Yes, we’re nearing the end of 2016, but did you know that we’ve already begun a new liturgical year? It’s Year A, when most of the gospel lessons will come from Matthew.
I like to think of the gospels as portraits rather than photos of Jesus’ life. Portraits allow for color and texture, shading and dimension from a particular artist’s point of view. The school of Matthew’s point of view is framed within the experience and expectation of Judaism. Matthew wants to explain to Jews why they should recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.
To do that, Matthew quotes the Hebrew scripture, especially the prophets, often. Matthew employs imagery that harkens back to the stories of Israel’s heroes. There’s a lot of dreaming early on in Matthew, much like the great dreams of Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, and others. Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy to Abraham, the first Hebrew.
Magi from the East (Abraham’s home territory) visit Herod the Great before they find Jesus. Herod plots to kill the infant. Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt and only after Herod dies do they go to Nazareth, an echo of Moses and Israel traveling to the Promised Land.
That is very different from Luke, the Year C gospel we’ve just finished. Luke wants to convince a diverse Greco-Roman audience that Jesus is the Christ, and sets about doing so by writing “an orderly account.” Luke’s genealogy of Jesus goes all the way to Adam, reminding readers that Jesus is for everyone, not only for Israel. We don’t get dreams in Luke. There are no Magi and Herod doesn’t try to kill off a future King of the Jews. Other than going in Bethlehem for the census, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus seem to live in Nazareth all along.
These portraits are different. They should be! Neither is trying to report history. There is no reporter embedded in Bethlehem, Nazareth, or anywhere else following Jesus. There is only the testimony of faith seen through different points of view.
Both Matthew and Luke were written at least 40 years after Jesus’ life. They were written by people who could not have known Jesus in the flesh. They know him in spirit, through the sacred stories told to them by others.
This is a pretty impressive and wondrous thing – keeping a story alive because it brings hope, love, joy, and peace to individuals and to a world in need of all those gifts. That’s the blessing of Advent.
Come and take a look at the portrait again.