As I opened window 10, I had to squint to see a small angelic figure holding a book-the traditional Christian symbol for Matthew, the gospel writer. Although Christmas conjures images of angels, the Matthew sign isn't an angel. His symbol is a human being with wings.
Since ancient times, the church has symbolized the four evangelists-Matthews, Mark, Luke, and John-with the figures of a person, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. These symbols are taken from the book of Revelation 4:6-8:
Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a LION, the second living creature like an OX, the third living creature with a face like a HUMAN face, and the fourth living creature like a flying EAGLE. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, 'Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.'
The human creature represents Matthew because his story depicts the most profoundly human Jesus of all the evangelists. The gospel of Matthew is the great book of the incarnation, the theological concept that God became a human being and dwelt with us. The incarnation, the embodiment of God, is the central theme of Matthew.
In the first chapter of the book, Matthew identifies Jesus as the son of Abraham, born of Mary, and named Immanuel, or "God with us." He will grow up to be an anointed teacher, prophet, and king, the long-awaited One of Israel.
Matthew clearly intended for his readers to understand Jesus as a new Moses, a teacher and prophet who came to "fulfill the law." Like Moses, Jesus went up a mountain to give the law-the Beatitudes-the new commandments of the church. But Jesus will be Moses and even more than Moses at the same time.
Of the new Moses, theologian Robin Griffith-Jones says, "Who, then, must this new lawgiver be? Here is a strange, enigmatic figure. He clearly recalls Moses, and yet he seems to fill the role of Israel, too, and in the most awesome of connection, the role of God himself." Very human and very God.
Matthew's story of Jesus is human. Yes, human. Yet more than human. "Strange, enigmatic," the one who raises more questions perhaps than he answers. The Jesus of Matthew's gospel is "God with us," a holy mystery that continues to awaken wonder. As early Christian bishop Irenaeus of Lyon would later say, in words that echo Matthew's tale, "The glory of God is the human being fully alive."
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) wanted to open her Advent calendar in community this year, and she is sharing her daily reflections with Sojourners readers online. She is the author of the forthcoming A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (March 2009).