Most people, when they think of the Christmas story, think of one biblical narrative that includes the holy family, the midnight hour, a barn, various farm animals, shepherds, angels, wise men and a quiet, little town called Bethlehem. It might come as a big surprise to learn that many of the elements people often treasure as part of the nativity story come from Christmas carols and that the true source for this event, the Gospels in the New Testament, deal with the story of the birth of Jesus in four very different, but yet not contradictory, ways.
Each of the Gospels approaches this story with great care to communicate their respective images of Jesus and in doing so powerfully communicate their unique message to their own particular audience.
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Mark is possibly the first of the Gospels to be written and although done so by Mark, according to early Church tradition, probably represents the preaching and message of the Apostle Peter.
Mark’s Gospel records nothing about the birth of Jesus. Mark starts his story of Jesus with the calling of John the Baptist in the wilderness. The first time we see Jesus in this Gospel is when Jesus comes to be baptized by John.
This “narrative of omission” serves the unique purpose of Mark’s Gospel. Mark wrote his gospel to the Romans of his day and emphasizes the paradoxical message of the hidden service of Jesus as Lord. Together with the secrecy motives in this Gospel, the omission of any details of the birth of Jesus helps the reader to understand that it is not important where a servant is born of from which family he comes – it is his service that defines him.
For the Roman society in the First Century, deeply divided into social classes of honor and status, this exquisite picture of hidden and radical service by one with all authority (Lord) calls the audience of this Gospel to emulate the example of Jesus that as Lord defined his mission and ministry by His service to others.
The Gospel of Matthew
Matthew, in stark contrast to Mark’s “narrative of omission” begins his account with an elaborate genealogy that places Jesus as an ancestor of King David and Abraham. Here already Matthew shows his special interest and the intended audience for his Gospel. He is writing to the Jews and presents Jesus as a King, better than David and a teacher greater than Moses.
Matthew’s birth narratives focus on the role of Joseph, who is “a just man” in Matthew’s words of this event. Joseph is contrasted with Herod, an unjust and wicked ruler. Matthew takes great care to show how the birth event of Jesus fulfills prophecies made in the Old Testament and makes use of these prophecies to present Jesus as a governor, the ruler of Israel, a prince, and as God’s Son.
It is Matthew that tells us about the wise men that came to worship, bringing gifts fit for a king; the murderous acts of the bad king Herod; records the journey of the holy family to and back from Egypt (in no small part to illustrate how Jesus’ life mirrors that of the people of Israel); and of the angels who in dreams direct Joseph.
Matthew, in his powerful birth account, presents Jesus, in fulfillment of the prophecies and hopes of the Hebrew Scriptures, as the King of the Jews who has been given all authority in Heaven and Earth. He is Emmanuel, God with us.