When we were in Florence, Italy in 2009, we made sure to see the Fra Angelico murals in the Monastery of San Marco. They are beautiful and light-filled! To think that each monk had nearly nothing in his room but a Fra Angelico fresco. That’s doing solitude in style. The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary is the most famous and most beautiful of the frescoes. The angel and Mary bow to each other in mutual humility. They represent the beauty of the divine and the human in perfect balance.
I recently finished reading the first half of Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah, a rich explanation of the infancy stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. There is so much more than meets the eye, and Brown like a superb detective storyteller reveals to us the clues to what it all means. Brown says that the stories about the birth of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are quite different, except they agree at the following very important points: he was born in Bethlehem during the time of Herod; his birth, name and status as Savior were announced by an angel; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit when his mother was a virgin; and he was raised in Nazareth. Brown says that it is not possible to say how much of the narratives in general are historical because they are strongly influenced by the theology of the evangelists, but the agreement of Matthew and Luke on these particular points is significant. Both Matthew and Luke emphasize the virginal conception of Jesus, to highlight his status as the Son of God. Other famous human beings have been called sons of God, and many ancient religions say that the gods came down to earth to mate with women. But in the New Testament there is no hint of God appearing in human form to have sex with Mary. Conception is the work of the Holy Spirit within her, which is a great mystery. Joseph is Jesus’ legal father but not biological.
This may stretch the bounds of credibility, but the theological intent is to challenge the reader with the question: do you believe Jesus Christ to be the Messiah, both human and divine? That is a basic question for followers of Jesus.
Brown notes a feminist interpretation of the virgin birth by Janice Anderson, a New Testament scholar. She says that the idea of Mary being a virgin when she conceived Jesus dispenses with the need for male participation and undermines male patriarchy and domination. It is God who controls reproduction not men. Jesus was son of David through Joseph, but is Son of God through Mary. That’s certainly a new twist to an old idea! With the technological innovation of “in vitro fertilization” perhaps the idea of virginal conception is not so far-fetched after all.
As for many of the other stories that Matthew and Luke include, the most one might claim is verisimilitude: they have the appearance of something that might have happened. Brown points to the story in Matthew 2 of the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod as an example of verisimilitude, since there is no historical evidence outside the New Testament to substantiate the story, but it was the sort of thing Herod was capable of. It is also the sort of thing that happens in our world today, as we experienced in the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre of young students and teachers recently (please see my blog posting, The Tragedy of Violence, July 25, 2012). Jesus was born into a situation where he and his parents became refugees from violence and hatred. Whether it happened that way or not historically, it certainly prefigured the violence and hatred he encountered later on in life, and reflects the harsh nature of life for too many children and parents today all over the world.
Brown concludes that Mathew 1 and 2 represent the gospel in miniature, including the suffering and rejection of the Messiah. But there are those like the foreign spiritual seekers (Magi) and the faithful Jewish couple, Mary and Joseph who do welcome and receive the Savior into their lives. Quoting Isaiah, Matthew says about Jesus, “they will call his name Immanuel, which means God with us”. That is the Good News for all times and situations.
There’s a favorite blessing (written by Rev. Jon M. Walton) with which I ended the Christmas Eve service at church for many years. I share it with you in the hope of a blessed Christmas season for you:
The moment is drawing close,
it is almost here,
when the quiet love of God
steals in upon the disquieted world
like a parent comforting a restless child at night.
And when those arms enfold us
and that lullaby is sung
we shall know that there is peace at last.
In that peace may God hold you always.