Birth of Jesus

The value of return

You will find a child
"You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." - Luke 2:12 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

December 24, 2023

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Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

The selection of Luke in this year’s Narrative Lectionary for the Christmas Eve reading is a perfect opportunity to draw out the connections the gospel writer makes between the birth of Jesus and the traditions of Israel in which this event stands in continuity. 

The vocabulary and narrative structure of Luke’s birth narrative imitate the style of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The Lukan infancy narrative (chapters 1–2) especially has a direct dependence on similar stories in the Hebrew Bible. It would be like a modern author imitating the thee’s and thou’s of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. This technique deliberately hearkens back to and builds a relationship with an earlier age. 

Within the arc of the Narrative Lectionary the birth of Jesus is a fulcrum, a turning point between the traditions of Israel and the later traditions of the church. The preacher has an opportunity here to summarize how far the congregation has come from the outset of the Narrative Lectionary readings in the garden of Eden through this midway point. 

The autumn cycle of readings traced this part of the story: 

  • God created the world and its peoples. 
  • God chose a particular people, Israel, as God’s own, made promises to them, and gave them the law. 
  • Over time, Israel grew into a nation who called for a king. 
  • As a kingdom, this people was united for a time. But it quickly divided north and south, and its peoples and kings strayed from God’s commandments. 
  • To bring these peoples back into right relationship, God raised up prophets who called them to repent. 

Reign of Christ Sunday culminated this part of the narrative with Josiah’s reform. 

Throughout Advent there has been an opportunity to connect more dots as the arc narrative of the Bible unfolds further. 

Despite Josiah’s attempt at reform, first the Northern and then the Southern Kingdoms fell to invading empires. With invasion came exile and the promise of return to the land, which was the theme of the Second Sunday of Advent. With the return to the land came the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple described in Ezra during the Third Sunday of Advent. 

It is this rebuilt temple that serves as a focal point for both the Gospel of Luke and the first sections of Acts. The overlap in 2023 of the Fourth Sunday of Advent with Christmas Eve in the Narrative Lectionary presents an opportunity for further connection between Zechariah’s song, the birth of Jesus, and the centrality of the Jerusalem temple. 

The infancy narrative begins with Zechariah offering incense in the temple (Luke 1:8–20). Simeon and Anna both proclaim Jesus as the Messiah in the temple (Luke 2:25–28, 36–38).  Mary, Joseph, and Jesus return yearly to the temple to celebrate the Passover, and at 12 years old, Jesus sits among the teachers of Torah in the temple (Luke 2:41–49).  

Zechariah is a priest serving in the Jerusalem temple, and Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron. Their Jewish credentials could not be more valid. As Jews, Zechariah and Elizabeth stand thoroughly in continuity with the traditions of Israel. 

While Zechariah is serving in the temple, an angel of the Lord appears to him, promising a son to Elizabeth, just as sons have been promised to so many women with reproductive challenges, like Sarah and Hannah, in the stories of Israel. 

While it is easy to read the birth of Jesus as a beginning, through Zechariah and several other characters in the infancy narrative the author of Luke is deliberate in presenting the birth narrative as the continuation and fulfillment of the story of Israel, which has already been unfolding for hundreds of generations. 

With this concern for both continuity and fulfillment, Luke is the most inclusive and universal of the canonical gospels. While Matthew writes about a Child of David and a messiah particular to Judaism, Luke is concerned with a Child of Humanity that is a universal savior of humankind. 

For example, in the next reading, appointed for Christmas Day, an angel of the Lord appears to shepherds and announces good news of great joy to all people (Luke 2:8–12). The genealogy of Jesus is traced not to David and Abraham as it is in Matthew (1:1–17), but from Joseph to Adam, who is named more universally as the child of God (Luke 3:23-38).  

In tension with Luke’s ecumenical concern is also a focus on the particularities of Jerusalem and the temple. Jerusalem is the setting of the beginning and ending of Luke with the infancy narrative (Luke 1–2) and the Passion narrative (Luke 22–23), which can also be an opportunity to set the stage for the seasons to come.

After Christmas the next cycle of readings will center on the earthly ministry of Jesus in Mark, but the Easter season will center in part on Acts, Luke’s second volume. There is a parallel here between the birth of Jesus and the birth of the church, a two-part movement being told through Luke and Acts, a two-part text. 

Looking ahead, in a similar way the narrative of Acts also begins in and continuously returns to Jerusalem (Acts 1–7, 15, 21). However, unlike Luke’s gospel that concludes in and around Jerusalem, Acts concludes in Rome (Acts 28). The overall movement in Luke-Acts is from Jerusalem, the capital of Judaism, to Rome, the capital of the world.  

The return to the Christmas season over and over, like the Lukan return to the Jerusalem temple, is an opening to reflect on the value of return. Just as the massive stones that welcomed pilgrims back to the temple did not change, the people and the traditions around Christmas, while certainly not immovable, also have something of a timeless quality about them. 

If Christmas Eve itself remains relatively unchanged (and I am not arguing it should), where is the opportunity for the congregation to reflect on how they have changed individually and collectively over the past year since their return? 

Where has there been continuity with a deep and wide tradition, and where have there been new opportunities to burst into song as God does a new thing, just like so many of the characters in the Lukan infancy narrative do? 


Emmanuel, today we celebrate your coming and rejoice in your promises. We joyfully welcome you to this world and celebrate your presence in our lives. Amen.


Silent night, holy night   ELW 281, GG 122, H82 111, NCH 134, UMH 239
Away in a manger   ELW 277/278, GG 114/115, H82 101, NCH 124, UMH 217
Joy to the world   ELW 267, GG 134, 266, H82 100, NCH 132, UMH 246/818b
Jesus, Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child   ELW 297, GG 126, NCH 136, TFF 51
Angels We Have Heard On High   ELW 289, GG 113, H82 96, NCH 125, UMH 238 


I am so glad each Christmas Eve, Carolyn Jennings