A Season of Hope: Advent Themes through the Four Gospels
Advent is the period in the Christian year when we think about God coming into the world as a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The four Gospel (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) portrayals of Jesus’ origins are told by different writers and introduce us to meaningful challenges for the early church and for us today.
The birth narrative in the Gospel of Matthew is the familiar account of a newborn king and his wise visitors from the East who found their way to after a long journey, by following a star. But this gospel also includes the harrowing story of King Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Jesus – the plot that the wise visitors from the East foil.
Matthew celebrates the coming of Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” When Matthew says that “God is with us” it is to declare that Jesus is the culmination of a long history of God’s salvific actions on behalf of God’s people (Matt. 1:23). As Jesus is beginning his life, he and his parents are fleeing from a wrathful King Herod, whose paranoid and jealous intent is to murder him as a rival king of the Jews (2:1-20).
We usually don’t think of Jesus as a refugee or an exile, but that is what he is in Matthew’s story. Not long after his birth Jesus, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt to escape King Herod’s men, who are coming to kill all the male infants in Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. It is hard to imagine the terror of being a refugee, of fleeing with a newborn child to a strange land where there are no family or friends to support and provide comfort to you.
Jesus’ journey as a refugee provides some insight into how and why he ministers with such compassion and understanding among the masses of worried, hungry people; welcoming outcasts, healing infirmities and challenging those who have plenty to share with those who have little. Jesus, knowing what it is to be a refugee, demonstrates how his followers should respond to those who are journeying, homeless, and outcast from their home and now residing among Christian communities
The genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew (1:1-16) traces his lineage through the Davidic dynasty – which includes Abraham, King David – to Joseph “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (1:16). Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, he is his adopted father. This adoption establishes Jesus as a part of his family, a part of the Davidic line – Son of David and Messiah (1:1; 20-21). The Gospel of Matthew emphasizes Joseph’s role instead of Mary’s (she has more of the focus in the Gospel of Luke). It was important to Matthew that we see the implications of Joseph’s adoption of Jesus and his role in saving Jesus’ life.
The story of Jesus’ flight into Egypt and his wandering and homeless years of ministry are not pleasant and cozy seasonal tales, they are appropriate to ponder in the weeks of Advent when Christians are invited to reflect on what it means to each of us that God came into the world as a human being. The Gospel of Matthew may challenge Christians to look directly at violence and suffering and to respond by feeding and comforting the poor and welcome the refugee Jesus into our hearts.
Christians are adopted into the family when we are baptized in the name of Jesus the Christ. The family lineage is not ours by birth, we are adopted and become sons and daughters of God. Jesus counted as family many people who were on the margins of traditional society: the prostitutes, tax collectors, and other “sinners” of his time. As we follow Jesus, we are called to minister to the “least of these who are members of my family” (Matt. 25:40).
The hope of Advent is that God comes to dwell with us so that we have the strength to dwell with, encourage, and help others in need.
As you reflect on the focus of Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ birth consider:
- What does Matthew’s take on the birth of Jesus mean to us as Christian’s today?
- What is Matthew’s story calling you to? How will you respond to that call as the season of Advent approaches?
Listen to the themes from Matthew’s gospel in this traditional Advent hymn: