the Nativity it is important to note that he was writing for a Roman audience and also addressed the Greek world. Although we don’t find the genealogy of Jesus until chapter 3 when the events of the Nativity are over, the genealogy that Luke uses is specifically influenced by his audience. Like Matthew he includes the Patriarchs through the line of David:

Which was the son of Jacob, which was the son of Isaac, which was the son of Abraham, which was the son of Thara, which was the son of Nachor,

But he goes further:

Which was the son of Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.

In this genealogy Luke wanted to emphasise more than Jesus as the Messiah for the Jews, but taking it back to Adam and from there to God, Luke was extending the message to all of the human family, including the Gentiles. This is important for us, as the message and the atonement of our Saviour Jesus Christ should be shared with all, and is not limited in its scope and reach.

Luke begins his account of the Nativity with the story of Elisabeth and her husband Zacharias. In discussing this with a friend recently, he pointed out that in distinction to the male dominated narrative of Matthew, one of the first events in Luke is the closing of the mouth of Zacharias, the man:

And when he came out, he could not speak unto them: and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple: for he beckoned unto them, and remained speechless (Luke 1:23).

Although there is evidence that Luke may have known of Matthew’s Gospel, I’m not sure this was a direct contradiction but it is interesting to note. The remainder of the story very much focuses on Mary. You’ll remember in Matthew that it was Joseph who he recorded hearing the message from the Angel in a dream. In Luke, he includes the events of the annunciation to Mary:

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS (Luke 1:26-31).

There is some suggestion that Mary may have been a source for Luke’s writings and this would go some way to explain the detailed narrative that Luke chooses to include. It is also fairly indicative of other aspects of Luke’s Gospel. Throughout Luke there are examples of the author including the stories of those on the periphery of society. Those who may not always have a voice. It begins in the Nativity with a focus on the role of women, but also extends throughout his Gospel. Unique to Luke are the stories of social outcasts (7:37-50, esp. v. 39); The Good Samaritan (10:25-37); Lazarus, a deserted beggar (16:19-31) and Lepers (17:11-19). The Greeks and the Romans spread their culture and language all over the world with the intent of bettering the lives of people. Luke’s  message of Christ would appeal to their mind. 

There are further examples of this within the Nativity story. Luke is the author who includes the detail that Mary:

…she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn (2:7).

There could be no more humble beginning for the Saviour of the world. After Mary, Joseph and John the Baptist, the first witnesses to the identity of Jesus as the Son of God were similarly lowly:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 2:8-14).

That the Saviour would become the Good Shepherd was perhaps one reason why the shepherds were visited by the angels. It is important to note that the shepherds, while great examples were of a low station. This helps us understand the message wasn’t just for the rich and the powerful, but also for the poor and lowly. Jesus Christ came into the world to save all people, and Luke emphasises this in reciting this part of the story. Whereas for Matthew, this part might have been a stumbling block to his Jewish audience. As an aside it is interesting to note that the biblical scholar Alfred Edersheim and the apostle, Bruce R. McConkie have suggested that these shepherds may have been those who were tasked with tending the lambs destined for use in the Temple, those lambs who were without blemish sacrificed at Passover. If this is so, then the story also serves to foreshadow the Saviour’s role as the Lamb of God, without blemish that was to be sacrificed for the sins and pains of the world.

Of further interest is the use of the word ‘found’ when it describes the shepherds visit to the Saviour. This suggest that they had to look. One commentator has noted how difficult it is to find a house in a town with no addresses/street names. Maybe this helps us understand that we need to put effort in to find the Saviour in our lives.

Why are there no wise men in Luke’s account- it could be that their visitation could have appeared to have been a threat to Roman rule and so Luke chose to omit their visit to focus on the message he wanted to share with the Romans with no distractions.

The final people in Luke’s account who have a part to play were two faithful people: Simeon and Anna. They had waited to witness the Messiah, and when Jesus was taken to the Temple at the age of eight days and was there recognised as the anointed one. Simeon too the Saviour:

up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel (Luke 2:28-32)

Anna herself was at least 84 years and of the tribe of Asher. Those two facts were enough to place her on the periphery of society, Edersheim has noted of Anna:

To her widowed heart the great hope of Israel appeared not so much, as to Simeon, in the light of ‘consolation,’ as rather in that of ‘redemption.’ The seemingly hopeless exile of her own tribe, the political state of Judæa, the condition – social, moral, and religious – of her own Jerusalem: all kindled in her, as in those who were like-minded, deep, earnest longing for the time of promised ‘redemption (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, p. 140).

Luke’s telling of the story expands significantly the scope of the impact of the birth of the Saviour. Knowing he intricacies of both accounts helps us understand the impact that the Saviour had on the lives of Matthew and Luke, the impact it had for their audiences, but far more it helps us understand the impact that the birth, life, death and resurrection of the Saviour can have on us today.

As I read the accounts, different things stand out at different times. Sometimes it is the lowly station in which the Saviour was born to help me understand that we can always rise above any circumstance that we find ourselves in. Or another time it could be the devotion of the wise men who help me understand the roles of the Saviour as Prophet, priest and King and help me consider what gifts I can bring. Perhaps at the moment, most noticeable to me is the message that Christ is able to come to us whatever station of life we may find ourselves in- whether high or low, or even at this time, in lockdown.

Christmas is going to be different this year, but what is not different is the message of Christmas I mentioned at the beginning: “God comes to where we are to bring us to where he is.” Wherever we are this Christmas, we can find room for the Saviour and have the most meaningful Christmas of all.