Advent blessings from Debby Giusti!
Advent is a time of anticipation when we wait in expectation for the birth of the Baby Jesus. The story has been told and retold down through the ages whenever Christians reflect on the coming of the Christ Child. Luke and Matthew both include the infancy narratives in their gospels, and in keeping with the season, I thought we'd look briefly at the various techniques the evangelists use to build a sense of excitement and wonder that invites the reader into the story.
At the beginning of his gospel, Luke sets the timeframe “in the days of Herod, King of Judea” and introduces Zachariah, a priest from the family of Abijah, who has been chosen to burn incense before the Lord. Devout Jews of the time would understand the honor afforded to Zachariah as he enters into the Holy Place within the temple, separated only by a curtain from the Ark of the Covenant and the tablets of the Law.
Inner conflict is revealed when Luke writes that, although “righteous in the eyes of God,” Zachariah and his wife, Elizabeth, had no child and were advanced in years. Their struggle serves to highlight the specialness of this particular moment in time as Zachariah steps before the Lord.
As we know, an angel appears with a message from God that Zachariah’s prayer has been heard and that Elizabeth is to have a child who will be named John. As much as we want Zachariah to accept the angel’s word as truth, we know he hesitates—just as many of our fictional characters do—and doubts the Lord. In life, as in fiction, mistakes often bring negative repercussions. Zachariah is struck dumb. He and Elizabeth return home, but the Lord does not withhold his mercy, and as foretold, Elizabeth conceives a child.
Luke uses comparison and contrast to pick up the story six months later when the angel Gabriel is “sent from God to a town of Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.” Again, Jews in that day would recall the foretelling of a Messiah in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
As was foretold, the angel announces to Mary that she will bear a son, “and you shall name him Jesus.” He also reveals Elizabeth’s pregnancy, with a final “nothing is impossible for God.”
While Zachariah doubted, Mary readily proclaims, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” She quickly travels to be with Elizabeth, and to underscore Mary’s “yes” to the Lord, we hear Elizabeth’s words, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
The second chapter of Luke’s gospel tells of a decree that went out from Caesar Augustus that requires Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. How well we treasure this part of the story as Mary gives birth, wraps her baby in swaddling clothes and lays him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
An angel again appears--this time to shepherds--and proclaims, “A savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.” As heavenly hosts praise God, the shepherds go to Bethlehem and find the infant child. They share what the angel said, and scripture tells us that “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.”
Matthew’s narrative gives us a glimpse into Joseph’s concern when he learns Mary is with child, but again, the angel appears in a dream and tells him to take Mary as his wife. The angel repeats the prophetic message that foretells Christ’s salvific mission when he says, “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save people from their sins.”
Matthew also adds the visit of the Magi and shows how they thwart the evil attempts of King Herod who fears the infant and wants to do him harm. The three kings are led by a star, another great sign, to the tiny babe, where they honor him with gifts to signify his kingship.
Like modern writers, Luke and Matthew use foreshadowing, secrets, repetition and comparison and contrast in their gospels as they tell the story of Christ’s birth. Foreshadowing allows the reader to pick up clues of what is to come. Those clues build anticipation and point the way—just as the star did for the Magi—to an important plot point or revelation that is to come.
Secrets increase reader expectation, especially if they’re revealed to one of the characters, but are kept hidden from the other. In Matthew’s gospel, we learn that Herod meets with the Magi and claims he wants to pay homage to the infant Jesus. Mary and Joseph are unaware of his evil plot to hurt their infant son until an angel warns Joseph to take the child and flee into Egypt.
Repetition serves to underscore certain parts of a story. The appearance of the angel Gabriel to Zachariah, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds highlights the importance of this moment in history. God is getting their attention and ours as he sends his messenger to announce the coming of the Christ Child.
Comparison and contrast show two sides of an issue, played out in different ways. Zachariah, a priestly man of God, doubts, whereas Mary—a young, humble virgin—accepts God’s will for her life and gives herself totally to the Lord.
One of our family traditions is for my husband to read the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke’s gospel on Christmas Eve. Share your family traditions or leave a comment about Advent anticipation to be entered in the drawing for a copy of HOLIDAY DEFENDERS and an additional Christmas surprise.
May the wonder of the Christ Child’s birth fill you anew this holiday season with peace and joy and love!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
THIS HOLIDAY SEASON, THREE MILITARY MEN OF HONOR MUST DO EVERYTHING THEY CAN TO SAVE CHRISTMAS
Mission: Christmas Rescue by Debby Giusti
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