2nd Sunday Advent A - Homily 5

Homily 5 - 2019

At the risk of being a spoil-sport, I want to reflect on the coming feast of Christmas through the lens of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel will provide the overwhelming bulk of Sunday Gospels for Year A ahead of us. I suggest that, if you can give yourselves a chance to read about the infancy of Jesus in the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel in the next week or two of Advent, you will be quite surprised. But it will call for a certain discipline, because it is almost impossible to hear Matthew’s account without being distracted by what Luke wrote in his Gospel.

Interestingly, Mark, who wrote the first of the Gospels ten to twenty years before either Matthew or Luke put pen to paper, and on whose storyline they heavily relied, totally ignored Jesus’ early years. Mark began his Gospel with the adult Jesus, and virtually nowhere in his Gospel did he even mention Nazareth. John’s Gospel likewise said nothing about the conception or birth of Jesus.

Luke’s story has certainly stolen the limelight. It is a pity, in some ways, because, unless we recognise its uniqueness and difference from Matthew, we can miss the messages that even Luke was trying to get across to his readers.

Luke’s story was full of joyful moments. Joy was mentioned only once by Matthew, and that was in reference to the Magi. In fact, as Matthew told his story, the relationship between Joseph and Mary was quite strained at first, and was nearly called off, but not before causing real consternation for Joseph – that took a revelation in a dream to be resolved.

With the visit of the Magi, things hardly improved. What was Matthew hinting at by writing that the gifts they brought were gold, frankincense and myrrh? Whatever about gold and frankincense, and their symbolism, myrrh was a spice used for embalming the dead. And it became almost immediately necessary. As the story unfolded, the paranoid Herod proceeded to kill all the young males born within a certain radius of Bethlehem, hoping thereby to remove any future threat to his power from any new-born Jesus.

Their escape required another revelation in a second dream. Joseph and Mary, with their child, immediately became refugees. They sought asylum in the neighbouring independent nation of Egypt. But there were no welfare services there, or grandparents to be baby-sitters. Presumably Joseph found work.

After a few years in Egypt, Herod died. Alerted to the fact in another dream, Joseph took his wife and child with him and went back to Bethlehem with the intention of resuming life there. But Bethlehem was not safe either. Herod’s son, Archelaus, equally paranoid as his father, had inherited the region of Judaea, making life there as dangerous as it had been under his father. Informed of the continuing danger in a fourth dream, Joseph took his family secretly up to the north of the country, under the rule of Herod Antipas, a brother of Archelaus and not quite as dangerous. They looked around for somewhere to stay and settled in Nazareth, a small Galilean village in easy reach of the city of Sepphoris. Sepphoris was a major administrative centre in the process of being reconstructed and needed competent carpenters and builders. Presumably, Joseph found work there.

So - a quite different story from Luke’s; but equally helpful, prefiguring as it did the reality of the uncertainty, suffering and danger that constantly overshadowed the life and mission of the adult Jesus - as they still often do the lives of committed disciples.

As I suggested at the start, make a point of reading the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, skipping over perhaps the genealogy of Jesus that can prove unnecessarily distracting [and for the moment blocking out the more joyful emphases of Luke’s account]; and keep asking yourself: Why did Matthew write his story this way?