The story goes that there was a girl named Mary, young, Jewish, betrothed but unmarried. An angel came to her and told her that she would give birth to a boy who would grow up to save the world. Her betrothed, meanwhile, did not take the news of her pregnancy so well and planned to break the engagement off. But one night an angel came to him as well, in a dream, and told him much the same thing that he had told Mary: that she had been made pregnant by the Holy Spirit, that she would give birth to a boy and that this boy would save the world. So he should probably go ahead and marry her. Which he did.
Around this time, Caesar Augustus ordered a census for reasons very few people care about. So Joseph took his pregnant virgin wife, atop his trusty donkey, to Bethlehem, whence his family came. They tried to get a room at the inn, but there was no space available. So they slept in a stable. Above the stable was a star which three wise men recognized as a fulfillment of prophecy. They set out to follow the star. At the same time, a multitude of angels appeared over a hillside where several shepherds were watching over their flocks. The angels directed them to the stable. So the wise men and the shepherds journeyed to Bethlehem, where they found Jo-seph, Mary and, in a manger, a newborn baby. The shepherds told the story of what they had seen. The wise men gave gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Mary and Joseph named the boy Jesus. He would go on to save the world.
That’s how the story goes. Of course, if I told it to you again, it probably would go a little differently. If I told it to you a third time, it would change yet more. I might add things in. I might leave stuff out. I might start earlier or end later, assert a different chronology or just write in a different style. And if you asked another per-son to tell it to you, it most likely would be noticeably distinguishable from my own. This is how storytelling goes.
Indeed, even within the Bible, Matthew and Luke, the only two gospels to deal with the Nativity, tell the story in two distinctly different ways. Matthew is, for example, much more patriarchal, as Mary is an entirely passive character. The angels visit only male characters, notably Joseph, and do so only in dreams. In Luke, on the other hand, Mary is the central character of the story, while Joseph is largely tangential, and an angel visits her directly.
Matthew also is less concerned with class issues, as it contains no mention of Mary and Joseph having to sleep in a stable and includes the account of the wise men bearing gifts at the expense of the shepherds. Luke, meanwhile, omits the wise men and in addition to the shepherds, includes a short interlude about Anna, a widow-prophet, and Mary’s song, which features lines such as: “[God] has filled the poor with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
Matthew also includes the rather thrilling account of Herod’s attempt to murder the newborn Jesus. To escape Herod’s soldiers, Joseph and Mary take their child straight from Bethlehem and flee to Egypt, where they stay until Herod’s death, at which point they return to settle in Nazareth.
Luke contains no reference to Herod or Egypt whatsoever. Instead, Luke asserts that Joseph is from Nazareth originally, goes to Bethlehem for the census, then to Jerusalem for Jesus’ temple rites, and then back home to Nazareth. It would seem that Matthew and Luke were writing to different audiences, or at least had different concerns on their minds.
This is not to say that the differences in the biblical stories are necessarily irreconcilable. They certainly work very well together thematically, and their accuracy as historical documents is not the concern of this column. The point is simply that the stories are different, and that they are different because stories, even historically accurate ones, are always different. Writing has given us the false myth of definitiveness, when in truth we are still bound by much the same rules as the oral cultures that preceded us. Our stories just tend to have longer shelf life.
Indeed, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke represent merely two versions of the oral stories being passed around at the time. And in the intervening 2,000 years since those stories were written down, we have added our own plot points, our own thematic emphases, our own rituals. Matthew makes no mention of the number of wise men, and neither Matthew nor Luke makes mention of a donkey. They certainly contain no edict to set up trees in our houses and to cover them in lights and breakable decorations. They do not order us to give gifts to one another, to place giant inflatable Santa Clauses on our lawns or to take the day off from work.
But these are all part of our Christmas story now. Along with carolers and wreaths and ugly sweaters. Along with candy canes and sugar cookies and Christmas dinners. Along with crass consumerism and radio stations playing Christmas songs 24 hours a day. Along with people complaining that there’s too much Christmas and not enough pluralism, and even more people complaining that there’s not enough Christmas and too much pluralism. Along with going to church and lighting candles, or staying home with your family, or packing into the car to see family you haven’t seen in too long. Along with telling yet another new version of a 2,000-year-old story about a pregnant girl and the baby boy who saved the world.
This is what we celebrated yesterday. Some of it is ugly and some of it is wonderful. But it’s how the story goes. So very good, and happy Christmas.
Justin Fowler is a student at University College of Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog burnstheair.blogspot.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.