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St. Luke’s account of our Lord’s birth is filled with joy. There are miracles, angels, and peace between heaven and earth. The peace Christ makes between you and God even now anticipates the peace of the New Creation, when those bitter enemies, the wolf and lamb, shall dwell together in perfect harmony.
St. Luke’s Christmas is full of peace and joy. All the famous Christmas passages come from St. Luke.
There’s Gabriel’s salutation to the Blessed Virgin,
Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you.
and Mary’s Magnificat:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior.
Zechariah sings his Benedictus,
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.
and Simeon, the Nunc Dimittis:
Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.
St. Luke gives us the famous Christmas proclamation,
Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ, the Lord.
and the Gloria in Excelsis of the angels:
Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good will to men.
All from St. Luke. It’s a beautiful picture, one of Christmas peace and joy.
But St. Matthew paints a very different picture. His Christmas account contributes nothing to our hymnal. St. Matthew’s angels don’t look very much like St. Luke’s heralds of peace and joy. If anything, they look more like the Angel of Death from the time of Moses.
Luke’s angels have flesh and blood, but Matthew’s appear only in the dreams of Joseph and the magi. Luke’s angel tells Mary she will be the Mother of God, while Matthew’s talks Joseph out of divorcing her (after all, she’s pregnant and he’s not the father). Luke’s Christmas Gospel makes the heart leap for joy, but Matthew gives us about as depressing a dose of stark reality as there is.
It’s no wonder St. Matthew’s Christmas Gospel didn’t make it into the lectionary. Luke gives us the cooperative Caesar; Matthew, the scheming, plotting Herod. The second time an angel appears to Joseph in a dream, the news is hardly any better than it was the first time. He tells Joseph Herod’s trying to kill his child, so he needs to take his family and flee to Egypt—Egypt, of all places—where Israel endured bitter slavery and couldn’t leave quickly enough.
The Holy Family escaped to Egypt at the angel’s prompting, but Herod, of course, didn’t know this. All he knew was that there was a new king in town, thanks to the magi. Not one to take any chances, Herod ordered the slaughter of all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.
If we didn’t have St. Luke, the Christmas story would go something like this:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way…Joseph resolved to divorce Mary quietly…And the blood of the first martyrs was shed when Herod killed all the male children in Bethlehem and the surrounding countryside before their third birthday.”
Matthew gives us a Christmas that matches up pretty closely to the reality of life on earth, while Luke’s Christmas is much more heavenly. For Matthew, the suffering of Christ didn’t begin with the cross, but at His birth.
There isn’t much joy in St. Matthew’s Christmas. Maybe that’s the sort of Christmas you’re having. If so, you’re in good company. For Christ and the earliest Christians, Christmas was a time of suffering. But there is one note of joy in Matthew. When the magi saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. Suddenly, at that moment, it all came together for them.
For you, as for the magi, there are no angels to help you find Jesus. There are only the Scriptures. We rejoice not because we have seen Christ with our eyes, but because, like the magi, we have found Him in the Scriptures. But we have even more than they; for we hear His voice from the pulpit and receive His very Body and Blood from the altar.
This side of glory there are precious few St. Luke Christmases. Even so, you have reason to rejoice, because you have been baptized into the birth, suffering, and death of Christ. Holy Baptism is the assurance that the Day is coming when the peace and joy of St. Luke’s Christmas is the only kind you’ll ever know again. The joy of the New Creation will be sort of like waking up every day only to find you’re 6 years old again and it’s Christmas morning—except even better.
Soli Deo Gloria
+Rev. Eric Andersen.
Adapted from “Four Ways to Celebrate Christmas” by Rev. David P. Scaer
St. Luke 2:1–32; St. Matthew 1–2
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