The Wall Street Journal has a review (ht: C.F.) of Benedict XVI’s book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, written by professor Anthony Esolen, prolific author and frequent contributor to CWR:
Any scholar who would write on the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke faces two problems. The first is the opinion that the narratives about the birth of Jesus are add-ons, not central to the mission and the person of Jesus. The second is that we are too familiar with them. We have heard the carols and seen the crèches. We do not see the shadow of the cross fall upon the stable at Bethlehem.
Benedict addresses both problems at once, affirming the historicity of the narratives and showing that the question of who Jesus is hinges upon the question of whence he has come. People who encountered Jesus, whether they chose to follow him or not, claimed that they knew exactly where he came from, the no-account village of Nazareth. Yet they did not know where he came from—whence he derived his authority. The early Christians, by contrast, saw the life of Jesus as a coherent whole. The end of Matthew’s Gospel, says Benedict, when Jesus commissions his disciples to go forth to the ends of the earth, baptizing all nations, is present in the beginning, in the genealogy that links Jesus with Abraham and God’s promise of universality. Abraham is the essential wayfarer, Benedict writes, whose “whole life points forward,” a dynamic of “walking along the path of what is to come.”
This same vital point stood out to me as well, and I emphasize it in my review of the Pope’s book, published in the December 23 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper. Here is a bit of what I wrote:
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.”
By the way, that wonderful subhead—”Connecting crib and cross”—was not from my pen, but came from one of OSV’s fine editors. A nice turn of phrase and one that captures the essence of the book.