Daily Pericope 11: Jesus is Born in Bethlehem

Read Pericope 11: Jesus is Born in Bethlehem.

There is a remarkable contract betwee our annual hoopla over Christmas-the-cultural-festival and the information in the Gospels about Jesus’ birth. Only Luke records the details of Jesus’ birth. Matthew mentions it in passing in Pericope 10 (Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son …”), John talks about his birth in more cosmic terms (“the Word became flesh”, Pericope 2), and Mark says nothing about it whatsoever, simply bringing Jesus on the scheme with the words “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee …” (Pericope 25). In all, only 18 of the 355 pericopes in the Composite Gospel describe the period prior to John the Baptist, each of them from only a single source.

Yet for those of us who follow Jesus, this brief description of an otherwise insignificant birth in an insignificant Jewish town indicates the most remarkable event in human history.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still
The dear Christ enters in.

(Phillips Brooks, O Little Town of Bethlehem)

Daily Pericope 10: An angel appears to Joseph

Read Pericope 10: An angel appears to Joseph.

Here we find Joseph’s experience of the circumstances of the birth of Jesus. Unlike Mary’s earlier visitation by Gabriel (Pericope 6), here the angel is not named. Three key attributes are revealed of Jesus as Emmanuel:

  • He was conceived of the Holy Spirit
  • He will save his people from their sins
  • He will be “God with us” (the literal meaning of Emmanuel)

Mary was already betrothed to Joseph before Gabriel’s visit, but it’s not clear when he learned of her pregnancy. Mary spent her first trimester of pregnancy with Elizabeth (Pericope 8), but by the time she returned her condition must have begun to be apparent.

Daily Pericope 9: John the Baptist is born

Read Pericope 9: John the Baptist is born.

I take hope from the fact that, despite his previous lack of faith at Gabriel’s words (Pericope 6), the priest Zechariah could still be filled with the Holy Spirit and speak forth God’s word, prophesying John’s future role in giving the knowledge of salvation. Zechariah’s gaze is still fixed on the political deliverance of Israel: twice he speaks of being saved or delivered from their enemies. This correct but limited understanding about the Messiah’s purpose continues throughout Jesus’ ministry: John himself latered struggled in his imprisonment, wondering whether Jesus was really the Messiah (Pericope 89, which includes Luke.7.18-23 as a source).

Daily Pericope 8: Mary visits Elizabeth

Read Pericope 8: Mary visits Elizabeth.

I’m struck by the fact that Mary stayed three months with Elizabeth. I can only imagine the rich conversations and interaction they had during that time, imagining what God was about to do. Luke notes that Mary traveled there “with haste”, perhaps to seek to counsel of her older relative. Since Elizabeth was already six months along when Gabriel’s visitation let Mary know of the coming birth of Jesus (pericope 7), this would have been her last trimester, though we don’t know if Mary stayed for the birth or not 

Daily Pericope 6: The angel Gabriel promises the birth of John to Zechariah

Read Pericope 6: The angel Gabriel promises the birth of John to Zechariah.

Almost everything we know about the time before Jesus’ birth comes from Luke’s gospel. Gabriel’s words here define the future role of John the Baptist as a great prophet, filled with the Holy Spirit, who will prepare the way of the Lord through calling for repentence.

Pericope note: the last two verses should probably be a separate pericope, since they don’t deal with Zechariah, and their temporal setting is after Gabriel’s visit. 

Daily Pericope 5: Luke’s purpose in writing

Read Pericope 5: Luke’s purpose in writing.

Luke’s introduction clearly states his purpose: to bring together the eyewitness testimonies of the life of Jesus into an “orderly account.” The writers of antiquity were no less aware than we are today of the tendency toward exaggeration, hearsay, or the pruning of unflattering details, in recounting history. Luke’s intent is clear: to record the truth.

Pericope note: this kind of meta-narrative doesn’t really fit into any particular sequence, since it’s not tied to events. This is one example illustrating that the overall sequencing of the pericopes is only approximate (really, it’s a partial ordering, but let’s not geek out).