By John Evans
When a child is born we have a standard list of questions.
Possibly at the top we want to know that the mother and baby are well, radiant even! However, in rapid fire order, we also want to know what is the baby’s name is; who does the child take after; and apparently, the weight of the child. An odd question I have always thought, but perhaps it is the only time in a person’s life one can politely be asked such a question!
Now in the Christmas story, these questions are sort of answered – except of course for our concern of the weight of the baby. These are important and we will return to them shortly, however, in the gospels of Matthew and Luke there are features of the Christmas story about which we would today never really dream to ask.
Where was this new-born put down to sleep? What was the infant wearing? Who visited? Indeed, who visited first?
And what are some of the gifts all these visitors brought? Of course, we know the answers to these questions. They are just an integral part of the Christmas story. The narrative itself points to the uniqueness of Christ’s birth and what Jesus indeed means for us – all these years later.
We know the drill: born to a young unmarried mother in humble circumstances; slept in a manger; visited first by the then-outcasts of society, the shepherds and so on. And if you are perhaps puzzling about those bands, strips of cloth, the swaddling clothes, they actually feature again in his story of Jesus. Indeed they are in the very climax of his story, his death and resurrection. What was found in that tomb on Easter morn? Yes, strips of cloth; but this time they are not wrapped around his body like here at his birth, or as then his dead body after his crucifixion. They simply lie there as symbols, signs Christ is no longer dead but alive. The risen Christ has a new presence with us.
Even these simple strips of linen at his birth, and the other features of the story, can point to something of profound significance for us all.
However, back to our standard birth questions: what’s the child’s name and who does he or she take after? They both were central for our Christmas chroniclers.
Both Matthew and Luke place considerable emphasis on this child’s genealogy; all those whom he takes after. True, not in the sense of what he might look like – the question we may be thinking, but where is this child placed in the history of his people; or even of humanity itself?
These gospel writers set out their respective family trees, with all those begats, in such a way to include the great heroes of the faith and the scoundrels, the insiders and those on the margin, like Ruth, a foreign woman (in Matthew’s genealogy). They make theological points, like this birth is a pivotal time in history, through to the fact that this baby is descended from Adam, “the son of God”, as Luke says in his account (Luke 3:38).
More specifically both Matthew and Luke want to make it clear this child is descended from David, he is the Messiah, his coming fulfils that covenant promise to King David and his descendants. (See 2 Samuel 7:12-14).
As to this child’s name: there was no looking up the latest list of popular names, or naming this child after dad. Mary and Joseph were both told the name they would use! Luke has the angel Gabriel simply saying to Mary: “you will conceive in your womb, and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31).
Matthew, on the other hand, has Joseph involved. When an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, the angel said: “Mary will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus” (1:21). There was a divine dimension to this naming. Indeed, Luke sets this scene with a story as to how John the Baptist, Jesus’s kinsman, is named. (See Luke 1:59ff)
Apparently, that child was going to be named Zechariah after his father. But after the birth Elizabeth said, “No, he is to be called John” which means blessed or graced by God. This birth to an old, previously infertile couple, was amazing: this was God’s blessing. But then the neighbours and friends said to Elizabeth: “None of your relatives has this name.” So, to settle the matter, they asked Zechariah (who was still struck dumb) and he wrote on a tablet confirming the name would be John.
Both this name John, and more so that of Jesus himself, reflected a bigger picture. Jesus, or in Hebrew Yeshua (and related to Joshua), means he would, as Matthew says, “save his people” (1:21). He will lead them like Joshua after Moses, into the promised land. He will save his people, indeed as the evangelist John says in his prologue (which we also read at Christmas) “all who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God!” (John 1:12). This name is important.
When a baby is born, we will have our standard questions. The Christmas story makes clear that the name and who this child takes after are central to our interest and enquiries about this birth. Indeed, the name of this child is central as to what we might believe. However, at the same time, don’t forget those other details of the story like “the strips of cloth”, those swaddling clothes, and what they might mean in our life and faith.
Rev Dr John Evans is a retired Minister.