Published December 24, 2016
Thanks to the crèche, introduced to Western Christendom by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223, the Christmas story has become seamless: a unified tale with a single cast of characters, from Mary, Joseph, and the infant savior, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, through the choir of angels, the shepherds, the local Bethlehem townsfolk, the census-takers, the Magi, and wicked Herod the Great. Yet the two gospel “infancy narratives” from which we construct the Christmas story are quite distinct.
The leading figure in Matthew’s account of the birth, infancy, and early childhood of Jesus is the just man, Joseph, who is told in a dream that the unexpected child in the womb of his betrothed is “of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20) — and who then saves the child from the murderous jealousy of Herod by taking his little family to Egypt. By contrast, Mary is the principal actor in Luke’s infancy narrative, and it is to her that the angel Gabriel announces the Incarnation, of which she is invited to be the human agent. Mary is the driver of the story throughout the birth and childhood of Jesus, right through the dramatic scene when she loses her son in the tumult of Jerusalem at Passover time and chastises Jesus after finding him with the teachers of Israel in the Temple.
Matthew’s genealogy of the savior, addressed to what is thought to have been a Jewish-Christian audience, begins Jesus’s lineage with Abraham and centers it on King David: Thus, at the very outset of his gospel, Matthew proclaims that this Jesus is the Davidic king-messiah for whom Israel has longed, although he will reign in a different way over a different kind of kingdom. Luke, writing to what is thought to have been a more Greco-Christian audience, drives the genealogy backward through David and Abraham to Adam, “the son of God” (Luke 3:38) — thus underscoring the universality of Jesus’s messianic mission, to which Matthew alludes indirectly by the tale of the “wise men from the East” who had “seen his star in the East” and had “come . . . to worship him” (Matthew 2:1–2).
Yet it is the Greco-Christian Luke who tells the story of the miraculous birth of John the Baptist (son of the Jewish priest Zechariah) as the prelude to the story of Jesus, thus making John the hinge between the Old Testament and the New, between the covenant with the people of Israel and the New Covenant in which the “wild . . . shoot” of the Gentiles is grafted onto the “olive tree” of Israel (Romans 11:17).
It’s a bit complicated. So we may be grateful to the Poverello of Assisi for bringing this all together in a singularly winsome way by inventing the crèche.
Yet what struck me recently on pondering these familiar but nonetheless distinct (and even disjunct) accounts is the link between them: the angelic admonition, “Be not afraid.” In the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel, the archangel Gabriel tells Joseph (who is considering a quiet dissolution of his betrothal to the pregnant Mary) not to fear taking her for his wife. In the first chapter of Luke, the same Gabriel — whose name in Hebrew means “God is my strength” — tells the virgin teenager not to be afraid, for “you have found favor with God” and thus have been chosen to be the God-bearer, Theotokos: to which Mary replies with the paradigmatic statement of Christian discipleship, “Be it done unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38).
The Incarnation and the birth of the Messiah are a summons to fearlessness: and not the fearlessness that ignores what is objectively frightening, but the fearlessness that lives on the far side of fear in covenant relationship with the God who is Emmanuel (Isaiah 7:14), “God with us.” This is not the fearsome god of the Phoenicians and Carthaginians who demands, and gets, child sacrifice; nor is the God of the Bible like the Homeric deities in the Iliad and the Odyssey, for whom men and women are playthings to be manipulated on a terrestrial gaming board. No, Emmanuel is, literally, God-with-us: with us at the beginning of the Covenant with Israel, on pilgrimage from the bondage of Egypt and into the freedom that truly liberates through righteous living; with us in the manger at the beginning of the New Covenant, dependent on human cooperation for the beginnings of his salvific mission yet radiating peace and light.
This is a good Christmas season to be summoned once again to fearlessness, for it comes at the end of a year of fear. Underneath the passions and cacophony of the 2016 election campaign one could sense deep fears — very few of which have been assuaged, on either side of the partisan divide, since the result came into focus in the small hours of November 9. Fear stalks the Middle East, cradle of civilization and birthplace of biblical religion, in various merciless forms. Fear now haunts Europe, as the dry husk of a once vibrantly Christian culture — a German Weihnachtsmarkt, or “Christmas market” — is targeted by homicidal maniacs claiming a religious warrant for their mayhem and cruelty. Throughout the world, order is unraveling, because order must be maintained and has not been for the past eight years. And when order unravels, innocents die and fear drives public life, even as it warps human relationships.
There is, in truth, much to be feared in the world, from the resurgence of particularisms that take ugly rather than noble forms to the fragility of the global economic and financial systems: from personal hatreds to systemic deficiencies. The Christian response — the Christmas response — to these and many other very real threats is not to deny them, but to live beyond the fear they engender because God is with us. Emmanuel, God-with-us, is on pilgrimage with his people in history. And Emmanuel continually calls the people with whom he lives to fearlessness. Emmanuel calls his pilgrimage partners to resist the temptation to fall back on the habits of the slaves they were in Egypt, in a vain search for security. Emmanuel calls his people to live the Beatitudes as the royal road to happiness and true human flourishing, rather than settling for the illusory promises of the Culture of Me — another life-warping and death-dealing response to fear.
So by all means let us look at things squarely and take the measure of that which is rightly fearsome. But in doing so, let us also heed Gabriel’s call to both Joseph and Mary: to bind ourselves to God-with-us, Emmanuel, who makes his presence known in unlikely ways — a burning bush, a pillar of fire by night, an innocent newborn — yet constantly calls his people to live beyond fear. For Emmanuel is not only with us. Emmanuel goes before us and shows us the way to a brighter future in a Kingdom without fear.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.