June 30, 2016
As Luke's story develops, other themes from the Jewish scriptures dance across his stage. Elizabeth and Zechariah are like Abraham and Sarah, too old to conceive a child. But again God overcomes that barrier. Zechariah's vision in the Temple, his speaking with the angel, and his being struck mute echo a similar story in the book of Daniel.

But the major thrust of these stories is Luke's assertion that as wondrous as John the Baptist's story is, he pales beside Jesus of Nazareth. For John to be born to aged parents was a wonder but not near so great a wonder as a Virgin Birth. When John is born, the neighbors gather to rejoice. When Jesus is born, the heavenly hosts rejoice. When Zechariah doubts, he is punished with muteness. When Mary doubts, she is assured by the angel. John, while still in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, salutes Jesus, still in Mary's womb. A salute from one fetus to another is hardly the stuff of actual history.

Then Luke tells the story of Jesus' birth. He emphasizes two symbols, mentioning one three times, the other twice. First, this special child is to be found in a manger. Second, the Christ is to be wrapped in swaddling cloths.

In Isaiah Chapter 1, the prophet bemoans the fact that while even the donkey knows from whose manger he eats, Israel is not faithful to its God. But for the holy child to be found in the manger at birth suggests that this child will recall the people of Israel to the God who is the source of their life.

In the Wisdom of Solomon, Israel's greatest and most opulent king observes that when he was born, he was carefully swaddled, for that is the only way a king can come to his people. To have Jesus come to his people in swaddling cloths is Luke's way of announcing Jesus' kingship.

There is no star in Luke. He replaces it with the light of an angel and the greater light of the heavenly host. But the purpose is the same. The birth of Jesus is announced from the sky, for beyond the sky is the place from which God reigns. Jesus is the sign of God's presence coming out of heaven to redeem the sinful world.

There are no wise men in this gospel. Rather, humble shepherds attend the newborn. Luke's treatment of Simon Magus in the book of Acts indicates that he did not care for magi. And he had little use for royalty--humble shepherds were more to his taste. The shepherds also allowed him to play on the theme of Bethlehem being the birthplace of David, the Shepherd King. Armed only with the clues of manger and swaddling clothes, these shepherds went to seek the Christ child and to worship him. God and human life had come together in Jesus.

Luke has one other feature that is unique to him: His characters regularly break into song. When Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, she sings the "Magnificat": "My soul doth magnify the Lord." This song is modeled after a song Hannah sang in the Hebrew scriptures when Samuel was born. Zechariah, who is struck mute when he is told of the promise of the birth of John, later has that muteness lifted. Immediately, he breaks into a song called the "Benedictus"--"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel." When the angels announce the birth of Jesus, they form a heavenly chorus singing what today we call the "Gloria in Excelsis"--"Glory to God in the highest." Finally, when Luke tells the story of Jesus being presented in the Temple at 40 days, the old priest Simeon breaks into the song known as the "Nunc Dimittus": "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace." It is almost as though Luke has turned his pageant into an operetta. Perhaps what he did was to place into the beginning of his gospel a Christmas play to which he added a musical score.

Luke closes his birth story with the account of Jesus visiting the Temple when he is 12 years old and claiming his "father's house" as his own. This is patterned after a story of Samuel, and it presages the adult Jesus claiming the Temple as his father's house the week before his crucifixion.

Luke's gospel is a beautiful story filled with meaning, deeply steeped in the Jewish storytelling tradition. To see it as myth or parable is to enter it in a new way. It is a religious story not unlike the secular story of Santa Claus. Both stories were created to capture a truth that human words cannot fully contain. But if either story is literalized, and one pretends that this mythology is real history, disillusionment is inevitable. That is the fate of Santa when one reaches the age of 6 or 7. That will be the fate of the birth narratives in the maturity of our emerging consciousness.

I will conclude this analysis of the birth narratives of the New Testament in the final column of this series.