Pontiff takes thoughtful look at Christ's origins

The publication of a new book or encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI is a happy occasion for those who actually read his writings. For some in the media, however, it is apparently a chance to run loose and wild with the facts — or without them, as the case might be. The recent publication of “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” (Image, $20) led to some curious headlines: “Killjoy pope crushes Christmas nativity traditions” and “Pontiff busts myths in book Jesus of Nazareth” (The Daily Mail); “Pope’s book on Jesus challenges Christmas traditions” (CNN.com); and “Pope’s cribbing on manger myths won’t dampen our festive spirit” (Irish Independent) (See related story, Pages 7-8). These were soon followed by a round of articles trying to set the record straight, and thus the narrative was set. 

It would be quite unfortunate if anyone was dissuaded from reading the pope’s new book because they thought it small-minded, contentious or reactionary. It is none of these things, which is not surprising in the least, as Joseph Ratzinger is not just one of the finest theologians of the past 50 years, but is also a wonderful writer who brings a winning combination of warmth, clarity, humility and occasional touches of wry humor to the page. 

Thoughtful reflection

For those who have not yet read any of the “Jesus of Nazareth” books, this will be a perfect place to start, in part because it begins with, well, the beginning — the birth and early life of Jesus Christ — but also because it has a more conversational tone and a less dense approach than the first two “Jesus of Nazareth” books. 

Jesus of Nazareth

The first volume, “From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration” (Doubleday, 2007), was almost 400 pages long and took on the topics of the baptism of Jesus, his temptation in the desert, the Sermon on the Mount and various parables and discourses. The second, “Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection” (Ignatius Press, 2011), was nearly as long, but even more focused, delving deeply into the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Those works engaged directly with the thought and writings of other (mostly European) theologians and scholars. This third volume does as well, but not as often. Pope Benedict certainly interacts with other theologians (again, nearly all European), but there is a more reflective quality to the text. “The Infancy Narratives” may be short and accessible, but it is a work of deceptive simplicity, with its many insights emerging quietly in a series of vignettelike sections. 

The pope, in fact, states in the foreword that the book “is not a third volume, but a kind of small ‘antechamber’ to the two earlier volumes … ” His goal is to “interpret what Matthew and Luke say about Jesus’ infancy at the beginning of their Gospels.” He then notes that good exegesis, or interpretation of the texts, requires attention to historical facts and issues, as well as then asking questions such as, “Is what I read here true?” and “Does it concern me?” This is the two-pronged approach necessary in entering “into dialogue with the texts,” an approach that has long marked Benedict’s reading and interpretation of Scripture.

Connecting crib and cross

The book has four chapters and an Epilogue. The second chapter is on the annunciation of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus; the third on the birth of Christ; the fourth on the wise men and the flight into Egypt; the epilogue discusses the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple. The first chapter, notably, begins not with the Gospels of Matthew or Luke, but with the Gospel of John. It is similar to how Verbum Domini, Pope Benedict’s 2010 postsynodal apostolic exhortation on the Word of God, began by stressing that the Prologue to the Fourth Gospel would be “a guide” for the rest of that lengthy and impressive document. In “The Infancy Narratives,” it is John 18, which describes Jesus’ encounter and exchange with Pontius Pilate, serving as the starting point. “Where are you from?” asked the Roman judge of Jesus, wanting “to understand who he really is and what he wants.” 

This question about Jesus’ true origins, Pope Benedict emphasizes, is found in key passages in both the Fourth Gospel and the three Synoptic Gospels. All four texts were written to answer the questions: “Who is Jesus? Where is he from?” From there, the pope moves into an engaging discussion of the genealogies presented by Matthew and Luke. Each genealogy points purposely to the end of the Gospel. What is established from the start is Pope Benedict’s intent to show how the birth and death of Jesus Christ are intimately connected, and how the Incarnation and the Passion are not merely two episodes in salvation history, but are part of a cohesive whole that is “present from the beginning: the universality of Jesus’ mission is already contained within his origin.” 

In other words, there is one Story, and unless we see the outlines of that startling mystery, we cannot rightly gauge, appreciate, and consider the many events and details within it. For example, the second chapter concludes with the observation (drawn from Protestant exegete Karl Barth) that God’s direct interventions in the material world “in the story of Jesus” consist of “the virgin birth and the resurrection from the tomb.” These two moments, Pope Benedict further notes, “are a scandal to the modern spirit” as well as “the cornerstones of faith.” And in the following chapter, on Jesus’ birth, he points out the “child stiffly wrapped in bandages is seen as prefiguring the hour of his death … The manger, then, was seen as a kind of altar.” This orientation to the Cross is summed up perfectly in the Epilogue: “The closer one comes to Jesus, the more one is drawn into the mystery of his Passion.”

Biblical perspective

Harkening back to Pope Benedict’s second point about exegesis — how does this concern me? — one is struck by the pope’s gift for observing the present age and critiquing its errors and weaknesses from a deeply biblical perspective. After discussing the historical accuracy and validity of Luke’s history (in both his Gospel and in Acts of the Apostles), he dryly writes that the Evangelist, “in any case … was situated much closer to the sources and events than we could ever claim to be, despite all our historical scholarship.”  

Remarking upon the reign of Caesar Augustus and the Pax Augusti, he notes that politics “retains its own sphere of competence and responsibility. And yet when Caesar claims divine status and divine attributes, politics oversteps its boundaries and makes promises that it cannot deliver.”  

And when discussing how Christ “remains a sign of contradiction today,” Pope Benedict points out how “God himself is constantly regarded as a limitation placed on our freedom … ” So, while God is love, “love can also be hated when it challenges us to transcend ourselves” and embrace the “anguish of the Cross.” He acknowledges that Jesus is today often “presented as a liberal or a revolutionary.” But this misunderstands the freedom of Jesus, which “is not the freedom of a liberal” but the “freedom of the Son, and thus the freedom of the truly devout person.”

Pondering Jesus’ words

There is much more: The many connections made between the Old Testament and the infancy passages, the insights into the personalities of Mary and Joseph, the analysis of key words, and thoughtful consideration of questions about historical dates, persons, events, and other details.  

Yet there is always humility: “Again and again, Jesus’ words exceed our rational powers.” Like Mary, Pope Benedict exhorts that we are to keep the words of Jesus in our heart, pondering them and letting them come to maturity. It is “quite apparent,” he writes in conclusion, that Jesus Christ “is true man and true God, as the Church’s faith expresses it.”  

Yes, the pope does challenge traditions and debunk myths, but they are the traditions of skepticism and the myths of materialism and modernism. Good riddance and Merry Christmas! 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.