December 25, 2016
THE NATIVITY OF THE LORD (CHRISTMAS)
The people who walked in darkness…
Ps 96:1-3, 11-13
Sing to the Lord a new song
The grace of God has appeared
A decree from Caesar Augustus…
Gospels and Christmas stories. This is the time of the year that we blend all the Gospel stories into one grand narrative and then display that in scenes of the stable at Bethlehem and the Magi, and so forth. All of this is of value and contributes to a sense of the meaning of Christmas, and even relates it to the Bible. But it might be worth looking at the different Christmas stories in the different Gospels to appreciate each of them for what it says.
We can eliminate Mark, first of all. His Gospel begins with the baptism of Jesus as an adult. There is nothing about Christmas in his account to add to the feast. In fact, we can expect to hear little from Mark for some time in the liturgy.
The other three Gospels have the passages scattered through the various Masses of Christmas. This is the year of Matthew, but Christmas doesn’t feature just one Gospel, but involves all the Gospels it can accommodate.
Matthew does not have a Nativity story as such. His account gives us the story of Joseph’s dream, when the angel of the Lord appeared to him, promising a son of Mary who will be the anticipated Emmanuel. Joseph’s dream, occurring before Christmas, provides us with the Gospel reading for the vigil of the feast. Following this story, Matthew skips over the birth event to the time after, telling of the coming of the Magi. The story of the Magi will have to wait for the feast of Epiphany.
Luke has what we generally think of when we think about the Christmas story. His account is quite different from that of Matthew. Where Matthew features Joseph, Herod, Magi (and camels), Luke favors Mary, Caesar Augustus, shepherds and sheep. Luke also gives us the journey to Bethlehem, with its inn and stable for the animals. Both have images of refugees or travelers buffeted by the arduous conditions of the time. Where Matthew gives us the flight to Egypt, Luke has the arduous trip to Bethlehem.
Because Luke has the stories of Bethlehem and the inn without room for the visitors, he provides us with the Gospels for Christmas Eve and the Mass at Dawn. On the Eve of Christmas we are treated to the traditional story of the birth in the stable, the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and the angels announcing peace on Earth to the shepherds in the fields. The Mass at Dawn follows this up with the story of the shepherds coming to the stable, as instructed by the angel of the Lord.
That leaves the Mass for Christmas Day. Here we turn to the fourth Gospel. John does not tell a Christmas story. Instead he provides us with the theology of the feast. We might call it an Incarnation story. “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us …”
The hymn which serves as the prologue to John’s Gospel, which some of us might remember as the “Last Gospel” in the pre-Vatican II liturgy, now takes its place as the main feature for the day of Christmas.
We might wish for a Christmas story for the morning celebration, but we can take some solace in hearing this grand hymn. We might think of the entire Gospel of John as the account of the Word becoming flesh. In the words of Paul, borrowed from another hymn, “he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). John’s story of Incarnation continues until Jesus says “It is finished” (John 19:30). The death of Jesus is already implied in his birth.
For reflection: What part of the Gospel stories best says “Christmas” to you?
Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.