The scriptures fascinate me in a way that is difficult to describe, but I’ll give it a try. I think it has to do with the rich symbolic language, the layer upon layer of meaning, and most importantly the way they challenge my way of thinking. The scriptures break down the fortress I’ve built around my entrenched opinions, they dig my well of compassion an inch or two deeper, and humble me in the presence of such divine mystery. I forget that my students are not as enamored with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as I am. I get totally into the message, hands flying, espousing the good news in a fevered pitch, and when I look up, I’m greeted with utterly bored expressions, some of the students are actually browsing their phones. I’m like, “Don’t you just love this? Wouldn’t it be totally cool if God had an IPhone? Or better yet, if we could go back in time, and meet Mary.” The answers I get are not really viable.
I like to explore the infancy narratives in December for obvious reasons. There are only two accounts of Jesus’ birth in the gospels. They are found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. This is the origin of our Christmas story, with the manger, angels, shepherds, and magi. If you spend some time reading the two narratives you will notice they differ in many ways. Our Christmas story is actually a combination of the two versions. This is because they were written for different audiences. Matthew wrote for a Jewish audience, whereas Luke’s audience was gentile. Matthew and Luke’s gospels appear in written form about eighty to ninety years after Jesus’s death, both of them borrow material from Mark, and these three gospels are referred to as the synoptic gospels (because they have similar material).
I’m going to focus on the gospel of Matthew, because I’m writing this blog, and I like Matthew’s heavy metaphoric style. Matthew is telling his story to people who are intimately familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). Matthew 1:22, all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the Old Testament, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph (Jesus’ Dad) is guided by an angel in his dreams, this angel reveals Jesus’ true identity, and warns him to flee to Egypt because of threats to the infant. The Jewish audience would immediately recall the great Joseph (coat of many colors) of the Old Testament, a master of dreams, who saves the people of Egypt from starvation. Eventually, the prophet Moses, leads the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt into the promised land, as Jesus will release us from the bondage of sin, and bring us everlasting life. Balaam, a magi of the Old Testament, was ordered by a wicked king to curse the Hebrews. Instead, he blesses them. The Magi (pagan astronomers) in Matthew’s Gospel, ignore King Herod’s sinister command, and give praise and honor to Jesus, spreading his message of salvation beyond the borders of Israel. Matthew 2:16, “When Herod realizes that he has been outwitted by the Magi, he is furious, and he gives orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem, and its vicinity who were two years old and under.” That is when Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt with the infant Jesus. We see how Matthew uses names and events familiar to the Jewish people, to not only link Jesus to his forebears, but to reveal Jesus as the long awaited messiah. Okay that is the end of our biblical studies for today. Now what does it all mean?
I like to challenge my students with alternative scenarios. What if Jesus were born today? Who would be the wicked king? Who is fleeing persecution? Would we be able to recognize God’s saving grace in a culture steeped in atheism? Our world is not so different from the world of the biblical writers. We are all fleeing something from the past, maybe we were rejected, or maybe we were the perpetrators. I provoke the students to respond to the gospel’s message of love regardless of their faith tradition. We always have a choice. Every word we speak, every action we take, every thought we think reflects our response to the teaching of love. All the major traditions had prophets who called the people back to God. I ask them to be modern day prophets in a world desperate for a new vision. This is not an easy task. I want them to consider three questions. Can I be brave when overcome with fear? How do I respond to hate? Do I feed my anger or my compassion? It takes a lot of fortitude to control our natural response to fear, hatred, and envy. But it can be done. It’s like physical exercise, with practice, we become stronger. I ask the student browsing her IPhone, “What are you doing to spread the gospel of love?” She said, “I’m sending my brother a text, he has a test today, and I’m wishing him good luck.” Oh snap, now that’s the spirit.
I realize I write to remind myself of these things. I lose my way, I grovel in the dark, and when I’m pushed towards the light, I can barely glimpse the road God is graciously paving for me.