There can be no denying it: There are very significant differences between the Nativity story given in Matthew’s account of the Gospel and that given in Luke’s. However, though the differences are great, they are by no means irreconcilable – in fact, we can see a marvelous harmony between the two accounts: Matthew tells us of St. Joseph’s experience, while St. Luke tells us of Mary’s.
First let’s point out the differences in the two accounts: First, there are differences in the genealogies (Matthew’s being of Joseph, while Luke’s is secretly of Mary). Second, there are differences in the angelic salutations. Third, there are differences in what happens immediately before and after the birth of Christ. Fourth, there are differences regarding who is present at and shortly after the Nativity.
However, there are also some important points of identity: First, the basic historical circumstances (the time and place of the birth) are identical. Second, both agree Joseph and Mary were betrothed when she conceived the Child. Third, in both accounts, the Christ Child is the Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit. Fourth, Joseph and Mary were together when the Child was born.
Obviously, there are many more points of difference (notice, I say “difference” rather than “contradiction”) and also of identity, but those listed suffice for our purpose. We now turn to consider the Harmony of the Christmas narratives - A Gospel "harmony" is the stringing together of various Gospel accounts to show that they are indeed true accounts of one unified and continuous narrative.
The Accounts of the Nativity
It will be helpful to list very clearly the differences between the accounts of the Nativity in Matthew and Luke.
Joseph finds Mary to be with child.
Joseph hears of the Incarnation from an angel.
The Child is born.
The Magi, led to the Child by a star, adore him. This occurs in a house in Bethlehem. They return to their land without telling Herod.
Joseph takes Mary and the Child and flees to Egypt to avoid the Slaughtering of the Innocents.
After Herod’s death, being instructed by an angel, Joseph takes his family and returns to Israel, going to Nazareth in order to avoid Herod’s son.
The angel Gabriel announces the Incarnation to Mary.
Mary visits Elizabeth and remains with her for three months before returning to Nazareth.
On account of the census called by Augustus, Joseph takes Mary to Bethlehem.
The Child is born in a stable in Bethlehem, because there was not room at the inn.
The shepherds, beckoned by an angel, come Christmas night to worship the Child.
On the eighth day, the Child is circumcised and named Jesus.
About forty days later, Jesus is received in the Temple by Simeon and Anna.
When Mary was first betrothed to Joseph, she spoke to him of her deep desire to consecrate herself to the Lord as a virgin. Joseph accepted this and the two vowed to live in married life without the carnal relations of a natural marriage. [This vow is witnessed to by Mary’s words to the angel, “How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”]
After their betrothal, but before Mary came into the house of Joseph, the angel Gabriel visited the Virgin and delivered the joyful news of the Incarnation (March 25th). At this point, Mary and Joseph both lived in Nazareth, this is where all these events took place. Joseph was not present and did not immediately learn of the Annunciation or the conception of the Child.
Again, before Mary came into the home of Joseph, she visited her kinswoman Elizabeth and remained with her for three months (at Ein Karen, near Jerusalem). Most of the Church Fathers are of the opinion that Joseph was not present at the Visitation – up to this point, he knows nothing of the Incarnation.
After staying with Elizabeth for three months, Mary returned to her home in Nazareth. Upon Mary’s return, either from her revelation or simply from careful observance, Joseph discovered that Mary was with child. He intended to divorce her quietly, but the angel told him in a dream that he need not be afraid to take Mary into his house. At this point, Joseph received the Virgin into his home.
About six months later, in the ninth month after the Incarnation (December 25th), Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem (near Jerusalem) on account of the census. It was here that the Christ Child was born.
Jesus was born in a stable, because the inn had no room.
That very night, the shepherds came and saw the Child as well as Joseph and Mary.
The next morning, or shortly thereafter, Joseph and Mary and the Child were received into a home in Bethlehem. [We know this, since the Magi visit the Child in a home, not in a stable]
Eight days later (January 1st), the Child was circumcised and given the name “Jesus”. This seems to have occurred in a private home, rather than in the Temple. It took place in Bethlehem.
Thirteen days later (January 6th) the Magi came to Bethlehem from a country in the East. It seems that the star appeared only on the night of the Nativity (and not before), hence the country must not have been in the Far East, but only a little to the east of Israel. [There is great diversity of opinion among the Fathers regarding the time of the appearance of the star and the country of the Magi]
On the fortieth day after the Nativity (February 2nd), Mary came to the Temple for her purification. It was at this time that the Simeon and Anna recognized the Messiah.
Shortly after this, the angel appeared to St. Joseph and told him to flee to Egypt. It was after this that the slaughtering of the Holy Innocents took place. Several (but less than twelve) years later, after Herod had died, Joseph, having received the instruction of the angel, returned to Nazareth. It was in Nazareth of Galilee that Jesus grew to adulthood.