The Christmas Story 12. Examples Taken From Early Christian Hymns

Because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

I said something about the early hymns that Luke introduced in the nativity story and here for your enjoyment then, are some of the earliest Christmas Songs in various settings. That’s the end of our Christmas journey together. A Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you.
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The Christmas Story 11. Temple Ordinances–KJV Error–Origins of the Author of Luke

The first born child of a Jewish marriage at the time of Jesus had to be, in effect, given to God. In place of actually turning the child over to the temple cult, a sum was paid (the turning over was symbolic—only Levites could perform the temple service—the exercise was a remembrance of the Golden Calf episode—Num. 18). The parents were not really involved here, but the mother had to come, after a waiting time, for a purification rite (offer a sacrifice). (See Lev. 12)

When priests like Zacharias offered sacrifice or incense, they had to be purified. They had to come out of the secular (perhaps a better term is the temporal), leave it behind, so that they could enter the presence of God. They had to change their clothing, put on special vestments, wash, and so forth. There were well-defined rituals to create this separation.[1]

Against this, birth was seen as a creative act (see the second post on the status of Mary) and much like the priestly acts, there was a holiness about birth, a participation with God.
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The Christmas Story 10. Luke on the Scene of Jesus’ Birth

Luke has told us about the birth and the circumcision of John the Baptist, and now he begins his narrative of the birth and presentation of Jesus. He spends more time here since this is his main point in the prologue of the ministry.

In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled [RSV Luke 2]

It was a census, not a tax. It is known that Augustus had a census now and then to get an idea of the population in various places, however, he never commanded an empire-wide census. But recall that Luke’s view is a global one, and he wants this to follow that picture. Another thing to recall is that Luke is writing many years after the death of Augustus (August of 14AD -yes the month is named for him) and the other events he tells us about. Consider trying to recall the highlights of the years of the U.S. presidency of William Howard Taft. It gives you some idea about Luke’s story. You have some general ideas about Taft perhaps, but probably not details about him. You probably don’t recall details of his role in the “Big Burn” and the forest service in 1910. But you may have some kind of general picture, legends of Augustus, if you’re Luke. Luke wants us to understand that this is an event that has world-wide significance.
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The Christmas Story 9. Mary, Elizabeth and Hymns of Early Christians

Luke has given us two traditions, one about Zacharias and Elizabeth, one about Mary, and both involve Gabriel and angelic announcements. Luke now brings the two narratives together by telling us about a visit Mary makes to Elizabeth. This cements the blood relationship between Jesus and John and Luke is the only one of the Evangelists who knows about this, and he uses this to blend the two traditions.

Now that Luke has this backstory of John and Jesus, what does he do with it? Essentially nothing, directly, at least. The other Gospel writers are ignorant of it, and in the Gospel of John, the Baptist actually says that he never knew Jesus! So this is a little like the infancy stories in general. They create this backstory of Jesus, they provide an Israelite foundation, there are these spectacular events: stars, wise men, murder of children, shepherds who tell the story of angels, and then no one knows about this at all later on. It’s as though Zacharias and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, never see each other again. The story of this linkage comes to us and then disappears.
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The Christmas Story. 8. Gabriel: Mary as Disciple.

Luke sees Mary as the model disciple. He gives us a picture of Mary as the first to hear, however frightening it may have been, and she believed though not with full understanding (hence Luke’s repeated, “and Mary pondered these things in her heart” phrase). Luke has Gabriel come to Nazereth. Thus, Luke tells us that Mary lived in Nazereth. Matthew doesn’t: he thinks Mary (and Joseph) lived in Bethlehem.

She is betrothed to a man named Joseph “of the house of David.” Again, it’s Joseph that is a descendant of the great king (see part 2). David is a symbol for the kingdom itself. Luke wrote that Gabriel told Mary she is favored of the Lord: God wanted in effect to bestow grace on her and that’s the way Jerome translated it, full of grace.

El Greco: Mary meets the angel. Note the dove. (Image: Wikipedia)

El Greco: Mary meets the angel. Note the dove. (Image: Wikipedia)

The calling, grace, and power she was about to experience: she was to conceive a child. God’s Son. The words seem to mean that Mary was already a graceful, a faithful person, one who already stood in favor with God. Now she was to stand in greater favor with him.[1]
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The Christmas Story 7. Gabriel, Zacharias, Elizabeth, and John

Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about John the Baptist’s nativity. John pops onto the scene baptizing. He’s part of the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. John (the Evangelist) puts him in his Gospel in a very weird way. He writes about Jesus existing before creation and suddenly he inserts the Baptist into the narrative. It’s a powerful part of the message for him and it may have something to do with John the Gospel writer’s attitude toward Judaism.
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The Christmas Story 6. Luke and the Roman World.

Matthew saw things in terms of God’s plan and, for him, the last times were at hand. He saw parallels between the birth of Jesus and the Christological events of his death. Matthew placed these very dramatic Jewish motifs at the beginning and end of his Gospel. Stars, the quaking earth, darkness, turmoil in the elements, angels and the intervention of God.

Luke contrasts with this. His was a global view, one that extended to the world as he understood it. He was not interested in the kinds of events Matthew emphasized. He knew the Roman empire as the boundary of the known world and that’s where his story takes us. Luke’s Gospel and Acts were probably in a fluid state after being written ca. 90AD and there is manuscript as well as historical evidence for this. Indeed, it is not until the turn of the third century (200 AD) that the New Testament texts settle into a more fixed state. The key here was the attitude of Christians about these texts and their status compared to the Hebrew Bible.[1]

Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome were raised by a wolf. Some people say Romulus killed his brother, but we know he hid out and later worked at Hogwarts.

Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome were raised by a wolf. Some people say Romulus killed his brother, but we know he hid out and later worked at Hogwarts.

Luke’s written structure is tripartite. Part one is the story of Israel, the Law and the Prophets. Part two is the life of Jesus–the Gospel of Luke. Part three is the story of how the message moved out into the gentile world by direction of the Spirit–Acts.
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The Christmas Story 5. Matthew’s Episode of the Wicked King

A vitally important thing about all the Gospels, including Matthew, is their very essential orality. Meaning that, at least in part, they arise out of a naturally fluid oral tradition. Christians were rather late in taking up the pen. It’s useful in dealing with these texts to remember that they developed out of preaching.[1] For example, Herod. A Herod appears at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, and there is a Herod at the end of the Gospel. It seems hard to believe that people who heard the Christian preachers understood that they were two different people. The Herodian family is complicated, mostly because of all the wives. Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus, Herod Agrippa, people would not have understood the distinctions, and I suspect that most people still don’t who hear or read the accounts.[2] Matthew and Luke have this theme of a Herod as antagonist either to Jesus himself or to Christians. Matthew has this at the birth of Jesus (Herod the Great), Luke has another Herod at the trial of Jesus, Herod is trying to kill Jesus, and in Acts, another Herod kills James the apostle, the brother of John, and yet another Herod shows up in Paul’s trial.
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The Christmas Story 4. Matthew on Sex and Wise Men

KJV Matthew 1:25. “And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son.” It’s difficult to know where Matthew might get such detail, but it may be a nod to some kind of purification. Possibly this is Matthew seeing Jesus as divine and therefore holy and so the discharge of semen in Mary meant that Joseph was defiled and should not come near the holy child–thus, no sex. Rabbinic rules varied, but in the end, sex during pregnancy was the decision of the wife (according to the male rule makers in the writings at least). But who knows?[1] Read more of this post

Christmas Story 3. The Birth of Jesus: Matthew.

Matthew begins his narrative of Jesus’ birth with the information that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. And before they came together as sexual partners, it’s discovered that she’s already pregnant. Matthew says the pregnancy is by the Holy Spirit, but he doesn’t mean that other people knew this—he makes you an insider here. He’s writing from long distance, many years after the events (and we don’t have any idea how he can know stuff like this—in fact, he probably does some interpolation of tradition—back writing the gospel narrative into the preamble of the birth as we will see that Luke does. Matthew and Luke also incorporate their contemporary knowledge here and there—imparting a presentism to the story—more on this later).

Coming back to Matthew’s narrative, he is going to explain and explore the struggle of Joseph over the news that Mary is pregnant. Matthew’s story is really a story of Joseph—it’s Joseph’s genealogy for example. Luke tells Mary’s story, without knowing the complementarity of Matthew.
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