There are two accounts of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament. One comes from the gospel of Mathew and the other from the gospel of Luke. The gospel according to Luke provides us with the most familiar account. We all know how it unfolds: a census, a journey to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, a child in a manger, shepherds, and angels singing glory be God in the highest. Today’s gospel is the first part of Mathew’s account of Jesus’ birth. It is a very different from Luke’s. In it there is no silent night, no virgin and child. There is Joseph in crisis because he has just decided to divorce Mary his wife. She is with child and Joseph knows the child is not his. As Mathew’s account continues, we encounter wicked King Herod who slaughters all the children in Bethlehem in an attempt to kill Jesus and forces the Holy Family to flee to Egypt for their lives. So instead of a manger, shepherds, and an angel choir, Mathew presents us with crisis, divorce, and slaughter.
How is this unusual account of Mathew meant to enhance our Christmas celebration? In a very important way. I suggest Mathew’s dire and troubling account of Jesus’s birth is meant to remind us of how many people we know carry heavy burdens this time of year and how many people in our world struggle to survive. Think of people in your own family and circle of friends. Is there someone there who has experienced divorce? Even if that divorce happened years ago, the holidays have a way of opening old wounds and reemphasizing the dividedness of our lives. Do you know someone who is carrying deep anger because of a hurt and whose heart is unable to resound with the songs of peace on earth? Is there someone dealing with serious disease and wondering if this will be the last Christmas to sing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”? Think of how many people in the world live in need and in fear of violence. There are children who grow up in countries that are at war, where bullets and explosions become part of daily life. We have homeless in our country who like the Christ child have no place to lay their head. We know of immigrants and refugees leaving their own country and like the Holy Family fleeing to another place where they hope for welcome and safety.
I believe that Mathew’s account of Jesus’ birth surrounds us with all this brokenness, not to ruin our Christmas, but to deepen it. Mathew calls us to have compassion for those who are angry, hungry, or afraid. That compassion can lead us to recognize people in our lives who struggle this time of year and call us to do something to support them in the upcoming days. That compassion calls us to recognize how many people in the world have so much less than we do and see such people as our brothers and sisters.
The best Christmas story is a composite of both Luke’s and Mathew’s account of Jesus’ birth. That is why today I wish that your Christmas may be merry and bright—but also filled with compassion.