Forming Faith Blog

The Word in the Feed Trough (John 1 & Luke 2)

Our readings from John 1 (Advent 4) and Luke 2 (Christmas) give us two very different views of the same thing, the origin of Jesus the Messiah. Each view offers us something valuable. Sometimes we need one, sometimes the other, and sometimes both.

A baby holding an adult finger. Our lessons from John and Luke both describe Jesus' incarnation.
Photo by Pixabay on
A Jump Forward

On this fourth Sunday of Advent, the Narrative Lectionary moves from the overview of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) to the New Testament. A lot has happened in the roughly 400 years between the last of the Hebrew prophets and the ministry of John the Baptist. Under Persian rule, the Jews were allowed to return to Judah and rebuild the temple and the wall. The Persian Empire (including Judah) was conquered by Alexander the Great and later Hellenized (Greekified). Persecution by their Hellenized overlords led to a revolt under a family known as the Maccabees. Later still, the expanding Roman Empire conquered this area, absorbing it into said empire.

The Good News according to John

It is in this Roman-occupied Judea that our two Gospel lessons (Advent 4 and Christmas) take place. Generally in the Narrative Lectionary, the fourth Sunday in Advent is set for a Gospel reading from before Jesus was born. In this John year, we start way, way back. The Gospel writer starts before the creation of the cosmos. John wants to make it clear that Jesus isn’t just a special, God-blessed baby, but the en-flesh-ment of the Divine Word (John 1:14). It is no wonder that the symbol for John the Evangelist is a high-flying eagle; this passage is pretty abstract.

The Good News according to Luke

The Christmas reading in the Narrative Lectionary is always from Luke 2, the familiar story of Bethlehem, the manger, the angels, and the shepherds. Without sacrificing a view of Jesus as the promised Savior, Luke’s account is much earthier. Jesus did not abstractly become flesh and dwell among us but was born to a humble mother (engaged but not married), in a humble space, with humble visitors (the shepherds). I don’t know if the animals were in this spare room with Mary, Joseph, and the newborn babe, but I can guarantee that the room smelled like animals. Without any other safe place to put him, Mary commandeered the animal food trough as a cradle. The visiting shepherds—who have been living in the fields working with animals—probably smelled a bit, too. This passage describes a sensory experience and not all of it is pleasant.

Do Not Harmonize

It’s important to respect the (major) differences between these two Gospel accounts. An attempt to combine all four Gospels into a single, coherent narrative is called a Gospel harmony. One of the problems with this is that it strips away the characteristics that make each Gospel unique. All four Gospels are indeed about one figure: the promised Messiah and Savior who was crucified and rose again. But each writer was in a different context and was writing for different purposes. John’s purpose was to tell of Jesus’ divinity. He was less concerned about Jesus’ humanness, possibly because he knew other Gospel writers had that handled. So, he only devoted a sentence or so to Jesus’ human birth.

Compare and Contrast

While the fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas are six days apart (where in the last cycle Advent 4 was on December 24), you can still take the time to compare and contrast. For Advent 4, focus on the cosmic, poetic prose introducing Jesus as divine while pondering the messy baby in the feed trough. On Christmas (Eve or Day), freshen up the familiar nativity story by seeing the messy, pooping, and crying baby as the Divine Son.

For You

During this stressful period, challenge your faith formation participants to take some time to breathe (and do so yourself!). Ask them: which image do you need right now? The Divine Word made flesh or the messy baby in the feed trough? The One who is before all and above all, or the Lord who is just like us in our humanity? Either way, you can remind yourself and them that Jesus is both and came for us all.

In the light of Christ,

Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Free Resource

During the main Narrative Lectionary year (this year: Sept 12 to June 5), we provide a free resource download from one of our products to help you in your faith formation ministry.

For the fourth Sunday of Advent (12/19), download a free activity “Luminaries” from our home-based family curriculum Living the Word: God’s Story @ Home (NL) designed to be used at home but can be used in any intergenerational faith formation! [There is one download that includes both activities.]

For Christmas (12/25), download a free activity “Promise Fulfilled” from our intergenerational worship product Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship (NL) though this can be used in any intergenerational faith formation setting. [There is one download that includes both activities.]

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