A reflection on Matthew's Infancy Narrative
by Archdeacon Stringfellow
Matthew 2:13-15 and 19-23
3 January 2010
Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth and childhood (frequently called an infancy narrative) differs very substantially from Luke’s—the familiar “Christmas” story. Neither Mark nor John contains an infancy narrative.
The Second Sunday after Christmas Day, which we do not have every year, holds its own place in the liturgical calendar identified by the familiar and common name of Holy Family Sunday.
For this day, the first choice of Gospel proclamations is Matthew’s story of three of Joseph’s dreams, the flight to Egypt, the return to Nazareth, and the fulfillment of two prophecies. None of this material is in Luke except that in Luke Nazareth is Mary and Joseph’s own town and the place where Jesus grows up.
Matthew contains the story also of Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus by killing “all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” (2:16). Herod’s murder of the holy innocents, also, is not to be found in Luke’s infancy narrative.
In the Gospel for today, an angel of the Lord warns Joseph in his second dream to take Jesus and his mother to Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempt to destroy Jesus. This Joseph readily and swiftly does, and we read an example, so common in Matthew, of an event followed quickly by the statement that the event fulfills a particular prophecy that Matthew quotes: “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (2:15). Here Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1.
While the holy family lives in Egypt, Herod dies, and Joseph has his third dream. This time, the message of the angel is that those who sought to kill Jesus are dead and that Joseph is to take the child and his mother and to go to the land of Israel (2:20). When the holy family arrives there, however, Joseph hears that Herod’s son Archelaus rules there, in Judea, and when he is also warned in his fourth dream, Joseph pushes on to the district of Galilee, and there the holy family makes their home in Nazareth. This event, too, fulfills a specific prophecy: “so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’” (2:23). It’s not clear what prophecy Matthew refers to here. “Nazareth” is not mentioned in the Old Testament. But what Matthew does, perhaps, is to draw from a mention of a word similar to Nazareth, such as Isaiah 11:1, where we read, “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse.” The Hebrew neser is bud or shoot.
It is worth noting that in Matthew’s account of the flight to Egypt and the return to Israel not only does Jesus fulfill rather specific and small prophecies, if you will, but he also fulfills the history of all Israel by recapitulating in his person the whole history of Israel. That history is succinctly and famously stated in Deuteronomy: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.” “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders” (26:5 and 8).
The point that Matthew seems to want to make here and elsewhere is that Jesus is all Israel and the complete Israel, “the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1).