Most – perhaps all – Christmas pageants combine the stories of Jesus’s birth in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. From Luke: the announcement to Mary that she will conceive a son through the Holy Spirit, the journey to Bethlehem where there is no room in the inn so that Jesus is born in a stable, the angelic message to shepherds who then visit the new-born Jesus. From Matthew, wise men (typically portrayed as kings) following the star and bringing gifts to the infant Jesus. So also Christmas crèches typically combine the two stories in a static tableau: a stable, Jesus in a manger, shepherds, and wise men.
But what if we were to do two Christmas pageants, one based on Matthew and one based on Luke?
The two stories are very different in both length and content. Matthew’s is much shorter. Without the genealogy of Jesus with which he begins his gospel, his story is 31 verses long. Luke’s is 130 verses, four times as long.
Their content is also very different. Matthew’s is dominated by King Herod’s effort to kill the new-born Jesus. The story of the wise men following the star is part of that plot. When they arrive in Jerusalem, they visit Herod who asks them to tell him when and where they have found the new-born king of the Jews so that he might also worship him. Not what he intends. They decide not to, and so Herod orders the killing of infants under the age of two in and near Bethlehem.
Matthew’s story echoes Pharaoh’s decree of death for infants born to the Hebrew slaves in bondage in the time of the exodus. Joseph, warned by an angel, flees with Mary and the infant Jesus to escape Herod’s murderous decree.
Imagine a Christmas pageant based on Matthew alone. Dominated by Herod’s plot, it would be ominous, threatening. Imagine what kind of music might appropriately accompany it – perhaps the Darth Vader theme from “Star Wars” or the theme from “Jaws.” Matthew’s story anticipates the end of Jesus’s life when another Pharaoh, the Roman governor of Judea, would succeed where Herod had failed.
Imagine a Christmas pageant based on Luke alone. The content and mood are very different. There is nothing about Herod’s plot to kill Jesus, and no wise men who tell Herod that they have seen a star that heralds the birth of a new king of the Jews.
Instead, an angel appears to Mary and tells her she will become pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Her response: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Luke also narrates the story of the birth of John the Baptizer to aged and barren parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. That story climaxes in “the Benedictus,” a hymn of celebration. Then, when Mary visits Elizabeth, she sings “the Magnificat,” another hymn of rejoicing. When Jesus is born, angels sing in the night sky to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. Finally, when Mary and Joseph bring the 40 day old Jesus to the temple, the aged prophet Simeon sings “the Nunc Dimittis.”
The mood of Luke’s story is not ominous but filled with joy. If we were to imagine appropriate accompanying music, neither Darth Vader’s theme nor “Jaws” would work. Instead, Handel’s “Messiah” might be perfect.
Imagine a Christmas pageant that did each story separately rather than combining them. Imagine the observance of Christmas if we took each story separately and seriously. From Matthew, we would learn that the rulers of this world always seek to destroy the one who proclaims a world in which the Pharaohs and domination systems are no longer lords. From Luke, we would learn that God’s passion is for a very different kind of world and that hope and confidence in God are to replace resigned acceptance of the way things are.
Both stories are true, even as I do not imagine that the purpose of either is to report what happened. Christmas is cause for celebration, even as we recognize that the conflict between the kingdoms of Pharaoh and the kingdom of God continues. Christmas and Jesus are not just about the past.