[BLOGPOLOGY: In the original version of this post I made a snide side comment about many churches’ practice of not preaching the Advent texts during this season. I did not direct it at anyone in particular and no one said anything to me about it, but my conscience was nagging me. So the next morning I removed that unnecessary part of the post. This morning I was still bothered so I wanted to write this brief apology. While I do think the practice of not using the Advent texts during this season is unfortunate, my comment was snide and not needed. Such comments are never beneficial to hearers nor productive in effecting change. My apologies to anyone I might have offended!]
At this time of year it is good and right that most churches read and preach from the two portions of Scripture that describe and reflect on the birth of Jesus Christ and the many events surrounding it (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2).
Whenever I teach from these passages in my Gospels classes I like to help students see that these two opening portions of the Gospel biographies are very important and are neither to be neglected as merely Christmas-y stories nor are they to be treated at Christmas as merely historical accounts unrelated to the rest of the books they are in.
Rather, both Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 in their own distinct ways serve as prologues and overtures to the rest of these two massive Gospel accounts that bookend the Synoptic witness. They are the stories with which the First and Third Evangelists chose to introduce their accounts.
In the case of Luke 1-2 it is especially interesting to consider how the highly structured, deeply reflective, and theologically rich introduction to the largest Gospel functions like the overture to a great musical. Indeed, Luke 1-2 is a musical itself, structured around interwoven events that are peppered through with the characters breaking into songs that explain and advance the storyline; one cannot help but think of these opening chapters as a sort of Jerusalem-Side Story or Les Shepherdables. (And I suppose Matthew 2’s Herod would The Lyin’ King.)
To consider how Luke 1-2 serves as an overture to Luke’s Gospel it will be helpful to reflect for a few moments on how musical overtures function overall. And it is difficult to find a better example than the brilliant and creative opening scene to the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast.
Some readers may desire to skip the clip given here, and one could skip to the bottom for the immediate cash value of what I’m arguing, but I would encourage all to take the few moments to watch and soak in (multiple times if you can) the gift of human creativity at work in this piece:
Beauty and the Beast Overture (Belle’s Song)
If you watched the clip let me ask this question: How does this overture serve to introduce and foreshadow the great story that is about to unfold?
I will suggest a few ways:
- Notice the two halves/movements of this piece — Introducing Belle (the Beauty) and then Introducing Gaston (the Beast?). The song concludes with their two stories beginning to intertwine (and Belle’s reaction to this in her reprise).
- Notice how Belle’s complex character is depicted in a multi-layered way
- Sweet, beautiful, dreamy, bookish, “far off look,” romantic
- Dissatisfied and even looking down on this boring old poor provincial, for which she is different and made for something greater and “more”
- At the same time, the other main character (so it seems) Gaston is depicted as thin and lacking depth, arrogant, self-confident, insensitive and self-consumed. “Here in town there’s only she who is as beautiful as me.”
- Most importantly, there are many details of the overture that only make sense once one reflects back on the whole story from the end.
- For example, when Belle is in the bookstore she proclaims that the book she is now borrowing for the third time is her favorite. Why? Because it has “far off places, daring sword fights, magic spells, a prince in disguise.” The bookkeeper then responds: “If you like it so much, it’s yours!”
Looking back from the perspective of the whole story we can see that this is exactly what happens in the story – far off places, sword fights, magic spells, and a prince in disguise – and that this story does become Belle’s story despite how far off and unbelievable it seems from this opening.
- And in the most beautiful part musically, in the bridge (starting at 2:16) Belle sings these prophetic words that mean more than she could know: “Isn’t this amazing! It’s my favorite part because you’ll see. Here’s where she meets Prince Charming, but she won’t discover that it’s him till chapter 3.”
Again, the meaning of this only becomes clear and significant once you understand how the whole story plays out.
There are many other ways in which this overture sets up the rest of the story – more that I see every time I listen to the music and lyrics and watch the images. But the point is sufficiently made for now. Overtures serve to introduce, frame, and foreshadow the story.
Let’s return then briefly to Luke 1-2 and consider how beautifully and crucially this is as well for Luke’s whole Gospel.
A few observations:
- The births of the two main characters in this prologue (John the Baptizer and Jesus the Christ) were both miraculous and prophetic
- The Holy Spirit and angels were at work in preparing and effecting these events
- The women in these stories are particularly depicted as godly, wise, and faithful (and especially note the contrast between Mary and Zechariah, both of whom encounter Gabriel)
- The Christ is coming to fulfill promises to Israel, and he comes as the heir of David
- And finally, the content of the songs (1:46-56; 1:67-79) is very important and teaches much about God’s saving work through the Child. One might even say that these songs give a robust definition of what the gospel is:
- God loves and lifts up the humble
- God’s salvation will satisfy the needy
- God will deliver his people from their enemies
- God is returning to remember and bless his chosen people
- God is bring peace and light to those in darkness (see also 2:29-32)
Again, there is much more of value to observe about how Luke 1-2 introduce, frame, and foreshadow the whole message of the Gospel.
My point for now is simply to encourage my readers during this beautiful Advent season to re-read Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 with a new set of lenses – for how they provide a crucial interpretive perspective on what the message of the whole gospel is.