Pope Benedict XVI’s last and third installment in his Jesus of Nazareth series, The Infancy Narratives, lives up to the expectations he established for readers in his previous works, combining remarkable clarity with deep theological insight that is the characteristic mark of all his writings.
Benedict offers a comprehensive assessment of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew that reflects the overarching Incarnational theme he announced at the beginning of his series: “What did Jesus actually bring, if not world peace, universal prosperity, and a better world? What has he brought? The answer is very simple: God.”
In this book—with its release well-timed for Advent—this theme emerges most clearly in Benedict’s treatment of the dream of Joseph, in which the saint is told that the name of the child will be Jesus, which means that “Yahweh is salvation.” The angel further tells St. Joseph that Jesus will “save his people from their sins.”
The passage, Benedict writes, anticipates the whole debate over what Jesus’ mission was: was He the temporal Messiah that had come to save the nation of Israel as widely expected? Was He the healer, the moralist, or the liberation leader that so many moderns want Him to be? Or did he promise a salvation of a different kind?
Benedict looks ahead to the story of the healing of the paralytic for answers. “The sick man’s very existence was a plea, an urgent appeal for salvation, to which Jesus responded in a way that was quite contrary to the expectation of the bearers and the sick man himself,” Benedict writes.
Jesus did not immediately heal the man of his bodily affliction. Instead, He first forgave him his sins.
“Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order,” Benedict writes. “This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him—if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you are not truly healed.”
Jesus promises a salvation that is entirely of another world—but it is one that has burst into this world in historically definitive way. “It was not with the timelessness of myth that Jesus came to be born among us,” Benedict writes. “He belongs to a time that can be precisely dated and a geographical area that is precisely defined: here the universal and the concrete converge. It was in him that the Logos, the creative logic behind all things, entered the world.”
This historicity of the infancy narratives is a theme that Benedict constantly harps on. The Annunciation to Mary, he writes, was not the creative retelling of the gospel writer, but an actual account the Mother of God must have shared with the evangelist. The account of the three wise men is historically credible, the star that guided them actually existed, and we have no reason to doubt that the slaughter of the newborns that Herod ordered after their visit actually happened, Benedict says.
God’s decisive intervention in human history is mostly clearly seen in two events, Benedict notes, citing 20th century scholar Karl Barth—the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection: “These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit: God is ‘allowed’ to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain—but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point: God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas.”
Benedict glides quickly through the Infancy Narratives in a book that, at 127 pages, is noticeably shorter than his previous two works. But his concision does not come at the expense of content. Despite the brevity of his work, Benedict manages to address most of the major issues one would expect in a book on this topic: the hidden meaning of the genealogies, the role of John the Baptist in preparing the way, the significance of the flight to Egypt, the parallels between Jesus and Caesar, among many others.
But the Pope curiously glosses over some aspects of the Infancy Narratives. Most notably, he refrains from any discussion of the second phrase in the Annunciation to Mary, the declaration that she is “full of grace.” Instead, Benedict dwells on the first word of the salutation—“Hail”—and its implications for the “theology of joy” before moving on to his treatment of the figure of Joseph (which is exemplary).
On the other hand, Benedict illuminates the hidden theology behind other aspects of the accounts that catch the reader off guard—such as his explanation of how the manger could be considered the Ark of the Covenant, the implications of the angelic message to the shepherds for Church’s teachings on grace and free will, and the foreshadowing of the Passion account in Jesus’ visit to the temple as a child.
Many of the Pope’s digressions end in theological gems like this one, at the end of a discussion about the profound Trinitarian implications of the fact that Jesus was the first born: “The concept of first-born takes on a cosmic dimension. Christ, the incarnate Son, is—so to speak—God’s first thought, preceding all creation, which is ordered toward him and proceeds from him. He is both the beginning and the goal of the new creation that was initiated with the resurrection.”
Benedict also has an extraordinary flair for drawing unexpected connections between details of the Infancy Narratives and contemporary concerns.
In a brief recounting of how King Herod and all Jerusalem were “troubled” at the Magi’s question about where the new King of the Jews had been born, Benedict turns the anecdote into a challenge to readers: “What from the lofty perspective of faith is a star of hope, from the perspective of daily life is merely a disturbance, a cause for concern and fear. It is true: God disturbs our comfortable day-to-day existence. Jesus’ kingship goes hand in hand with his Passion.”
Then there comes this stinging rebuke to academic theologians a few pages later, after Benedict notes that the chief priests and scribes convened by Herod correctly deduced that this new Jewish king would have been born in Bethlehem: “[I]t is remarkable that his 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?”
Benedict even draws a spiritual lesson out of the seemingly trivial detail that Jesus was born in a cave outside the city of Bethlehem proper: “So one aspect of becoming a Christian is having to leave behind what everyone else thinks and wants, the prevailing standards, in order to enter the light of the truth of our being, and aided by that light to find the right path.”
Beyond all this, Benedict accomplishes much else in this little book. His portrayal of the faith of Mary and Jesus is masterful and compelling. Benedict goes out of his way to make key connections back to Old Testament and the Infancy Narratives. And, with great finesse, he illuminates where the narratives point forward to the Passion.
In Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI has given us a book that wraps exegesis, historical criticism, theological scholarship, and pastoral reflection into one seamless and entirely readable narrative. It’s no small thing to have a book that is peppered with Greek words and scholarly references and yet is so accessible to the layman. One might say that in a manner somewhat imitative of its subject matter, the Infancy Narratives brings a lifetime of theological erudition to bear in a highly accessible style that does nothing to diminish the former.
Certainly no book by the Pope needs recommendation. But perhaps it is necessary to make a recommendation against something: Don’t just purchase this book because it has a pope as its author. Buy it because it’s a truly engaging exploration of the Infancy Narratives that will enrich your experience of Advent this year.