Do you remember when you were born? I don’t mean, “Do you know your birthday?” I mean, “Do you remember the moment when you were born?” I mean the lights, the labor and delivery room, the nurses, the OB-GYN, your mama pushing you out, and so on. If you do, then we need to talk. Someone at PBS, NOVA or the Discovery Channel will want to do a documentary on you. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. We don’t have any memories of the moment we entered planet Earth. So, if Matthew were to write a story of our lives, he’d have to begin it this way, “Now the birth of (Insert your name here) took place in this way,” and then he’d have to talk to people who were there at our birth. Let’s say our mother, father, the doctor, and maybe a nurse. Matthew would have to chat with some first-person eyewitnesses to record how our births took place. Provided they were still alive, he could talk to people who witnessed the event. There might even be video footage of your birth for people born after a specific date. It sounds like an easy thing to do.
Now go with me on this, if Matthew wanted to tell the story of your birth, but he waited until you were dead, your mother was dead, your father was dead, the doctor was dead, the nurses were dead, and not one of the first or even second-hand witnesses remained. On top of waiting until all the witnesses had passed on, he waited sixty years after your birth (30 after your death) to begin his birthday retelling project. Where would he get his details? Would his details be anywhere near accurate? Remember, Matthew is very definite in what he writes, sixty years after Jesus’ birth, thirty years after Jesus’ death, after both Jesus’ parents have died, he knows that the “birth of the Messiah took place in this way.” My parents can’t remember what they had for lunch yesterday. They will reflect a little bit about the day I was born almost 49 years ago yet Matthew has access to a transcript of a conversation between an angel and the now deceased Joseph. You can see where I’m going this this: can we trust Matthew, who wasn’t in Bethlehem, looking back over sixty years, trying to piece together the recollections of people who are long dead? There is no Ancestry.com. What about his story makes sense if we use our common sense? Given what we know of the vagaries of time and memories, what rings true, and what sounds like he’s weaving a yarn?
Let’s do this one more time. There’s another writer. We’ll call him Luke. He tells the story of Jesus’ birth some five to ten years after Matthew tells his story. If you’re keeping track, that would be 65-70 years after the birth of Jesus. All the same vital people are dead. Even more crucial characters are dead by this time. Peter and Paul have long been executed in Rome. Jesus’ brother James is dead. The original tenuous connections you had to the birth story are not there. Luke writes his versions. Joseph’s role is nearly nonexistent. There are no wise men. There is no King Herod or the massacre of the innocents. Yes, we’ve got shepherds and angels, but they are two different stories. That’s because they are. We like to smash them together every Christmas, but it only makes a liturgical, theological, and Biblical mess. It may be the worst thing the church does at Christmas. After the church Christmas pageant, we’re left with fragments of the truth lying on the floor, and everyone goes home bathing in the warmth of the same old misunderstandings. Could we try telling the truth this year before the Wise Men and the Little Drummer Boy show just after Mary’s birth?
Suppose you were to ask your parents or the people at your birth what happened. In that case, I guarantee you wouldn’t get two vastly different stories with different characters, a different doctor, or a non-existent drummer boy. Time might be compressed, and you might remember the color of the delivery room walls differently than your partner, but your parents would tell the same story because they were both there and witnessed it. It is a shared historical event. No one would tell two drastically different stories. To do so would raise multiple red flags about the health and well-being of one of the two people. Matthew and Luke aren’t crazy. It upsets me that they never intended to tell the same story. Accuracy wasn’t important to them. This bothers me. Why do accuracy, authority, and faith need to be mutually exclusive?
Matthew and Luke were not first-hand witnesses to the birth of Jesus. It is doubtful they knew anyone who was. Most of those persons who knew Jesus personally had died before they began to write their gospels. The differences between the two stories, which illustrate us the different priorities within Matthew’s community and among Luke’s readers, show us that they were telling stories for their audience, not accurately relating history as they knew it. Don’t get me wrong; I like good yarn. I also like the truth. If I’m telling the Good News, the Gospel According to Jesus Christ, I want to get it right, especially today. Our congregations are tired of lies, subterfuge, and alternative facts. If we don’t proclaim the truth at Advent, when can we? I find it harder and harder to live with the contradictions in scripture, to either ignore them or reason them away with the logic I was taught in seminary. We’ve got to be better than the pious platitudes we were given to deal with these silly contradictions.
So what can we say with any historical certainty and not feel like we’re lying to the people in the pews this 4th Sunday of Advent 2022:
Jesus was born.
Jesus had a mother.
She was called Mary
Jesus had a father.
He was called Joseph.
God works in mystery.
Don’t feel you have to make stuff up to sell the story.
Life is a miracle.
The mystery is the miracle.