The Infancy Narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus.
There is much that can be said about the infancy narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. The Lukan infancy narrative is quite different from the only other canonical account, the one found in Matthew’s Gospel. As I have already indicated, Luke includes an account of the birth not only of Jesus, but also of John the Baptist. In both Matthew and Luke’s accounts, there is a touching of heaven and earth in the various angelic visitations, but whereas Matthew’s angels appear only in dreams (announcing to Joseph not only the birth of Jesus but the need to flee into Egypt, and later to return to Judea; and also the warning to the wise men in a dream to return home by another road), in Luke’s Gospel the angels appear directly to individuals in the narrative (to Zechariah, to Mary, and to “shepherds abiding in the fields”). In Matthew’s Gospel the events focus around Joseph, Herod and the Magi (likely played out over the period of a couple of years), with Mary as a much more marginal figure, while in Luke’s Gospel Mary is central to the entire narrative as is her relationship with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. In Luke we see no mention of foreign wise men or magi, but rather traditional figures rooted solidly in the Jewish religious milieu of the day, namely Zechariah the priest, Simeon the wise holy man, and Anna the prophetess. Both narratives firmly root the birth of Jesus in historical, but quite different moments. For Matthew, the birth occurs in the context of the rule of Herod the Great and indeed, Herod is a key player in the narrative (and is behind the slaughter of the innocents, which is absent in Luke), while in Luke, the birth occurs in the context of a Roman census in the time that “Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Furthermore, Luke’s narrative contains a series of canticles or songs that are completely absent from Matthew’s version. And while both texts include a genealogy of Jesus, Matthew uses his to preface his entire narrative, while Luke employs an entirely different genealogical lineage and places it after the infancy narrative as a sort of preface to Jesus’ adult ministry.
This short enumeration of some of the key differences reminds us how difficult a task it is to conflate the two accounts, as Christmas pageants, cantatas and crèches have tried to do for centuries. Each narrative has its own integrity and seeks to underscore key themes in each gospel. I have named some of the key differences; there are many others of a smaller but equally important nature. The question for us, though, is what do these differences tell us about Luke’s story of Jesus? We have not the time to examine each of these particular differences, but let us take a closer look at Luke’s decision to include the birth of John the Baptist into his infancy narrative.
Luke is at once firmly rooting his story in the Jewish tradition from which it emerged and at the same time eager to demonstrate that something very unique has occurred in the birth of Jesus. By incorporating the birth of John the Baptist into the narrative Luke is able to introduce a character that operates clearly in the tradition of the prophets of old. His birth is announced in the same way that the births of Isaac and Ishmael are announced in Genesis. And the birth of Jesus, too, is announced in this way, but there are some significant differences. While the angel certainly announces the greatness and the righteousness of John to Zechariah, and while he proclaims that the Spirit will indeed lead John, John is to be understood as an Elijah-figure. He is analogous to one of the old-time prophets who proclaims the coming of the Lord and leads people to God. On the other hand, the angel proclaims that Jesus will “be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” There is a clear distinction in roles here. Jesus is himself a son of God who will sit on the throne of David. This is clear messianic language. Thus, where John announces God’s coming as a prophet (and prepares people for it), Jesus inaugurates God’s never-ending reign, the restoration of Israel, as the Davidic messiah.
Both births are miraculous, one to an older barren woman (as per Sarah in Genesis), and one to a younger woman, a virgin. Neither should be having children, but both do, and both scandalous pregnancies are a gift from God, thus introducing a key Lucan theme, namely, that God turns the expected order on its head. This is a theme we shall return to in future installments and a theme we shall see again and again: Go turns the scandalous into a means of his grace. We might also wonder if the older woman represents life new life and hope being birthed from the age-old religion, and the younger woman is a metaphor for the unending fertility of God’s love. While the ages of the women stand in contrast to each other, we must remember that Mary seeks out Elizabeth for wisdom, support, nurturing and guidance. Their lives and stories are inseparably woven together, as will be the lives of their children. Their kinship is divine and their friendship holy. Perhaps their holy partnership has something to say to modern Jewish-Christian interfaith dialogue.
Both births are announced by angels under the Old Testament pattern to which I alluded earlier in the angelic announcements of the births of Isaac and Ishmael, namely, 1) the appearance of an angel, 2) fear on the part of the one to whom the angel is appearing, 3) the message (often with the admonition not to fear), 4) the objection of the hearer, and 5) a sign to verify the announcement (note also that the angelic visitation to the shepherds follows this pattern). However, an important difference exists between the announcement to Zechariah and the announcement to Mary. Zechariah’s unbelief is punished when his is struck dumb, while Mary’s unbelief turns from “How can this be?” to “Here I am, Lord,” the same words of young Samuel at his call! It should also be noted that again we see here the tendency in the Lukan narrative to turn power on its head – Zechariah, a priest of the establishment is struck dumb, while the vulnerable Mary is given voice. Perhaps here is some sense of the age-old conflict between the skepticism of age experience as opposed to the innocent enthusiasm of youth. Perhaps there is a lesson for today’s Chruch in Zechariah’s cautious institutional response and Mary’s vulnerable but enthusiastic, “yes.”
It is also worth noting that the Holy Spirit figures prominently in both facets of this story. In Luke’s storytelling, mention of the Spirit is often accompanied by the word “power.” Thus, John will announce the coming of the Lord, “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (This might be read simply as “Elijah’s spirit,” but typically prophets are seen as operating under the Spirit of God). For Mary, it is “the Holy Spirit (that) will come upon her and the power of the Most high will overshadow her.” Then, when Elizabeth sees Mary come to greet her, her child leaps in her womb and Elizabeth becomes filled with the Holy Spirit. When Zechariah’s voice finally returns, the Holy Spirit to moves him to song as he blesses God. When John is born “he grew and became strong in spirit.” Later as Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the Temple, they meet the wise man Simeon and we are told that “the Holy Spirit rested on him,” and further, “that guided by the Spirit,” Simeon had come into the Temple. Thus, the events of the narrative are linked carefully together by references to the Spirit of God who actually seems to be guiding the narrative as a piece of sacred history.
In all of these details we see profound continuity in the infancy narrative with the history of the people of Israel, and yet, through the power of the Holy Spirit an in the announcement of angelic messengers, we learn that God is doing a new thing. In the midst of a people expecting God to act in history there are many surprises in store.
Next week: More expectation and surprise as we look at the canticles of the Infancy Narrative.
c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves