Advent is the perfect time to learn more about the Gospel stories of Jesus’ conception, birth, and infancy. We call these stories the “infancy narratives.” We are already quite familiar with these stories, but you may find something new or surprising in this month’s list of five!
1. Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell us about Jesus’ birth. While all four Gospels tell us about the death of Jesus, only two of them tell us about his birth. Mark’s Gospel launches very quickly into the ministry of Jesus with no mention of his birth or origins. John’s Gospel describes the preexistence of Jesus with God, and he does say that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:14), but John does not provide any details about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Interestingly, only the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke are devoted to the stories surrounding the conception, birth, and infancy of Christ.
2. Matthew’s infancy narratives tell us more about Joseph, while Luke’s tell us more about Mary. Although Matthew and Luke both tell stories about the birth of Jesus, they tell these stories in very different ways. For example, in Matthew the Annunciation is made by an angel to Joseph, while in Luke the Annunciation is made by an angel to Mary. In Matthew’s Gospel, we are told that Joseph has dreams that reveal God’s will and allow him to keep Jesus safe from those who wish him harm. In Luke’s Gospel, we are told a great deal about Mary: She visits her cousin Elizabeth, sings a canticle of praise, receives foreboding words from a prophet, and “[keeps] all these things in her heart” (2:51). Joseph’s name peppers Matthew’s account, while Mary’s name is mentioned 12 times in Luke’s account!
3. Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is dark in tone, already foreshadowing the cross. Another way Matthew’s infancy narratives differ from Luke’s is that they are very different in tone. In Matthew’s account, the cross — an event which we do not typically associate with the birth of Jesus — already looms over his infancy. A decidedly dark note is sounded in the jealousy of King Herod, who wants to “destroy” Jesus when he hears of the “newborn king of the Jews” (2:2; see 2:13). In a horrifying and violent scene, Herod orders the massacre of all boys in Bethlehem age 2 and under. The jealousy, deception, and death of innocents highlighted in Matthew’s account all foreshadow the cross of Jesus. Of course the Resurrection is also foreshadowed: The infant Jesus is saved from destruction by the plan of God and lives on to become the savior of his people. As usual God has the last word, and it is a victorious one.
4. Your manger scene at home is likely a combination of details from Matthew and Luke, as well as some traditions that are not in the Bible. If you’re looking for an interesting Advent activity, read the infancy narratives (Matthew 1—2 and Luke 1—2) and compare what you read with what you see in your manger scene. Which Gospel mentions a stable? Which one mentions the Magi? What about shepherds, camels, angels, a star, and a manger? You’ll find that many of these things are found in one Gospel but not both. You may even find that a few items in your manger scene are not mentioned at all; for example, your Magi may be wearing crowns, but there is no mention of “three kings”! This can be a fun and informative activity for families. It helps us distinguish between the two different accounts of the birth of Jesus and enhances our awareness and appreciation of the diversity found within Scripture.
5. Jesus was born into a family. We may take this fact for granted, but it is worth some reflection this Advent season. Jesus did not appear on earth out of nowhere. He wasn’t like Superman, landing in a pod sent from another world. Rather, the Son of God was born of a human mother, emerging from her womb and into her arms just like every other child, just like each of us. He felt cold and hunger; he cried for his mama just like we did. Jesus is one of us. As St. Paul wrote, “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). It is this reality — God with us — that is at the heart of the Advent season.