Saturday, January 12, 2008

Parabolic Nature of the Infancy Narratives

I had the opportunity to survey a new book this Christmas season, The First Christmas - What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus' Birth. It was jointly written by well-known biblical scholars, Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan. The book offers some fresh insights into understanding the stories of Our Lord's Nativity, without resorting to either fundamentalist literalism or complete accusations of mythology.

These two have often been the only interpretations offered by commentators in the past. In these choices, one has to either believe that each and every action of the Gospel narratives happened exactly as written, or claim that it is totally myth, constructed to explain the birth of an important figure (as found in other religious narratives). Instead, these two authors find a third way to understand the Nativity - the parabolic approach.

In tomorrow's Gospel, this can help to make a lot of sense from the story line. It is the familiar account of the "slaughter of the innocents" and the "flight into Egypt" (Matthew 2: 13-23).

Matthew, who audience was mostly of Jewish origin, was concerned to point out the similarities between Jesus and Moses. Moses enjoyed great popularity over the course of the history of the Hebrew people, but particularly in Jesus' day. By connecting the story of Herod's massacre of the innocent children to Messiah's appearance, it links him inseparably to the great Moses. As Pharaoh, in the days of the Hebrew captivity in Egypt was threatened by the growth and stability of the Jewish population, so Herod is paranoid as to the appearance of the Messiah, the new "King of the Jews." Therefore, an attempt to eliminate him is carried out.

Meanwhile, Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaped to Egypt, now a land of refuge, instead of bondage (as in Moses' day). However, by carefully emphasizing the holy family's period of exile in Egypt, Matthew likens Jesus to his descendants over the course of Jewish history, who had often been exiles, particularly during the "carrying away to Babylon" or the Jewish exile in Babylonia, during the occupation of Palestine by these people. Jesus, like his people before him, and like many people at his time until today, was himself an exile, on the margins of society, on the move, carefully escaping the hands of those who would do him wrong.

Certainly that latter is something which many of us today, many in our own towns and regions can identify with. I don't have to elaborate much to bring across the point that we are hosts to a great number of refugees and those in exile from their homelands. We should pray that we and our nation treat them with the same dignity that they would show to the holy family, Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

The picture I have chosen for today shows the three, on their voyage to Egypt, in a boat or canoe much like many have used to reach the shores of the USA. In the boat is a burro or donkey, which the family used for transportation. Not a far cry from some more contemporary scenes, is it? Times may change, and then again . . . ?

On the liturgical calendar, the church honors today, the close family relatives during Jesus' lifetime. That includes of course, Joseph, foster-father of Jesus and spouse of Mary. Today is the feast of St. Joseph, according to the Eastern-Byzantine tradition. Happy name's day to all who bear that of the Righteous Joseph, the protector of the young child Jesus and his Mother.

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