Reflecting on Journeys in Luke’s Infancy Narrative

Bishop Peter Brignall reflects on 13 journeys in Luke’s Infancy narrative to help us accompany Jesus in this Christmas season, and to follow the Synod’s listening journey with the Church.

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*1:11/19          Gabriel appearing to Zechariah (19th December)

1:23                 Zechariah going home (19th December)

*1:26                Angel Gabriel sent to Mary (20th December)

1:39                 Mary sets out to Elizabeth (21st December)

1:56                 Mary returns to Nazareth (22nd December)

**1:80              John the Baptist into the wilderness (Birth and Feast day of John the Baptist)

2:4                   Mary and Joseph go from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Christmas Night)

*2:8-13            Angel(s) to shepherds (Christmas Night)

2:15                 Shepherds to Bethlehem and return (Christmas Dawn)

2:22                 Jesus, Mary and Joseph to Jerusalem (Holy Family Year B)

2:39                 Jesus, Mary and Joseph from Jerusalem to Nazareth (Holy Family Year B)

2:41                 Jesus in the Temple – Holy Family (Holy Family Year C)

3:21                 Jesus to John the Baptist (Baptism of the Lord Year C)

In the final days of Advent and through the Christmas Season, we read or hear proclaimed in the Gospel Reading of our Masses, of a number of journeys. It is the thirteen journeys in St. Luke’s Gospel that I am going to identify and briefly reflect upon here as it is Luke’s Gospel that is the dominant one in the Sunday Lectionary cycle this year.

As we immerse ourselves in the local discussions and contribute to the Synod 2021-2023, these passages have a particular resonance. Since at the beginning or end of each journey, there is a message and a listening time. Pope Francis has described the beginning of the synodal process as a journey, a journeying together, a journey into listening.

‘To hear God’s voice, to sense his presence, to witness his passage and his breath of life.’
(Address to the Faithful of the Diocese of Rome, 18th September 2021).

In that address Pope Francis likens the synodal process to the book of the Acts of the Apostles:
‘A journey that reveals how God’s word, and the people who heed and put their faith
in that word, journey together. The word of God makes a journey with us… Yet that
story, that journey, was not merely geographical, it was also marked by a constant
inner restlessness. This is essential: if Christians do not feel a deep inner restless-
ness, then something is missing. That inner restlessness is born of faith; it impels us
to consider what it is best to do, what needs to be preserved or changed.’ (ibid)

We don’t have to wait until the death and resurrection of Jesus to find that restlessness among God’s people, it is to be seen in much of the Old Testament and also most clearly in the infancy narratives.

There are three journeys I want to take together and to deal with first as they are journeys of angels rather than of men or women. The angel Gabriel is sent first to Zechariah (Luke 1:8-21) and six months later to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). Like the Christians ‘who prayed for Peter’s release from prison (Acts.12:1-16) Zechariah couldn’t believe his ears. He demanded proof that the promise would be fulfilled. The angel identified himself as Gabriel (cf. Daniel 9:21) and sentenced Zechariah to nine months of silence (likely hearing and speech) for his lack of faith.  Due to the delay in Zechariah’s reappearing from the Holy Place of the Temple the awaiting congregation thought he might have suffered God’s wrath, but when he does appear they realise he has had a vision. By contrast, Mary who also had doubts when Gabriel addressed her, (‘How can this be …? 1:34) did not ask for a sign to authenticate his message, but a sign was given to her anyway: “behold your kinswomen Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; …” If aged infertile Elizabeth had conceived through the power of God, could not the virgin Mary also? “For with God nothing will be impossible.” (Luke 1:36-37) The third occurrence of an angel making a journey from the heaven court (John1:59) is with the announcement to the shepherds of the Saviour’s birth (Luke 2:8ff).

An announcement that is backed up with the unsolicited sign, a “multitude of the heavenly host praising God …” (Luke 2:13-14).

It strikes me there is a progression here:

  • Zechariah hears, doubts, lacks faith and asks for proof – a sign that he should believe;
  • Mary hears, questions and is given a sign anyway;
  • the shepherds hear, are given a sign and set off to “see this thing that has taken place which the Lord has made known to” them (Luke 2:25) with no doubts expressed.

Without questioning the faith and virtue of Zechariah and Mary, the reaction of the shepherds to the ‘good news’ is more akin to the reception of that same good news by the tax collectors and sinners than of the virtuous of Jewish society (Luke 5:32; 7:34). However, in each case the conclusion of the episode results in God being praised, Zechariah’s prophetic hymn (Benedictus in Luke1:68-79) at the birth of John the Baptist; Mary’s hymn of praise (Magnificat in Luke1:46-55) on visiting Elizabeth, and the shepherds returning to the flocks “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen …” (2:20)

The angels make their journeys, the word of God is revealed to their listeners, they return to their places in the heavenly kingdom, and the will of the Father is gently accomplished through the obedience of the listeners.

The whole of Luke’s Gospel is presented as a great circular journey in which the Son is inviting his people to travel with him. The journey begins in the Temple where the hopes of the people are centred. It is there that Zechariah begins his people’s journey with his duty of worship and their prayer (1:10). It is in the Temple that Luke closes his gospel with the joyful disciples in free prayer (24:53). The Temple is after all where the hopes of the people are centred.

The first human journey in the Infancy Narrative is that of Zechariah after he has completed his term of service when he returns to his home (in a village in hill country of Judah) (1:23) perhaps leaving the people of Jerusalem in a state of wonderment what this recent event in the Temple could possible mean. Now somehow, he has to explain to Elizabeth what has happened and how it is that he has lost his power of speech. One can imagine this elderly couple having a rather one-sided discussion as to what it all meant and finding solace in their love for each other that is to result in the conception of their only son. Dramatic events of salvation are underway. Not for the first time in the history of Israel has failure resulted in blessing, but for the time being it is only this elderly couple who know of God’s intervention, the most important of all in the history of their people.

The second journey is that inspired six months later by the angel Gabriel’s revelation to Mary that her kinswomen Elizabeth is with child. It would now be apparent that Elizabeth was pregnant, that the Lord God had taken from her the humiliation of being childless. She is what people today might call being radiant in her pregnancy and for good reason as she greets Mary with, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:43); the same words are used in the Septuagint of King David dancing before the Ark of the Covenant as it is brought into Jerusalem, “How can the Ark of the Lord come into my care?” (2 Samuel 6:9). The greeting by Mary caused the unborn John the Baptist to leap in Elizabeth’s womb and the prophetic awareness of the presence of the pre-natal Messiah was transferred to Elizabeth. She was filled with the Holy Spirit enabling her to bestow a triple blessing on Mary; firstly in her preeminent place among women; then for her motherhood of the Messiah, and finally for her belief in God’s promise. (Luke 1:39-45)

This journey of some 80 miles, by tradition to Ein Karem south of Nazareth and near Jerusalem, results in the mutual affirmation of these two women of their place in God’s plan; having listened and believed in God’s message to them alone, now they listen to each other. Mary remained with Elizabeth, presumably until John was born and then makes the journey north back home. Here she remains until she sets off on the 120 mile journey to Bethlehem with Joseph to comply with the census registration requirements. The third and fourth journeys.

The fifth is that of the shepherds from their rural encampment and night-time guarding of their flocks (Luke 2:8-20). Luke tells of shepherds who went to Bethlehem to see ‘this thing that has taken place’ – the birth of ‘a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord’ announced to them by the angels. Interestingly they went ‘with haste’ to Bethlehem, as Mary had gone ‘with haste’ to share with Elizabeth the revelation given to her.  When the shepherds told of the angels’ revelation all who heard it were astonished, though Luke is unclear who the ‘all’ are, but it seem to include Joseph and even Mary who were to be amazed also by Simeon’s words (Luke 2:33).

Astonishment or amazement though is the reaction that is shown later in response to the works of Jesus (Luke 5:26, 5:9, 8:56) and in some cases results in glorifying God (Luke 5:25); his words too (Luke 4:22), for they were spoken with authority (Luke 4:32). While the shepherds on returning to their flocks respond in ‘glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen’ (Luke 2:20), Mary the perfect recipient of God’s word, remains treasuring these most recent events, reflecting on God’s words and deeds in her heart (Luke 2:19).

Time to be on the road again for this sixth journey, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. In this account Luke conflates two separate ceremonies, the presentation and redemption of the first-born son as required in the traditions of Passover (Exodus 13:15) and the purification of a mother forty days after giving birth (Leviticus.12:1-8). Additional to the purpose of this journey is the encounter with Simeon and Anna, the two aged saints who prove to be sentinels for the Messiah, recognising Jesus through the help of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Joseph now listen to Simeon’s declaration (Luke 2:29-32) about his own life now that he has seen the light of salvation for all peoples, both Gentile and Jewish. The unwelcome message of suffering is heard by Mary and Joseph, a double expression of the necessity of suffering in the mission of the Messiah and of the encounter by the disciples of Jesus with suffering in their pursuit of gospel life. Anna too greets and proclaims the advent of God’s Messiah. (Luke 2:38)

‘When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.’ (Luke 2:39) the seventh journey. Apart from just noting it here, Luke’s Gospel does not include the flight to Egypt and only in due time does the Family return to Nazareth. For that account it is necessary to go to St. Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23)

Now settled in Nazareth, Jesus grows, is educated not just in the Law and the writings of the prophets and the history of his people, but in some of what became the rabbinic stories, the Talmud (oral teaching), the midrash (interpretations). We can also presume that he is apprenticed to Joseph as carpenter, and that there are the annual trips to Jerusalem (Luke 2:41) ‘Now every year his parents…’

Since Simeon spoke his prophecy 12 years have passed, each of which the Family went to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. When he was 12 years old, as a devout family they went together as normal. Luke’s gospel begins and ends (Luke 24:53) in the Temple but it also provides a constant background through the ministry of Jesus. Within this account we have not one (my eighth) but four journeys.

i. The Family to Jerusalem,

ii. & iii. Mary and Joseph’s departure and return after three days – for the reader a hint of the future resurrection – he was found in the Temple, already showing the wisdom that he would personify throughout his ministry (Luke 11:31). By contrast however with Luke 20:1 when his authority is now challenged.

Finally the fourth leg of that final journey iv. The Family’s return to Nazareth (Luke 2:51). That journey complete, ‘[He] was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.’ There is here a similar reaction with the neighbours of Elizabeth (Luke 1:66) at the birth of John. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour. (Luke 2:51-52) 

Luke tells us no more until he pictures for us Jesus at prayer, 18 years later after receiving the baptism of John (Luke 3:21). That journey to John is the ninth and last in this exploration of Jesus’ journeys, and very much concludes the infancy narrative of Luke. It marks the beginning of the public ministry; but I am getting ahead of myself.

There is one final journey that Luke recounts within the first three chapters of his gospel and that is not of angels, Mary and Joseph, or of Jesus, but of John the Baptist whom we are told (Luke 1:80) ‘grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness (Bethany beyond the Jordan (John 1:28) north of the Dead Sea) and about 25 km almost due East of where he was born (Ein Karem) until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.’  (Luke 1:80) He is there and awaiting the public appearance of Jesus (Luke 3:21) those 30 years after the birth of these two children.

Additionally there are the inner journeys made by the people of the Infancy Narrative of St. Luke, such as Mary’s coming to an understanding of the identity of her son as ‘Son of God’ and his mission that would bring about the ‘falling and rising of many…’ (Luke 2:34) Mary shares with others the path from non-understanding to understanding. That is a path and a journey we are all called to follow if we are to make that listening journey with the Church, and have Jesus accompany us. (cf. Luke 24:13ff).

The Rt. Rev’d Peter M. Brignall is the Bishop of Wrexham, Chair of the God who Speaks Initiative; a member of the Liturgy Committee of the Bishops’ Conference Department for Christian Life and Worship; and is currently the Chair of CaTEW.