We looked last week at the preface of Luke which opens the Gospel of Luke. Because it is Christmas time, it is only natural that we review the nativity story of Luke. But to do so in depth, I think that it is necessary to review the nativity story in at least three parts. The first part, this week will review the story as written in the Gospel of Luke. Next week, in the next part, I will relate and analyze Matthew’s story. Finally, in the third part of this mini-series with the series of analysis of the Gospel of Luke, I will compare and contrast the two stories.
It is necessary to review the story told in at least two Gospels, because Christians tend to conflate the story told in the Gospels and make it one continuous story. Thus, for example, the average Christian thinks of the shepherds and the Magi as both visiting the infant Jesus in one story. But while the average Christian makes this one seamless story, each of these two events is related separately in two different; neither of these Gospels relate both stories.
To set the stage, however, I must return to the preface of Luke, because a literary analysis of it will yield many themes which are carried out in the nativity story.
Luke, as we noted, is writing a history following the parameters of his time. He has made it clear that he will be a reliable narrator, who will give an orderly account, one that is fixed in time and space. He knows that his audience is aware of these events, but believes that his audience needs to have greater certainty of what has happened. Also, Luke’s voice is a personal voice: note the usage of the pronoun “I”. Luke is aware of audience and wants to convey things to them: note the usage of the pronoun “you”. Luke is also instructing Theophilus, who must be a person of some note. This fact that Luke, who is a subordinate person, is able to instruct a person of a higher class or order shows that Luke has a strong sense of self and a strong sense that he as an author has something important to impart. Contrast this with the highly impersonal narrative of Matthew and his opening which relates generation after generation.
Turning to the nativity story itself, Luke’s story has the following elements. An angel appears to the Priest Zachariah, who has an elderly wife named Elizabeth. The angel tells Zachariah that Elizabeth will bear a child. Zachariah protests this Elizabeth is too old and he is then struck mute. Elizabeth is then with child. Mary, who is a virgin, is visited by the same angel who visited Zachariah. Mary is told that she will bear a child. Mary responds by submitting to God’s will. Mary after a while goes to visit Elizabeth, who is her relative. Elizabeth’s baby leaps in the womb of Elizabeth in response to Mary’s coming. Elizabeth exclaims that Mary is blessed above all women. Mary sings a song praising God. Later, friends gather and suggest that Elizabeth’s child be named after his father. Elizabeth says that his name is John. When Zachariah is approached, he writes that the child will be named John and then his speech is restored. He then prophesies. A census requires Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem from their home. Because there is no room in the inn in Bethlehem, Jesus is born in a manger in Bethlehem. An angel appears to shepherds who are nearby and tells them of the birth of Jesus. The shepherds come and worship the infant Jesus. After eight days, Jesus is presented in the temple. Simon has been awaiting the messiah and has been hoping that he will see the messiah before he dies. Simon takes Jesus in his arms and exclaims that he can now die happy for he has seen the messiah. He then foretells the life of Jesus.
This narrative is one of cause and effect. People are where they are for a reason. For example, Zachariah is at the temple because he has drawn the lot to perform the rituals that day. Mary and Joseph are at Bethlehem because a census has forced them to go there. Next, there is no room in the inn, so Mary and Joseph must go to the stables and thus Jesus is born in a manager. Finally, the shepherds are in the fields, because they must watch their flocks to protect them.
Luke wants his story to convey how people react to their situations. Zachariah protests and he is punished. Mary responds with joy and sings a song. John in the wombs leaps at the pregnant Mary’s presence. Elizabeth exclaims when Mary greets her. The shepherds react to the angel’s announcement and the visitation of the heavenly hosts by all agreeing to get up, leave their flocks, and go to Bethlehem to see what they Lord has told them. Simon takes the baby Jesus in his arms and says that he now can die happy.
The reaction is thus an important element of the story. Luke wants us to know the emotions and the thoughts of the people involved in his story.
Further, all the people in Luke’s story are people going about their daily lives. Zachariah is a priest performing his rituals at the temple. The shepherds are doing their job watching their sheep. Simon is an old man who knows he is soon to die and he has an old man’s dying wish in his heart. Mary and Joseph are doing their duty to Caesar by going to register for the census.
Each of Luke’s stories has the clear tri-part structure of beginning, middle, and end. The shepherds are in the fields. The angel comes. The shepherds react and go and worship Jesus.
There is a parallelism between the story of Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth is too old to bear a child; Mary is a virgin. Both are under an impediment that would otherwise make them unable to bear a child, but with the action of God, both do bear children.