I will never forget one Christmas Eve many years ago when my family decided to read the account of Jesus’ birth in Mathew instead of Luke. It’s a tradition among my extended family, as I’m sure it is with other families, to read Scripture at this special holiday gathering, and we naturally gravitate to Luke’s version. The stories of Luke are so familiar to us, and many can recite the narratives nearly verbatim. Luke, after all, is famous for describing the details of Jesus’ birth with the beauty and wonder of a master storyteller. Nearly all of the essential parts of the story, save the account of the Magi, come from Luke, including Caesar’s decree, the journey to Bethlehem, the inn with no room, the shepherds quaking, the angels singing, Mary pondering everything in her heart, and so on.
So one Christmas Eve, in an attempt to shake things up a bit, I suggested we try reading Matthew instead. Not wanting to break from tradition, my family reluctantly agreed. So, I turned to Matthew 1 and began.
It is no mystery that Matthew and Luke emphasize different aspects of the birth of Christ. From the start, the family was quickly losing patience because, unlike Luke’s account, Matthew begins with one of those long, repetitive genealogies. Not quite the same as the heart-warming narratives of Luke. But we persevered.
Everyone seemed more engaged when we finally made it to the familiar stories of Mary and Joseph. All of our restless children were happy because these accounts are much shorter than the similar stories we find in Luke. Nearing the end of Matthew 1, our family was smiling as they listened to the astonishing stories of the angelic visitors and Joseph’s inspiring resolve to obey the Lord by taking Mary as his wife.
Beginning in Matthew 2, the scene of expectation and hope crescendos with the visitation of the wise men, who saw the star and rejoiced when they found the child. Matthew 2:10-11 describe the scene of worship that is so familiar to us (and often conflated with Luke’s story of the shepherds): “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him.” The euphoria of celebration and adoration emanates from the passage. The long-awaited Savior has arrived! The Messiah, the Son of David, is here! Let all heaven and nature sing!
Then, we read Matthew 2:16. In a moment, the smiles were gone. The sense of hallelujah was shattered when the reality of sin and death reentered the scene. Matthew 2:16 recounts Herod’s reaction to the threat of the birth of the Messiah, saying, “Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi.” Unspeakable joy and unspeakable horror, barely even five verses apart. Suddenly, we were not reading about the thrill of the Savior’s birth but rather the heinous sin of a crazed man and the loss of many precious infants.
But Matthew is not fazed by such horror. Instead, he makes it an integral part of his birth narrative and connects it to testimony of the prophets. He cites the words of Jeremiah, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.” Ramah, just a few miles north of Jerusalem, is traditionally associated with Israel’s deportation to exile. In Jeremiah’s account, Rachel, the wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin, is the national representation of a mother weeping for children who are headed into captivity. Here, in response to Herod’s acts, Matthew sees the fulfillment of Jeremiah as the nation weeps for her children because sin and death still reign.
There is also little doubt that Matthew’s readers would have immediately detected the echoes of similar heinous acts committed by Pharaoh in the narrative of Moses’ birth (Exodus 1:15-22). The literary connections are unmistakable and envision Christ as one like Moses who has come to deliver His people, not from bondage to Egypt or even Babylon, but from the even greater bondage to sin and death (Matthew 2:14-15, Hosea 11:1).
In the middle of reading this portion of the story, I recall one family member making the lighthearted interjection, “I’d forgotten about this part.” Another questioned innocently, “Do we really need to hear this tonight?” After their comments, I paused for a moment. I honestly wondered if I should read on. Do we really need to hear about Herod? Christmas is about love, joy and peace, right?
I even remember thinking in that moment about how many nativity scenes I have witnessed over the years that portray the visitation of the Magi in Matthew 2:10. The serene images of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus surrounded by the wise men humbly kneeling, offering gifts, and worshiping. There is no hint of what is about to happen. Certainly sin and death are not to be celebrated at Christmas, but Matthew reminds us that they are not to be brushed aside either. The truth is that the account of Herod’s acts convey the very reason Christ came in the first place. He became incarnate to overcome sin and death.
After a few awkward moments of silence, I went ahead and finished reading the chapter. When we ended Matthew’s account, my family reverted to tradition and recited Luke’s narratives. But the haunting thoughts of Herod’s acts in Matthew’s account lingered in my mind.
It seems to me that what is so helpful about Matthew’s version is the dramatic tension of the holiness of the birth of Christ set in contrast with a shocking story that illustrates the desperate need for this Messiah to save His people. Reading Matthew’s account undermines any attempt at sanitizing the birth of Christ. The trivial holiday songs, stale Christmas specials, and inedible fruitcakes fade away in light of Matthew’s Gospel, as the reason for the season is ushered to the forefront. When we read Matthew, we feel the joy of shouting with the wise men, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come”; and then we realize in the acts of Herod the hope of proclaiming, “No more let sin and sorrow reign!”
In an important section of his famous work On the Incarnation, the church father Athanasius (d. 373 A.D.) captures this theological tension, saying:
But now He [the Word] comes, condescending towards us in his love for human beings and his manifestation. For seeing the rational race perishing, and death reigning over them through corruption, and seeing also the threat of transgression giving firm hold to the corruption which was upon us, … and seeing the excessive wickedness of human beings, that they gradually increased it to an intolerable pitch against themselves, and seeing the liability of all human beings to death—having mercy upon our race, and having pity upon our weakness, and condescending to our corruption, and not enduring the dominion of death, lest what had been created should perish and the work of the Father Himself for human beings should be in vain, he takes for himself a body and that not foreign to our own. … And thus, taking from ours that which is like, since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it over to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father, doing this in his love for human beings….
The words of Athanasius bring together the compassion of the Son of God who sees His creatures languishing in sin and condescends to enter their world and become like them—the same world where Herod rules and God’s creatures suffer. In His unfettered love for us, He became like us and offered up Himself to overcome sin and death.
I think about this every year on Christmas Eve as I open my Bible to choose which story to read. Now, I cannot help but read them both. While I love Luke’s account, and it remains the standard-bearer of all Christmas Eve gatherings, I find myself drawn to Matthew for the way it challenges our holiday sentimentalities and vividly reminds us why the Word became flesh.
 Athanasius: Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 2.8.