The four gospels each have their own way of describing Jesus’ origins. Mark, the first of these to be written, begins his story at the Baptism of Jesus, with the voice from heaven proclaiming him and the Spirit descending on him. Joseph is never mentioned and there are only fleeting references to Mary. John goes right to the beginning, where as the Word Jesus co-existed with the Father and became man through the will of God. Only Matthew and Luke tell the story of the infancy of Jesus.
Matthew, the most Jewish writer of the gospels, gives an account from Joseph’s point of view. Perhaps this is to ensure that, in accepting the child legally, the descent from David is firmly established. Joseph’s role is to protect this family, when after the visit of the Magi, Herod ordered a massacre of all boys under two years of age. After the escape to Egypt all we know is that Joseph brought his family to Nazareth for safety.
Luke has by far the most detailed account of Jesus’ birth and early childhood, telling from Mary’s point of view the stories of the annunciation, the visit to Elizabeth and the birth in Bethlehem. Just as in Matthew, angelic appearances feature: that of Gabriel to Mary and the one to the shepherds. Luke also includes the presentation in the temple, when Anna and Simeon, prophetic figures, recognize the longed-for saviour.
Luke’s last infancy story has a very different style but perhaps it gives a more down-to-earth picture of the family in which Jesus grew up. Mary and Joseph are pictured as an ordinary devout Jewish family, taking their twelve-year-old son up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, as they did every year. They were naturally upset when they found he was not with them on their journey home. Mary reacted as any mother, chiding her son for treating his parents in such a way. Neither of them understood the words: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49) Luke skilfully entwines his narrative of the heavenly and prophetic revelations to the chosen few with that of the simple family of Nazareth, where our saviour spent his formative years.
Perhaps the words recounted in Mark’s gospel illustrate very clearly the way Jesus was seen in his community: “Is not this the carpenter, son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters with us?” (Mark 6:3) Clearly God chose that his Son should prepare for his ministry in a poor family, living in a small village which was an outpost of the Roman Empire, where no one seems to have seen anything remarkable in him.