Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI (translated by Philip J. Whitmore). New York: Image, 2012.
Summary: A study of the gospel accounts of the annunciations, the infancy, and boyhood of Jesus of Nazareth.
I read this over the Christmas holiday and found this a wonderful study on the narratives surrounding the birth of Christ. The work, by Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) combines careful scholarship with devotional reflectiveness that evidences deep reflections on the details of these gospel texts in Matthew, Luke, and John. What follows are some of the details I had either not noticed or thought about in the ways Benedict describes.
The work is the final volume in the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth series. He begins with the question of the identity of this infant, posed in John 19:9 by Pilate. He notes the differing geneologies of Matthew and Luke and their purposes emphasizing the fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic promise, and Luke’s which emphasizes the one who represents all of humanity. One lovely detail was the focus on the four women in Matthew’s geneology, none of whom were Jewish and all considered “sinners” yet through them came this child,
The second part covers the annunciation narratives, comparing and contrasting them. I had not thought before of John’s descent from a priestly line, the forerunner of a new priesthood inaugurated in Jesus. I also appreciated the focus on Mary’s response of seeking understanding, holding the word in her heart, and her “yes” to God. Benedict suggests that in one sense, she conceived this child through her ear, taking in Gabriel’s (and the Lord’s) word. Benedict also affirms the historicity of the virgin birth and links this to the resurrection as the two great miracles of Christianity.
Benedict then turns to the actual birth of Jesus and his presentation in the temple. Again, his attention to small, yet meaningful details struck me: the manger for the one who would be our bread, our food, the birth of the son of David among shepherds, and the angelic announcement. Benedict translates “men of good will” as “those with whom God is pleased,” which he connects to the Father’s statement about his beloved Son, with whom he is “well pleased.”
The last portion focuses on the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt. He discusses their identity and the star. He then makes the observation that the star (or confluence of heavenly bodies) brought the Magi to Jerusalem but they needed the scriptures, God’s revelation, to help them find the child in Bethlehem.
This short work ends with an epilogue discussing Jesus remaining behind in the temple as a twelve year old. Benedict observes the reply to Mary’s “your father and I were looking for you.” Jesus says, “didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house.” Even here is a hint of his divine-human awareness, that it is God and not Joseph who is his father. Benedict goes on to discuss the idea that Jesus must be there–a sense of his mission, and a foreshadowing of the other “musts” that would take him to the cross.
While Benedict shows his awareness of the biblical scholarship and discussions around these texts, he does not allow scholarship to overtake theological reflection on the finer details of the text. One has the sense of being invited to stop and take a closer look with him, a look that leads to wonder and joy, which Benedict would observe is a good translation of the word for “Hail!” As I write, the season of Christmas has not yet passed. And even if you cannot read it this year, then have it on hand for next Christmas.