‘The Sun of Righteousness’
Reflections on the Nativity Gospels (1)
Each year, as the daylight hours shorten, and the dim sun casts long shadows over a still land covered in snow, Christians await the manifestation of the true and eternal light of the ‘Sun of Righteousness,’ Christ our true God, shining from a child’s face in a cave in Bethlehem.
The Christmas season is marked by a diverse set of venerable and revered symbols and traditions. In America, many derive from Protestant Germany and Victorian England. Then there are the pageants, the decorated store windows, the office parties and the frenzied rounds of shopping. For Orthodox Christians, Advent, the anticipation of the Incarnation of Christ, is marked instead by the same pattern as the Great Lent that marks our Lord’s resurrection. Indeed, it is oftentimes called the ‘Winter Pascha.’
The scriptural account of Christ’s birth is found in the gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke. Traditional Christmas representations in displays and pageants tend to harmonize the two accounts, which are in reality quite different.
It is important that we untangle these accounts if we are to gain insight into the meaning of the Incarnation according to the Scriptures. This is because the evangelists were theologians. They had a great respect for the apostolic teachings about the ministry of Jesus Christ handed down orally from the time of the Resurrection. But they were writing for different communities, with different concerns, and had their own purposes in what they emphasized.
The Gospel of Matthew was authored by a Jewish Christian and served as the Gospel for a major Christian center in Syria, likely Antioch. Matthew tells of happenings not mentioned in Luke: the star, the Magi, the plot against Jesus, the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the innocents.
Luke’s great hero, besides Jesus, was St. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and he was keen to explain to the readers of the Greco-Roman world that the Christian message was not a threat, but rather an unfolding of the will of God. His Gospel, together with the Book of Acts, is a history of salvation.
It is in Luke that we hear so much about the Theotokos, the Mother of God, notably the annunciation to her by the angel Gabriel of her conception by the Holy Spirit. There is also the wondrous conception of Jesus’s cousin, St. John the Baptist, and some of the most glorious hymns in all Scriptures, including Mary’s Magnificat.
We shall listen in the weeks ahead as Matthew and Luke each tell the Nativity story in their own way. Above all, however, we must see both accounts as depicting the origins of Jesus as the fulfillment of the expectations of the Old Testament. May it bless us with a deeper and more meaningful understand of the ‘reason for the season.’