Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Infancy Timeline

Last Saturday, my wife and I were driving to a nearby parish to attend mass for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. The next day, we would be observing the Epiphany, and I took the opportunity to share with her a theory that I have regarding the appearance of the magi in Bethlehem. She looked at me a bit askance, and accused me of trying to start my own religion. I assured her that I have no intention of doing that, and that if I ever veer from orthodoxy, I hope somebody cares enough to correct me.

The fact is that our conception of what happened at the birth of the Messiah is driven, in large part, by the popular devotion that is the nativity scene. Last weekend, just before the nativity scenes were removed from our churches and homes at the end of the Christmas season, we saw a scene in which Mary and Joseph were adoring the infant in the manger, surrounded by animals, shepherds, and royal magi. The theory that alarmed my wife so much was that I don't think the magi showed up until months or even a year after Jesus was born.

I've come to that conclusion because I'm trying to make sense of the differences between Matthew's gospel and Luke's. Like a detective in a modern-day police drama, my mind is trying to lay out the discreet scenes in the gospels into a timeline. Matthew's gospel really doesn't treat the Nativity at all, proceeding from Joseph's dream in 1:20-25 to the appearance in Jerusalem of wise men from the East in chapter 2. Luke, on the other hand, explicitly covers the birth, with the appearance of the angels to the shepherds in the field, and the shepherds proceeding that same night to the manger. Luke then relates that on the eighth day after his birth, Jesus was circumcised, and on the 40th day he was presented at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The magi must have found the Holy Family some time after the Presentation. Matthew tells us that the wise men followed the star not to a stable or cave, but to a house. Therefore, Joseph and Mary must have decided to settle in Bethlehem, the city of David, in order to raise an heir to David's line. It was after the magi departed that the angel warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt. I very much doubt that, in fleeing Herod's wrath, Joseph would have led them on a detour to Jerusalem. Herod, in his rage, ordered the slaying of all male children in the region of Bethlehem who were two years old and younger, not just the infants. And it was only after Herod's death that Joseph led the family back to settle in Nazareth.

I'm not going to be changing my nativity scene anytime soon. When we set it up next year, we'll still have Mary and Joseph adoring the manger, which will be empty until Christmas Eve, when the Christ child is added. The ox and the ass will look on, while an angel hovers overhead and shepherds bring their sheep. Three wise men and a camel will be placed some distance away until the second Sunday after Christmas, when they'll join the party at the manger. Even though it didn't really happen that way.


dosh said...

Hmmm... you've got me thinking really really hard. I'll have to consult my Bible before agreeing or disagreeing with you. I like that you made a 'strange' discovery though. God bless you and have a wonderful year

Melanie D. said...

I, too, have always thought that since Herod ordered all boys age 2 and younger killed, that Jesus must have been much older than the baby we see in the creche when the Magi arrived. Nice thought, great blog...God blessings!