Christmas is about the manger of mystery, the pilgrimage of astronomers, the curiosity of shepherds, the joyful angels, the paranoid ruler, the surefooted faithfulness of Mary and Joseph, God’s decisiveness. We all know the story. We are so familiar with the story that preachers and Sunday school teachers must surely press to keep parishioners and pupils from slipping into biblical autopilot and sloppy sentimentalism.
Have we missed anything in our literal, composite reading of the Christmas story found in Matthew and Luke? Not likely. We’ve compared the stories – repeatedly. We’ve repeated the stories – repeatedly.
Perhaps if we ask some different questions about these texts, then we can hear this beloved story anew. Here’s a three-question start:
Question Number One: Was Joseph a mystic?
To safeguard the virgin birth for some and to protect Mary for others, Christians often assign a secondary role to Joseph. Besides, we really don’t have much biblical evidence with which to work. So, we nod at Joseph and marginalize him. We make him into a figurehead father.
Matthew’s version of the birth story identified Joseph as a “just” or “righteous man,” underscoring his moral character (Matthew 1:19). Joseph was a moralist. But was he also a mystic?
We do know that God spoke to Joseph through dreams and never spoke to Mary, according to Matthew. “An angel of the Lord appeared to him [Joseph] in a dream” (Matthew 1:20). An angel reappeared to Joseph in a dream three other times (Matthew 2:13, 19, 22).
Have we marginalized any other biblical figure to whom God appeared in four different dreams?
Another Joseph was also a dreamer and had the gift of dream interpretation, a sign of divine blessing (Genesis 40-41). Moses assigned value to a prophet and a dreamer (Deuteronomy 13:1-5), warning against both false prophets and false dreamers. The Lord appeared to King Solomon in a dream (1 Kings 3:5-14), the dream in which he asked for the gift of discernment. Peter spoke positively about the dreams of old men (Acts 2:17).
Given the dynamic of dreams in the biblical witness, one wonders if Joseph was more than a law-abiding carpenter (Matthew 13:55). Was he more than a surrogate father? Should we look again at Joseph as a mystic?
Question Number Two: Why were there no angels at the manger?
If you think angels were present at the birth of Jesus, you would be wrong. The angels were not present. Nope – not a one. Not a flutter. Not a feather. The angels were out in the fields talking to the shepherds. And then, after heavenly hosts praised God in the middle of nowhere, the angels returned to heaven, according to Luke (Luke 2:1-15).
The extra-biblical witness has angels at the birth. Our ceramic manger scene has an angel, for example.
Out of our sense of righteousness, we expect angels in the manger. Mary surely deserved the illuminating presence of God’s messengers. After all, her pregnancy was the most unusual one in history and without normal comforts – no private room, no acceptable space within human society, no assistance from a midwife.
Yet the text tells us that instead of heavenly hosts, she got shepherds. She got a testimonial affirmation from those considered among the poorest and least educated.
What would have been wrong with just one angel singing Handel’s “Messiah” at the manger?
Question Number Three: What happened to the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh given by the wise men?
The traditional Christian narrative holds that Jesus was born into a poor and insignificant family at the outskirts of the civilized world. His family was unable to secure room in an inn (Luke 2:7) and offered the poor man’s sacrifice of two turtledoves at his purification (Luke 2:22-24). They lived in the village of Nazareth, hardly the center of anything economically, culturally and politically important.
Yet the wise men gave them the kinds of gifts that should have transformed the economic status of Mary and Joseph – gold, frankincense and myrrh.
How much they were given, we don’t know. We could rightfully speculate that astronomers from Persia, who had the respectful ear of King Herod, would not have travelled so far to only give a flake of gold leaf. Besides, a small gift would hardly show respect to one for whom they assigned the title of “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2). They must have given a respectful amount.
So, what happened to that wealth? What did Mary and Joseph do with the gold?
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.