Nativity scene mish-mash defies Scripture

Our traditional Nativity scenes with shepherds, angels, Magi and camels run together the infancy narratives from Luke's and Matthew's Gospels, blinding us to the different theologies built into each account.

Our traditional Nativity scenes with shepherds, angels, Magi and camels run together the infancy narratives from Luke's and Matthew's Gospels, blinding us to the different theologies built into each account.

December 19, 2011

A glance at the mantle this time of year can give the average Catholic entirely the wrong idea about the Bible.

"You see crèche scenes – they cram everything from both Gospels (Matthew and Luke) in there, not realizing that if you line both those Nativity stories up there are inconsistencies and contradictions," said Jesuit New Testament scholar Father Scott Lewis.

"Don't try to mix the four Gospels together. Then you just get a meaningless glop."

The popular mash up of sentimental baby imagery found everywhere from crèches to Christmas cards to movies on TV is a problem for priests preaching on Christmas morning, said Father Richard Charrette, a Scripture professor at St. Peter's Seminary in London, Ont.

"These are very difficult Gospels to preach on at Christmas," Charrette said. "You have so little time and you have people who are only there at Christmas. People historicize it and fundamentalize it and miss the whole theological message."

Scripture scholars are not Christmas killjoys trying to tear down the faith of ordinary Catholics. They're trying to prod people into reading each Gospel account of the incarnation of Christ and discover the unique theology in each.

"We should take Luke or Matthew, sit down, read it and hear what it's saying – not what you think it's saying. Ask, 'What does it have to say to us today?'" said Father Paul Hansen, director of the Redemptorist Biblical Justice Consultancy.


Each Gospel (with the exception of Mark, who begins the story with Jesus' baptism) has a different theology to go with its story of the incarnation. The separate theologies of Christmas in each Gospel are linked to their individual theologies of Easter.

"You have to read the New Testament backwards," advises Hansen. "The infancy narratives are written from the perspective of the resurrection."

"A good prologue tells you what's going to happen," points out Sister Joan Campbell, a New Testament scholar at the Atlantic School of Theology. "At the beginning of any of the Gospels there are scenes there that play out in the (rest of) the Gospel."

It's not that the Gospel stories of how Jesus was born have to be decoded. It's just that they demand careful reading and contemplation, said Campbell.

"Pope Benedict in his writing entitled Verbum Domini, The Word of the Lord, talks about the importance of the practice of lectio divina," she said. "It's amazing how that can be good for preachers, parishioners and families. The word can be broken open."

If Matthew starts with a long genealogy, Luke tells us everything about the political scene from who was emperor to who was high priest. John doesn't even bother with what happened but instead gives us Greek poetry. Each Gospel has a different message about the same Jesus.

"They agree on certain fundamental facts," said Charrette. "That Jesus' birth was announced by an angel, that he was born in Bethlehem. These are very solid, historical things."

But the details are different because each of the Gospels has a different audience and a different purpose. When Matthew tells the story of the Holy Family's sojourn in Egypt he's trying to make a point – that Jesus is the new Moses, that his life sums up the history of Israel, that his crucifixion and resurrection were the new Exodus.

When Luke introduces us to shepherds who receive messages from angels and witness the birth of the Messiah he's turning the social order upside down – shepherds were the most marginal, shifty, untrustworthy low-lifes in the Middle East.


Matthew, on the other hand, brings in magi – mysterious, powerful, foreigners.

Why so different? In part, it's because of who they were writing for. Matthew was a Jew writing for Jewish Christians.

"He wants to show that Jesus is, in fact, the goal of sacred history. He is the new Moses. He fulfills the Old Testament," said Charrette.

Luke is a Greek writing for Gentiles. "St. Luke has the same view as the Greek historians. They see history in terms of persons who are types," said Charrette.

"Luke's Jesus is very much a prophet," said Campbell.

That's why Luke's infancy story is full of dreams, messages from angels and prophetic statements about Jesus and Israel as the light to the Gentile nations.

"Mary, the mother of Jesus, also has her prophetic role with Jesus with the whole Magnificat," said Campbell.

Matthew is self-consciously engaged in the Jewish practice of midrash, said Lewis. Midrash is the Jewish art of explaining Scripture by telling another story.

While Luke and Matthew each make different points about Jesus, they are both wrestling with the same question that would have bombarded Christian communities in the first century.

"Lots of people were crucified. Lots of people were put to death by the Romans. What's so different about Jesus?" is how Lewis poses the question. "Well, it's who he was and where he came from that was important, as well as what he said."


As opposed to the midrash of Matthew and Luke, John's Gospel deals directly with the idea of Jesus' divinity.

"It's kind of theological poetry, if you read it in Greek," said Lewis.

Full of alliteration and repetition, the first 18 verses of John are carefully composed in a high and impressive style. But it would be wrong to make too much of the Greek stoic philosophy many see in John's exposition of the "Word."

"Perhaps there was some Hellenistic philosophy, but there's also a lot of the light and darkness you find in the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran," said Lewis.

In answering Docetist heresies that denied Jesus was really human or really suffered on the cross, John may have borrowed a little from Greek philosophy, but only enough to fill out a fully developed Christian theology.

"The Word for stoics was this creative principle that kept order in the universe," said Campbell. "But the stoics would never imagine that the Word would become a human being. That would be totally beyond their realm of thought."

The Jewish roots of John's thinking are on display for all to see, said Campbell.

"It starts up 'In the beginning.' What Old Testament book starts with 'In the beginning?'" she asks. "In antiquity, if you begin your book with the opening words of another book, you are calling up that book."

The beginning of John, read every Christmas morning, is a challenge to every Christian and the Church, said Lewis.


"What does it mean for the Word to become flesh?" asked the Jesuit scholar. "I think that probably our biggest problem in Christianity is that we haven't quite unpacked that. It doesn't say he took on the appearance of flesh. He became flesh. What does it mean for me that God chose to dwell in me?"

John's prologue foreshadows the later monologues Jesus will deliver after the Last Supper, where he urges his disciples to "abide in my love" (John 15.9). That passage built on the analogy of the true vine lays out what it means to live the life of the Trinity.

"You will live the life of the Trinity - that would be the invitation," said Lewis. "Of course we've never really believed that and never really taken up the invitation. The day Christianity jumps up and takes off is the day we do that. It's very much about divine empowerment of people."

Carefully reading each Gospel individually to learn what they were saying would be at least a first step, but not necessarily an easy step.

"There's a huge gap between 2,000 years ago and a Mediterranean agrarian society and today. Things have happened since then - the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, Vatican II, you name it," said Campbell.

"It's not always easy to make the connection. That world was so different culturally and in every other way. However, I think people can make these connections."