Pope Benedict XVI’s The Infancy Narratives present us with five extraordinary models of faith, from whom we have much to learn and emulate on our own journeys towards God.
These five figures of faith are: Mary, St. Joseph, Anna, Simeon, and Zechariah. Each has something different and important to teach us about trusting in God’s promises, especially in those times when He seems so distant and his ways seem so far beyond our ability to comprehend them.
Mary at the Annunciation: Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ, Romans 10:17 says. In an essay written in the 1980s by the future Pope Benedict XVI, Mary was so attentive to the word of God that it comes to define her whole person: “Having become pure hearing, she receives the Word so totally that it becomes flesh in her.” In this, Mary is the prototype of all Christians who hear the good news and take it to heart.
This is something that is done through the exercise of her free will—it is an obedience of love and faith, not resignation to an impersonal fate or mere duty to destiny. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux said in a sermon on the Annunciation, the angel waits for Mary’s response, her “yes” to the Word, along with the heavens and the earth: “We too, O Lady, we who are weighed down by the sentence of condemnation, wait for the word of pity. … The whole world prostrate at your knees, waits for your consent; and not without reason; since upon your lips hangs the consolation of the unhappy, the redemption of the captives, the freedom of the condemned; in fine, the safety of the children of Adam, of the whole human race.”
We know how Mary responded. She gave yet total and unconditional surrender to the Word of God. The question is: how will we respond to God’s knock at the door to our hearts?
Mary after the Annunciation: Much of the focus on the Annunciation account has focused on Mary’s response in the moment. But what about afterwards? It took great faith not only to welcome the Word into her heart, but to commit to living it out in the hours, days, and years ahead, as Pope Benedict writes in his new book on the Infancy Narratives. “The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with the task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing round her. She must continue along the path that leads through many dark moments.” For Mary, this faith in the “luminous darkness of God’s inscrutable ways” takes her all the way to the Cross. As the Pope writes, “Jesus’ divine mission bursts through the boundaries of all human criteria and repeatedly becomes, in human terms, a dark mystery.” In other words: “The closer one comes to Jesus, the more one is drawn into the mystery of his Passion.”
Once again, Mary’s example becomes a challenge to us: Are we too willing to follow Christ all the way to the Cross? Are we prepared to surrender our worldly attachments, our temporal cares, our sighs and sorrows, our pride and our pleasures to Christ? Are we willing to bear the crosses that he has given to us?
Zechariah and doubt: If anything, Zechariah at first is a negative model of faith—an example of how not to respond to the good news. After hearing that is aged and barren wife Elizabeth will have a child, Zechariah responds with doubt instead of faith: How shall I know this? For his disbelief, he is stricken temporarily mute. The irony is that this is what Zechariah—a priest who was offering incense in the temple at the moment of his annunciation—apparently had been praying for, according to the account of Luke. As the angel said: Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. So perhaps his story is less a case study in pure doubt than a cautionary tale in making half-hearted prayers—in going through the motions, only half-believing that God will answer.
It’s no coincidence that the narrative almost immediately moves onto the Annunciation to Mary, who responded with faith. Now, the attentive reader may object that she too appears to respond in doubt when she asks, How can this be? But this isn’t an expression of doubt, it’s a question posed from the perspective of faith, according to St. Ambrose: “He [Zechariah] refuses to believe that which he says he does not know, and seeks, as it were, still further authority for belief. She avows herself willing to do that which she doubts not will be done, but how, she is anxious to know.”
Technically, Zechariah’s sin was seeking knowledge in order that he might believe. In a way, this is the original sin all over again—reaching for knowledge rather than resting faithfully in God. It also calls to mind’s Augustine’s statement that he believed in order to understand: understanding, which is true knowledge, follows from faith. Zechariah’s error was in trying to reverse that order.
Of course, the story of Zechariah is one that ultimately has a happy ending. His mutism is lifted with the Birth of John the Baptist and a chastised Zechariah expresses a deeper faith in God as a result. The old priest breaks out into a spontaneous canticle of praise, which concludes with these words: Through the bottomless mercy of our God, one born on high will visit us to give light to those who walk in darkness, who live in the shadow of death; to lead our feet in the path of peace.
Simeon, waiting for God: Simeon appears in the second chapter of Luke as a figure that stands in marked contrast to the other old man of the Infancy Narratives, Zechariah. Both are described as righteous, but, in Simeon’s case, he is also “devout,” a word which could be literally translated as aggressively pious: his was a faith and devotion that issued forth in action, even as he waited for God to act. Whereas Zechariah enters the temple by lot, Simeon came in the Spirit into the temple, according to Luke. His devotional habits were not rote acts, but emerged out of a heartfelt piety. When he finally sees Jesus and holds him in his arms, Simeon cries out: Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation. When Simeon cries out with joy, it really is the voice of Old Testament Israel that speaks—the nation that had been waiting so long for the Word, the nation that had been hoping against despair for its salvation.
Anna, ‘the model of a truly devout person’: The prophetess Anna, like Simeon, has been waiting to see the salvation of Israel. Her vigil, however, is more acutely temple-centered: She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer. Anna appears as a minor character in the story, but Pope Benedict, in his new book, sees her as an important and powerful figure of faith: “She is the model of the truly devout person. She is quite simply at home in the Temple. She lives with God and for God, body and soul. So she is truly a spirit-filled woman, a prophetess. Because she spends her life in the Temple—in adoration—she is there at the hour of Jesus’ appearing.”
St. Joseph, the just man: Mary’s husband is portrayed in Benedict’s new book as the embodiment of the Old Testament ideal of the righteous man. The gospel writer Matthew calls Joseph a “just man” in the mold of Psalm 1, according to Benedict: “He is like a tree, planted beside the flowing waters, constantly bringing forth fruit. The flowing waters, from which he draws nourishment, naturally refer to the living word of God, into which he sinks the roots of his being. God’s will is not a law imposed on him from without, it is ‘joy.’ For him the law is simply Gospel, good news, because he reads it with a personal, loving openness to God and in this way learns to understand and live it from deep within.”
This quality of personal righteousness is what led Joseph initially to seek a private divorce from Mary, rather than make a public example of her, after learning she had become pregnant. According to St. John Chrysostom, the penalty for adultery was not only a nasty public divorce, but also death. “But Joseph remitted both, as though living above the Law,” Chrysostom writes. In this, Chrysostom sees an anticipation of how Christ’s saving grace will transcend the law: “For as the sun lightens up the world, before he shews his rays, so Christ before He was born caused many wonders to be seen.”
It is this personal righteousness—this commitment to the law in love—that makes Joseph “inwardly prepared” for the “unexpected and humanly speaking incredible news” that is announced to him in a dream, according to Benedict.