The early Christian community did not observe or celebrate Christ’s birth, because they knew nothing about it. All they knew was about the three years of his ministry in Galilee, and the final weeks in Jerusalem. Those early Christians followed Jesus because of the Resurrection—the proof and sign of Jesus’ divine sonship and his promise of eternal life for his followers. The Empty Tomb was their sign of the Messiah.
In the following decades, the believers started speculating about Jesus before his execution and resurrection, and legends and stories circulated. Was he fully God’s son earlier? Did he become Messiah and Lord at his baptism in the Jordan, where the first Gospel—by Mark—begins? Or was he fully the Messiah earlier—perhaps at his birth? Or maybe from the moment of conception?
That’s where Matthew and Luke come in. Four or more decades after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, the two evangelists composed imaginative “prequels” depicting Jesus’ birth, based on Old Testament themes and prophecies. The two nativity stories are not meant as historical accounts; in fact, they’re contradictory in some details: Matthew thinks Mary and Joseph have a home in Bethlehem, so he devises a plot (via Magi, Egypt, the threatening Herod family) to get them to Nazareth, where Jesus was known to grow up. Luke, on the other hand, thinks Mary and Joseph’s home is in Nazareth, and so he needs to get them to Bethlehem, the prophesied place of Messianic birth. (He uses the ingenious device of an empire-wide census, but the record-keeping Romans left no record of such a census, only a later one of Judea—not Galilee—under governor Quirinius in A.D. 6-7.)
The point is that the faith of second-generation Christians had expanded to a view of Jesus as always Messiah and Lord, not just from his birth but from his very conception—and it is Luke’s lovely account that dramatically tells that story (which includes my angelic namesake, Gabriel).
On a Cathedral pilgrimage last May, I was in Nazareth in the Basilica of the Annunciation, where there is a grotto altar with the Latin inscription “Verbum caro hic factum est”—the word became flesh right here. High above the altar, I noticed a gilt-encrusted wood carving that tells the story of the very moment when Jesus became One of Us: it’s the moment when Mary says Yes to Jesus being her son. The angel seems in fearful awe of her purity and holiness, reaching out with his hand yet with his weight on his back foot, seeming ready to retreat after delivering his message. And Mary is entirely open, her arms outstretched downward and with hands open in submission, her weight on her leading foot, leaning wholeheartedly into her new vocation. The Holy Spirit between them, in a moment of glorious illumination, confirms that all of human history is suddenly and forever changed.
Photo by Gabe Kajeckas
That’s the moment when Jesus becomes One of Us—when Mary says Yes. This Advent season and throughout life, I pray that I may follow Mary’s example, and always say Yes to God’s call, with open hands and open heart.