Gospel Overtures

The Message of the Christmas Stories in Matthew and Luke

The gospels according to Matthew and Luke begin with what are known as “the infancy narratives.” Each in its own way, those two gospels tell of preparations for the coming of Jesus, his birth, and subsequent events in the course of which some people accept Jesus as God’s greatest gift to humanity, and some reject him, usually for reasons related to preserving their own wealth and power.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke were written more than fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and more than eighty years after his birth. The infancy narratives seem to have developed rather late in the process that led to the final form of the gospels, and the earliest versions of those stories may have been written by someone other than the final evangelist. The gospels should always be understood as proclamations of the faith of the early Christian communities from which they arose. A brief narrative of the development of the New Testament will be found in first chapter of the book.

The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke are so different from each other that they are almost incompatible on the level of historical fact. Most contemporary scholars agree that neither of the authors had read the other’s account before composing his own narrative of Jesus’ conception and birth. Though the gospels may disagree on the level of ‘historical fact,’ it is vitally important to realize that the authors were far more interested in theological insights than in the reporting of facts.

On the level of theological reflection, the narratives are quite compatible, as they proclaim the greatness of Jesus and seek to persuade us readers that Jesus is good news for us, the answer to our deepest yearnings. It is important to note that the Hebrew Scriptures provided the tradition and the symbolism that formed the basis of the gospels’ understanding of the greatness of Jesus. Though they also presented Jesus in competition with religious and historical figures of other cultures, almost all the terms that the evangelists used came from the Jewish tradition.

Themes found in the infancy narratives are restated and reinforced throughout the body of each gospel. As a result, the Christmas stories can be understood as “overtures” to the gospels, in the same way that the music at the beginning of an opera or a musical introduces the themes that will be repeated in the body of the play.

In the following pages, we will present the infancy narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, making an effort to be faithful to each author’s theological insight and also searching for the challenges that the gospels offer us as contemporary disciples of Jesus.

[The word “overture” is the thematic word describing the infancy narratives in Borg and Crossan's book, The First Christmas. I am grateful for their insight.]

Reviews

The Incarnation is messy business! As Christians, we have sanitized the arrival of God in our midst. Gospel Overtures guides us into the story of Jesus' birth, showing us the symbols and signposts that held resounding truths for early Christians. Retelling the nativity is a labor of love – we have a responsibility to look deeper into its meaning. Let Gospel Overtures guide you into a new understanding – you won't be disappointed!

Beverly O'Grady

In this book, Noel not only explains the infancy stories in light of contemporary scriptural scholarship, but he also gives us suggestions as to how we can see ourselves in these stories. Many authors tell us what the stories mean, but few go the next step to see where God is acting in our lives and inviting us to grow to fullness of life. Noel asks and answers the question, "What meaning can these stories have for our lives?"

Wayne Debly

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