Our visions of Christ’s birth—Nativity scenes, shepherds, the manger, the angels—are shaped primarily by Luke’s gospel. The mood reflected in Christmas hymns—“Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright…”—owe much to the Lucan narrative.
But the circumstances of Jesus’s birth in Matthew’s gospel are another story. All is not calm, bright, peaceful or tranquil. From the episode of Joseph finding Mary pregnant—with a child not his own—and his decision to quietly divorce her rather than face the law (death by stoning for an adulteress) on through the moment they flee Bethlehem for Egypt because of King Herod’s massacre of all boys two years and under, Matthew’s Christmas story is one fraught with danger and desperation.
In Matthew 2, we’re introduced to the magi, whose most important characteristic for Matthew’s gospel is that they are “non-Jews,” that they are Gentiles, foreigners, travelers from afar. The magi are juxtaposed with King Herod, i.e. the actual “king of the Jews”, and, to a lesser extent, the chief priests and scribes of the Judean people. It is the differences in action and orientation between these two sets of characters that drives most of the plot in the rest of the story.
The magi will be the first people to recognize and honor the significance of Jesus when they find him in the house in Bethlehem. They are “outsiders,” with no special knowledge of God except the notice of a new star; while King Herod, the chief priests and the scribes are “insiders,” a people who possess special knowledge, the ones who know the prophets and the words of Scripture, directly descended from Abraham and Moses, bearers of God’s revelation, God’s chosen people. It is the outsiders who see and know and act in accordance with the new action God is taking in history, while the insiders are blind and ignorant and concerned primarily with their own power and any threat to that power.
There is an interesting line in 2:3: “King Herod was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him” at the appearance of the magi and their words about a new king being born. Judea is occupied by the Romans and Herod serves as a client-king, a puppet-dictator whose real power only lies in his accommodation to and willingness to serve the interests of the Romans over and against the needs of his own people. We can see throughout history how it is that “the people” become troubled whenever their local dictator is troubled: the anxiety of the dictator usually ends up being acted out through greater oppression and violence against the people over whom he rules.
Once the magi depart, without reporting back to Herod, we see what it will mean for the people to suffer because of Herod being troubled. As people in power so often act when faced with a threat to that power—remember that the magi came asking about the birth of the king of the Jews—Herod will unleash death and destruction on innocent, common people in order to quell any threat. His charge is to kill all the male infants and toddlers in the vicinity of Bethlehem.
So, far from that “silent night, holy night” and choirs of angels singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to all people”, Joseph is forced to flee the wrath of Herod—who at this point is cast as that most evil of characters in one of the most tragic events in Hebrew history, Pharaoh and his campaign of ethnic cleansing, ordering the killing of all Hebrew slaves’ newborn baby boys (Exodus 1). Joseph flees his home, with wife and newborn child, to Egypt. The Holy Family become refugees, fleeing the political violence of their homeland.
The story will ultimately bring Mary, Joseph and Jesus full circle, returning once the threat has passed—but not to Bethlehem, for fear of further repercussions from Herod’s son who now rules in his place—but rather to Nazareth, a no-name town on the margins of the nation. In his story, Matthew has cast upon Jesus parallels both to the Hebrew people themselves and the story of the Exodus, as well as Moses and the story of his own dangerous, extraordinary birth.
In this narrative of Jesus’ birth and the immediate aftermath, Matthew holds up important themes which he shares throughout his gospel: the conflicting parts that will be played by outsiders and insiders, a revelation that is understood by those without special knowledge but missed by those who possess that knowledge and should know better, the opposition of those with power to what God is trying to do in the world, the marginal status of Jesus and his family—in particular as refugees or immigrants—and their identification with one of the “protected” peoples of Jewish law (foreigners/refugees), and the identification of Jesus with Moses and the whole history of the Hebrew people.
Matthew’s gospel begins not with a silent night, holy night, but rather with an urgency and danger that Jesus’ own proclamation of the kingdom of God would evoke in those who listened to him, be they followers or opponents.
Director of Communications at Pax Christi USA