November 29, 2013

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The Infancy Narratives: Reflections for Advent

John F. Fink(First of four columns)

With the end of the “Year of Faith” last Sunday, we arrive at Advent this Sunday. It seems appropriate, therefore, to devote four columns to preparation for Christmas. What could be more appropriate during Advent than reflections on the Infancy Narratives?

They are the first two chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I hope you’ll read them sometime during Advent.

Both of these Gospels link Christ’s birth with passages from the Old Testament to show how it fulfills prophecies about the Messiah. They tell stories rooted in history: Here is what actually happened. Nevertheless, they tell different stories.

Matthew’s account is told from Joseph’s viewpoint while Luke’s is more about Mary. They also had different sources, so Matthew didn’t know that Mary and Joseph had traveled to Jerusalem from Nazareth. He has them moving to Nazareth after their return from Egypt.

For his part, Luke apparently didn’t know about the flight into Egypt. He has the Holy Family returning to Nazareth right after Jesus’ presentation in the Temple.

Matthew and Luke agree, though, on the essentials: Jesus was born to the virgin Mary, the wife of Joseph, in Bethlehem, the city where King David had been born.

Matthew’s Gospel begins with “the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt 1:1), but Luke puts his genealogy in Chapter 3. They differ somewhat, but the main difference is that Matthew begins with Abraham and goes forward to Joseph while Luke begins with Joseph and proceeds back all the way to Adam and then to God.

Thus, Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ bonds with the people of Israel while Luke stresses Jesus’ universalism.

Matthew’s genealogy includes four women. Luke’s are all men. All four women bore children in unusual or scandalous ways. Matthew wasn’t afraid to point out that Jesus’ family, like those of most of us, was sometimes dysfunctional. Furthermore, none of the women were Jewish. Gentiles were part of Jesus’ genealogy.

Most important, though, is that Matthew’s genealogy ends with a woman—Mary. Throughout the genealogy, we heard that so-and-so was the father of so-and-so. But at the end, we hear, “Jacob [was] the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Mt 1:16).

Then we learn that Joseph was not the father of Jesus. The angel told Joseph, “It is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her” (Mt 1:20). Joseph was prepared to divorce Mary because he assumed, quite naturally, that she had committed adultery. He knew darned well that the baby wasn’t his.

This happened after Joseph and Mary were married but before they lived together. A Jewish wedding at that time consisted of two parts: the actual marriage and then, later, when the husband came to take his wife into his home. Thus, the angel told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary into his home. He obeyed.

Although Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ actual father, he was his legal father, which meant that Jesus belonged to the house of David. †

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