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Public and Private

At last night’s session of the Understanding Christian Doctrine course I’m doing this term the take-home thought for me was a new lens to read the gospel stories; which of them were public events, with many witnesses, and which were smaller, private affairs? For example, the crucifixion was widely witnessed in Jerusalem, a significant urban centre at the time and packed with pilgrims there for the passover celebrations. Some of the details were only semi-public.  Jesus was arrested from among his disciples by a large contingent of guards but it was dark and late at night so, although seen by a good number of people, was not a public spectacle.

Finally, there are also many private stories shared. Christmas is still a little way off (although no so according to the supermarket shelves!) and we tend to think of the Nativity as a public story because we regularly experience public re-enactments. However, it was a family affair and, because of the circumstances, probably kept on the quiet more than most pregnancies. We are privileged to hear stories such as Gabriel announcing to Mary that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit, an incident for which she would have been the sole human witness.

Luke almost certainly got the information directly from Mary; possibly she had died by the time he began to circulate his history of Jesus and so it felt timely to open up intimate secrets from the family past to avoid them being lost. It seems odd to us that only Luke tells those bits of the story (Matthew has a different emphasis, more on the royal heritage of David’s line; John chooses a creedal masterpiece to open his gospel but doesn’t unpack all the history; Mark jumps immediately to the period when Jesus’ public ministry begins) but then we are used to the public reading and retelling of all the stories. This insight will certainly give me fresh eyes to review familiar stories.

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