LAST year, as every year, I went rather wearily to the school Nativity play. And last year, as every year, the same story was told. An angel in a white sheet told a curiously unsurprised Mary that she was going to have a baby. Joseph, grey-bearded and leaning on a stick to indicate his advanced age, was slightly upset but was quickly reassured that his wife was still a nice Jewish girl. Mary and Elizabeth had some vaguely theological conversations during Mary's pregnancy, and then, when the holy couple had to head south from Nazareth because of the census, Mary was duly loaded onto a donkey. On arrival at Bethlehem, exhausted and with Mary already having some histrionic twinges, they found that there was no room at the inn. The innkeeper, though, was a kindly man, and he let them occupy the stable. And there, although the audience was spared the medical details, the baby Jesus was born. The children playing the ox, the ass and the sheep bent adoringly in paper-mache masks over the doll in the manger, while hordes of tone-deaf angels serenaded the new-born King of the Jews. Shepherds came to the manger. In a new and hugely popular touch, the lambs they carried kissed the baby.
Then there was some vaguely Oriental music, borrowed from the local tandoori restaurant, and in came the Three Kings on supposedly comic camels, pointing ostentatiously to a huge star dangling from a long cane. Mary proudly displayed the child to them, and was ecstatically grateful at the rich gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The curtain fell with all the company assembled round the manger, singing 'Away in a manger'. Mary beamed beatifically as befitted a girl who had viciously seen off all her rivals for the role.
Afterwards, as we ate our mince pies and told our respective children that they were easily the best in the show, there were the inevitable attempts at jokes.
'I was really disappointed', said one father, on his third glass of cooking sherry. 'I was looking forward to the massacre of the innocents, and they missed it out'.
'Of course they did', rejoined another. 'They couldn't find any innocents in this school to massacre'.
A genuinely kind and godly woman, whom I know to be a pillar of her local church, came up to me and touched my arm. She knows that I write Christian books, and obviously felt I should be protected from all this.
'Don't you listen to them', she said. 'It's wonderful, isn't it, to be reminded of that great story?'
'It is', I said. 'It really is'. But all the time I was thinking: which story is she talking about?
Two accounts: one story?
There are two accounts of the nativity in the canonical gospels. They are in Matthew and in Luke. It is not easy to read them together. On the face of it they look like completely different stories. In each of them, sure, Mary and Joseph are betrothed, and in Bethlehem Mary bears a son of unusual origin. But that's where the similarities end. Their family trees of Jesus are as different as a Christmas tree and a festive holly bush. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph appear to be residents of Bethlehem. There's no pre-birth travel involved, and indeed the elaborate story of Archelaus' rule over Judaea is later told to explain why the couple went to Nazareth. In Luke, Nazareth is the family home: he needs the problematic vehicle of Quirinius' census to bring them to Bethlehem. There's no inn in Matthew: Jesus is born conventionally in the house. And it is in the house that the Magi, unknown to Luke, welcome him. For the other traditional visitors you have to go to Luke. There you will find the angel choirs and the shepherds abiding in the fields by night. Although Luke gives them a harrowing pre-natal journey, Mary and Joseph have a much quieter time in Luke than in Matthew. They bring Jesus to the Jerusalem temple in the prescribed way, Simeon and Anna predict great things for him, and then the family goes peaceably back home to Galilee. …