When was the last time you visited an art gallery or museum and wandered about, enjoying the paintings and sculptures?
Perhaps looking at a seascape reminded you of a special vacation at the beach. Or peering at a depiction of ancient Rome made you wonder what it must have been like to have lived there two thousand years ago. It’s as if you had stepped into a different place or a different time.
The season of Advent is kind of like a trip to a museum. Over the next four weeks, we will encounter image after image that depicts Jesus and God’s plan of salvation: the Annunciation to Mary, the dreams of Joseph, the birth of John the Baptist, and of course the manger scene with the shepherds, the angels, the animals, and the infant Jesus.
There is a sense that Advent is not just a collection of events to remember; it is a series of pictures that God invites us to contemplate and enjoy. Nowhere is this more evident than in the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke, also known as Luke’s "infancy narrative." So as we begin this season of grace and blessing, let’s take a close look at these chapters. Let’s also ask the Holy Spirit to open our eyes so that we might see Jesus more clearly and grow in our faith and love.
Luke the Artist. Before we begin to ponder Luke’s stories, let’s take a quick look at Luke himself. Tradition tells us that Luke was a painter, and that in writing his Gospel, he set out to paint with words. We can see his painter’s touch in the tremendous amount of detail that he put into his writing. Everything is told with a breadth and depth of insight that enables us to imagine ourselves right there, drinking in all that God wants to tell us as each scene unfolds.
For instance, think about the way Luke portrays the Annunciation, telling us about the conversation between the angel Gabriel and Mary and giving us a glimpse into what was going on in Mary’s mind. Think, too, about the firmness of her "yes" to God’s plan despite all the potential upheaval she must have expected as a result of it (Luke 1:26-38). Or think about the rich interchange between Mary and Jesus after she found him in the Temple (2:48-52). At first she was distraught and perhaps even upset with him. But after hearing Jesus’ response, Mary pondered what was happening. She did not completely understand, but she knew that this was a special moment, and she wanted to take it all in.
We are indebted to Luke for all of these details—details that no other Gospel writer gives to us. Just think: Without Luke, we wouldn’t even have the five Joyful Mysteries of the rosary!
Sharing His Faith. But Luke wasn’t just an artist. He was also a historian—the first historian of the church, in fact. And because he was writing for the church, Luke wrote as a man of faith. He was not a newspaper journalist simply reporting on the facts. His infancy narrative is the work of a believer seeking to build up his brothers and sisters in the church, bringing glory to Jesus, and evangelizing people to the Lord. In Luke’s eyes, Jesus was the Messiah and author of salvation, not just another intriguing historical person. And this means that we should read Luke’s infancy narrative through his eyes of faith as he tells us a story that reflects his own experience of and faith in the Lord. In a sense, these chapters are an invitation from Luke for us to come and see Jesus as he had come to see him.
In every scene in Luke’s infancy narrative, we can tell that his goal is to do so much more than tell us about the birth of a special child. His deep desire is to tell us about the birth of the Savior of the world—and to tell it in a way that applies to our lives. Clearly, this is not just a story worth hearing, it’s a story worth believing.
Luke wants all of us to come to the same revelation that filled his heart: that Jesus is the Messiah, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of all creation. And the only way for us to see this is by reading these verses in the same way Luke wrote them: with hearts opened to the Holy Spirit.
Written Many Years Later. Finally, it is also worth noting that Luke’s Gospel was written around a.d. 80, nearly fifty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In his opening verses, Luke makes it clear that he never met Jesus and that his account is based on reliable testimony, not personal encounters. Luke was not a member of the original church community. He was converted to Jesus at a later time and became a minister of the gospel "after investigating everything accurately anew" so that he could "write it down in an orderly sequence" (Luke 1:3).
So as we read Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, it’s helpful to know that it was shaped over many years and was the result of many people’s prayer and experience, not just Luke’s. Luke might have put the story into its final form, but he relied heavily on many other people as well.
For instance, you can imagine Luke spending time with the Virgin Mary, asking her not only what happened but also why she thinks it happened. After all, not only did Mary know Jesus best of all, she was also a deeply prayerful woman. That means that she was open to the Holy Spirit and the insights that he could give her into Jesus and his mission. You can see Luke taking Mary’s recollections and adding his insights to hers as he crafted his narrative. You can also imagine him doing the same thing as he spoke with numerous other apostles and other eyewitnesses to Jesus and his work.
An Inspired Structure. You can especially see Luke’s hand in the way he structures his story. Luke goes out of his way to include a number of "parallel events," placing the birth of John the Baptist alongside the birth of Jesus. For instance, Luke begins his Gospel with the angel’s visit to Zechariah, but then he shifts abruptly to the angel’s visit to Mary. In both scenes, the angel announces a miraculous birth, gives a name to each child, and predicts great things for them.
As he parallels these two miracle babies’ births, Luke places the happenings that surround John’s birth on one level while placing the happenings that surround Jesus’ birth on a higher level.
For example, Luke has John’s father Zechariah announce his son’s birth, while a group of angels announce Jesus’ birth. Later, Luke tells us that Jesus is greater than even John the Baptist, the greatest of all prophets. He tells us that John was chosen by God to turn people’s hearts back to God, but that Jesus was sent by God to bring us a new kingdom, one that would last forever. John may have been specially chosen to prepare Israel for the Messiah, but Jesus himself is the fulfillment of everything John was preparing for!
All these parallel events are punctuated by a number of "stand-alone" events that allow Jesus’ uniqueness to shine out all the more: Elizabeth’s baby leaps in worship when Mary—who is pregnant with Jesus—comes to visit. Jesus is born in a cave, heralded by angels, and visited by shepherds as a way to express his universal mission to the high and the lowly alike. We also see Jesus in the Temple twice—once at his presentation and another time when he is twelve years old. And each of these episodes highlights all the more his unique and powerful role in God’s plan.
The Key to Luke: Prayer. As a talented theologian, Luke was determined to teach his readers about God and his plan of salvation. If Luke were alive today, he would tell us that the real secret to finding God and deepening our faith and love for him rests in our willingness to seek the Lord through prayer and meditation.
So let’s use the pictures that Luke paints in his infancy narrative to help us grasp this joyful occasion more fully. Let’s read these stories with the same faith as Luke so that we can make the most of this season of Advent. Let’s also follow Luke’s lead and try to get in some extra prayer, maybe even reading and pondering his infancy narrative all throughout this season of grace.
Try to read a different scene each day, meditate on it, and take some notes. Write down what you think God is saying to you about who Jesus is or about the way he wants you to live. It really doesn’t take a lot of work to do this. And what’s even more encouraging is that the Holy Spirit actually wants to bring these stories to life for you. He wants to show you how Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became one of us so that we might be raised up in the likeness of God.
So get ready to meet Jesus on Christmas Day. Don’t just read Luke’s Gospel. Go beyond the words to see the pictures he is painting. And let these pictures reveal Jesus to you and deepen your faith.