1998 Dec – Christmas Day
Christmas Day 1998
A – Cycle
Mathews Infant Narrative
Reflection by Fr. Frank Cordaro November 1998
Each year around Christmas time I go through the same mental struggle with the Christmas story and how we celebrate Jesus’ birthday. This struggle is best symbolized with the crib displays that we set up in our Churches. It frustrates my scriptural sensitivities to no end how we so casually combine the elements of two distinct biblical stories into one crib setting. One year I insisted on separating the Matthew elements from the Lukan elements by setting up the crib with Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus in the manger surrounded by the animals and shepherds on one side of the altar, and the star and magi on the other side of the altar. My frustration comes from my biblical sense that to really appreciate the significance and meaning of our two biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth it’s necessary to read and understand them separately. We have only two accounts of Jesus’ birth in the bible. One is in the Gospel of Matthew, the other Luke. Though each account covers similar concerns and makes similar theological points, each does so in unique and differing ways. Each account relies heavily on the Old Testament themes and texts to tell their stories. These infant narratives basically serve as prologues to the Gospels that they are attached to. They are individualized “theological introductions” telling us something about the Jesus we are to meet later on in the story. As such, they deserve to be read and studied separately.
Therefore, in this lectionary series, I plan to cover Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth for my Christmas Day contribution and then cover Luke’s account for my January 1st contribution.
Matthew’s Infant Narrative:
The infant narrative in Matthew’s Gospel is two chapters long. It consists of a genealogy and a five-scene unit that tells the story of Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham. It basically tries to demonstrate Jesus’ Jewish hereditary links to King David all the way back to Abraham. Luke is the only other Gospel with a genealogy. He links Jesus all the way back to Adam and Eve. Luke places his genealogy after his infant narrative, in between the baptism of Jesus and his temptations in the desert. Matthew and Luke’s genealogies are not the same. They are worth studying at length.
First scene: Birth of Jesus (Matt. 1:18-25)
While Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before she moved into his home she was found to be with child. Joseph was not the father. Being a “righteous” man, not wanting to expose Mary to the shame of her situation, Joseph intended to divorce her quietly until an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. The angel told Joseph not to fear but to take Mary into his home as his wife anyway. The child conceived by Mary was by the Holy Spirit. Joseph is to name the boy child Jesus. All this being done to fulfill what God had foretold through the prophet Isaiah (Is. 7: 14)
Angels play and important role in both the infant narratives. Joseph awakes from his dream and does as the angel commanded. Joseph took Mary into his home and he had no sexual relationships with her before the child was born. When the boy was born, Joseph named him Jesus. This all took place in Bethlehem where Joseph and Mary lived. Jesus’ actual birth is recorded in less than one verse, a part of a verse, “she bore a son” (Mt. 1:25). In Matthew’s story, Joseph is the main character. The story is told from his perspective. It’s a man’s perspective; it’s a man’s story. Matthews’ infant story will reveal how the political world, the “powers and principalities” will receive the Lord.
Scene two: The Birth Announcement Mt. 2: 1-12)
If Jesus’ actual birth seemed low-key, his birth announcement was anything but low-key. Magi from the East showed up in Jerusalem on King Herod’s doorstep asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” (Mt.2:2) This star was Jesus’ cosmic birth announcement. The attention it attracts will have far-reaching geo-political ramifications. In the cultural world of the first century, magi were a caste of very high ranking political-religious advisers to the rulers of the Median and Persian empires (roughly equivalent to the modern countries of Iran and Iraq.) They were schooled in all the sciences inc1uding astrology.
When the Magi and their entourage showed up in Jerusalem following a newborn star, the customary sign of a newborn king, King Herod and all of Jerusalem were “greatly troubled”. (Mt. 2:3) It was a trickled down concern from King Herod to his royal household, to the priest and scribes, to his servants and handmaids, to the people of Jerusalem.
Who could this newborn king of the Jews be, this so-called Messiah? This was not good news for King Herod. He had no need for competition; he was the King of the Jews by the graces of Rome. Any other king of the Jews would be a direct threat to him and his Roman sponsors. Herod called all his holy and wise men, his magi, together to determine where this rival king was to be born. The chief priest and scribes turn to their holy book, the scriptures and found where the prophet Micah foretold to Bethlehem a great ruler shall be born.
Herod instructs the magi to go to Bethlehem to find their king, do him homage and then return to Jerusalem to let him know where to find the new born king so he could do him homage too. The magi left Jerusalem and headed for Bethlehem. The star they were following preceded them. When they arrived in Bethlehem the star came to rest directly over the house where the child king was. They entered the house, saw the child with his mother, did him homage and gave him three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The Three Gifts:
The first was gold, a practical gift, and one that would be useful for the hard times ahead. This gift was not given for its practicality but for what it symbolized. Gold was given to symbolize Jesus’ kingly majesty. The second gift, frankincense, is not practical at all. It was a kind of incense that symbolized Jesus’ divine connection. Lastly the gift of myrrh was a ghoulish and morbid gift. It was an aromatic gum resin used to anoint dead bodies before burials. Even at this joyful occasion, the birth of Jesus, the story wants to remind us of what is ahead, for this child king will be put to death, crucified for the sins of all. Told in a dream, the angels doing, not to return to Jerusalem for Herod has no good in store for the newborn child king, the magi return home by another route. Mt.2:13-15
Joseph is told in a dream by an angel to get out of town quick, that night! Herod is out to kill the child Jesus. Joseph, the hero-action person in our story wastes no time. He immediately gets up and heads for Egypt, the nearest super power border. Joseph is following in the footsteps of his Old Testament counterpart, the other Joseph son of Jacob, reader of dreams and provider for his family in Egypt. Overnight the Holy Family becomes political refugees. One wonders how they survived their forced exile in this strange new land. Were they classified as illegal aliens? Did they use their gold for green cards? The text is silent on these matters.
Scene Four: The massacre of the Infants (Mt.2:16-18)
Herod soon finds out he has been tricked by the Eastern Wise guys. He makes a strategic decision, a pre-emptive strike. He sends his storm troopers to Bethlehem with a death squad assignment; kill all male children under the age of two years. Sure, there will be some innocent victims, “collateral damage”, it can’t be helped, a regrettable but necessary outcome for a shrewd and politically expedient move. Herod does nothing out of the ordinary here; any other political operative would do the same. Herod represents the ways of the world, how the “powers and principalities” will respond to the underlying threat that Jesus and his message pose.
Scene Five: Return from Egypt (Mt. 2:19-23)
Herod dies, all tyrants do. Joseph is told in a dream by an angel it’s safe to bring the child home, but not to Bethlehem. Herod’s son reigns there, they go to Nazareth instead. It will be safer there. Like Moses “up from Egypt” Matthew’s Jesus is in place, on the same page as Mark, Luke, and John, in Nazareth ready to connect with John the Baptist when his time comes.
DECEMBER 28TH FEAST OF THE HOLY INNOCENTS
This year marks the 20th year that there will be a witness and ‘line crossing’ at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska. Offutt is the home of the Strategic Command Headquarters (StratCom), formerly the Strategic Air Command. StratCom is the operational command post for all U.S.A. strategic nuclear weapons. There is more destructive power under this command than the world has ever known. It can literally destroy all life on the planet, several times over.
I’ve been at this Feast of the Holy Innocents witness and line crossing every year since 1978, except when I’ve been in prison, unable to attend. The witness is always preceded by a retreat in which the infant narrative of Matthew’s gospel is studied, prayed upon and acted upon at the gates of Offutt. Each year this retreat and witness at Offutt helps to refocus and re-claim the original edge and challenge of Matthew’s Christmas story. The rules of political engagement that moved King Herod to kill the children of Bethlehem are very much in place today. Just as the Roman Empire was the political force backing King Herod, today the U.S.A and its StratCom Headquarters is the political force backing up modern day King Herods around the globe. If you don’t think so, ask the children and mothers of Iraq. Did you know that more children have died in Iraq because of the U.S. lead sanctions than people killed during Desert Storm?
The truth is the Matthean Christmas story is relived everyday in every corner of the world. The innocent are sacrificed and the Christ child is hunted down in countless places and in countless ways. Don’t be fooled by our nation’s official observance of Christmas. Christmas U.S.A is more a commercial and economic observance than any kind of spiritual or holy observance. It serves more to disguise and cover up the true meaning of Jesus birthday.
Rev. Frank Cordaro, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines in Iowa, is currently imprisoned as part of the “Gods of Metal Plowshares” witness. On May 17, 1998 Srs. Ardeth Platte and Carol Gilbert, Ms. Kathy Shields-Boylan, Rev. Frank Cordaro and Lawrence Morlan began disarming a B-52 bomber at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland, thus beating a nuclear sword into a plowshare. They await sentencing in January 1999.