Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Comments on the Readings for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Proper 4, Year B
1 February, AD 2009

The Sentence for today, like the Gospel passage, is a summary of the Lord’s ministry in Galilee. This doesn't give us such an easily caught theme as we have had in past weeks. In the Gospel reading itself we are prompted to consider the authority of Jesus.
Today and for the next two Sundays the Gospel readings are taken from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, verses 21-45. The events described in these verses all take place in a single day in Capernaum, a town on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee which is the centre of activity in Jesus’ Galilean ministry. It is not necessary to imagine that these events all happened on the same day in history: the passage is probably best seen as an ideal day in the ministry of Jesus, which contains examples of his activities: teaching, healing, praying, and the like (D. E. Nineham, St Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries).
No connection with the immediately preceding passage (the call of the first disciples) is noted in the text, but at least one night must have intervened, since it is now a Sabbath, and when Jesus called them the disciples were fishing and mending nets, which they would not have been doing on the Sabbath.
Twice in the passage the crowd marvel at Jesus because of his authority. We catch what it means to say that he taught with authority in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), where he contrasts “you have heard it said” with “but I say to you”. In this passage it has been explained that, unlike the scribes, Jesus spoke without citing various spiritual authorities in support of his teaching. Later the same crowd marvels because Jesus casts out a demon with a word, appparently without the solemn palaver usually associated with professional exorcists.
The question of how we are to understand the affliction which St Mark describes as being with “an unclean spirit” is one we cannot deal with here, but must refer to commentaries and studies of the Gospels. Of more immediate importance is to ask ourselves how we experience Jesus’ authority in our own lives, and what we do about it.
It is noteable that the demon names Jesus and cries “I know who you are, the Holy One of God!’ This reflects the belief that knowing someone’s name gave power over that person. “Jesus needs no counter-magic; it is nothing less than the power of God which works in him and a mere word from him will suffice” [Nineham, 75].
The First Reading
One of the reactions to Jesus' authority was to say “he is the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). This idea was based on this morning’s first reading, Deuteronomy 18:15-20. In vv 9-14 the Israelites had been forbidden to look for the aid of foreign gods, or resort to pagan divination, for the Lord will raise up a prophetic spokesman to reveal his will. This prophet will be like Moses, who was regarded as the fount of prophecy and the type of a true prophet (see Exodus 34:10-11). Although the text speaks of ‘a prophet ‘ the traditional nderstanding is that this means a line of prophets. So in the mediaeval commentary of Rashi we read “This means: Just as I am among you, from your brothers, so will He set up for you [another prophet] in my stead, and so on, from prophet to prophet.” However there is also a tradition that God would raise up a prophet in the future to herald the Day of the Lord. This tradition is found in the scriptures of the New Testament, particularly in John 1. 21 and 6:14, and Acts 3:22-23 (Peter’s sermon in the Temple) and 7:37 (Stephen’s defence).
The Epistle
In 1 Corinthians chapter 8. St Paul addresses a question from the Corintian congregation about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. The religions of the Greek and Roman world involved the regular sacrifice of animals. Only a portion of the meat was burnt; the rest was divided between the priests and the worshipper who had offered the victim. Often there was a feast in the temple, and often the priests’ portion was offered for sale. The problem for the new Christians at Corinth was whether eating in the feast or buying the sacrificial meat involved one in the worship of pagan gods. Opinion seems to have differed: some of the community felt that it was wrong to take part, while others argued that they were prefectly free to eat, since the idols were not real gods.
It is hard for us in Canada to understand the pressures that this question placed on Christians in the pagan world but Christians in other countries face serious questions about living in a culture based on different religious principles. An example is the question of the custom in many east Asian cultures referred to as “Ancestor worship”. [The word ‘worship’ seems problematic: In principle “worship” may be offered only to God. This is why some Christian traditions make clear distinctions between “worship,” “veneration,” and “reverence”. I have no idea what distinctions exist in other languages!] There is a large literature on this subject. Just a sample of what turns up in a web search is; ; ; .
In reading this passage, we should ask ourselves: Is anything in our society like this question of taking part in pagan worship in our society?
St Paul’s answer to the Corinthians is that what is important is not the individual’s knowledge that the idols are not real, but their concern for their fellow Christians. The basic principle is like that found in the question of sexual morality in the epistle a couple of weeks ago: the boundary of a Christian’s freedom is set by personal relationships with Christ as Lord and our fellow Christians as fellow members in him. It is here that Paul gives the rule of concern for “the weaker brother” (see also Romans 14.13—15:6).
The only comment I will offer on this principle here is the response King James I made when one of the puritan ministers at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 argued that the newly baptized should not be signed with the sign of the Cross, holding that it was an offence against the conscience of the weak Brethren. The King replied first with a tag (apparently from St Augustine) Distingue tempora, & concordabunt Scripturae, distinguish the times and the Scriptures will agree, pointing out the difference between between the Apostle’s time and ours: then the Church was “newly called from paganism and not thoroughly grounded”; this is not the case now “seeing that Heathenish doctrine, for many years, hath been hence abandoned.” His second point was to ask, “how long they would be weak? whether 45 years were not sufficient for them to grow strong?” [William Barlow, The Summe and Substance of the Conference (1604), pp. 65-66]. But again, one should refer to the commentaries.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Some Thoughts on the Third Sunday after Epipany
(Proper 3, Year B)
25 January AD 2009

Time got the better of me this week, and I have only been able to prepare a few notes, which I hope may be of use.
Once again our theme is vocation, God’s call to us. Unlike last Sunday, when we heard how the boy Samuel had to learn that the voice he heard in the night was God’s, and when he knew this he responded favourably, this week we hear part of the story of the prophet Jonah (3.1-5,10), who had no doubt that God was calling him, and ran as far as he could to escape the call
It is no longer generally accepted that the Book of Jonah is an historical document concerning Jonah, son of Amittai, who is mentioned in 2 Kings 14.25. However, this opinion is not the result of doubts about the miraculous elements in the book, such as the great fish, but on more mundane evidence of the language and style, which suggest a much later date.
Sgnificant use of Jonah is made in the Gospels: see Mt 12.38-41 and Lk 11.29-32.
Read today, the passage from Jonah prepares us for the summary of Jesus’ ministry in the opening of the Gospek passage, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel."
The climax of the passage, in which God changes his mind about the destruction of Nineveh, is teaching also found in Jeremiah (18.8; 26.1-3; 36.2-3: 2) and Ezekiel (18.21-22:): see also Joel 2.13-14.
The reading from 1 Corinthians (7.29-31) is on a different tack. In this brief snippet from a much longer discussion in which St Paul responded to matters that the Corinthian community had written to him, first matters of marriage. Addressing the unmarried, he says that because the return of Christ was fast approaching it would be better that no one change their condition. In the verses we hear this morning this is broadend to becone a statement of the doctrine of detachment: let “those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.” For, says Paul. “the form of this world is passing away”

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Thoughts on the Second Sunday after Epiphany
Proper 2, Year B
18 January, AD 2009
Dear Readers: My recent return to parish work, for all that it is part-time, along with some other part-time work is beginning to have an effect on the preparation of these notes. They will be thoughts spun off from the preparation of a weekly sermon and restricted by the time at my disposal. I have no idea whether these notes have been of much interest to any but one or two readers; I hope they will be as they become more and more a forum for developing ideas.
Ordinary Time
Advent and Christmastide, Lent and Easter are the major seasons of the Christian year and the Sundays within them have a distinct character. There are thirty-three or thirty-four other Sundays, depending on the year, which are known nowadays as Sundays of the Year, or Ordinary time. There are four to nine Sundays after Epiphany and before Lent, and the rest follow the Day of Pentecost.
On these “Days of the Lord,” Christians continue to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. First, they listen to what Scripture has to say about him in the Liturgy of the Word The Gospels for this Time are a semi-continuous reading of the three Synoptic Gospels providing a presentation of the Lord’s life and preaching. Those after Epiphany are concerned with the beginning of the Lord’s preaching and are related to his Baptism and first manifestation. Secondly, Christians commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection in the signs fo bread and wine. … [The New St Joseph Daily Missal {New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1986)]
No Sunday is ordinary, regardless of the terms we may use: every Sunday is the Day of Resurrection. Indeed, it is sometimes said that every Sunday is a “little Easter.” It is for this reason that it is important that all who are baptized into the Risen Lord gather on his day to celebrate, for his body is lacking when a member is absent.
The Readings: Epiphany II
The main theme of this second Sunday after the Epiphany is that of calling, which we meet in both the first reading and the Gospel. But it also has the theme of witness, for in the Gospel we hear that when Jesus said to Philip, "Follow me," Philip at once went to find Nathanael to tell him. The words he used, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote", weem to suggest that Philip and Nathanael had been wont to discuss these prophecies and their fulfilment. The same pattern of a call be Jesus and then seeking another took place just before this passage (1.35-42). Two disciples of John followed Jesus when John pointed him out as “the Lamb of God.” One of these disciples was Andrew, who “first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah," that is to say, the Christ.” This verse gives us the Sentence [Alleluuia verse] for today.
I have always believed that the idea of one’s calling cannot be separated from that of creation, which is why God created by calling things into being. This link might be seen in one of the verses of the Psalm today (139.1-6; 13-18), “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
We do not have the space to do justice to the idea of “finding,” which is another theme in the Gospel for today. Sometimes there is no doubt that the person who was found was being sought, as when Andrew found Simon or Philip found Nathanael; but other times it is not so clear, as when Jesus "found Philip". Ws he looking for him, or is this simoly a case where "fnd" means "to come upon"?
A preacher might well be tempted to gloss over the passage from the first Letter to the Corinthians (6.12-20), since talking about sex in a sermon is bound to upset somebody. It sometimes seems that some Christians think that sexuality is the only moral issue there is and all others think that it is not a moral issue at all. And fo all those who are offended at any hint of laxity, there are others who are upset at the suggestion that sexuality might be restricted by some law. In fact, thngs seem to have changed very little from St Paul's time! So are we read this passage it would be well to remember a few points.
~ St Paul seems to be addressing the opinion that sexuality is nothing more than a bodily appetite (which might be why he quotes the slogan “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach or food!”) and that out actions make no moral difference. He asserts, on the contrary, that such actions involve the whole person, and looks to the teaching that they make the two persons one flesh. Thus, the principal involved is that one’s freedom is to be judged in terms of one’s personal ties to another.
~ We must also remember that he seems to be discussing not we might call a “love affair” (without defining it further) but relations with a prostitute. Whether or not this raises the spectre of pagan religious practice, it is a very particular area of sexual conduct.
~ Finally, and of greatest importance, the whole passage works up to a fuindamentally important statement: You are not your own, you were bought with a price. It is from this idea that the very notion of .Redemption springs, for to “redeem” means in the first instance, “to buy back”. It would be a pity if we were so distracted by talk of sex that we did not ask ourselves just what this fact means to the whole of our life and to all the use of our time and resources. If one really believed “you are not your own” it would make so radical a change in life that any impact on sexuality would be trivial in comparison.
That’s all the time I have this week.
Redemption: The Etymology
Our word "redeem" is from the Latin verb emo, emere, emi. emptus, "to buy" (we know it today in the tag caveat emptor, "let the buyer beware"); with re, "back" we get redimere, redemptus, "to buy back, redeem, ransom," whence the noun redemptio, -onis, "a buying back", which c. 1340 is used in the sense of “deliverance from sin”. We still see something like the original sense in the expression “to redeem a coupon”

Friday, January 9, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord
Proper I, Year B

At Second Vespers of the Epiphany, the Antiphon on the Maginifcat of the Monastic Brieviary of the Order of the Holy Cross runs:
Today we celebrate three miracles: today the wise men followed the star, today the wedding water was made wine; today at Jordan the Lord was baptized for our salvation, alleluia
This in turn is adapted from the antiphon in the old Roman Breviary:

Tribus miráculis * ornátum diem sanctum cólimus : hódie stella Magos duxit ad præsépium : hódie vinum ex aqua factum est ad núptias : hódie in Jordáne a Joánne Christus baptizári vóluit, ut salváret nos, allelúja.

[From .]

Although on the day of the Epiphany the Western Church celebrates the visit of the Wise Men, it never forgot the complex of events traditionally remembered at Epiphany. This can be seen by from the readings appointed for Epiphany at the Office as well as the Eucharist: from the first Prayer Book of 1549 to that of 1662, the readings for Epiphany were:
Morning Prayer: Isaiah 60; Luke 3 (the Baptism)
The Holy Eucharist: Ephesians 3.1-12; Matthew 2.1-12
Evening Prayer: Isaiah 49; John 2 (The wedding at Cana)
The Canadian book of 1962 has only altered the Old Testament readings, providing Isaiah 49.1-13 in the morning and Isaiah 60.9-end in the evening.
More recent liturgical revisions have attempted to restore the Baptism of the Lord to greater prominence at the Epiphany without displacing the venerable association of that day with the Three Kings. Canada 1962, provided propers for the Baptism of our Lord (p. 119), for use “on any weekday in the Octave, or at a second service on the Epiphany." The Revised Common Lectionary agrees with the Roman Catholic revision in commemorating the Baptism of the Lord on the Sunday within the Octave of the Epiphany.

It is the words of the voice from heaven, You are my Son, the beloved, in you I am well pleased” that make the Lord’s Baptism an Epiphany, but this is not only an Epiphany of Christ as Son of God. The moment when Jesus came up from the water is also an Epiphany of God as Trinity (perhaps we need not coin the word Triadiophany). Indeed the late English Scholar Derwas Chitty suggested that the Baptism is the primary manifestation of the Trinity in the New Testament. In the moment that the Son rises from the waters of the Jordan the heavens open and the Spirit descends on him “like a dove” and the voice of the Father declares his good pleasure. The parallel to this scene in the opening verses of the creation story explain the choice of the first reading for today, in which the eyes of faith may also discern the Trinity. God, whose Spirit move over the watery abyss, creates by speaking (his Word). It should be noted that “like a dove” does not necessarily mean “in the form of a dove”; it could mean “as,” “in the manner of.” Before moving on, we may note Chitty’s words:
Moving upon the face of the waters in Creation, speaking by the Prophets, overshadowing the Blessed Virgin Mary at Nazareth, coming down in the form of a dove when the heavens were opened at Jordan, the Holy Spirit has the Incarnate Son as the goal of his work.
In addition to the comments provided at the Revised Common Lectionary Site of the Diocese of Montreal [] , we can note the following:
In the first reading, Genesis 1.1-5, in verse 2 the NRSV gives “while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” adding in a note that “while the spirit of God” and while a mighty wind” are also possible translations of the Hebrew. In English we distinguish “spirit”, “breath” “and “wind” in a way that makes it impossible capture the complex meaning of this verse. It is interesting to note, however, that both of the on-line translations of ther Torah by Jewish scholars that I know of render the word as “Spirit”. A comment by a mediaeval Rabbi is also to be noted:
The Throne of Glory was suspended in the air and hovered over the face of the water with the breath of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He and with His word, like a dove, which hovers over the nest, acoveter in Old French, to cover, hover over.
Psalm 29 sees the glory and power of the Lord declared in a geeat thunderstorm. It is clearly linked both to the first Reading and the Gospel in the words “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders; the Lord is upon the mighty waters.”
In the reading from Acts we pick up the themes of baptism and the gift of the spirit. There is also a reflection of the complex relations that seem to have existed between the followers of John Baptist and the followers of Jesus, a matter that should be noted for further study.
Unlike Matthew (3.13-15) and later Christian writers, Mark seems to see no difficulty in Jesus’ receiving John’s Baptism, which was a baptism of repentance. Wy did one who was sinless need to undergo an act of repentance. In answering the question whether it was convenient that Jesus be baptized, St Thomas Aquinas offers commenst from several Church Fathers:
It was convenient that Christ be baptized. First, because, as Ambrose says on Luke, The Lord was baptized, not desiring to be cleansed, but to cleanse the waters, that washed by the flesh of Christ who knew no sin, they might have the power [right] of Baptism, and so that he might leave the waters sanctified for those to be baptized afterwards, Second, as Chrysostom says on Matthew, Although he was not a sinner, he had still assumed the sinful nature, and the likeness of sinful flesh; therefore although he did not need to be baptized for himself, yet the carnal nature in others had need of it; and as Gregory Nazianzen says in Oratio 39, which is in the holy light from the middle, Christ was baptized, so that he might immerse the whole old Adam in water. Third, as Augustine says in the Sermon on Epiphany, because he wished to do what he has commanded must be done by all. For as Ambrose says, This is justice, that what you wish another to do, you first do yourself, to exhort by your example.
A further question which has come up in Christian tradition is why it was fitting that Jesus be baptized in the River Jordan. Why not the Red Sea, since “baptism was prefigured in the crossing of the Red Sea, where the Egyptians were drowned, just as our sins are blotted out in baptism” St Thomas answered thus, offering us some further scirptural parallels for reflection.

I answer that it was the river Jordan through which the sons of Israel entered the promised land. But the baptism of Christ especially has this above [or it has the prerogative above] other baptisms, that it leads into the kingdom of God, which is signified by the land of promise. Whence is said John 3.5, Unless one is reborn by water and the Holy Spirit, once cannot enter into the kingdom of God. To which also pertains [is to be referred] that Elijah divided the waters of Jordan, when he was to be taken up into heaven by the fiery chariot, as is said 2 Kings 2, because to wit the entrance into heaven is laid open buy the fire of the Holy Spirit to those who go through the waters of baptism, and so it was convenient that Christ be baptized in Jordan.

A further note on the Star of the Epiphany
In a useful 19th century work, Blunt’s Annotated Book of Common Prayer, is preserved an explanation of the star which is not widely known today:
Some authors have suggested, and it seems not improbable, that the “Star” which appeared to the Wise Men in the East might be that glorious light which shone upon the shepherds of Bethlehem when the angel came to give them the glad tidings of pour Saviour’s birth. At a distance this might appear like a star; or at least, after it had this shone upon the shepherds, might be lifted up on high, and then transformed into the likeness of a star. According to an ancient commentary on St Matthew. this star in its first appearance to the Magi, had the form of a radiant child bearing a sceptre or cross; and in some early Italian frescoes it is so depicted.

In a conversation the other day I was asked about the illustration on the cover of this week's bulletin at St Columba and All Hallows, which depicts John the Baptist carrying a cross from the top of which hangs a snake. The image refers to the Bronze serpent of Numbers 21.4-9, which is made a type of the uplifted Son of Man by our Lord in John 3:13-17. This symbol strangely reminds one of the fact that the pagan Caduceus, the wand of Hermes which is entwined by two serpents has come to be used as a symbol of medicine. In fact, the Caduceus has been confused with the traditional medical symbol, the rod of Asclepius, which has only a single snake and no wings. This means that the rod of Asclepius is an even closer parallel to the bronze serpent.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Lectionary Notes

Some Notes on the Epiphany
“We are still at the feast of Christmas, and this is, last and great day of the feast,” as John Cosin said at the start of a sermon on Epiphany at St Edward’s, Cambridge, in 1621.
“A feast of joy it has been all this while, but this day was given us that our joy might be full. They were tidings of joy that the Angels brought, a while since, to the shepherds, Jews, hard at hand; but when the glad tidings of the Gospel came abroad once to all the people, as this day they came so, then were they no more tidings of ordinary, but of great joy. 'Behold, I bring you tidings,' saith the Angel, but not to you alone; though to you, yet to others as well as you, 'which shall be to all people: Hitherto, then, it was Evangelizo vobis, vobis Judæis, but to-day it was omni populo; that now a Saviour was born unto us all, Which was Christ the Lord. And indeed this is our Christmas-day, that were Gentiles; for though Christ was born twelve days since in Jury, yet he came not abroad the world while now, and to us He seemed as yet unborn being but like a rich treasure in man's field, at this time not known to be so,) till He was this day manifested unto us in the persons of these Wise Men, the first fruits of the Gentiles.”
The relationship between the feasts of Christmas and Epiphany is a more complex matter than can be usefully set out in this space. For an adequate introduction to the question, see the Wikipedia articles
on Epiphany []
and Christmas Day [] and the references therein.
In the western Church the word Epiphany, which means appearing or “manifestation” is primarily associated with the visit of the Magi, wise men from the East, who were seeking the one “born King of the Jews” so that they could worship him. Hence the title of this day in the Book of Common Prayer, The Epiphany of our Lord; or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Other events which manifested Jesus as Son of God and Lord are also associated with the Epiphany, particularly his Baptism in the Jordan: in our Calendar the Sunday after Epiphany celebrates this event. The hymn Songs of thankfulness and praise (number 96 in the 1938 Book of Common Praise -- I do not know if it is in the more recent book) is helpful in setting out many of the moments of epiphany reported in the Gospels, and would be of some profit if committed to memory. The last line of each verse declares the theme of Epipany: “Anthems be to thee addrest, God in Man made manifest.

The Readings

As always, I recommend that you see the Comments and Clippings at the Montreal diocese' RCL commentary,
In Isaiah 60.1-6 the prophet exalts the city of Jerusalem to rise and shine, for its light has come and the Lord’s glory has shone upon it; her sons and daughters return. This light is not only for the exiles returned from Babylon; all the nations of the earth will come to the brightness. When we read this passage on apiphany we understand the light that has come to Jersualem as Christ himself (John 1.4-5). The coming of kings to the broghtness of her rising, and of the gifts of gold and frankincense brought on the camels of Midian cannot be separated in our from the account of the visit and gifts of the Magi.
Psalm 72.1-7, 10-14 is a prayer for God’s blessing on the king, and is traditionally associated with Solomon, son of David. The character of the king is like that of the coming Messiah: a judge of the peope and bringer of justice. The welsth of the nations will be brought to him by kings who will worship him: this again evokes the story of the Magi.
In the epistle passage, Ephesians 3.1-12, St Paul declares that God manifested himself in Jesus Christ not only to the Jews but to all the nations of the world, so that the Gentiles are now “fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v. 6).
Two points need to be made about the Gospel story of the Magi (Matthew 2.1-12). The first concerns the star. Much research has been done and much ink has been spilled in the pursuit of this star. Was it a nova? a conjunction of planets? a special star God put in the heavens just for this occasion? When we read what the Gospel actually says we must confess that the question cannot be answered, for there is not enough information. The magi say nothing of its size or brightness, or even that it led them to Jerusalem, only that they were searching for the one who was “born King of the Jews” because they had “seen his star at its rising” (or “in the east”). This suggests a star that astrologers associated with the house of Judah, or a star rising in a section of the sky associated with Judah, but tells us no more. The search for “the star” is a waste of time. It is more profitable to associate the star with the prophecy of Balaam in Nubers 24,
I see him, but not now;
I behold him, but not nigh;
a star shall come forth out of Jacob,
and a sceptre shall srise our of Israel …
The RCL notes suggest that the star of the Gospel story arose from this prophecy. However, an earlier commentator notes that “It is much more credible that there was some phenomenon to account for the story than that it arose mythically out of such a prophecy as Num 24.17. If it had, we should have expected some reference to that passsage to betray itself. But there may be mythical elements in the details of the story, as in ver 9.” There is no easy answer to any question of the historical background to these stories.
Nor is there any simple appraoch to the second point, which is that there really are reasons for wondering how historical the onfancy narratives are. It is not even at all clear that the stories of Jesus’ infancy in Matthew and Luke can be harmonized with each other. Matthew’s account seems to imply that Joseph and Mary originallt lived at Bethlehem and went to Nazareth later. As another commentator noted, “Our information respecting these primitive events is very imperfect. The magi saw Mary, but Joseph is not mentioned; the shepherds saw them both.”
The difficulty with these questions is that the scholars do not all agree: it is not at all like thephysical sciences, where an experiment can settle the point. So what are you, an ordinary, intelligent, person who is not a biblical scholar to do?
First off, rather than looking for one simple answer (a Yes or No), try to find what us the state of the question. That is, to find what most scholars think on the subject, and whether there are scholars who disagree. Good resources for this addressing question are the New Jerome Biblical Commentary and The Birth of the Messiah, R. E. Brown’s comentary on the infancy narratives.
Second, whatever decision we come to about these stories, we can be sure that Jesus was born and lived, and we can honestly celebrate his birth. That is surely the most important thing. The people who wrote the Gospels began with the Resurrection, and wrote to show that Jesus who was raised from the dead was the promised Messiah and Son of God. So whether or not we believe that every word of the infance stories is a fact, the important thing about them is that they declare to us who Jesus is, and show how the history of salvation prepared for his coming. Even more, we can use them as ways of coming to know him, so that his light can shine in us, and through us to the world. And that is the point of Epiphany.