The Pope’s Book About Christmas

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives emphasizes that the joy of Christmas is rooted in the revelation of God’s humility.

In the first volume of Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict says that the purpose of writing a book about Jesus—the whole reason why Jesus is important—is because he is the one who brings God to men.  In The Infancy Narratives, Benedict makes it clear that when Jesus brings God to men the result is joy.  Joy is the characteristic response to the coming of Christ and it suffuses the early pages of Matthew and Luke.  We see the joy of Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, the unborn John the Baptist, the shepherds and angels, Simeon and Anna, and the Magi from the East.  The joy of Christmas is further the result of the most stupendous revelation of all: the revelation of God’s humility.  God accomplishes the utter reversal of human expectations in the appearance of the Son of God in the newborn baby in the manger in a cave outside of the city with no place to lay his head.  In the Christ child, the power of God is revealed in his humility: only the highest can, out of love, descend to the lowest with no diminution.  Only the all-powerful God accomplishes salvation through the renunciation of power.  Only the infancy of God could bring hope to the poor and the sick, the captive and the sinner.  The revelation of the humility of thes true Son of God is made all the more poignant by the deliberate choice of the evangelists to juxtapose Jesus with Caesar Augustus, who also claims to be a son of God.

The shadow of the Cross, therefore, also lurks menacingly throughout the early life of Jesus: the gift of myrrh from the Magi, used to anoint a corpse; the prophecy of Simeon to Mary that her heart will be pierced by a sword; the rage of Herod and the slaughter of the Holy Innocents; and the deliberate juxtaposition of Christ and Caesar, which points to the inexorable conflict between the humble Christ, who does not grasp after equality with the Father and whose kingdom is not of this world and Caesar, whose presumption makes him grasp after divine prerogatives.

The book is divided into four chapters and an epilogue.  The first chapter deals with general reflections on the origin of Jesus, the second chapter is about the annunciation stories of John the Baptist and Jesus, the third chapter reflects on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the final chapter takes up the visit from the wise men and the flight into Egypt, and the epilogue considers the finding of Jesus in the Temple when he is twelve years old.  The first chapter functions as a general introduction not only to the current volume, but to the whole of Jesus of Nazareth.  After all, the question of Jesus’ identity is the one Benedict is most fundamentally trying to answer with his books.  It is also a perfect entry point into the question for the modern reader. 

It is very hard to get a clear vision of the figure of Jesus himself using the methods of exegesis that have been dominant in the Church and the academy in recent times.  Twentieth century biblical scholars are notoriously divided about Jesus’ identity, a division which somewhat belies their claim to superior rigor or accuracy.  Historical-critical scholarship was born of the marriage of theology with the methods of modern science in an attempt to produce more rigorous interpretations of biblical texts. Modern biblical exegesis brings to bear powerful historical and linguistic tools, allowing the reader almost unprecedented access to the environmental, political, linguistic, and cultural context of the Gospels. They ought to be able to sharpen our view of biblical characters and themes.  Instead, Jesus too often tends to disappear into the weeds of the politics of the ancient near east, comparative religion, or the speculations of cultural anthropology.

Investigating Jesus with the historical-critical method can often be like trying to understand a human being through the use of an electron microscope.  The microscope is incredibly powerful and very good at collecting data at a level that is normally invisible to us, but it also misses a lot.  Modern scientific methods are only well suited for the investigation of measurable phenomena;. About God, or the soul, or—certainly—the mystical body of Christ, they can say nothing.  The tendency, unfortunately, has been to assume that the things quantitative science and the historical-critical method are not suited to investigate are irrelevant, are only available in the realm of private opinion or sentiment, or simply do not exist.  The most important thing about Jesus—that he brings God to men—is therefore not available to us through these methods.

The title of the first chapter is the question, “Where are you from?”, which Pilate asks in John 19:9.  Those who come into contact with Jesus want to find out his identity by asking after his origins.  We late modern Westerners instinctively seek to know a person’s identity through understanding his provenance, too.  We almost automatically try to understand a historical figure by asking after his or her economic and political context, the cultural factors at play, the main opinions or prejudices that were dominant at the time, and so forth.  For most historical figures, this tack works at least reasonably well.  If it were most deeply true that Jesus is from Joseph and Mary, or Nazareth, or the line of David, all of which we can understand pretty well, then asking those questions would be reasonably adequate to grasp who Jesus is.  That was, of course, also how Jesus’ contemporaries tried to understand him.  But Jesus’ response to his contemporaries encompasses us, as well: most deeply Jesus is not from this or that family, town, or historical, political, or economic context.  Most deeply, Jesus is from the Father.  And no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son reveals Him.

In order to make Jesus’ origin in the Father clear, Luke and Matthew both employ genealogies tracing Jesus’ descent.  The fundamental point Benedict makes about these genealogies is that they indicate Jesus is the fulfillment of both the history of Israel and the history of all time through their symbolic structure.  In summing up all of history, Jesus then gives it a fundamentally new direction: toward reconciliation with God and, therefore, what Benedict calls “a new manner of human existence.”  The modern mind tends to be by turns allergic to numerology and superstitiously fascinated by it.  If you look for the numerology section at Barnes and Noble, you’ll find a vast array of quackery.  Benedict is able to uncover both the deep symbolism of the numerology of the genealogies and the playfulness with which the Gospel writers use it without either dismissing it as hokey or descending into quasi-gnostic enthusiasms.

As Benedict has pointed out throughout the years, much of modern theology tends to vacillate back and forth about who Jesus is: it moves from an obsessive focus on the so-called Jesus of history to the exclusion of what the faith teaches about Christ, to an obsessive focus on the phenomenon of faith that neglects the concretely historical character of Christian faith.  These two tendencies each deny, either implicitly or explicitly, that God actually enters into history.  Neither tendency is correct; neither does true justice to the figure of Jesus we find in the Gospels.  The right balance is difficult to strike; after all, the Incarnation will always be a scandal.  In the second and third chapters, Benedict strikes the right balance deftly.  Perhaps the two most derided Christian doctrines in the modern era, after all, are the Virgin birth and the Resurrection, which signal, Benedict observes, both God’s sovereignty over history, but also his intimacy with the material world.

Christianity has always claimed the mantle of reason.  It refrained from identifying itself with theology for centuries because of the association of theology with pagan divinity.  Instead, Christianity preferred to ally itself with philosophy: for logos over mythos, for reason over fable.  But to our eyes, much of the infancy narrative appears to be mythological rather than logical.  The appearance of angels, the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, communication with God via dreams, and the Virgin Birth itself all seem to belong to the realm of folklore and fairy tales than to history or science.  This leads to the suspicion that Christian doctrine and theology are really much more closely allied with the fantasies of pagan myths than perhaps they want to let on.  Leaving aside the injustice this does to some myths, Benedict shows clearly how the marvelous stories of the infancy narratives have little in common with the myths with which we too facilely group them. 

To take one example, Benedict draws out the great difference in origin, structure, and content between the story of the Virgin Birth in the Gospels and the stories of other divine begettings in the myths of the ancient world.  In the Gospels, there is no copulation between God and Mary as there was, say, Zeus and Alcmene in the procreation of Hercules; there is no attempt to legitimize a political regime, as in the Egyptian myths of the divine origins of the Pharaohs; and there is no reference to the disruption and renewal of the eternal recurrence of temporal periods as there is in Virgil’s Eclogues.  The stories of the Virgin birth have much more the mark of a wondering attempt to convey a marvelous and unexpected event with which the evangelist is confronted, rather than the construction of a tale meant to advance a pre-conceived agenda. 

The fourth chapter considers the two kinds of responses that human beings can have to the appearance of God among men: the response of the Magi and the response of Herod.  Benedict convincingly argues that the Magi are representatives of the natural impulse in human reason and religion toward God.  On its own and freed as much as possible from the shackles and narrowness of sin, the human spirit seeks God.  That search manifests itself both in what is best about human religion and in the speculative disciplines like philosophy and science.  If human reason and human religion are assisted by divine revelation, as the Magi consult the scribes in Jerusalem to find out where, exactly, the savior has been born, then they are capable of opening up the human spirit to receive God.  The Magi are therefore indicators that reason and religion are properly constituted and rightly ordered when they are open to receiving grace.  The response of the Magi is to seek to know God and, when they have found him, to offer him worship.

Herod, on the other hand, indicates that the human spirit can just as easily—perhaps much more easily—close itself off from grace.  Herod, whose sole desire is power and control, responds to news of the birth of the savior by attempting to eliminate the threat to his power.  He therefore attempts to scrub out God from the midst of men for the sake of his own power and autonomy.  When Herod finds God, he desires to eliminate him.  Both possibilities are present within every human heart.  Both the joy of Christmas and the shadow of the Cross, therefore, inseparably appear in the infancy narratives.  It is appropriate to rejoice at the birth of the savior, at the coming of God into our midst—but it is also appropriate to remember, in the words of the hymn, that Christ was born “for to die.”

Many of the key themes Pope Benedict has written about throughout his career find their place in this last, slim volume: faith and reason, Christianity and politics, Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Testament, the Church as the extension of Christ’s presence through history, the limitations of a scientific approach to the Bible, and many others.  He manages to put all of those important concerns at the service of his one, overarching goal: to bring clarity to the figure of Jesus Christ.  If the reader learns, along the way, about the relationship between faith and reason or some of the ways to think about Christianity’s engagement with the political order, it is because the light Pope Benedict shines on Christ allows us to see the light Christ shines on the world.

Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives is an extraordinary conclusion to an extraordinary work.  The fact that most of the themes Benedict has dealt with in his career show up in this little volume is a testament to the capaciousness of Benedict’s thought, but also to the degree to which his entire body of work is focused like a laser beam on the figure of Christ.  One of the great virtues of the book is that it is so accessible without losing any depth.  It can be read as a devotional aid, as an edifying book for recreational reading, or used in a theology course.  In that respect, Pope Benedict’s book imitates its subject: Christ himself both suffers the little ones to come to him, and provides more than ample material for the greatest minds to ponder. 

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About Thomas P. Harmon 19 Articles
Thomas P. Harmon is Associate Professor and Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX. He lives in Sugar Land with his wife and five children.