Dec 1998 v.p. Infant Narrative, Two Stories p.1
1998, Cordaro, VP, Vol. 22, No. 4, Infant Narrative: Two Stories
INFANT NARRATIVE: TWO STORIES, ONE IMPORTANT THEME
By Frank Cordaro
Each year at this time I go through the same mental struggle with the Christmas story and how we celebrate Jesus’ birth. For me, this struggle is best symbolized by the nativity displays set up in our churches. It frustrates my scriptural sensitivities to no end when the elements of two distinct biblical birth stories – one in the Gospel of Matthew, one in Luke – are casually combined into one nativity setting. While both accounts cover similar concerns, make similar theological points and rely heavily on Old Testament themes and text, the “way” in which they tell the story is quite different. These infant narratives are basically 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.
Matthew’s Infant Narrative
The infant narrative in Matthew’s Gospel, two chapters long, consists of a genealogy and five scenes that tell the story of Jesus’ birth.
Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham and basically tries to demonstrate Jesus’ hereditary link to King David and even back to Abraham. Luke’s, the only other Gospel with a genealogy, links Jesus all the way back to Adam and Eve. Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies are not the same, however, and they are worth studying at length.
Scene One: Birth of Jesus Matt. 1:18-25
While Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before the 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 and 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 was conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit. Joseph is to name the boy child Jesus. All of this is being done to fulfill what God had foretold through the prophet, Isaiah. (Is. 7:14).
In Matthew’s story, Joseph is the main character. The story is told from his perspective. It’s a man’s perspective, a man’s story. Matthew’s infant story will reveal how the political world, the “powers and principalities”, will receive the Lord.
Scene Two: The Birth Announcement Matt. 2:1-12
If Jesus’ actual birth seemed low key, his birth announcement was anything but. 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.” (Matt. 2:21). This star was Jesus’ cosmic birth announcement. The attention it attracts will have far-reaching geopolitical ramifications.
In the cultural world of the first century, Magi were a caste of very high-ranking political-religious advisors 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, including 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”. (Matt. 2:3). There was a trickle-down concern from King Herod to his royal household, to the priests 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 grace of Rome. Any other King of the Jews would be a direct threat to him and to his Roman sponsors. Herod called all of his holy wise men together to determine where this rival king was to be born. The chief priests and scribes consulted their holy book, the scriptures, and found the text in which the prophet, Micah, foretold that a great ruler would be born in Bethlehem.
Herod instructed the Magi to go to Bethlehem to find this king, do him homage and then return to Jerusalem to let him know where to find the newborn king so he might also render homage. The Magi left Jerusalem and traveled to Bethlehem as the star they were following preceded them. When they arrived in Bethlehem, the star came to rest directly over the house in which the child king lived. They entered the house and found the child with his mother, did him homage and gave him three gifts: gold, incense and myrrh.
The three gifts: The first was gold, a practical gift, one that would be useful for the hard times ahead. However, this gift was not given for its practicality, but for what it symbolized: Jesus’ kingly majesty. The second, frankincense, a kind of incense, symbolized Jesus’ divine connection. Lastly, myrrh, a morbid gift, was the aromatic gum resin used to anoint dead bodies before burial. Even on this joyful occasion of the birth of Jesus, the story reminds us of what is ahead, for this child king will be put to death, crucified for the sins of all.
Told by angels in a dream not to return to Jerusalem, for Herod has no good in store for the newborn child king, the Magi return home by another route.
Scene Three: Flight Into Egypt Matt. 2:13-15
Joseph is told in a dream by an angel to get out of town quickly, that night! Herod is out to kill the child Jesus. Joseph, the action-hero character in our story, wastes no time 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? The text is silent on such matters.
Scene Four: The Massacre of the Infants Matt. 2:16-18
Herod soon finds out he’s been tricked by the Eastern wise guys. He makes a strategic decision, a preemptive 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.
Hero 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 Matt. 2:19-23
Herod dies as all tyrants do. An angel tells Joseph in a dream that it’s safe to take the child home, but not to Bethlehem, for Herod’s son reigns there. Instead they go to Nazareth where it will be safer. 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 28 – Feast of the Holy Innocents
This year marks the 20th year that there will be a witness and “line-crossing” at Offutt Air Forces Base in Belleview, Nebraska. Offutt AFB is the home of the Strategic Command Headquarters (StratCom), formerly the Strategic Air Command. StratCom is the operational command post for all U.S. strategic nuclear weapons. There is more destructive power under the command of StratCom than we can comprehend.
Except when I’ve been in prison, I’ve participated in this Feast of the Holy Innocents witness and line-crossing every year since 1978. The witness is always preceded by a retreat during which the infant narrative of Matthew’s Gospel is studied, meditated on and acted upon at the gates of Offutt AFB.
Each year this retreat and witness helps to refocus and reclaim 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 United States and its forces like StratCom are the political force backing up modern day King Herods around the globe. If you don’t agree, ask the children and mothers of Iraq. Do you know that more children have died in Iraq because of the U.S.A.-led sanctions than all the people killed during Desert Storm?
The truth is the Matthew Christmas story is relived every day 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.SA. is more of 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.