Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Conditor alme siderum

The birth of Jesus the Anointed took place as follows:  While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they slept together, she was found to be pregnant by the holy spirit.  Since Joseph her husband was a good man and did not wish to expose her publicly, he planned to break off the engagement quietly.

While he was thinking about these things, a messenger of the Lord surprised him in a dream with these words:  "Joseph, descendant of David, don't hesitate to take Mary as your wife, since the holy spirit is responsible for her pregnancy.  She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus.  this means 'he will save his people from their sins.' "  All of this happened so the prediction of the Lord given by the prophet would come true:

Behold a virgin will conceive a child
and she will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Emmanuel.

(which means "God with us").

Joseph got up and did what the messenger of the Lord told him; he took his wife.  He did not sleep with her until she had given birth to a son.  Joseph named him Jesus.--Matthew 1:18-25, SV.

The nativity stories are, indeed, two separate stories; and they were not originally widely known outside their communities (the one for Luke's gospel, the one for Matthew's) until a universal church was established, a far different entity than the house churches Paul planted.  Scholars call these stories examples of material from "special Luke" and "special Matthew" because they are unique in the canon, where much of Luke and Matthew is from Mark or a separate conjectured document, "Q".  John's gospel stands apart though, as I've argued, not that far apart.

But Biblical scholarship is not the issue here; story-telling is.  Luke's narrative, the one everyone loves and remembers Linus reciting, is about shepherds and angels, about the Christchild born in a feeding trough among the humblest of peasants (his parents were just above the shepherds in the social-economic pecking order).  Matthew's story is different:  it's about the recognition of the nations, especially their recognition of the kingly role of the Messiah.  But Matthew's story is also, from the very beginning, about death.  We used to remember that; the relic of our remembrance is the number of recordings (I have one on almost every Christmas choral album I own) of the Coventry carol, the lullaby of the weeping mothers over the deaths of their children on the orders of Herod.  That's what that picture above is about.  The story is from Matthew, but the shadow of death hangs over the narrative from the beginning.

Joseph is visited by the angel in Matthew's story; Luke again upends social expectations because Gabriel first appears to Zechariah, the priest, but the priest is struck dumb for his response to the angel.  Mary, a woman, is visited, and she responds in a way that uplifts her.  In Matthew the annunciation to Joseph makes him decide to set the marriage aside.  When I was a child this confused me; "marriage" meant a wedding ceremony, but the relationship between Joseph and Mary was closer to a modern engagement.  Still, it was more binding than that, because we've lost the concept of a breach of promise; we even let people out of marriage much more easily than even in my childhood.  Mary and Joseph were "married" in the sense of betrothal, and bound together as man and wife; of course Mary's pregnancy would mean the "death" of that marriage, and shame on Joseph because he had been cuckolded.  Joseph's sainthood rests almost entirely (at least from Biblical accounts) on his response:  he resolves to end the marriage quietly, rather than bring penury on Mary.  An unmarried mother would be more than the mother of a bastard; she would be a beggar, probably a prostitute, her only chance to make any money.  There is a certain death-in-life sentence hanging there, which Joseph wants to mitigate.  But neither does he want to raise another man's child.  There is a lot going on in these few sentences, and none of it good for Mary, or Joseph. So far, this is not a heart-warming family tale for the children to gather 'round and hear.  I remember my childhood and the adults, my father included, trying to explain this part to me, and moving on quickly to the star and the shepherds because they couldn't.  If not death, there is darkness here, and the story grows darker as it moves along.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea, when Herod was king.  Astrologers from the East showed up in Jerusalem just then.  "Tell us," they said, "where the newborn king of the Judeans is.  We have observed his star in the east and have come to pay him homage."

When this news reached King Herod, he was visibly shaken, and all Jerusalem along with him.  He called together all the ranking priests and local experts, and pressed them for information.  "Where is the Anointed supposed to be born?"

They replied, "At Bethlehem in Judea."  This is how it is put by the prophet:

And you, Bethlehem, in the province of Judah,
you are by no means least among the leaders of Judah.
Out of you will come a leader
who will shepherd my people, Israel.

Then Herod called the astrologers together secretly and ascertained from them the precise time the star became visible.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem with these instructions  "Go make a careful search for the child.  When you find out where he is, report to me so I can come and pay him homage."

They listened to what the king had to say and continued on their way.

And there guiding them on was the star they had observed in the East; it led them forward until it came to a standstill above where the child lay.  Once they saw the star, they were beside themselves with joy.  And they arrived at the house and saw the child with his mother Mary.  They fell down and paid him homage.  Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts:  gold and incense and myrrh.  And because they had been alerted in a dream not to return to Herod, they journeyed back to their own country by a different route.

After they had departed, a messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph, saying "Get ready, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.  Stay there until I give you instructions.  You see, Herod is determined to hunt the child down and destroy him."

So Joseph got ready and took the child and his mother under cover of night and set out for Egypt.  There they remained until Herod's death.  This happened so the Lord's prediction spoken by the prophet would come true:  "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

When Herod realized he'd had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged.  He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding region two years old and younger.  This corresponded to the time that he had learned from the astrologers.  With this event the prediction made by Jeremiah the prophet came true:

In Ramah the sound of mourning and bitter grieving was heard:
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refused to be consoled:
they were no more.

After Herod's death, a messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt;  "Get ready, take the child and his mother, and return to the land of Israel; those who were seeking the child's life are dead."

So he got ready, took the child and his mother, and returned to the land of Israel.  He heard that Archelaus was the King of Judea in the place of his father Herod; as a consequence, he was afraid to go there.  He was instructed in a dream to go to Galilee; so he went there and settled in a city called Nazareth.  So the prophecy uttered by the prophets came true:  "He will be called a Nazorean."--Matthew 2: 1-23, SV

The magi, the astrologers, come to Bethlehem, seeking the child because reading the stars has revealed to them that a new king has been born.  Matthew here is making the story a cosmic event, based on the idea that a new star indicates the birth of a new and important person.  The star that guides them to the home of Mary and Joseph doesn't show up until after they go to Herod; a reasonable choice for strangers looking for a new prince.  When it turns out Herod has no children born in the last two years, they are guided by a quite fantastic star directly to the home of the Holy Family.  The star is the heavenly messenger who twice tells Joseph what to do at critical junctures in the narrative.  This time it has to put the travelers on the right path.  Nativity scenes and Christmas plays mash these events into the Lukan narrative and make it all happen on one night; but in Matthew's story Jesus' actual birth is uneventful, and two years later the "Wise Men" arrive bearing gifts.  Very, very significant gifts; very, very clearly symbolic gifts.

Gold is the recognition of a king.  Funny the Holy Family didn't live the high life on it; the gold is almost a McGuffin; it disappears from the story the moment it is mentioned.  The other two gifts would be downright disturbing to the parents:  frankincense and myrrh.  Nobody told me as a child that these were not just perfumes, but used on the corpses of the wealthy to hide the stench of death and decay (the same reason we embalm corpses now, and for the tradition of burial six feet underground).  The gifts are not meant to be literal, any more than the visit of the Magi is meant to be historical (nor the Star of Bethlehem meant to be physical, despite the best efforts of planateria and science centers each year to "explain" the star).  They are symbols in Matthew's narrative, meant to convey the themes of his gospel.  Jesus is unique not because Mary is a virgin, a woman who has never had intercourse, but because he comes directly from God.  The gifts are symbolic recognition and even assertion of his royal lineage (Matthew's gospel opens with Jesus' descent from King David), and of his crucifixion and death.  The resurrection means nothing if Jesus never died.  The gifts of frankincense and myrrh foreshadow, for Matthew's original audience, the story to come.

As does the aftermath of the visit, the Massacre of the Innocents.  The children die in a slaughter of almost Hollywood proportions (faceless nameless deaths meant to convey the character of the villain more than shock the conscience of the audience), all to underline the danger to Jesus and the Holy Family.  If Jesus is not mortal, there is no danger to him; if he is not human, he cannot die, and the resurrection is an empty boast.  The Holy Family may be blessed by God, they may be, in the words of Rufus Wainwright, "each one quite odd/a mensch, a virgin, and a God," but if Jesus is not human there is no point to the entire gospel.  That humanity is underscored by the Massacre:  this is the deadly world those without temporal power live in.  Jesus is not only human, Jesus is powerless.  The Family escapes only because an angel warns them, and they manage to make it into Egypt just as Herod's soldiers come calling with swords drawn.  Even if the event (like Luke's census) is invented rather than historical, it serves the narrative purpose:  God is involved in history, but is not running history, not, at least, on the quotidian level.  This is not a tale for children at all.  It suits better all those internet memes about stories with themes we can now find disturbing.  Looked at closely this is not a story for children at all.  Small wonder we fold the star into Luke, and ignore the rest of what Matthew has to say.  Because Matthew is saying what the medieval period learned all too well:  in the midst of life, we are in death.  And the best indicator of life and humanity, is the ability to die.  Jesus is God.  Jesus is mortal.  Death awaits all mortals. Death threatens Jesus, directly, from the very beginning.

And the story doesn't end until Herod dies. Only then is Joseph told it's safe to return, but fear of death makes him return, not to Galilee, but to Nazareth.  Death drives the first two chapters of Matthew; a narrative foreshadowing of the end of the gospel, and a thematic reminder that this is the story of a human being, no matter how much he was also God.

Definitely not a story for children.  Small wonder Linus went with the Lukan version.


  1. I didn't believe the "war on Rudolph" thing was a thing till I read this. I thought it was just FOX trying to recycle their "War on Christmas" crap.

    Never liked the song, never thought much about it, was too old to have watched the cartoon they talked about. Watched it on Youtube, it's kind of dumb but it's got a certain early 60s Rocky and Bulllwinkle thing about it - the elf who wants to be a dentist. Any such kerfuffle only proves that TV and movies and the internet are making too many people too idle and ever stupider.

    Your posts always make me realize there are things in those stories that I'd never noticed before. Things we miss because we live in an entirely different time and place (though not that different) would probably have been obvious to the people who told those stories in those ways and who knew their audiences would understand with little difficulty. We require scholars to point that out to us.

  2. Agreed on Rudolph. My response to such "analysis" is: "Get over yourself."