Infancy Narratives Seals One of Pope's Finest Gifts to the Church

Author: Kevin M. Clarke


Infancy Narratives Seals One of Pope's Finest Gifts to the Church

Something for Everyone in Last of 'Jesus of Nazareth' Series

By Kevin M. Clarke

SAN DIEGO, California, 4 DEC. 2012 (ZENIT)
In completing his literary series on Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict XVI seals one of his finest and perhaps most enduring gifts to the Church. 

Because of the timeless newness to these inimitable reflections, our coheirs to the kingdom will doubtless be reading these volumes long after we are in our tombs. With the second installment of the Jesus of Nazareth series, Pope Benedict gave Catholics plenty of food for thought for the Lenten season. His third installment similarly gives much for meditation for Advent. 

Media misreading

On the day of the book's release, headlines everywhere announced the war Pope Benedict had allegedly waged upon the nativity scene and Christmas carols. Reading the text would of course show just the opposite. Some media outlets published the following quote to bolster their argument: "No nativity scene will give up its ox and donkey." The actual quote in the book is "No presentation of the crib is complete without the ox and the ass" (p. 69).

Ironically, the media's voracious appetite for papal controversy helps shed light on an interesting point of dialogue: Catholic interpretation of Scripture. In looking at what the Pope actually said, it is clear that Old Testament prophecy and iconographic tradition affirm the actual presence of the animals at the manger scene, even if the Gospel writers did not mention them. And because Tradition understands that the angels' speech is song, we know that they were truly singing praise to God even if the evangelist did not specifically mention this (for more on this from me, see my Nov. 30 column in First Things online). Thanks to the media-induced confusion, this point of the faith is perhaps better understood today: Tradition interprets sacred Scripture.

To the media, I would say, "Hurry up and slow down!" Pope Benedict is a complex thinker, an erudite theologian, a gifted writer — one of the most brilliant minds of our era. His words are best with a robust red wine and a quiet place. This seems to explain why the media so often gets him wrong. So eager they are to execrate Pope Benedict and latch onto whatever controversy they can harvest — as they did with Regensburg and with "Light of the World" — their biases shine forth in sharp relief. This is one of those moments. Fortunately, even if they are not running corrections, they are receiving a very public one, first from Reuters, then from L'Osservatore Romano, and other English-speaking publications. 

If they were looking for a newsworthy nugget from the book, they sure missed one. Perhaps his sharpest zinger is not pointed toward the Nativity scenes but toward certain theological praxis in academia. When the chief priests and scribes answer the wise men with the correct geographical and theological information about the coming of the Messiah, the Pope observes, "It is remarkable that [Herod's] Scripture experts do not feel prompted to take any practical steps as a result. Does this perhaps furnish us with the image of a theology that exhausts itself in academic disputes?" (p. 105). It may be tempting to read into this text, presuming that he is making a reference to this or that controversy with various theologians over the years. But the text is not as ambiguous as it may seem, as it refers to a specific problem that exegetes face within academia: the temptation not to be utterly transformed by the saving knowledge at their fingertips.

Christology of "Infancy Narratives"

As a poignant segue into the subsequent sections, some in the media seemed flummoxed that the Pope would affirm Catholic belief in the virgin birth. Ironically, they prove a point he makes in that section of the book: "There are two moments in the story of Jesus when God intervenes directly in the material world: the virgin birth and the resurrection from the tomb ... These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit" (p. 56). The virgin birth is a great mystery that not only reveals the identities of Jesus and Mary, but God himself. It gets to the heart of the question of Jesus' divine origin and of the power of God over the material world. Christ's origins are inextricably tied with his mother. And the miraculous virgin birth is an important testament to his divine origin. His reflections on this topic counteract the modernist reductionism that removes the miraculous from the narrative of salvation history.

The book starts off with a beautiful Christological reflection on the known and unknown origin of Jesus. Pope Benedict compares the genealogies of Matthew and Luke, bringing out their theological value, in Matthew's case, and eschatological value, in Luke's. Turning to the Gospel of John, the Pope points out that Jesus is the Eternal Word of the Father; "Jesus is, so to speak, the tent of meeting" (p. 11).

The name of Jesus, Paul tells us, is the name at which every knee must bend (cf. Phil 2:5-11). The Pope points out that his name means, "YHWH is salvation" and that the angel says Jesus "will save his people from their sins." About Christ's divinely given name, the Pope says, "On the one hand, then, a lofty theological task is assigned to the child, for only God can forgive sins. So this child is immediately associated with God, directly linked with God's holy and saving power. On the other hand, though, this definition of the Messiah's mission could also appear disappointing. ... The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much because it trespasses upon God's exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel's concrete suffering or its true need for salvation" (pp. 42-43).

Many in Israel thought that the Messiah would lead a political uprising, thus restoring the kingship of Israel. But in Jesus himself, even programmed into his origin by his name, is revealed the true yoke of oppression that God's people bear: that of their sins. It is from sin, rather than from Romans, that the people need liberation.

Marian meditations

As expected, there is a wealth of Mariology to be found in these pages; she was, after all, with Jesus from beginning to end. When he promulgated the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict gave us Mary as a model for imitation, to whom he has entrusted the year. "Infancy Narratives" will help believers understand the depth of her mystery.

Pope Benedict picks up with a theme of his earlier works — that the angelic greeting designates Mary as "daughter of Zion." The word rejoice (χαῖρε) is the same as in Zeph. 3:14-17, in which the prophet writes that Lord "is in your womb." She is the tent in whom he dwelt, which is further brought out by the word "overshadowed," which calls to mind the shekinah glory cloud (p. 29). As "daughter of Zion," she is also an image of the Church, particularly in her interiority and because she "keeps God's word in her heart and passes it on to others" (p. 126).

Among his most beautiful meditations upon Our Lady, Pope Benedict invokes St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who speaks of all of creation waiting eagerly for her "yes." God has created man free, and to that extent he is "dependent upon man" to accomplish his will (p. 36). 

Later, in the presentation in the temple, he reflects upon the sword of sorrow that will pierce Mary's soul. He says that like "the God who suffers with men" the Mater Dolorosa is "an iconic image" of the Christian attitude toward suffering: "From Mary we can learn what true com-passion is: quite unsentimentally assuming the sufferings of others as one's own" (p. 87).

Food for academics

Though "Infancy Narratives" is accessible to a wide range of readers, Pope Benedict clearly addresses exegetes, historians, scientists and the like in this text. Benedict gave window into his approach toward exegesis and his hermeneutic of history in a number of places. For example, in discussing the birth of Christ in a cave that was being used as a stable, he states, "Local traditions are frequently a more reliable source than written records" (p. 67). In this context, the presence of the Church of the Nativity bears witness to the historical credibility of Christ's birthplace in the Bethlehem cave. Elsewhere, concerning source criticism, contrary to "modern 'critical' exegesis," the Pope affirms the Marian source for Luke. He points out that the evangelist speaks of her "pondering" the angelic words, which he otherwise would not have known unless Mary were somehow a Gospel "source." He also defends the "late emergence" of Marian traditions, saying, "the sacred events of her early life could not be made public while she was still alive" (p. 16).

Those in other fields of study may wish to read intently the Pope's reflections on the identity of the magi. He points out that in the ancient world the identity of the magus could carry a wide range of meaning: from philosophical religious leaders to "possessors and users of supernatural knowledge and ability, magicians, and finally deceivers and seducers." He contrasts the magi who visited Jesus with the magus of the Acts of the Apostles, the former at the service of the divine, the latter in opposition to God. The Pope notes through these different men "the ambivalence of religion in general," which can either be a path to God or a machination of the demonic. The magi who found Jesus were led by a star, however they were not only astronomers, the Pope points out, but "wise" men. He notes that from their search for truth, they symbolize wisdom's task of purifying science's message: "the rationality of that message does not remain at the level of intellectual knowledge, but seeks understanding in its fullness, and so raises reason to its loftiest possibilities" (p. 95).

One of the important lessons in the story of the magi: The whole cosmos proclaims the good news. In the ancient world, people believed that the stars directed their fates. But when the magi came to adore, "astrology came to an end," the Pope says, referencing St. Gregory Naziazen. The heavenly bodies were not the gods after all, but luminaries arranged by the God, and they point the way to his Son. Cosmological evangelization — beautiful! What's more, "it is not the star that determines the child's destiny, it is the child that directs the star" (p. 101). 

In sum, the overarching theme of the reflections about the magi is that the scientific search for truth is meant to be at the service of God, if it is to be true to itself. This is one of the strongest calls that echoes forth from "Infancy Narratives."

Rather than wax melancholic that another Jesus of Nazareth text is not on the horizon, there remains much to anticipate. Theological treasures can be found in his homilies, messages, and audiences. Reports indicate that an encyclical on faith is on the horizon. And who knows? Perhaps he has another set of volumes in him. If three books on Jesus of Nazareth, why not one or two on his bride, the Church, from this master ecclesiologist? Those who follow the thought of Pope Benedict can only hope for more. Whether he continues to write books, the Jesus of Nazareth volumes (plus this "antechamber") will stand out as the apogee of the immense corpus that is his life's work.

* * *

Kevin M. Clarke is an adjunct professor at John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego, California, and a teacher at JSerra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano. He is the author of a chapter on Benedict XVI's Mariology in "De Maria Numquam Satis: The Significance of the Catholic Doctrines on the Blessed Virgin Mary for All People" (University Press of America, 2009), and is a recent contributor to the New Catholic Encyclopedia. 

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