What happened at Christmas?
The Catholic Perspective
By Diana Shaw
In a recent Bible study I was asked how I reconciled the different nativity stories in the Gospels. Matthew and Luke recount different accounts of what happened on the first Christmas day. Before looking at the differences, we should affirm the truth they both tell. Jesus became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was born in Bethlehem. It was through the Holy Spirit that Mary conceived. Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, is the foster father of Jesus.
The truth we find in Scripture isn’t always in the details. Confusing details do not shake our faith in the Word of God. Where Matthew and Luke received their information we do not know, except that the Holy Spirit guided them in the writing. So, the differences are the work of the Holy Spirit. Both stories were told to different audiences to illustrate different points about the significance of the birth of Jesus.
Luke tells us about a census being the reason Mary and Joseph go from Nazareth to Bethlehem. When they arrive, there is no room available at the inn so they go to an area where animals are sheltered. Jesus is laid in a manger. The heavenly sign we hear about is a choir of angels appearing to shepherds. Afterward Joseph takes Jesus and Mary to Jerusalem to be presented in the Temple and then they travel back to Nazareth.
Matthew recounts that in a dream an angel of the Lord tells him to take Mary into his home. The text does not tell us where the home is and does not tell of a journey to Bethlehem. It appears Joseph lives in Bethlehem because the birth takes place there. In Matthew, the heavenly sign is the appearance of a mysterious star to some magi. The magi come looking and alert Herod to what has happened. We are told the magi entered the house and saw the child with Mary, his mother. Herod puts out a death sentence on all boys born in Bethlehem. In a dram, Joseph is told to go to Egypt and then later, after Herod is dead, to go to Nazareth.
Many have attempted to harmonize the accounts rather than accept them for what they were intended to be, namely theological statements about the nature of the birth of Jesus. Matthew and Luke were not intending to write historical accounts. They were concerned about what the birth of Jesus meant.
The angels and shepherds, and the star and magi are both manifestations of heaven announcing the birth of Jesus. Like the commercial, “both” is better than “or.” The two travel itineraries both end in Nazareth where Jesus grows up.
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