When we hear Matthew begin his Christmas story abruptly with, "Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way" we may ask ourselves: Where is the introduction to the homeless couple seeking shelter as the woman prepares to give birth? Where is the description of the stable, crude and bare, with cattle bowing gently and the baby Jesus lying on a bed of hay? Where are the shepherds in the field, the angels announcing the good news and singing God's praises? If we read further in Matthew, we find the familiar story of the wise men, following the star and carrying gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But the story of Jesus' birth is told from a very different perspective. Luke focuses on Mary—her encounter with the angel, her birthing and wrapping of Jesus in bands of cloth, her reflections on the events. But Matthew's story centers on Joseph.
If we look closer, we will see that Matthew and Luke are not so different. Each tells the story of an unplanned pregnancy and of the fear and dismay that initially accompanies the announcement of that pregnancy. Each tells the story of an encounter with an angel who offers encouragement by foretelling the mission of the child who will be born. Each tells the story of a parent accepting this astounding news in humble obedience to God.
Part of the astonishing surprise of the announcement of the Savior is how inclusive it is. On the one hand, Jesus is a Jew descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a man of royal lineage descended from the renowned King David. On the other hand, the salvation incarnate in Jesus extends beyond the people of Israel to include the gentiles. This is implicit in the genealogy that introduces the narrative of Jesus' birth in Matthew's Gospel. The genealogy names not only Abraham and David but also Rahab and Ruth, gentiles who married into the Hebrew lineage. Paul highlights the inclusion of the gentiles in his Letter to the Romans, telling them that he was sent to the gentiles, including those in Rome.
For us, the distinction between Jew and gentile does not have the significance it had in the first-century world of scripture. But what about contemporary distinctions created by national borders or racial and ethnic identity? What of the distinction between Christian, Muslim, and Jew? To whom is God's salvation extended this year?
The narrative of Jesus' birth does not provide a ready answer to such questions. At the conclusion of Matthew's Gospel, the risen Jesus sends the disciples out to all nations, directing them to carry the message they have received from him. Perhaps in the story of Jesus' unconventional birth we get our first inkling of miracle -- that in Jesus God comes to all of us. Perhaps, as we hear again the story of Jesus' unconventional birth, we may be open to God's salvation appearing in new and surprising places and in the most unexpected of people!
From all of us at Salt and Light Television, I wish you a blessed, joyful and peaceful Christmas.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.,
C.E.O., Salt and Light Catholic Television Network