I am continuing to look at the nature of religious mysteries, specifically the Virgin Birth of Jesus.
Now, it would not make much sense to read a phone book as if it were a novel. Lots of characters but not much plot. And it would not make sense to read a cookbook if what you wanted was today’s news. Each type of writing requires a different way of approaching it. That seems obvious, but when it comes to reading Sacred Scripture, we often forget that.
Our Scriptures were written between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago, give or take a century. The approaches that the Scriptures take to telling a story is not our modern, fact-based approach. We often read the Scriptures as if it were a newspaper report giving us the facts, or a history book describing what happened. But the Scriptures tell us what happened in the sense of what it all really meant, not in the sense of what physically took place. This is not an attempt to mislead us. The Scriptures are very clear in what they are trying to tell us, and that is the meaning of what really happened, not necessarily the actual occurrences. St. Mark is very clear in the opening line of his Gospel. He blandly states: “” St. Mark’s intention is clear. What he tells you is going to help you understand that Jesus is the Son of God. In the same way, St. John, at the end of his Gospel, states: “ (John 20: 30-1) St. John has a purpose in how he tells you his Gospel, and he is open and clear about it. So we need to read him on his terms.
The Gospel writers tell us not the factual occurrences of Jesus’ life, but rather the TRUTH about who Jesus is and what Jesus means for us. They arrange their stories to make this clear, not always as it may have occurred in fact. So, for example, Jesus gives the Beatitudes in a sermon on the plain in St. Luke’s Gospel, but on a mountain in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Did Jesus give the same sermon twice (all preachers re-use their good material after all)? Perhaps. But the actual historical location is not nearly as important as the truth of understanding who Jesus is and what He is all about. Thus, St. Matthew, writing to a congregation of mixed Jewish and Gentile Christians, wants badly to show that Jesus is the new Moses, the new giver of the Law. Moses received the tablets of the Law on a mountain, so it is important that Jesus, the new Moses, gives the New Law on a mountain. Matthew doesn’t mention the name or location of this mountain, because it is not so much an actual, physical location as a spiritual, religious truth. The mountain represents Jesus’ authority as the new Moses, not an actual place.
In the same way, an evil ruler tries to kill the infant Jesus, just as Pharaoh tried to kill the infant Moses. Just as Moses came out of Egypt, so Jesus, re-capitulating the history of the Chosen People, has to flee to Egypt in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Did Jesus actually, in physical fact, go to Egypt? It seems highly unlikely. But, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Flight into Egypt helps reveal the truth about Who Jesus really is. Jesus is the summation and fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. Jesus incorporates in himself all the promises God had made and all the preparation the Jewish people had gone through. In short, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, and St. Matthew tells us that truth through stories that are true rather than factual. The facts do not save, the Truth does.