Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 18 December 2011
18 December 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
I have been using the Matins sermons this month to think about the nativity stories in the two gospels of Matthew and Luke. A fortnight ago I thought about Luke’s stories, by far the longest of the nativity accounts, with the strong parallel accounts in that Gospel of the birth of John the Baptist and then the birth of Jesus, but both mirrored in the Old Testament with the story of the birth of Samuel. And I noted Luke’s major theme that Jesus was identified with the poor and the outcast. Hence it is in Luke’s gospel that we read of there not being room for Mary and therefore Jesus in the inn, his being laid in a manger, and the first visitors to welcome him not being the grand or the powerful, but rather shepherds, themselves symbols of ordinary people. Then last week I talked about the stories in the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel being shaped round some Old Testament prophecies showing Jesus to be a new Moses, and a new David and new Solomon. If you are interested both of those addresses are on the Abbey website.
This week I want to examine that more modern question that at least some people today will want to ask, what really happened? What is real history and what is legend in those two nativity accounts? However if you came here this morning bursting with that particular question I am afraid at one level you are going to leave disappointed, because in practice it is impossible to know the answer with anything like absolute certainty.
But we can note some real historical problems. It is, for example, impossible for both Luke and Matthew to be right about what happened to Jesus straight after his birth. Mathew has Jesus being taken to Egypt by Mary and Joseph straight away in order to escape the violence of Herod, but Luke, who says nothing of the massacre of the innocents, has Jesus being presented in the Temple in Jerusalem, very shortly after his birth. They cannot both be right. And it is very difficult to be clear about when Jesus was born. Luke’s attempt to date it to the census carried our by Quirinus when he was Governor would mean that the birth happened in about the year 6 or 7 AD, but Luke also says that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, and Herod died in 4 BC, some ten years earlier. And trying to trace the story of the star guiding the magi by reference to the appearance of comets or whatever simply seems fanciful, and probably misunderstands the nature of that element in the story, which was really to show among other things the similarity of the story to what was said about the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, where in some Jewish sources that was also ascribed to the following of a star.
And then there is a real problem in what is sometimes described as the argument from silence. Matthew and Luke have their accounts, both of which contain some remarkable elements, choirs of angels in Luke’s case, and miraculously led visitors from the East in Matthew’s case, and agreement between the two that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, that Mary was a virgin and that the baby received visitors. Yet there is no reference to any of this in the other books of the New Testament. Neither St Mark nor St John says anything about Jesus’ birth in their Gospels, and St Paul makes no reference to it in his letters. And it is at least odd that stories that appeared in writing late in the first century were not referred to at all earlier in the written Christian tradition, if, that is, the stories really happened as they are described. And that has certainly led some biblical scholars to conclude that there is almost no historical element in these two accounts, and some would even go so far as to say that as Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth he was probably born there, and the whole Bethlehem tradition developed to make it seem that Jesus was the fulfilment of a particular prophecy rather than that it actually happened like that. Not all Biblical scholars would be as sceptical as that, some would certainly argue that there is an element of history in both Luke and Matthew. But what is certain is that among biblical scholars there is not an agreed consensus.
And the scepticism of some would apply to that most popular of questions, was this really a virgin birth, or to be more accurate to the Gospels a virgin conception? There are certainly some scholars who would say that the whole tradition of a virgin birth developed from a mistranslation of a verse in the Old Testament, where what was originally in the Hebrew ‘A young woman shall conceive’ was translated into Greek as ‘A virgin shall conceive’ and appears in that form in St Matthew’s Gospel. The argument of some scholarly sceptics would be that Matthew believed that Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, so if that was what the Old Testament said he thought it must be true, but if that was a mistranslation, which it certainly was, then that changes the matter.
Now again while some scholars certainly react like that others do not. They would hold that the deeper theological imperatives that led to that belief, namely that the birth of Jesus was a deliberate act of God in bringing about a wholly new situation in the world is what mattered. Therefore, they would say, we should not be surprised that there is a miraculous element in the accounts of his birth, because the birth itself was in a far deeper sense than simply the breaking of the normal scientific explanation of things really miraculous in that it changed the world.
I am not sure that there are very accurate statistics on who believes what, but the evidence appears to be that belief in the virgin conception of Jesus is stronger in the general population the United States than in this country, some talk of 80% of the adult popululation there believing it as history, although a poll in 1998 showed that 44% of Episcopalian clergy in America doubt it. A survey done on Anglican Clergy in this country in the late 1990 found that just over 30% of the clergy did not believe it was historically accurate. Truth, of course, cannot be decided on such a basis, but the figures are interesting.
For what it is worth personally I am not convinced that it matters that much. If there is a genuine scholarly debate, and there certainly is, and has been for very many years, then the sensible thing may be to look at both sides of the argument and perhaps to remain agnostic, because the gynaecological details of the birth of Jesus are not finally the point. What is undoubted, and incontrovertible, is that Jesus was born. When, where and how, seems to me secondary to the fact of his birth. And He did through his life and death change the world. He fulfilled the purposes that Matthew wanted, because he certainly made all that was good in Judaism available for a far wider Gentile world, and he fulfilled the purposes Luke points to, because he identified with the poor and the outcast and raised them up to a new level of dignity and fulfilment. As the Magnificat sung allegedly by Mary at the time of the annunciation put it ‘he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted the humble and meek.’
And in the process he was, in the phrase used by Bishop John Robinson, ‘the human face of God.’ He showed us what God was like in an extraordinary way, which is why some people would argue that an extraordinary birth is not surprising. But what I am sure we can certainly do at Christmas next Sunday is to welcome his birth, and indeed thank God for it. Because it did change everything, and that is what finally matters.