In last year's Episco-fact around Christmas, this feature stated there are two different Christmas stories. What are those differences and how do they impact our faith?
We can never know precisely the history of Jesus' birth. The usual standards by which we judge history are not available to us when dealing with the Incarnation. The very fact that the church claims that Jesus embodied the second person of the Trinity is untestable by historical standards. History is just not capable of evaluating the spiritual reality of our claims. That means we must apply faith and discernment to the stories in Luke and Matthew about the events surrounding Jesus' coming into the world. And these spiritual and faith statements are important and profound.
The story in Luke, the one we read on Christmas Eve, concerns Joseph, Mary, Shepherds, and Angels. But the whole cycle of stories begins with the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist, and the telling of his tale parallels the telling of the Jesus tale, with angelic visitations and strange events beginning in Jerusalem but continuing in and focusing on Galilee. It is not until the birth of Jesus himself that Luke brings the reader back into the territory of Judea with the birth at Bethlehem. Historically speaking, the attestation of Jesus as being from Nazareth, and hence the area of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was dispersed in the 8th Century B.C.E., is much better than the Bethlehem birth. Again, Luke's intention is to affirm Jesus as a descendent from King David's family, if not directly, at least from one of the tertiary branches. Whole sections of Old Testament prophecy make this connection important. And Bethlehem and Jerusalem are crucial locations for this part of the story.
Matthew, on the other hand, starts his tale in Bethlehem. There is no mention of travel to that place and when the Magi arrive, they find Jesus at home (see 2.11). It is after Jesus is born and the Magi leave that the journeying begins, in what seems like a trip that parallels the journeying of the people of the Old Testament as Jesus is taken to Egypt by Joseph and Mary to avoid Herod's persecution. It is after the death of Herod the Great that Joseph and Mary return to Israel (the Northern Kingdom and not Judea, the southern kingdom of the ancient lands of the people of the Lord), like the Israelites did after escaping from Pharaoh. Thus, Matthew settles the family in Nazareth of Galilee even though they are not originally from that region. Again, the story is a tale of faith, which does not preclude historical truth, even if the history is not precisely verifiable. More important is Jesus' his genealogy, from the line of David, heavenly messengers, Mary's pregnancy by the Holy Spirit, and the recognition of the Magi's need to pay him obeisance upon meeting him. He was a child destined to important things.
A great deal of information is related to the reader by Matthew and Luke, information that carries the message that God is active in history, that God is never far away, that Jesus was special and different from other humans, while also being like other humans, and that God was doing a new thing, but not a thing which we should be surprised by.